Beckett in the living room, Beckett up your earhole
Stage plays on DVD, radio plays on CD
Nothing is funnier than unhappiness… it’s the most comical thing in the world.
—Endgame, Samuel Beckett
Recent months have brought significant commercial availability to Samuel Beckett’s theater work, with 19 stage plays out on DVD and a CD release of the playwright’s astonishing radio plays. Jeremy Irons hosted an evening of short plays in September on PBS, which also more recently broadcast director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Waiting for Godot on January 1st. The DVD box now packs the Beckett on Film project onto four discs, while the CDs document the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, another ambitious project that features a veteran cast of Beckett actors including Billie Whitelaw and Barry McGovern, which premiered on NPR in ’89. These projects bring the 20th Century’s master of bleak vision and black humor much closer to home, with provocative results and some key revelations.
The Beckett Project makes films of the stage plays, with big names from the film world joining the theatrical expertise of Dublin’s Gate Theater. Cinematic strategies and gleaming production values translate Beckett’s plays to the roving camera’s vocabulary, supplemented by the DVD format’s latitude for interview and exegesis. They are in effect a rewriting of the plays’ foundation in the sustained, activated interface that is live theater. Beckett’s fitful stance about adapting his work into other media is the stuff of theater lore. He co-directed his one movie, Film, starring an aged Buster Keaton, and retooled the stage plays Not I and What Where for TV, but refused permission and/ or enthusiasm for many other such genre-crossing efforts. There’s no mistaking the extraordinary impact his stage work can make when cut loose from the theater’s potentially heart-stopping confines. But there’s also no denying that the jolting visual clarity of his mise en scenes suffers from the mobile aptitudes of film, a medium often more devoted to capacity in movement than to the vaunted "moving image."
Where the DVDs strive to fit the theater pieces into film’s broadening context, the CDs of Beckett’s radio plays strikingly recreate the work’s original transmission value, and comprise a brilliantly refined aspect of the writer’s purpose. Radio’s popularity as communal entertainment was already hard hit by television in the late ’50s when the BBC asked Beckett to write new work for the medium. The CD performances cover five of six pieces he completed over the next several years. And they play like secret weapons, as if pre-designed for the Walkman generation, bringing shocking emphasis to Beckett’s themes: voices struggling on the alternating brinks of hilarity and despair with inexorable memory and the isolation of consciousness.
The ’69 Nobel Prize laureate is widely considered the influential playwright of his century; Pinter, Stoppard, Albee and Mamet work today from his innovations. The task of first scripting the concision and extraordinary impact of his theatrical imagination, and then of attempting to ensure the work’s accurate production, led Beckett to ruthlessly excise personal content from ever-briefer plays, many of which went through eight or ten typescripts.
"Beckett didn’t totally trust directors, and he didn’t trust actors to carry out his very specific directions," according to Barney Rosset, Beckett’s US publisher at Grove Press and his American theatrical agent. "He wrote his plays out on graph paper, at least for production purposes."
His exacting production standards, in conflict with the inclination of performing artists to seek new approaches and associative content, resulted in Rosset’s having to file legal injunctions against renegade productions, at Beckett’s urging.. Perhaps most famous was the attempt to halt director JoAnne Akalaitis, who warped set directions for a Harvard production of Beckett’s caustic masterpiece Endgame, placing it in an abandoned New York subway station and then importing incidental music by Phillip Glass.
The DVD films don’t play that hard with stage directions, and there’s admirable devotion throughout to Beckett’s indubitable tone and pacing. Producer Michael Colgan developed the Beckett Project from the cycle of plays he originated with Dublin’s Gate Theater a decade ago (Colgan’s been the Gate’s director since ’83; the theater began its adventuresome work in the ’20s, and Orson Welles and James Mason are two alums). The Gate’s Beckett cycle was featured at Lincoln Center’s inaugural Summer Festival in ’95, with the films of Waiting for Godot, Happy Days and Footfalls reprising casts from those productions.
Then come the money names: director Atom Egoyan and John Hurt team for Krapp’s Last Tape, while in Catastrophe, David Mamet directs Harold Pinter and Rebecca Pidgeon as they manipulate John Gielgud’s silent, stoic decrepitude.
Each DVD opens with a full-length play (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape), followed by the remarkable variety of playlets ("dramaticules," as their author called them), vignettes and mime pieces with which Beckett honed his craft. The participants are avid about Beckett: Anthony Minghella, whose The English Patient got vast audiences and multiple Oscars, credits that the "sense of language and poetry in his writing has been the single biggest influence on me."
