Swans 10th Anniversary
by Peter Byrne
(Swans - May 8, 2006) No field of endeavor thrives without constant questioning of what it takes for granted. State sanctioned media, the various amplifiers of respectability, rusty dispensers of doctrine or lowest common denominator television monopolies all share a mediocrity that their public can't help but sense, however complacent it might be about seeking alternatives. Theatergoers have been no exception and regularly kowtow to the rules of somebody else's decorum, either enforced by official bodies or simply out of tired habit and nervousness of change.
In the hundredth anniversary of Samuel Beckett's birth, it's worth remembering that this most apolitical troubadour of sexual impotence managed not only to rile the lovers of the "well-made play," but also bring the official censors down upon him. His early stories and poems aroused the same bigots and prudes in Ireland as had confronted James Joyce. He withdrew All That Fall from The Dublin International Festival in 1958 when the local Archbishop excluded works by Sean O'Casey and Joyce. Waiting for Godot ran into trouble in Holland and where the Catholic press called the play "homosexual" because one tramp says to the other, "You see you piss better when I'm not around." In Madrid the same play was forbidden all publicity by the authorities and hours of performances could not even be announced.
But "liberal" England took the buffoonery still farther. Until 1968 an absurd relic called the "Lord Chamberlain" looked after the purity of British theatergoers' thoughts. To escape this busybody the London premier of Godot took place in a private theatre club where his writ didn't run. Even then, however, Beckett was persuaded to make some changes. In one of these he replaced a gem of profanity by the simple word, "critic." Later, the Lord Panjandrum declared a scene in Endgame blasphemous. After God has not answered Clov and Nagg's prayer, Hamm declares: "The bastard! He doesn't exist." The B-word would have to go if Endgame was to appear on the public stage. After months of negotiation, Beckett replaced it with the acceptable "The swine! He doesn't exist." Lordly authority, if not intelligence, had triumphed.
Anniversaries call out to be celebrated. But the reply can sometimes amount to no more than blandiloquent crowing. I feared we were off on the wrong foot April 13th at Beckett's Centenary Festival. James Knowlson (Damned to Fame, 1996, Bloomsbury, pp. 872) the writer's distinguished, authorized biographer startled everyone. He was talking about "his man" to a theatre full of learned admirers. "Today is his birthday," he said, "Let's all say Happy Birthday Sam!" A learned silence followed, like one of those pregnant pauses in Godot. Knowlson reassured his listeners, "I know he would be pleased." So, like shy kids in front of company, we repeated, "Happy Birthday Sam."
Reverence, well wishing, and awe followed daily. I almost expected to find adepts carrying those signs one sees outside the Vatican these days: Santo Subito demand the fans of Pope John Paul II who want the saint-makers to get a move on.
Knowlson proved so distinguished and forbearing that he refused to criticize two other biographers for whose blood the faithful thirsted. Deirdre Bair and Anthony Cronin are now always faintly praised, one as a "pioneer," the other as having "novelistic flair."
As the anecdotes took wing in the somber halls of the London Barbican complex from March 19 to May 6, the myth of the eagle Beckett rose above us. He was gentle, generous, with a raw sensitivity to the pain of others. The worst anyone who drank Bushmill's malt with him could say was that he often slipped into silence. Even actors whom the "Maestro" had tormented as director or director's back-seat driver now decided that their suffering and Beckett's finicky stage directions had been for the best. Dead, the slave driver could do no wrong.
It wasn't only publishers, theatre directors, and academics that had joined the centenary gold rush. Grosser commerce had turned up too. When we took our seats to watch the modern soul being dragged through the philosophic dirt, we found leaflets inviting us at modest prices to do Beckett literary walks in the Emerald Isle. As the lights went out on stage, plunging two more Beckett victims of despair into nothingness, something called "Tourism Ireland" offered amuse-gueules and white wine in an adjoining salon. This was the Ireland that had made a point of ignoring the writer until he was consecrated internationally, the country to whose peace Beckett said he preferred France at war.
