from Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 22, Number 1
Revising Himself: Performance as Text in Samuel Beckett's Theatre
Florida State University
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Samuel Beckett's transformation from playwright to theatrical artist is one of the seminal developments of late Modernist theatre and yet one slighted in the critical and historical discourse.1 A dearth of theatrical documentation may account for some of the neglect as scholars and critics traditionally privilege print over performance, that is, the apparent stability or consistency of the literary script over its theatrical realization or completion. The absence of Beckett's work on the boards from the historical equation, however, distorts the arc of his creative evolution, his emergence as an artist committed to the performance of his drama as its full realization. Beckett was to embrace theatre not just as a medium in which a preconceived work was given its accurate expression, but as the major means through which his theatre was created. As Beckett evolved from being an advisor on productions of his plays to taking full charge of their staging, an apprenticeship of some fifteen years, practical theatre offered him the unique opportunity for self-collaborations through which he re-wrote himself, that is, reinvented himself as an artist--and in the process redefined late Modernist theatre.
In retrospect, it may seem self-evident to proclaim that the Samuel Beckett who authored Waiting for Godot in 1948 and the Samuel Beckett who staged it at the Schiller Theatre, Berlin, in 1978 were not the same person, no less the same artist. Beckett provided his own theoretical paradigm for such dialectics as early as his 1931 treatise on Marcel Proust: "We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday." 2 The Samuel Beckett who came to Waiting for Godot as its director thirty years after having written it was that "other," and the conjunction of the two, the writing self of 1948 and the directing "other" of 1978 (or the reverse, the directing self of 1978 and the writing "other" of 1948), is one of the defining moments of late Modernist theatre. Such conjunction occurred some sixteen times on the stage and another six times in the television studio; during each of those encounters, Beckett seized directing opportunities to play both self and other: that is, to refine if not to re-define his creative vision, to continue to discover latent possibilities in his texts, and to reaffirm a fundamentally Modernist aesthetics by expunging any element which he deemed extraneous, and so to demonstrate afresh his commitment to, if not his preoccupation with, the form, the aesthetic shape of his work. Beckett's own theatrical notebooks for what was a pivotal play in his developing sensibility, Spiel (Play), alone contain some twenty-five separate, complex and full outlines of the play as Beckett combed his text for visual and aural parallels, reverberations, echoes in preparation for his own staging. 3 It is Beckett's direct work in the theatre, particularly between 1967 and 1985 when he directed most of his major work, that led the publisher John Calder to conclude, "I have no doubt that posterity will consider him, not just a great playwright and novelist, but a theatrical director in the class of Piscator, Brecht, Felsenstein.4 Beckett, in short, develops into a major theoretician of the theatre in the process of staging and re-writing his plays.
Even before he became his own best reader, Beckett actively participated in staging his plays. From the first, he was concerned with setting what he called "a standard of fidelity" for his theatre. That is, primacy, if not hegemony, was initially given to the playwrighting self. On 9 January 1953, four days after the opening in Paris of En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), the ever vigilant Beckett wrote his French director, Roger Blin, to admonish him for a textual deviation:One thing which annoys me is Estragon's trousers. I naturally asked [future wife] Suzanne if they fell completely. She told me that they were held up half way. They must not, absolutely must not. . . . The spirit of the play, to the extent that it has any, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic, and that must be expressed until the end, and especially at the end. I have a stack of other reasons for not wanting to ruin this effect but I will spare you them. Just be good enough to restore the scene as written and performed in rehearsals, and let the pants fall completely to his ankles. That must seem stupid to you but for me it is capital. 5Despite the difficulties afforded by distance, Beckett tried to maintain similar vigilance over American productions. On 2 February 1956, he wrote his American publisher, Barney Rosset--who had begun, almost by default, acting as his American theatrical agent--in order to forestall what Beckett called "unauthorized deviations" in the forthcoming Broadway production of Godot with a new director and cast, and a producer conscious of the play's dismal failure in its Miami première:I am naturally disturbed . . . at the menace hinted at in one of your letters, of unauthorized deviations from the script. This we cannot have at any price and I am asking [London producer Donald] Albery to write [American producer Michael] Myerberg to that effect. I am not intransigent, as the [bowdlerized] Criterion production [in London] shows, about minor changes, if I feel they are necessary, but I refuse to be improved by a professional rewriter [in this case American playwright Thorton Wilder had been proposed, and Wilder had begun a draft translation of Godot].6
After completing Krapp's Last Tape, which as he said he "nearly entitled . . . 'Ah Well,'" Beckett wrote his American publisher on 1 April 1958 to set some guidelines for its première, telling Rosset, "I'd hate it to be made a balls of at the outset and that's why I question its being let out to small groups beyond our controp [sic] before we get it done more or less right and set a standard of fidelity at least." 7 Nine days later, Beckett wrote to Rosset that he was off to London to do just that with the Royal Court Theatre's production, "where I hope to get the mechanics of it right." It was this "standard of fidelity" and the degree of direct oversight entailed in getting "the mechanics of it right" that in good part finally lured Beckett to the semi-public posture of staging his own plays, and, even more important, that allowed him to move to a new phase of his creative development, which critics usually refer to as the "late plays."
