Record Arts

Tuesday, September 23, 1997

Samuel Beckett's Company comes to Williams DownStage

by Lawrence Graver

In his early seventies, Samuel Beckett composed an enigmatic, hauntingly beautiful prose text, "Company," in which an old man lying on his back alone in the dark is spoken to by a ghostly, unrelenting voice he can neither verify nor name. At times speaking in the third person, the voice describes the figure's tormented confinement in the present; at other moments, using second person, he narrates striking scenes from the old man's boyhood and adolescence (a past very much like Beckett's own). Also acknowledged is a first person voice that remains significantly absent - the pronoun which the old man desperately wishes to use, but can't.

The third person voice is refined and subtle, almost fanatical in his delineations of the old man's constricted physical situation and ongoing mental processes - what he calls "unformulable gropings of the mind. Unstillable." But he is also a master of the comedy inherent in the scrupulous discrimination of baffled perceptions. "Confusion too is company," he says, "up to a point." Unlike the astringent perceptions of the third person voice, the vignettes of the past offered in the second person are more like those by a fine lyric poet with exquisite powers of observation - a kind of muted Wordsworth, some of whose meditative descriptions of the past mix yearning and reverence with a powerful apprehension of unease and mystery. In these crystalline scenes, the voice describes the boy's birth, his walking with his mother, jumping from a tree, joining his father at a bathing place, inadvertently killing a hedgehog he meant to rescue, and sitting in a summer house waiting to meet a woman he has made pregnant and will never marry. As this perplexing yet intensely gripping narrative proceeds, it becomes apparent that the voice (in its different grammatical forms and tonalities) has been devised by the listener for company: "the fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark." Thus the story evolves into a drama that is clearly taking place inside the old man's head, a struggle about the voice-tormented fabulist's need and obligation to imagine, as well as his anguished awareness of waning powers and an inability to connect to the past. And yet he never stops "devising it all for company." Marvelously (as Beckett put it in another late text): "Imagination at wit's end spreads it sad wings."

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week, the renowned New York theater group Mabou Mines brought Beckett's densely concentrated interior text to startling physical life on the Adam Memorial Theatre's Downstage. Set in front of three huge, chalk white satellite dishes (an indelible image of the inside of the old man's skull), a figure in a ragged greatcoat - sitting, standing, walking, crawling, endlessly talking - embodied Beckett's character and spoke voice's words. Frederick Neumann was the man and the voice, conveying the sumptuous grimness of the written text and the suffering, weird humor indomitability depicted in it. Honora Fergusson appeared briefly in a spectral evocation of the woman in the summer house.

Part of the power of Neumann's performance came from his ability to convey both the earthiness and the philosophical implications of Beckett's text. At the heart of "Company" is a heartbreaking sense of sorrow and self-incrimination: sorrow and self-incrimination at the inability of the old man to imagine the figures of the past (mother, father, lover) except as they appear so dimly to the needful self in the present (and in the past); and sorrow and self-incrimination at the failure ever to locate that longed-for first person voice - the idealized voice of subjective selfhood that Beckett had always searched for, while always admitting it to be an illusion.

Brilliantly supporting Neumann's performance were the lighting design and scene painting of the Williams Theater Department's Sabrina Hamilton, who had earlier helped shape the Mabou Mines' staging in New York. Using the grand satellite dishes to reflect light and amplify sound, Hamilton gave Neumann's vocal rendering an increasingly affecting resonance. Through her lighting and use of sound, Neumann's monologue and physical actions on stage in front of us were being vividly mirrored and heard inside the old man's skull and in ours. Original music written for the production by Philip Glass (an ethereal quartet) was also used at interstices in the text to intensify the mood and to give the audience a chance to pause before it returned to respond to the amazing effects of Beckett's words, Neumann's acting and Hamilton's light and sound.


to Samuel Beckett Resources