Like Ethel Merman and the Gershwins, Samuel Beckett now has a New York theatre named for him. Does this seem strange to you? It might seem so to Beckett, a man who declined to accept his own Nobel Prize. The poet for whom absence is both medium and message now has a palpable, reasonably permanent presence…on 42nd Street.
Without daring to dream of the ironies this monument might house in the future (will Liza ever play the Beckett?), one must acknowledge that it opened with a seeming anomaly, a Beckett hit, becoming in short order one of the more difficult tickets in town and certainly one of the most difficult plays. Whereas Waiting for Godot is a familiar if not altogether scrutable part of every decent liberal education today, the later, so-called minimalist works lurk in the bleak, forbidding shadows. And Rockaby, the recent hit, lies unmistakably in that latter relentlessly reticent, demanding category, even in its impeccable production by Alan Schneider, built around the definitive performance by Billie Whitelaw for whom it was written. Just as bleak and formidable are Rockaby‘s companion pieces Footfalls and Enough (the trio is set to travel this year to festivals in Nancy, Edinburgh, maybe Tokyo). Scarcely less forbidding are Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe and What Where, which until recently played successfully next door at the Harold Clurman Theatre.
Six Beckett pieces on one Manhattan block, others appearing elsewhere in the city and the country, international festival dates, a namesake theatre: have we reached some millennium in audience discrimination?
Not so, implies Peck’s perennial Bad Boy John Simon in a recent New York magazine. More likely it’s just the same bunch of cultural suckers meekly enduring another dose of hip obscurantism because some mafia of taste tells them to. Yielding to no one in his admiration for the plays from Godot to Happy Days and a couple of early novels, Simon maintains that Beckett long ago exhausted his theme of exhaustion and now spends himself repeating more or less the same death rattle. His genius for drama has shrunk to the production of lifeless, dimensionless dramacules. Simon urges “the scholars and critics who continue to rhapsodize about these hackle raisers and eyelid lowerers to look into their hearts, then look into my eyes and say they really enjoy Rockaby and its ilk, as one can enjoy even such very bleak works as King Lear, wherein the basic constituents of drama were not abandoned.”
How the proprietors of the Beckett industry, from the dissertation advisers to the T-shirt printers, must seethe at those outrageous words! Red flashed before my eyes as I read them and I started imagining how I would brook Simon’s basilisk gaze to rhapsodize on the awe and, yes, elation I experienced at Rockaby and many other dramacules of equal stringency.
These pages could never contain the essays that bloomed in my mind on how, far from abandoning the basic constituents of drama, Beckett has illuminated with unparalleled clarity what those basics are. He is one of those who has defined writing, and not just playwriting, for our age. He is our Dante whose every new work is another canto in our Comœdia.
But enough creed! I preach mostly to the nodding converted. Simon’s infuriating opinions are more important than my praise because implicit in them are some just questions that penetrate the stupefying waves of idolatry routinely swamping our view of the poet. There are issues that can only be stated partially and briefly here, but they go to the core of what theatre is and how it is made.
The issues group themselves around a single concept: collaboration. Because of his radical reduction of means, Beckett reshapes the role of every participant in the theatrical event, everyone on both sides of the proscenium. He changes what people do in the theatre—and what they don’t do—in subtle, profound ways. For the audience, all of the traditional components of the communal occasion seem to be intact at a Beckett play, but isn’t there a shift in the degree of individual participation? Isn’t the audience member asked to move much closer to a piece? Mustn’t one be much more attentively clear about the functioning of one’s own consciousness than in most theatre situations, even those of the highest order? What is being transmitted from the stage are small, rapid, indistinct clues, ellipses, slight variations among numerous repetitions. To attend a Beckett play fully is to be asked to make something out of almost nothing—but a nothing expounded by a genius. The experience approaches that of reading a poem, an especially compressed, economical, lyric one. It is more subjective, independent and meditative than theatre almost ever is, while also demanding more active collaboration from the spectator.