But the move to staging himself was made reluctantly, hesitantly, accomplished, as it were, in as well as on stages, as Beckett learned what theatre itself had to offer him as an artist. He quickly saw that his direct involvement in productions offered opportunities beyond authorial validation and textual fidelity. By the late 1950s, the physical theatre became a testing ground for him, an arena for creative discovery, even self-discovery. Krapp's Last Tape seems to have been the watershed, as he realized that the creation of a dramatic text was not a process that could be divorced from performance, and that mounting a production brought to light recesses previously hidden, even from the author himself. In his 1 April letter to Rosset, Beckett expressed the clarity of his pre-production vision of Krapp: "I see the whole thing so clearly (appart [sic] from the changes of Krapp's white face as he listens8 and realize now that this does not mean I have stated it clearly, though God knows I tried." Writing to Rosset six months later, on 20 November 1958, after the Royal Court Krapp, Beckett seems to have got more than "the mechanics of it right" in this production with Patrick Magee, directed by Donald McWhinnie. In fact, in late 1958 Beckett began sounding very much like a director himself:Unerringly directed by McWhinnie[,] Magee gave a very fine performance, for me by far the most satisfactory experience in the theatre up to date. I wish to goodness that Alan [Schneider] could have seen it. I can't see it being done any other way. During rehearsal we found various pieces of business not indicated in the script and which now seem to me indispensable. If you ever publish the work in book form I should like to incorporate them in the text. A possible solution in the meantime would be for me to see Alan again (hardly feasible) or to write to him at length on the subject and prepare for him a set of more explicit stage directions.
At fifty-two years of age, having had two major plays staged in two languages and having completed his first radio play, Samuel Beckett discovered theatre. The discovery was monumental. It would transform thenceforth the way he wrote new plays and finally force him to re-think and so rewrite his earlier work as well. By the early 1960s, then, working directly in the theatre became an indispensable part of Beckett's creative process, and he wanted those direct theatrical discoveries incorporated in his published texts, before initial publication, at first--then as he began directing work already published, he assiduously revised those texts in terms of his production insights, completing them, as it were, on stage. Writing to Grove Press about Happy Days on 18 May 1961, Beckett said, for instance, "I should prefer the text not to appear in any form before production and not in book form until I have seen some rehearsals in London. I can't be definitive without actual work done in the theatre." On 24 November 1963, he wrote to Rosset about his wife's disappointment with the German production of Spiel (Play): 9Suzanne went to Berlin for the opening of Play. She did not like the performance, but the director, Deryk Mendel, is very pleased. Well received.
I realize I can't establish definitive text of Play without a certain number of rehearsals. These should begin with [French director Jean-Marie] Serreau next month. Alan's [Schneider's] text will certainly need correction. Not the lines but the stage directions. London rehearsals begin on March 9th .
In fact, after having read an initial set of proofs for Play from his British publisher, Faber and Faber, Beckett panicked, and so he delayed publication in order to continue to hone the text in rehearsals. He wrote to Charles Monteith of Faber and Faber first on 15 November 1963, "I'm afraid I shall have to make some rather important changes in the stage directions of Play," and on 23 November 1963: "I suddenly see this evening, with panic, that no final text of Play is possible till I have had a certain number of rehearsals. These will begin here, I hope, next month, and your publication should not be delayed [that is, publication should follow soon after production]. But please regard my corrected proofs as not final" (emphasis added). Beckett confirmed this decision to Grove Press editor Richard Seaver six days later, on 29 November 1963: "I have asked Faber, since correcting proofs, to hold up production of the book. I realize I can't establish text of Play, especially stage directions, till I have worked on rehearsals. I have written to Alan [Schneider] about the problems involved." Seaver confirmed in his reply of 4 December 1963, "We won't do anything on the book until we hear from you." Shortly thereafter, however, Grove resumed its pressure to publish Play and proposed to couple it with a work by Harold Pinter. In his rejection of that project, Beckett returned to his theme of the indispensability of production to his theatrical work:
Quite frankly I am not in favour of this idea, particularly as your text of Play is not final and cannot be till I have had some rehearsals, i.e., not before the end of next month. It is all right for the purposes of Alan's [Schneider's] production, because I have left it open for him and he knows the problems. But not as a published work. 10
This insistence on completing a text of his play only after "some rehearsals" or "a certain number of rehearsals" would become, then, a central part of Beckett's method of composition from Krapp's Last Tape onward. Well over a decade later, Beckett sounded the same theme about the text of Not I in a letter to Barney Rosset of 7 August 1972: "With regard to publication, I prefer to hold it back for the sake of whatever light N.Y. & London rehearsals may shed. I have not yet sent the text to Faber." Without working on stage directly himself, Beckett seemed unsure if his late work--in this case the metonymical Not I--was even drama, shaken perhaps by the difficulties Alan Schneider encountered staging the world première (that is, setting its "standard of fidelity") starring Jessica Tandy at New York's Lincoln Center. 11 Beckett wrote to Rosset on 3 November 1972: "Had a couple of letters from Alan. They seem to have been having a rough time. Hope smoother now. Hope to work on Not I in London next month and find out then if it's theatre or not."