In his film of Play, Minghella toys with rapid cuts and darting patches of exposed film stock to bring the love triangle’s disconcerting fourth character to life, a spotlight "played" in the theater with uncanny rapidity as it illuminates or exposes the other three characters’ confessions and cover-ups. These three are, to appearances, stewing in an eternity of petty demands and betrayals, time-verdigrised and stuck to their necks in decaying amphorae. In Minghella’s film, leaping side shots profile the speaker’s accomplices, where Play’s theater spotlight eliminates two as the third speaks.
Or spews, as the case may be. James Knowlson, in his Beckett-authorized biography Damned to Fame, tells of rehearsals for Play’s London premier in ’64, where director George Devine declared the text "dramatic ammunition." Beckett arrived, wanted the lines delivered faster still and arguments ensued with Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier of the National Theater Company, both of whom dreaded the sacrifice of intelligibility.
Play reflects the manner in which the power of thought obsessively traces the dubious exactitude of circumstance. Not a simple premise to embody in the first place, the evocation is compounded further by Beckett’s rendering of the actors as all but immobile. Minghella explores technical sophistication with an arsenal of effects, but ultimately he relies on his players. Kristin Scot-Thomas and Alan Rickman are both mockeries of impenitence, while Juliet Stephenson is positively feral, a minx armed with smelting diction. And then Play deals its trump card…
Rosaleen Linehan, as the irrepressible Winnie in Happy Days, shows the comic warmth and determination she brought to the Gate Theater production. Glib towards the devastated world around her, all sinew and human nature on the inside, Linehan’s performance embodies the farce and the courage of middle class mores.
And she’s beautifully set by director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) in a deft construction of short, medium and crane shots. Rozema’s long takes accumulate to form a visual box in which Winnie goes on and on, fixed first to her waist and then, in the second act, to her neck, in the bare earth of a craggy slope that could be the heart of the outback or the sun-broiled face of Mars. Beckett deleted overt references to nuclear holocaust as he completed the play in ‘61. The setting’s blasted mound and harsh light are left unexplained, and this dramatic disconnect reinforces both the delight and the dismay of Happy Days.
PBS broadcast a prime-time Godot on January 1st, to kick off the play’s 50th anniversary. Featuring Barry McGovern and the cast of the Gate’s authoritative production, it netted as big an audience as has ever seen the play, which is renowned for doing nothing in two acts.
But two very funny acts, at that. Stranded in a wasteland, McGovern and Johnny Murphy play Gogo and Didi, Beckett’s tramps who play slapstick with their bowler hats and can’t stand to be apart just a wee bit less than they can’t stand to be together. A theater landmark, Godot established Beckett’s reputation, though many consider his greatest legacy to be the three postwar novels so consuming and intense that he wrote the comedy to provide himself with a diversion. The play established him financially, too, for Godot is performed in neighborhood playhouses and in national theaters all over the world, with high-profile productions like Mike Nichols’ Lincoln Center extravaganza in ’88 that starred Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Bill Irwin and F. Murray Abraham (a cast that remains a favorite for Barney Rosset).
The Godot broadcast followed PBS’s mid-September evening of seven short plays. Host Jeremy Irons brought his star stature to bear, along with an atmospheric pint of Guinness. The evening’s line-up was interspersed with interviews, location clips and teasing snippets of films not screened, bridging the Beckett Project’s treasures and its indulgences. Of the latter, Irons’ assertion that the actorless skit Breath, which lasts less than a minute, is "Beckett’s boldest experiment in bare bones theater," sounded a knell that recalls the writer’s recondite reputation: one of theater’s great comic voices and awesome visual artists remains better known for spurring doctoral theses than for stirring audiences.
The perils of hosting aside, Irons is remarkably affecting in both roles of Ohio Impromptu, his face and seated posture wrought with personal pain, the care-worn eloquence of his diction battered, ennobling. His presence allows the slowly swirling camera to create an effect more concentrated than much of the Beckett Project’s visual technique.
Neil Jordan directs Julianne Moore in Not I, another solo albeit one in hyper-focus: the actor’s mouth is all that’s shown through the script’s fifteen-minute torrent. Screened at the New York Film Festival in ’01, Jordan’s version feels peculiarly damped down on both large and small screens. He darts about with voyeuristic camera angles and plays unfortunate screen rhythms against the compulsive words. And Moore seems half-conversational in her delivery, reciting as if for clarity, which seems another distraction from this play’s rabid intensity.
