Language is transitive. Its meaning shifts over time as words evolve and devolve. We like to think of writing as permanent, and in basic respects it is—but understanding what a text means is an intangible that’s tied to our surroundings, our lifestyles, our government, and that understanding is hard to preserve. Despite critics’ proclamation of “modern classics,” it’s impossible to know what will be relevant in 50, 100 or 400 years. I wonder if the Elizabethans ever imagined that we’d be watching Shakespeare in this distant century, and what they’d think of how we’re doing it. Would they be dismayed that eating and drinking, for instance, has been limited to 15-minute intermissions? What would they make of modern lighting and flying set pieces? What will people (providing we’re still around) be watching 400 years hence? Hopefully, it won’t be just webisodes and reality TV. Will Shakespeare still be the backbone of Western theatre—or will that designation shift, perhaps, to writers more attuned to the rigors of digital consciousness and the transience of meaning? I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett.
The first time I saw a Beckett play I was about 13. It was an evening of one-acts anchored to Krapp’s Last Tape. My mom sat next to me transfixed, and I was, well, bored to the point of madness. I couldn’t understand what was so dramatic about a man sitting at a table listening to tapes of himself from 30 years ago. Mom tried to explain the loss Krapp is grappling with, how fast time evaporates, and how ideas, notions and dreams evaporate with it, but I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it at the time, not having much life to look back on. Nonetheless, there was something about the experience that tunneled through the boredom and gripped me.
Each time I’ve seen it since, the play resonates more deeply. The economy of Beckett’s language. The palpable sense of isolation. The way he captures the fleeting nature of time, the desire to make the most of it and the simultaneous absurdity of that desire. The way he savors words like “spool.” Originally performed as an opener for Endgame, Krapp is now regularly performed on its own. John Hurt made his New York stage debut at Brooklyn Academy of Music last year in a sold-out production directed by the Gate Theatre of Ireland’s long-term director Michael Colgan. For an hour, the audience was transfixed by Hurt’s rough-around-the-edges Krapp, disheveled, drinking, just the way he should be. Sometimes his pauses were ruminations, sometimes just lapses of the mind. “Krapp’s not in the best state, as his name would suggest,” Hurt told the L.A. Times during the run of the same Gate production in Los Angeles in October at Center Theatre Group. Beckett shows the past as not just something that haunts but amuses as well, however bitterly.
The writer sums it up well in Endgame: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.” It’s a seemingly absurd thought that’s actually pretty comforting, in that it implies, however grimly, a sense of community. Elaine Stritch, playing Nell from inside a garbage can in Andrei Belgrader’s 2008 production of Endgame at BAM, nailed the play’s mix of bleak and funny: “We laugh, with a will, in the beginning. Yes, it’s always the same thing. It’s like the funny story we’ve heard too often. We still find it funny, but we don’t laugh anymore.” These are words that wouldn’t be out of place in the routines of contemporary comedian Louis C.K., who enthuses about his endless fascination with the world in one moment and laments wasted hours with Internet porn in the next, showing how more choices can engender feelings of isolation and futility. Would Vladimir and Estragon be deterred in their futile search for Godot if they had an iPad with GPS and endless media access, or would it spur them on to grander hopes? Can there ever be an app for loneliness?
Beckett’s stance also resonates today in the work of such artists as Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino—the idea that the world is a profoundly messed-up place and the search for happiness, however noble, is more than a bit absurd given the limited nature of our understanding and the constraints of our consciousness. Perhaps this is why Waiting for Godot is Beckett’s best-known and most widely produced play.
Focusing on two tramp-like characters in search of an abstract third who’s said to be the key to their happiness, it’s the ultimate road story that goes nowhere. The longer the waiting continues, the more apparent it is to everyone (except the waiting duo) that Godot is not coming and probably doesn’t exist. The phrase itself has become a popular colloquialism for futility, and commentators have speculated that Godot represents God, or a diminishment of God. In Belgrader’s production of the play, seen at New York’s Classic Stage Company in 1998, John Turturro (who also played Hamm in Belgrader’s production of Endgame at BAM) imbued Estragon, the more impulsive of the two tramps, with a tortured enthusiasm that encapsulated both his compulsion to find the elusive Godot and his inability to focus his hopes on anything else.
Dramatic dialogue is often referred to as “musical,” and this past September, in a project called Sounding Beckett, a group of contemporary composers took that idea a step further by writing music inspired by plays written in Beckett’s last years. The music is performed live onstage by the Cygnus Ensemble and accompany the plays that inspired them. These ultra-minimalist plays—Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu and Catastrophe—are snapshots of profoundly constricted lives with an emphasis on emotion over story. The characters are defined almost as much by their pauses as by their words, making the addition of music—which director Joy Zinoman used as reflective interludes between the plays—all the more thrilling.
Beckett productions are abundant on the docket at U.S. theatres this season, including Endgame, directed by Ed Sobel at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia (slated Jan. 17–March 10); Waiting for Godot at San Francisco’s Marin Theatre Company, directed by Jasson Minadakis (Jan. 24–Feb. 17); and Peter Brook’s Fragments, a touring package of five plays (including Come and Go, which has been praised as one of Beckett’s most perfect plays because of his attention to each word—and there are only roughly 120 of them in this eight-minute work). In promotional materials for the upcoming encore engagement of Fragments at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience (April 21–May 5), Brook asserts that Beckett has been falsely labeled as despairing, negative and pessimistic. “Indeed,” Brook reasons, “he peers into the filthy abyss of human existence. His humor saves him and us from falling in. He rejects theories, dogmas, that offer pious consolations, yet his life was a constant aching search for meaning.”
It’s this search that keeps Beckett’s work from feeling antiquated or irrelevant, and its pull on audiences will continue to be manifest this month in All That Fall, Ireland-based Pan Pan Theatre Company’s production of Beckett’s first radio play at BAM’s new Fishman Space (running Dec. 19–23). Audience members will sit in rocking chairs and listen to (not watch) the play. The visual element comes by way of two sets of lights that “create the impression of being between intense and interrogative sunlight and comforting moonlight,” according to the show’s description.
Light as an abstract approximation for visual action seems a fitting way to show a new side of the ever-adaptable playwright. In Irish Theatre Magazine, director Gavin Quinn laid out how he sees Beckett’s legacy: “Beckett’s the heir to Chekhov, but no one’s quite come after Beckett.” That limited lineage suggests that the rivalry for Shakespearean influence remains an open question.
Still, were an “after Beckett” master to emerge, it would be thrilling to see if he or she could take the question of our existence a step further toward enlightenment, deepen the questions being asked, or shine light on as-yet-unknown dilemmas we are destined to encounter. Beckett wrote Krapp’s Last Tape when he was barely into his fifties, but he was already analyzing the self of nearly two decades into the future—one who would realize, “With all this darkness around me I feel less alone.”
Critic and arts reporter Christopher Kompanek writes frequently for this magazine.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!