As we trace the archeology of Beckett's theatre works from the 1960s onward, it becomes clear that publication became an interruption in the ongoing, often protracted process of composition. On the other hand, Beckett the author, with a long history of rejection from publishers, was unable to resist publication pressures, or even to control its pace. After publication he continued, as a director, to collaborate with the author of the texts, that is, himself--or, more psychoanalytically, his "other"--to complete the creative process. Moreover, such self-collaboration would not be merely a "one off." Beckett very quickly found that staging a play once even himself did not produce anything like what he was fond of calling (if misleadingly) a "definitive" text. The principle of waiting for direct work in the theatre before publishing, then, did not always insure what he had variously called "corrected," "accurate," "final," or "definitive" texts in part because the process of staging as an act of textual revision, as an act of creation, seems to have become for Beckett open-ended, continuous, the "definitive text," de facto, mercurial, elusive, a perpetually deferred entity. On the other hand, commercial pressures from producers in various countries were incessant after the success of Waiting for Godot, as were pressures from publishers. The letters from this period testify to the growing professional pressures on Samuel Beckett as an international artist (if not as an international commodity), pressures that would only intensify with the so-called "catastrophe" of the Nobel Prize in 1969. Much of this international attention forced a shift from an artisinal approach, literature as a cottage industry, say, to what seemed to be its mass production. The practical results were an inevitable diminution of quality control which took the form of a proliferation of published and produced texts. Several versions of the same text often circulated among producers, directors, and even publishers; that is, as he continued to direct, he continued to revise, and so Beckett's own creative practice, his evolving creative methodology, contributed to a proliferation of textual variants in the written record. The text of Play is a case in point. As Beckett continued to revise the text through British and French productions, which were occurring simultaneously in 1964, various versions of the play circulated in typescript.12 Working through the British agent Rosica Colins, Beckett sent Charles Monteith "a revised text" of Play in July 1963. On 23 November 1963, Beckett sent his "panic" letter to Monteith and requested a second set of "virgin" proofs, a request which he reaffirmed on 5 December: "I need a fortnight's work on Play in a theatre. The French production will go into rehearsals this month I hope. As soon as I have exact dates I'll let you know when to expect final proof. Could you let me have another proof (virgin)." In an internal Faber and Faber memo of 9 December 1963, then, Monteith announced the delay in publishing Play to the staff of Faber:I think that Play will almost certainly have to be postponed until much later in the spring. Beckett wont pass his proofs for press until Play has been rehearsed and he decides what changes are necessary for an actual production. The latest news I have about this is that rehearsals will start in France some time this month; and he says he will need a fortnight's work on it in theatre.
Because of the scheduling delays, Beckett finally acquiesced to his British publishers' pressures to publish. He wrote to Montieth on 9 January 1963 [recte 1964], "I shall. . . re-correct your proofs of Play. Rehearsals here [in Paris] are delayed and I don't want to hold you up any longer, especially as Grove Press seem set on publishing this play in the near future." Beckett then sent Charles Monteith the second set of corrected proofs on 17 January 1964 before rehearsals began in either country, and Faber and Faber published the work on 27 March 1964 in order to have a text available for the play's London opening. But between Beckett's correcting the second set of proofs on 17 January and the play's opening on 7 April 1964, Beckett revised the text yet again. Working uneasily in Paris with the French director Jean-Marie Serreau on staging the French text, Comédie, before the London rehearsals had begun, it became clear to Beckett that additional revisions were not only desirable but necessary, and he wrote to British director George Devine on 9 March 1964--less than one month before the scheduled opening and while the Faber text was in final production--to prepare him, even warn him, of necessary revisions, this just as the published version of the play was about to appear in Britain:The last rehearsals with Serreau have led us to a view of the da capo which I think you should know about. According to the text it is rigorously identical with the first statement. We now think it would be dramatically more effective to have it express a slight weakening, both of question and of response, by means of less and perhaps slower light and correspondingly less volume and speed of voice. 13
Before those rehearsals, however, Beckett believed that he had got matters right in the second set of galleys which he revised for Faber, and writing to Grove Press on 17 August 1964--that is, after British and French productions (in which, as he wrote to Monteith on the same day, "I was happy with production and actors and think we got pretty close to it") regarding a Swedish translation--Beckett at first confirmed the Faber text: "As to your MS text, it is less likely to be accurate than the Faber published text for which I corrected proofs" (at least twice). But the same letter suggested the need for further revisions, another version which would reflect more of the theatre work (as well as an uncharacteristically cavalier attitude about his text in Swedish translation): "[Grove editor Fred] Jordan suggested publishing in Evergreen Review the text in extenso [that is, at full length] (as played in London and Paris), i.e., giving changed order of speeches in the repeat and indicating vocal levels. This is quite a job to prepare and I suggest we reserve this presentation for Grove and let translations follow the existing text, simply correcting 'Repeat play exactly' to 'Repeat play.'" When Barney Rosset's personal assistant, Judith Schmidt, compared the Faber text of Play to the Grove Press typescript, she wrote to Beckett on 26 August, "I can see that there are a good many changes." Jordan, then