The Beckett Festival
Performed by the Gate Theatre of Dublin at Lincoln Center, New York City
July 29 through Aug. 11

Now What I Wonder Do I Mean By That
Interpreting Beckett.

By Louis Menand
(2,152 words; posted Tuesday, Aug. 20; to be composted Tuesday, Aug. 27)

Scene from "No symbols where none intended," warns the famous line in Samuel Beckett's novel Molloy, but his interpreters have not always believed it. Beckett was notorious for insisting on a strict construction of his text in other people's productions of his plays, and since his death, in 1989, his estate has shown itself committed to the same policy. In 1984, Beckett complained about (but ultimately permitted) JoAnn Akalaitis' decision to set Endgame in an abandoned subway station; 10 years later, the estate forced the cancellation of the European tour of a British production of Footfalls, on the grounds that it departed from Beckett's stage directions.
      It was not only directors who gave Beckett headaches. He was delighted by William Butler Yeats' wish that actors could be put in barrels to prevent them from trying to express themselves, and he actually wrote a play, called Play (1963), in which the actors are ensconced in jars up to their necks throughout the performance. For a man whose writings are usually understood as an eloquent cry against the impossibility of human freedom, Beckett seems to have had remarkably little trouble imagining other people making free with his words. It is a good thing he never had to sit through a freshman seminar on Waiting for Godot.
Of course he was, on one level, completely right. There is something about the culture of the theater, some kind of dramaturgical ego-warping that takes place, that makes it almost impossible for its practitioners to resist pinning their own plumage on the playwright's skinny donkey. And when the donkeys are as minimalist and abstract as Beckett's, they must seem to beg to be filled in by "interpretation."
      This may be why Beckett was fanatically precise about almost every aspect of his plays, from the length of the pauses between phrases to the wattage of the lighting. When he says, "Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two windows, curtains drawn," he is not describing a subway station; he is describing the situation in which the audience is supposed to find the characters in Endgame. To make their situation somehow "about" urban decay (or something) is to exchange a fortune of emptiness for a dime's worth of concreteness. When Beckett was writing Happy Days (1961), about a woman named Winnie who is embedded, first up to her waist and then up to her neck, in a mound of dirt (better even than a jar), he inserted some references to a nuclear holocaust, evidently intended to explain Winnie's condition. He made it a more mysterious--and better--play by taking them out.

Scene from The play with the longest history of these extra-authorial "contributions" is Waiting for Godot (1952), and this is because it has a tradition of featuring professional clowns and comedians that goes back to the first American production, in 1956, with Bert Lahr as Estragon. Beckett never saw Lahr's performance (nor did many other people: The production was a critical flop, and it closed after 59 performances); but it was described to him by the director, Alan Schneider, and he later complained that Lahr had "made Godot about him."
      Beckett was consulted personally for the 1988 Mike Nichols production of Waiting for Godot, which starred Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, and F. Murray Abraham--all scenery chewers of an exceptionally high caliber (one can feel glad that Jack Nicholson was not available), and directed by a man not exactly known for discouraging histrionics. But the master's blessing did not prevent Robin Williams from working the line "I want to thank the academy" into his part.

In 1991, the Gate Theatre in Dublin undertook a cycle of Beckett's complete dramatic corpus that promised to adhere as strictly as possible to the letter of Beckett's intentions. It restaged the cycle this summer in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Festival (minus the never-produced Eleutheria and, on this occasion, the nontheatrical plays, leaving 19 works), and it proved to be one of this new festival's most successful ventures. The performances I saw, both of the major and minor works, were sold out, or virtually so. And audiences seemed, though not quite wild, impressed and somehow deeply pleased, as though this, with Irish actors and the respectful mentions in the Playbill notes of what "Sam" would have wanted, was the genuine thing.
      The Gate Theatre productions are indeed, for the most part, pretty literal (though where are the bloodstains on the handkerchief Hamm, in Endgame, has draped over his head?). All 19 plays are impressively produced, particularly in the details that mattered so much to Beckett, like the lighting and the timing. They've been staged by an international array of directors, including Walter Asmus, who directed, in German translation and under Beckett's supervision, what is widely regarded as the definitive Waiting for Godot. And they feature an accomplished and experienced cast, which includes Rosaleen Linehan, as Winnie, and Barry McGovern, a Beckett specialist who plays Vladimir (in Godot), Willie (Winnie's husband in Happy Days), and Clov in Endgame.
      Still, they do seem, in their reverent ambition to be perfectly transparent, a little opaque--as though the producers had hoped that by presenting the material as neutrally as possible, it would somehow "speak for itself." It doesn't quite do that. For a literal performance of a Beckett play, or any other play, is not, after all, a transparent rendering of the text in all its manifold suggestibility. It's what you see and hear at that performance, and none of the things you don't. "Bare interior. Grey light ... high up, two windows." Reading the words, we may think: "Ah, yes. The Cartesian cogito staring on the nullity of mindless extension." Or: "The entropy of urbanism." Or whatever. But when the curtain rises, we see none of these conceptions. We see a bare interior with gray light and two windows. We don't automatically make any associations--any more than we automatically think "phallus" when we see a banana, even though "phallus" is something we almost cannot help thinking when we read the word "banana."