Someone recalled that even after his Nobel Prize, London taxi drivers addressed Beckett as "Paddy," like any other Mick over on a weekend binge. The writer took it like a Christian, turning the other cheek of his bird-of-prey head.
Which head, in photographs, began to prey on me. It was six feet high wherever wall space was available. But the unrelenting eyes and deep lines of felt-life soon lost their effect. The face was like a brilliant idea for an advertisement that went stale when thrust at you repeatedly from all sides. You looked at your program and there it was again beneath the print.
The benevolent Knowlson went so far as to promote these careworn facial grooves to "laugh lines," thus easing his friend forward on what may be a destiny as "Sunny Sam," icon of some new keep-smiling campaign. Fleeing the giant face, our eyes would light on Richard Avedon's equally omnipresent diptych, six feet more of Beckett from knees to spikes of gray hair, buttoned up in a tweed jacket and roll neck sweater. The Beckett glare could be sidestepped by looking at the second panel where his penetrating glance was directed down to the tops of his shoes, perhaps echoing his literary preoccupation with footwear. Who can forget the metaphysical import of Estragon's boots in the long wait for Godot?
It was with relief then that leafing through a new book, edited by Knowlson and his wife Elizabeth, I finally found Beckett doing a nasty. (Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, 2006 Bloomsbury). The French novelist Natalie Sarraute put him and his future wife up for ten days while they were on the run during the German occupation. She had a house at Janvry in la Vallée de Chevreuse. Sarraute reports that Beckett was ungrateful, impolite and impervious to her literary work. While she and others would be having their mid-day meal, Beckett, a late riser, would invariably pass the laden table on the way to empty his chamber pot.
Now that sounds more like the creator of Watt whose "funambulistic stagger" of a walk provoked Lady McCann to violence, Murphy who sleepwalked through a job in a lunatic asylum, Molloy who communicated with his decrepit mother by thumping a kind of Morse Code on her skull, and the narrator of The Expelled whose dislike of children, like W.C. Fields's, stopped just short of homicide. It was conduct that behooved the playwright who entrapped his actors in garbage cans, funereal urns, or up to their neck in a heap of sand.
The anniversary gift productions offered to Beckett did no one dishonor. They also suggested that we might have in the future to speak of two authors, one French and the other Anglo-Irish. English theatrical practice pulls strongly in the direction of realism and rowdy laughter. But Beckett's stage world moved inexorably away from the real one that we leave on entering the theatre. Everything is left behind -- consolation of any sort, the certitude of being alive, even time itself. Laughter survives, but it's bitter, jaune. We are in a void where humanity can only temper its pain by a spoonful of affection that takes on immense significance simply because the universe is otherwise empty.
After a session called Prose and Poetry II, admirably read by actors Richard Briers, Alan Stanford, and Penelope Wilton, the listener couldn't avoid taking a step backward from Beckett's portrayal of our fate. If the sixteen extracts of various genres weren't couched in exquisite and searing language, we might murmur, "Well, yes, life's a losing battle, but let's put a bit more zest into getting on with it." One can understand that in their discussion entitled Beckett and Politics, scholars Peter Boxer, Steven Connor, and Ronan McDonald had concluded that the author kept his commitments -- to the French Resistance, against apartheid and political or religious censorship -- rigorously out of his work.
To their credit, French productions have been less inclined to take that step backward from the author's harsh visions. It may well be that something in Beckett's French, cut to the bone, and less tinged with sentiment and humor than his English, kept French directors closer to his thought. En Attendant Godot in France doesn't cushion despair. Fin de Partie there often shows the last of the human race already half reduced to crustaceans. Cuddly, the characters are not. We cringe from them.
Waiting for Godot under Walter D. Asmus's direction has an Irish lilt: The Gate Theatre of Dublin collaborated on the Festival. Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy render the endearing side of the tramps. But they cut short those silences when we are meant to take on board their disarray at finding themselves in Beckett country. Pozzo's (Alan Stanford) arrival is the shock it should be, but, typical of the director's approach, Pozzo's second appearance with Lucky (Stephen Brennan) shows him only modestly ruined.