wrote to Beckett on the same day, "We are using the Faber and Faber text in the next issue of Evergreen Review, but I believe you asked to have one word changed [the deletion of 'exactly,' as above]. Could you indicate what the change is, giving me page and line number, assuming we both work from the same edition." If we wonder at the complexities of the textual (and so performance) history of Beckett's work, here is a case in point: two editors of the same firm writing their major author on the same day, each proposing to publish a different version of the same work. Beckett solved some of this confusion, but only some of it, on 28 August, writing, "Herewith corrections to Faber text of Play," by fully revising the text yet again, which text then became the basis of the Evergreen Review version. The Evergreen Review text of 1964, then, was the text of in extenso , the one for which Beckett made his final revisions, but it is a text wholly ignored by Beckett's English language publishers and producers. The revisions were never fully incorporated into any Faber text, and inexplicably it was not its own in extenso text which Grove Press published in book form in 1968. 14
The American book publication was taken some four years later not from Grove's own fully "corrected" Evergreen Review text but from the penultimately revised Faber edition. The Evergreen text, for instance, was the first to include Beckett's major post-production revision, the note on "Repeat" (the Cascando edition of 1968, four years after Beckett made the revision, does not include this note at all but it does delete the word "exactly" from the phrase in the first Faber edition, "Repeat play exactly"). The Evergreen edition, moreover, is the first printing in which the opening instructions on lighting were emended by deleting "not quite" from the original Faber version, "The response to light is not quite immediate." The Grove book edition, subsequently, retained "not quite" even after it was cut from its own Evergreen Review text. But the Evergreen text has its own corruption; the sentence subsequent to the revision was illogically retained, as it is today in both Faber and Grove standard editions (but not in the collected editions, Collected Shorter Plays [Grove Press and Faber and Faber, 1984] and Complete Dramatic Works [Faber and Faber only, 1986, revised and corrected paperback edition, 1990], in which the problem was remedied): "At every solicitation a pause of about one second before utterance is achieved, except where a longer delay is indicated." Logically, the response to the light must be either "immediate" or delayed, not both, and so the retention of the phrase "of about one second" in the Evergreen Review version seems clearly to have been a major oversight.
Such a revision may at first seem minor, little more than a technical adjustment, instructions to the lighting designer. But in the delicate balance of verbal and visual images which constitutes Beckettian theatre, such changes are fundamental, thematically potent, especially since light often functions as a character in Beckett's theatre; this is the case with Play in particular. If a delay exists between light's command and the response, then a certain amount of deliberation is possible among the subjects; the situation of the urn-encrusted characters is humanized. In Beckett's revision, the final vestiges of humanity (and humanism) are drained from an inquisitorial process that Beckett ironically calls Play.
The textual history of the dramaticule (Beckett's coinage), Come and Go, is here illustrative as well since it combines the three dominant problems affecting Beckett's dramatic texts: a proliferation of versions on initial publication, adjustments made in translation, and revisions which Beckett made for production, in this case well after the work's initial publication. An uncertain publication history plagued the publication of Come and Go in 1978 even though Beckett read proofs for the first edition. The opening four lines of the parallel English and German text that Beckett reviewed as he prepared to direct Kommen und Gehen (Come and Go) in 1978 read:VI: Ru.
These lines were not, however, included in the first edition published by Calder and Boyars in 1967. When Beckett read proofs for Calder's edition, he suggested in a letter of 7 December 1966 that something was amiss: "Here are the Texts for Nothing . I return to Paris tomorrow and shall send you the other proofs corrected, including Come and Go, which at first glance doesn't look right." Whatever didn't "look right" to Beckett, his review of the proofs did not result in the inclusion of the opening four lines in the Calder edition. The opening lines did appear, however, in the first American edition, "Cascando" and Other Short Dramatic Pieces published by Grove Press the following year, and in all translations, particularly the French and German. More important they were also part of the final English text which Beckett reviewed carefully and revised for the Schiller Theatre production in 1978 (which, although Beckett prepared to direct, was finally directed by Walter Asmus). Subsequent English texts by Faber and Faber were then based on the Calder and Boyars text of 1967 and not on the Grove Press text of 1968, which included the four fugitive lines. Since both the Complete Dramatic Works and Collected Shorter Plays were projects initiated by Faber and photo-offset by Grove Press, they reprint the incomplete Calder and Boyars edition, and so no major English text other than the first American edition contains Beckett's opening lines.15
In addition, the French and German texts include revisions introduced by Beckett after the publication of the English and American editions. FLO invokes the names of the two other characters before her final, "I can feel the rings." This final incantation, then, echoes the opening recitation of names, but it appears in no English language text. Finally, Beckett made a significant textual revision for his 1978 production which changed the speaker for two speeches: RU's first speech was given to FLO, and FLO's "Dreaming of. . . love" was given to VI. Although Beckett finally did not direct Kommen und Gehen (Come and Go) , he reviewed both English and German texts in anticipation of production, and so clearly established the English version of the text. Had he directed the production himself, he may have made further discoveries and so made additional revisions, but he did not. To date, then, no English language text includes Beckett's final revisions.