For Mouth in Not I is not so much telling a story as being that story. Beckett directed Billie Whitelaw, one of the actors with whom he worked most closely, in a TV production of the play in the mid-’70s. In that still-available production, a silent companion role crucial to the stage setting was dispensed with, leaving only the indelible full-screen image of Whitelaw’s flapping lips and periodically clamped teeth (the image got comic mileage in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Attending Not I in the theater, where the speaking mouth is elevated in a precise point of light in the depths of the stage, is to take the very real chance of being blown away by the double barrels of astonishment and horror. The Jordan/Moore Not I, though, takes some discernible turns away from the play’s full impact, letting the difference between being vitriolic and being a curiosity become the viewer’s choice.
Billie Whitelaw, much missed on the DVDs, is a major presence on the CDs of the Beckett Festival’s radio productions. She plays Maddy Rooney to Barry McGovern’s Dan in All That Fall, a raucous send-up of the turn-of-the-century Dublin gentility among whom Beckett was raised. This send-up, being Beckett, takes a turn first for the worse and then for the inexplicable (he’d answer queries as to meaning in his enigmatic work by saying that, had he known what it meant, he would’ve written it in). Whitelaw is also Ada to David Warrilow’s Henry in Embers’ sustained plaint, where her arch, thin voice haunts Dan’s frustrated communion with the Killiney surf and his memory.
Beckett was haunted by Whitelaw’s voice since she premiered the English version of Play at London’s Old Vic, and to productive effect. She brings qualities of transparent concentration to these radio performances, playing to the strengths of this seldom-considered part of the Beckett oeuvre. Beckett Festival director Everett C. Frosts’s exceptional casting abounds on the CDs: McGovern, who plays several of the radio roles, is also Vladimir in the Beckett Project’s Godot, and he has toured for years in his own Beckett compendium, I’ll Go On. Warrilow staged and filmed The Lost Ones, a novella Beckett finished in the early ’70s, and Beckett wrote the stage play A Piece of Monologue for him.
In addition to All That Fall’s lethal comedy and Embers’ grim isolation, the CDs include Rough for Radio II, where themes of interrogation and totalitarian methods found in the stage plays What Where and Catastrophe (the latter written for Vaclav Havel while he was imprisoned) are projected into the vulnerability of the listening, envisioning mind.
It is this evocative projection that is a keynote through all of Beckett’s work, and, though always present, this keynote is explicit to a supreme degree in the radio plays. Call it the fortuitous union of language’s power (the adjunct of memory’s need) with the inescapable presence of the disembodied voice, as played out in a theater festooned with nothing but obscurity and the lurking presence of silence. In the words of Beckett critic/commentator Linda Ben-Zvi: "One of the things about radio is radio is unencumbered by the need to create a geographical space, it is extra-temporal and extra-spatial… the power of radio is the ability to create a skullscape."
Two of Beckett’s most startling pieces are the voice/ music plays Words and Music and Cascando, written in the early ’60s. They may also be among his least heard, a situation that the CD release helps rectify. Two pieces of a kind, they give the radio plays an acute and radical significance within Beckett’s work, and as indispensable results of modernist, boundary-broaching art. Meditations on creative process, that persistent goad and shadow of lived experience, both plays make strange bedfellows of a directive voice, a recitative voice (lyric-making in Words and Music, story telling in Cascando), and the perpetually undefined voice named Music.
It bears adding that Words and Music and Cascando are pieces where the commentaries that open and conclude the Beckett Festival recordings are most welcome. While it is hard to image what a listener might do if he or she came cold to this almost surgically revealing work, it takes but a glance to recognize how studiously people in general avoid reconciling the very differences these two pieces play upon. For the Beckett Festival’s productions, composers Morton Feldman and William Kraft provide the musical voices, and these recordings of Words and Music and Cascando retain great value in part for their estimable contributions.
All of which leaves one to wonder enthusiastically about the future of Beckett’s theater: who might be captivated by one of the CDs, or drawn in by the prominent names featured on the DVDs, then go on to see more Beckett in the theater? And which stage artists will bring their talents to new performances of his dark, funny, rigorously rewarding work? Only time will tell, though in the meanwhile we can turn to these two troves of recorded performances, and prepare…
o Beckett on Film DVDs available through Thirteen/WNET, 1-800-336.1917
o Beckett Festival of radio plays CDs,
An expanded version of this article, including further comments on Beckett’s roles for women and his never-produced stage play Eleutheria, is available on the author’s page at www.nonserviamnyc.com