Endgame is crucial to the author's position. His favorite of his plays, he wrote it specifically to close all sentimental escape routes to optimism. Along with reminiscences of vaudeville, affection has gone. The only ties that remain between the characters are routine and fear of solitude, minimum aids to a survival that Beckett insists is wrongheaded.
But director Charles Sturridge strives to make things easier for us. We can identify with Clov: Even the fact that actor Peter Dinklage is a midget doesn't dehumanize him. Kenneth Cranham's Hamm could be one of our grumpy uncles. There are none of the unearthly voices of the great Irish actors Beckett used in his lifetime, notably Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowan. Eileen Diss helped Sturridge in his realism by designing a set that suggested a bottom-end hostel accommodation rather than the last dwelling of the last men waiting impatiently for the curtain to fall on the human race.
There was more, much more in this replete and well-rounded Festival: Other prose and poetry readings, lectures, Beckett's only movie Film with Buster Keaton, twenty or so of the plays on film and a series of productions of Beckett's lesser theatrical works. These may point to a different future for him in the theatre. The very short pieces like Play and Catastrophe even outdo the innovations of the earlier work. The visual impact is stunning and the inventiveness in story telling breathtaking. But we begin to notice that length does matter and that very short plays never allow us sufficient immersion for Beckett to put across his view of life as endless repetition with a spew of time-killing ruminations to fill the yawning hours.
Krapp's Last Tape closed the Festival with a flourish, if the word doesn't belie the Master's austerity. A monologue written for him, Patrick Magee created the role in 1958. Memorable British revivals included one with Albert Finney and another with the great music-hall performer Max Wall. Roger Blin directed the Paris premier, but Beckett himself took charge of the revival at the Théâtre d'Orsay. He had also directed the German premier in Berlin.
No wonder the man-and-a-tape-recorder play with its hints of autobiography has come to be seen as emblematic of Beckett. Yet, though the most moving of his works, it isn't all that typical. The warmth comes from the fact that we feel Krapp's pain directly without the need to think through to it. The ravages of time afflict us all, not only the philosophically inclined.
At the Festival John Hurt repeated the role he first played in 1999, also under the direction of Robin Lefèvre. (Atom Egoyan filmed it at the time.) No mere movie celebrity out to beef up his c.v., Hurt has an illustrious stage career behind him. He gives us a sober Krapp, edging the grotesque of the play more toward melancholy than comedy. His routine with the bananas suggests madness rather than slapstick. The non-verbal part of the play swells hugely. The words may be lapidary, but Hurt's hands caressing the tape recorder are sublime.
Giles Cadle's stripped set is absolutely right. Hurt sits at his table looking the public of the intimate Pit Theatre right in the eye. We can't escape his sorrow over memories, which becomes our own. James McConnell's lighting effects take on the importance of another presence. When Hurt-Krapp attends to his bodily functions, imbibing or excreting, it's off stage and told by sound. His trips back and forth to his table rub our noses in the pathos of ageing.
Krapp's Last Tape may have begun in 1957 as the Magee Monologue. But what now becomes apparent is that in the years Beckett oversaw productions or directed them himself, he worked especially on the visual side of the play. The wordsmith, heir of Joyce, more and more shaped stage pictures. Indeed Billy Whitelaw, one of Beckett's favorite actresses, says she felt in his directing that he was "sculpting" her. Krapp's Last Tape, then, has become much closer to Beckett's final, short, less text-dependent plays. Catastrophe of 1982, for instance, actually concerns a director who has a stage figure formed, as from clay, to his very specific demands.
Hurt's face in Krapp turns out to be not unlike Beckett's, as if those huge photographs everywhere had worked on him in some chameleon way. The play, therefore, typical or not, closes fittingly this remarkable Festival. As a final note, it rings so true to the author that I decided to say again -- but silently, between him and me -- "Happy Birthday Sam."
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