With Footfalls, Beckett also revised the published English text at various times for various stages. He directed three productions of the play in three languages: with Billie Whitelaw at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1976; shortly thereafter with Hildegard Schmahl, on the bill with Damals (That Time) also in 1976; and, finally, with Delphine Seyrig at the Théâtre d'Orsay in 1978. Beckett revised the English script in detail, changing, for example, the number of May's pacing steps from seven to nine. Most, but not all, of those revisions were incorporated in subsequent revised English texts, Ends and Odds 16at first, and then in both the Complete Dramatic Works and Collected Shorter Plays , both published by Faber and Faber but only the latter by Grove Press. But Beckett also made significant lighting changes which he never incorporated directly into any English text, changes that were central to and consistent in all three of his productions. For each of his stagings, for instance, he introduced a "Dim spot on face during halts at R [right] and L [left]" so that May's face would be visible during her monologues. In addition, he introduced a vertical ray of light which seemed to be coming through a door barely ajar, this to counterpoint the horizontal beam on the floor along which May paces. These lighting changes were not only part of all three of Beckett's productions, they were incorporated into the French translation, and certainly should be part of any English text or production. Without these final revisions, the only accurate text of Footfalls--that closest to Beckett's final conception of the work--is the French text, Pas .* * * *
These textual problems were the result, then, of Beckett's continued work in the theatre and his desire to have his published texts reflect his most recent theatrical insights, discoveries that could have been made only in rehearsals. It was Beckett's at least tacit acknowledgment that theatre is its performance, that the theatre space, as Peter Brook has insisted for years, is an arena for creative discovery. At first, such revisions as those with Play were restricted to works not yet in print. But much of Beckett's most intense and concentrated theatrical work with his texts occurred well after their original publication when as a director he turned to them afresh. Staging himself even well after initial publication would mean revising himself and would allow him to move forward by returning to the past, to implement, refine, and extend his creative vision to work published before he became his own best director. In retrospect, such self-collaboration seems inevitable since Beckett's theatrical vision was often at odds with those of even his most sympathetic directors. "He had ideas about Fin de partie," recalled Roger Blin, his first French director, "that made it a little difficult to act. At first, he looked on his play as a kind of musical score. When a word occurred or was repeated, when Hamm called Clov, Clov should always come in the same way every time, like a musical phrase coming from the same instrument with the same volume."17 Ten years after writing Fin de partie (Endgame), Beckett would score the play to his satisfaction in his own Berlin production. "The play is full of echoes," he told his German cast, "they all answer each other." And he revised his texts accordingly. His final revisions to the texts of Play, Come and Go, and Footfalls reflect just such formalist preoccupations.
During his nineteen-year directing career, from 1967 to 1986, Beckett staged (or videotaped) over twenty productions of his plays in three languages, English, French, and German. Each time he came to reread a script to prepare its staging, he usually found it wordy, encumbered, and incompletely conceived for the stage, and so he set about "correcting" it, the word he used most often for the process of theatre, the continued development and refinement of his work that directing afforded. Such a commitment protracted the creative process. For Beckett, composition, that is, the act of creation, did not end with publication, and certainly not with initial production--even of those plays on which he had worked closely--but was continuous, subject to constant refinement if not on occasion redefinition: "Since the 1967 Endspiel (Endgame), Beckett has used directorial opportunities to continue the creative process, cutting, revising, tightening his original script. Once Beckett took full control, directing was not a process separate from the generation of a text but its continuation if not its culmination. Writing, translating and directing were of a piece, part of a continuous creative process." 18 It was this direct work in the theatre, this extension of the creative process, Beckett's re-intervention into his own established canon, into texts which were not only already in print but often well established in critical discourse as well, that has forced to the fore unique questions not only about Beckett's individual texts but about the relationship of theatrical performance to its published record and so about the nature, the quality, the validity of the theatrical experience itself. The sheer complexity of Beckett's creative vision, however, has forced some analysts into critical denial. Michael Worton, for one, has argued that Beckett's direct work in the theatre should simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Worton is bent on devaluing the performing arts by dismissing Beckett's work as a director, work which Worton considers more impulsive than deliberative: "we should focus on the text itself and not seek to make our interpretations fit with what the dramatist may have said at any particular moment." 19 "Any particular moment" presumably refers to the twenty years that Beckett spent as a theatrical director, which Worton would simply dismiss as irrelevant to textual production. Worton seems confused about what constitutes "text" in the theatre and so takes it to mean simply script. What Beckett began to understand about theatre, however, was that text is performance; this explains his fastidiousness not about interpretation per se but about his stage directions. As we continue to evaluate that relationship, the literary text to its performative realization, and the playwright's relationship to both, the case of Samuel Beckett's acting simultaneously as theatre artist staging a play and as author revising it, an almost unique instance of self-collaboration in the modern (and Modernist) theatre, may force us to re-evaluate the centrality of performance to the literary field of drama. 20 For Beckett's drama, performance would become his principal text. The results of that direct theatrical process, that fastidious attention to the aesthetic details of the art work, a salient characteristic of late Modernism, needs to enter our critical and performative equations if we are not to underestimate and so distort Samuel Beckett's creative vision and his theoretical contributions to the Modernist theatre.
