Photo: Number 2 (Mary Morris), Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) and Acoustic Kitty in Dance of the Dead…
To count down to our special screening of Fall Out, the final episode of ace television show The Prisoner, PHIL KIRBY introduces a new episode every day in the order outlined by director Alex Cox in his book I Am (Not) A Number…
Tonight’s episode is Dance of the Dead …
A mysterious masked carnival is to be held in the Village, the perfect cover for Number Six’s latest escape plan, though has he failed to reckon with the new Number 2 and her cat..? Hiding out in a cave on the beach, Number Six discovers a broken figure from his past who warns of terrifying new methods of extraction…
If Checkmate was about the games people play, the title of a best selling book of 1964 by Eric Berne (one of the games was called “How Do You Get Out of Here?”) Dance of the Dead is about the total institution, or Asylum, the title of another counter-culture classic by Erving Goffman, published 1961.
Here’s an animation from 1966 that perfectly describes Goffman’s core concepts. The animation features a spy, a Chief, a red telephone, and a all-knowing intelligence that we never get to see. Watch this and you’ll understand all there is to know about The Prisoner. This is just an excerpt, the full thing can be seen by following the link above. It’s worth it.
Goffman wrote about total institutions originally in a piece called The Insanity of Place.
And he called the total institution a forcing house for changing persons… a natural experiment on what can be done to the self, where inmates are subjected to a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self, and the self is systematically… mortified.
The inmate (Prisoner!)… finds certain roles are lost to him by virtue of the barrier that separates him from the outside world. The process of entrance typically brings other kinds of mortification as well. We very generally find staff employing what are called admission procedures, such as taking a history, photographing, weighing, fingerprinting, assigning numbers, searching, listing personal possessions for storage, undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting, issuing institutional clothing, instructing as to rules, and assigning to quarters. Admission procedures might better be called “trimming” or “programming” because in thus being squared away the new arrival allows himself to be shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the establishment.
Inmates of the total institution are pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered. Their life is not their own.
Goffman goes on to talk about obedience tests, or will-breaking contests. As part of this rite of passage he may be called by a term such as fish or swab, which tells him that he is merely an inmate (Prisoner!)
You could watch The Prisoner literally ticking off themes and tropes touched on in Goffman’s work.
Whilst watching Dance of the Dead count the number of times Number Six is referred to as already dead (mortified), and listen out for how many times he is called a fish.
Oh, and for the conspiracy buffs and MK Ultra fanatics let’s not forget Acoustic Kitty.
Erving Goffman did the research for Asylums in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. “almost certainly on the CIA’s dime (though, like other left-leaning social scientist, he did not know the ultimate source of the “publishing grant” he received)”, as a recent Harvard historian of social science put it. Goffman went undercover, pretending to be a low level member of staff – literally spying on the inmates – in order to gather material for his book. St Elizabeths was the place where Walter Freeman perfected his signature transorbital lobotomy in the ’50s. Ezra Pound was famously an inmate there, as were several presidential assassins. And Augustus Owsley Stanley III had admitted himself to the hospital at around the time Goffman was doing his research, before becoming one of the largest independent producers of LSD in the world, supplying it to Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as well as being the biggest supplier to the Beatles. All You Need Is Love was probably written under the influence of a substance supplied by the ex-St Elizabeths inmate.
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
Dance of the Dead has probably the single oddest moment of the whole series. Number Six is blocked from entering the Town Hall by an invisible force, which seems to stun and push him away. A Villager explains to him that the Town Hall “is fussy about who it lets in.” And the camera turns and looks into the town hall, at what we assume is being fussy… what the hell is it?
Read about previous episode Checkmate here.
theCV presents The Prisoner Fall Out plus a Q and A with Six of One’s Ant Brierly and Roy Stambrow moderated by Phil and Neil (God help us!) at The Courtroom, Leeds Town Hall at 19.00 on Friday 25th May 2018. Tickets are £5 (plus booking fee) and are available here.