If Beckett asks more of the audience, what he asks of the theatre artist is at least as much…but less. As Lee Breuer, the Mabou Mines director responsible for so many superlative Beckett productions, once observed, because of the perfect spareness of the playwright’s verbal statement and the uncompromising authority of his stage imagery, other artists are given little room for original contribution. What does a designer do for Godot beyond deciding the size and shape of the tree? What does a director do in Play besides following the author’s stage directions? Granted, these are rhetorical over-simplifications. When Billie Whitelaw describes working with Beckett on a text, going over it syllable by syllable like a musician interacting with a composer, we know that he has written it with her in mind, taking fully into account her formidable talent and intelligence. But isn’t she, much more than actors usually are, a kind of midwife to an exacting primogenitor? How does she, or any artist, add to Beckett?
The most obvious answer is to find the spaces within a text where one can coexist with the giant without being swallowed up in his unblinking vision, or to demand those spaces even against the author’s prescriptions. Having seen it, who could forget the production by Breuer and Mabou Mines of Come and Go? It was done precisely according to Beckett’s instructions—setting, lighting, costumes—but with one major departure: the entire dramacule was viewed by the audience reflected in a large mirror so polished and masked that one was not immediately aware of its presence. The result was first disorientation, then the kind of epiphany of consciousness that I tried to convey in my earlier discussion of the audience’s role in a Beckett play.
Another strategy, one pioneered by Mabou Mines and now practiced by many others, is to stage works that Beckett did not mean for the theatre: Beckett texts without Beckett directions. Surely the most famous example is Breuer’s production of the novella The Lost Ones with David Warrilow intoning the text as he manipulated tiny figures imprisoned in a black cylinder. The audience, in another perceptual coup, looked on through binoculars.
This spring Peter Sellars, artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company, brought other non-theatrical Beckett works into the theatre. But he also extended the collaboration by placing Beckett in a kind of metaphorical co-partnership with other authors. In the first of two productions collectively called Shakespeare/Beckett/Chekhov, Sellars brought two of the giants of his triumvirate close together by following a performance of Play with an 80-minute version of Macbeth. In the former, the ghosts or memories or ashes of a man, his wife and his mistress perform a kind of archeological comedy of manners. Entombed in urns, each whispers what Sellars describes as “fragile, decaying and possibly fictitious fragments” of their half-remembered experiences. Each voice is activated by spotlights which dart from face to face—in this production, three flashlights operated by propmen dressed in black costumes and masks of Japanese Noh. Macbeth also begins with three enurned figures, now two men and a woman, who play all the roles in the greatly compressed Shakespeare text. The same flashlights cast huge, uncanny shadows of the three on the walls. Beckett’s terrain is populated by Shakespeare’s infernal monsters.
If Beckett can bring new dimensions to Shakespeare at his darkest, he can also illuminate, in the most unexpected ways, Chekhov’s comedy even at its most farcical. In Sellars second program, The Harmful Effects of Tobacco, The Proposal and A Tragic Hero are paired with Ghost Trio (originally a television play directed by Beckett), Radio II (meant for the medium of the title) and Ping (a short prose piece). The melancholy helplessness, harassed desperation and violent aggression of the white-faced clowns in Chekhov’s vaudevilles set the stage for the latter-day Pierrot of Ghost Trio and the demonic cartoon of man’s inhumanity in the rare Beckett farce Radio II. Ping exists as a kind of independent period to the entire event. It is comedic only in the gigantic Dantean sense: a soul seems to be trying to leave its body and its successful release is as near to paradise as Beckett is likely to come.
What a mystery it is that these tiny and ever-shrinking dramacules by this reclusive man—these death rattles—can bring so much life to the theatre. They inspire other artists even by imposing on them the severest limitations. They inform not only the work of the present, but of the past, and I’m afraid (for Mr. Simon’s sake) the future. As uncompromisingly as they teach us our mortality, as relentlessly as they turn about the same black center, they still draw people to them. They even sell tickets and name theatres. Liza could do worse than play the Beckett.
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