That's the theory. The practice, that is, the actual accommodation of performance into a written record, is not always easily achieved. As he began increasingly to work directly on stage, to trust his direct work in theatre, Beckett did not, unfortunately, always record those insights or revise his texts accordingly. For some productions, Beckett simply never got around to making the full and complete revisions to his English text, that is, never committed his revisions to paper, revisions which were clearly part of his developing conception of the play, but let the production stand as the final text. The most obvious and stunning example is the ballet (or mime) called Quad in English. Beckett's final version of the work, the production for German television, broadcast on 8 October 1981, is called Quadrat I & II, a title that suggests at least two acts, if not two plays. Near the end of the taping, Beckett created what amounted to an unplanned second act for the play. When he saw the color production of Quad rebroadcast on a black and white monitor, he decided instantly to create Quad II. Beckett's printed text (in any language) was, however, never revised to acknowledge this remarkable revision of the work's fundamental structure. No printed version of the play bears the title of the production, and so no accurate version, one that includes Beckett's revisions, exists in print. Beckett's own videotaped German production, then, remains the only "final" text for Quad.
Finally, for his own television version of his stage play, Was Wo (What Where), Beckett again revised the German text extensively, but he never fully revised the stage directions of the original. This omission was due in part to Beckett's continued work on the central visual imagery of the play through rehearsals up to the final taping. By this stage of his directing career in 1985, he had developed enough confidence and trust in the collaborations that theatre entails, indeed that it necessitates, that he was creating his theatre work almost wholly in rehearsals, directly on the stage (or in this case, in the studio), although he kept a theatrical notebook for the production as well. As his long-time cameraman and technical assistant, Jim Lewis, recalled:If you want to compare this production [of Was Wo] with the others for television, there's one major difference. And that is his concept was not set. He changed and changed and changed. . . . I've never experienced that with him before. You know how concrete he is, how precise he is. Other times we could usually follow through on that with minor, minor changes; but this time there were several basic changes and he still wasn't sure. 21
Lewis's observation suggests the single most significant element in Beckett's evolution from playwright to theatre artist, from writer to director: his commitment to the idea of performance. In practical and literary terms such a commitment meant that nothing like a "final script" for his theatrical work could be established before he worked with it and re-worked it directly on stage. What he insisted to his American publisher about Play he reiterated at the same time to his principal American director, Alan Schneider, in response to Schneider's queries. Beckett expressed what had become obvious and axiomatic to him: "I realize that no final script is possible until I work on rehearsals." 22 With Play, Beckett's emphasis on performance had been necessitated by his revision of the work between its English publication and its French and English performances, and it was such demanding technical difficulties as Play presented that finally prompted Beckett to take full charge of directing his work. 23 With What Where, however, Beckett went on to revise French and English stage versions of his play after he had adapted and taped the German television production, but again without revising the opening stage directions. A clear diagram and a paragraph describing the revised stage set, however, were part of his theatrical notebook for Was Wo (What Where), and so those passages could be adopted for a revised text by simply substituting Beckett's exact words for the original. 24
One can, however, easily overstate Beckett's attraction to theatre, even romanticize it. While the process of working on stage was fruitful and grew finally indispensable to his theatrical art, it did not always proceed smoothly. And at times Beckett seemed exasperated by the whole process of theatre. With the success of Godot, the demands for new work, for advice on productions and translations of his work, from all over the world, became almost suffocating. Much in his expanded semi-public role as director did not sit comfortably with him, in particular the practical demands of differing theatres, the constraints of deadlines, and the inevitable intercourse with an intrusive broader public--reporters with cameras managed to insinuate themselves into rehearsals all too often--and Beckett periodically announced his abandonment of theatre. On 23 March 1975, for instance, he wrote to his long-time friend and some-time literary agent, George Reavey: "rehearsing French Not I with M. Renaud, with yet another Krapp to eke it out, opening April 8. Then farewell to theatre." On 14 April, he reaffirmed his retirement, "Pas Moi off to a goodish start. Vast relief at thought of no more theatre." 25 But a year later, in April of 1976, he was in London directing Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls at the Royal Court Theatre, to which he returned three years later to stage what was perhaps his English language directorial masterwork, Billie Whitelaw's tour-de-force performance of Happy Days, which premiered in June of 1979. In 1977, two years after his supposed retirement, Beckett only began his long directorial relationship with the San Quentin Drama Workshop, directing its founder Rick Cluchey in Krapp's Last Tape at the Akademie der Künst in Berlin in 1977, and Endgame with the company in May of 1980 at the Riverside Studios in London. In July of 1983, Beckett announced the end of his directorial career yet again: "Omitted to mention in my last, in reply to your evocation of the Riverside rehearsals [for the San Quentin Endgame], that I have done with directing, or it with me. Never again." 26 But as he wrote to his American publisher and theatrical agent in 1959, "the call of the theatre is strong," and it remained so through most of the 1980s. By February of 1984, Beckett was back in London at least supervising Walter Asmus's recreation of Beckett's own 1978 Berlin staging of Godot, now with the San Quentin Drama Workshop. In the course of what was intended as simple supervision of the 1978 staging, Beckett again revised, refined, corrected his earlier staging significantly. 27 By early 1984, he had also already accepted an offer to adapt and direct his stage play What Where for German television in Stuttgart, although the work was delayed until June of 1985.
But as useful as working directly in the concrete space of theatre turned out to be, it did not always resolve all creative and textual questions for Beckett, and so his productions did not always result in what he tended to call "definitive" texts. Having worked closely with Anthony Page on the Royal Court Theatre production of Not I in January of 1975, for instance, and having directed it himself at the Théâtre d'Orsay later that year (April 1975) and again in April of 1978, Beckett remained uncertain, hesitant, ambivalent about several fundamental details of the play: even how many characters it should contain, for example. The best advice he could offer a pair of young American directors in 1986 was "simply to omit the Auditor. He is very difficult to stage (light--position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively." 28 Beckett's assessment of Auditor's ineffectiveness presumably includes the 1973 Royal Court production with Billie Whitelaw which he supervised and which was eventually taped for broadcast by the BBC. For the videotape Auditor was, of course, dropped in favor of a tight close-up of actress Billie Whitelaw's bespittled lips. And for his own 1978 French production (his second) with Madeleine Renaud, he omitted Auditor entirely.
To call even those texts which include all of Beckett's theatrical revisions "definitive," however, as Beckett occasionally did (if off-handedly), is not only to evoke the discourse of another era but to shift the emphasis away from the process of textual evolution which they represent. The revised texts are "final" only in the sense that Samuel Beckett's physical life is now final, that is, over. It is quite clear to those who worked with him in the theatre that had he directed any of his plays again, he would have generated more refinements, additional corrections, another revised text. The revised texts do, however, come closer to being finished than those originally published in the sense that Maurice Blanchot used the term in his 1955 work, L'Espace littéraire: "A work is finished, not when it is completed, but when he who labors at it from within can just as well finish it from without." 29 If these revised and corrected plays are "finished," it is because Beckett has approached them from "without," as another, as a reader and metteur-en-scène. Like any good reader, Beckett saw more in his texts at each reading, and directing offered him the opportunity of intense re-reading.
What the revised and corrected texts represent, finally, is Beckett's physical work in the theatre, a period of self-collaboration and so self-revision which all but dominated the final two decades of his life. They emphasize that his direct work with actors and technicians, while not always tranquil, was always productive and of no less importance, of no less value than the work he did in the seclusion of his study to produce and translate the first versions of his play scripts. Beckett's theatrical texts, however, were created not in his study but in the theatre, and as such they stand as testimony to Beckett's creative vitality into the eighth decade of his life and to his faith in the living theatre as a vital, creative force in the waning days of the twentieth century.
1. Research for this essay has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities under its Fellowships for University Teachers program.
2. Samuel Beckett, Proust (Grove Press, 1957), p. 3. S.E. Gontarski, "Revising Himself: Performance as Text in Samuel Beckett's Theatre," Journal of Modern Literature, XXII, 1 (Fall 1998), pp. 131-155. ©Foundation for Modern Literature, 1999.
3. These notebooks are on deposit at the University of Reading's Samuel Beckett Archive and are published in facsimile and transcription in The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume IV: The Shorter Plays, ed. with an Introduction and Notes by S.E. Gontarski (Faber and Faber Ltd., 1999).
4. John Calder, "Editorial and Theater Diary," Gambit: International Theater Review, VII (1976), p. 3.
5. The French transcript of this letter appears in the introduction to The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: Endgame (Grove Press, 1993), p. xiv.
6. Unless otherwise stipulated letters throughout are in the respective publishers' archives, Grove Press, Faber and Faber, and John Calder [Publishers] Ltd., and are used with permission of the publishers and Samuel Beckett.
7. It would, of course, be Alan Schneider who set the "standard of fidelity" for the American Krapp's Last Tape8. This problem was finally solved when Beckett directed his own production and eliminated Krapp's white face. See The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume III: "Krapp's Last Tape," James Knowlson, ed. (Grove Press, 1992).
9. This was Deryk Mendel's world première production, Spiel at the Ulmer Theater, Ulm-Donau, 14 June 1963.
10. Beckett seems to have given up on Alan Schneider's production of Play. His instructions to Schneider were that "Play was to be played through twice without interruption and at a very fast pace, each time taking no longer than nine minutes," that is, eighteen minutes overall. The producers, Richard Barr, Clinton Wilder, and, of all people, Edward Albee, threatened to drop the play from the program if Schneider followed Beckett's instructions. Schneider, unlike Devine, capitulated, and wrote to Beckett for permission to slow the pace and eliminate the da capo: "For the first and last time in my long relationship with Sam, I did something I despised myself for doing. I wrote to him, asking if we could try having his text spoken only once, more slowly. Instead of telling me to blast off, Sam offered us his reluctant permission." See Alan Schneider, Entrances: An American Director's Journey (Viking Press, 1986), p. 341.
11. When the actress Jessica Tandy complained that the play's suggested running time of twenty-three minutes rendered the work unintelligible to audiences, Beckett telegraphed back his now famous (but oft misinterpreted) injunction, "I'm not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect." For a discussion of Tandy's performance see Enoch Brater, "The 'I' in Beckett's Not I," Twentieth Century Literature, XX (1974), p. 200.
12. For details on the production of Play see "De-theatricalizing Theater: The Post-Play Plays," The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume IV: The Shorter Plays, pp. xv-xxix.
13. The letter is published in facsimile in New Theatre Magazine: Samuel Beckett Issue, XI (1971), pp. 16-17.
14. "Cascando" and Other Short Dramatic Pieces (Grove Press, 1968), pp. 45-63.
15. They do appear in the text that Breon Mitchell edited and published in the journal Modern Drama in 1976, but that text introduces additional and unnecessary variants. See Breon Mitchell, "Art in Microcosm: The Manuscript Stages of Beckett's Come and Go," Modern Drama, XIX (1976), pp. 245-260.
16. For additional details on the texts of Footfalls see "Texts and Pre-texts in Samuel Beckett's Footfalls," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, LXXVII (1983), pp. 191-95.
17. "Blin on Beckett," On Beckett: Essays and Criticism ed. and with an Introduction by S.E. Gontarski (Grove Press, Inc. 1986), p. 233.
18. Notebooks, Volume IV, p. xiii.
19. Michael Worton, "Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theater as Text," The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed. John Pilling (Cambridge University Press), pp. 67-87. Worton is not, of course, alone in his resistance to Beckett's theatrical work. For Colin Duckworth, for instance, the very fact that Beckett's revisions were made in response to the exigencies of production essentially disqualifies them. That is, Duckworth has attacked the most compelling reasons for revisions at all--most particularly those for Waiting for Godot, but by extension for all of Beckett's work. While he admits that with those revisions, "we can now have a clear insight into [Beckett's] own view of his most famous play a third of a century after he wrote it" (p. 175), he finally recoils from that view, concluding, "It is difficult to explain this textual vandalism, perpetrated on some of the most magical moments of the play" (p. 190). "It makes one wonder," he continues, "whether authors should be let loose on their plays thirty-odd years later" (p. 191) [Colin Duckworth, "Beckett's New Godot," Beckett's Later Fiction and Drama, ed. James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur (Macmillan Press, 1987), pp. 175-92].
20. For some tentative explorations of these problems see Philip Gaskell's work on Tom Stoppard in "Stoppard, Travesties, 1974," From Writer to Reader: Studies in Editorial Method (Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 245-62; and "Night and Day: Development of a Play Text," Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, ed. Jerome J. McGann (University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 162-79. Although Gaskell deals with the idea of a "performance text" and the "reading text" which follows it, revised on the basis of the performance in which the author was an active collaborator with his director (in this case, Tom Stoppard and Peter Wood), the situation is the opposite with Beckett's self-collaborations, in which the "reading text" was often established by publication well before Beckett intervened through his direction to create a "performance text." In Beckett's case the problems of accurate texts then are complicated by the author's continued revision of even his "reading text."
21. Martha Fehsenfeld, "Beckett's Reshaping of What Where for Television," Modern Drama, XXIX (1986), p. 236.
22. Alec Reid makes something of the same point in the posthumous "Impact and Parable in Beckett: A First Encounter with Not I," published in a tribute issue of Hermathena, CXLI (1986) ed. Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene: Beckett "will speak of the first run-through with actors as the 'realization' of the play and when it has been performed publicly, he will say that it has been 'created.' " Delivering the first Annenberg Lecture at the University of Reading's Beckett Archive in May 1993, Billie Whitelaw observed of Not I: "I very much had the feeling that it was a work in progress."
23. For details see "De-theatricalizing Theater: The Post-Play Plays," p. xx.
24. For a fuller discussion of these revisions see "What Where II: Revision as Re-creation," The Review of Contemporary Fiction VII (1987), pp. 120-23, as well as the What Where portion of the Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume IV: The Shorter Plays, and Fehsenfeld, p. 236.
25. No Symbols Where None Intended: A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, and Other Material Relating to Samuel Beckett in the Collections of the Humanities Research Center, (Humanities Research Center, 1984), p. 155.
26. Samuel Beckett letter to S.E. Gontarski, 24 July 1983.
27. See Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: Waiting for Godot, ed. James Knowlson and Dougald McMillan (Grove Press, 1994).
28. Samuel Beckett, letter to David Hunsberger and Linda Kendall, 16 November 1986.
29. Blanchot, Maurice, The Space of Literature, Trans. & Intro. Ann Smock, (University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 54.
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