Scene from The only way to get the bare interior with two windows in Endgame, or the bananas in Krapp's Last Tape, or the tree in Waiting for Godot (typological variant of the Cross!), to signify something is by acting, which is to say, by causing an aura of meaning--one kind of meaning rather than another kind of meaning--to rise from the words Beckett has provided. This means either tacking on a significance--nuclear holocaust, urban decay, "British out of Northern Ireland"--you think you can make compatible with the text, or figuring out what Beckett had in mind, of which the words on the page are merely traces. "No symbols where none intended" doesn't mean no intentions. It doesn't even mean no symbols. It is just an admonition to watch what you're doing. The Gate Theatre producers are extremely careful--with results that are admirable, but not unmixed. It's never a question, in any of these productions, of adding something that isn't there to the script. It's only a question of the smallest nuance; but the closer you cleave to the letter, the more each inflection counts.
      The great danger in staging Beckett's plays is to assume that because so much of it is black humor and cynicism, the work is somehow inimical to conventional values like sentiment and beauty; and some of the Gate Theatre productions seemed to have succumbed to this danger: They tend to accentuate the bitter and the farcical at the expense of everything else. The plays are not an expression of cynicism and resignation, or even a brave affirmation of human endurance in the face of nothingness. They are not about the deeper meaning of human life, and they are not expressions of despair about the absence of a deeper meaning in human life. Their subject is happiness, and they all (with a few obvious exceptions, such as the political skit Catastrophe [1982], dedicated to Václav Havel) have just one thing to say about it, which is: Carpe diem.

It's true that Beckett approached the subject of happiness from the point of view of unhappiness, a condition he thought much more conducive to comedy--and he was possibly the greatest comedian of misery who ever wrote. But it is crucial to see what it is, in his account, that makes people miserable: Trying to interpret is what makes people miserable. Audiences naturally prefer the effusive Vladimir (Didi) in Waiting for Godot to the grouchy Estragon (Gogo). Didi is the witty one, the imaginative one, the expectant one. Gogo has a hard time remembering who it is they're supposed to be waiting for; his day is given to fussing over his boots. But Gogo is much closer to happiness than Didi. For Didi believes there possibly is a point to the whole thing, and Gogo knows there probably is not.
      Waiting for Godot is therefore not static (as it is often described), and it is not about the importance of keeping alive the hope that one day, a Godot will appear to us--though this seemed, I thought, the interpretation of the Gate production. Instead, the play is designed to open our eyes gradually to the real distribution of unhappiness between the two protagonists, and it is about the importance of forgetting about Godot altogether. Godot is only tomorrow's Pozzo. "He doesn't beat you?" Didi asks the Boy who comes with a message from Godot. "No Sir, not me," says the Boy. "Whom does he beat?" "He beats my brother, Sir." The person who waits for Godot is the person who looks for symbols where none are intended. "What do I know about man's destiny," Beckett wrote in the prose piece "Enough." "I could tell you more about radishes." He meant it.

Although every performance in the cycle was commendable in its own faithful way, only one seemed to me to touch the heart of Beckett's intention to get our minds off destiny and back on radishes. This was the production of Krapp's Last Tape, featuring David Kelly, who was Krapp in the Irish premiere back in 1959, and directed by the Irish director Pat Laffan.
      Krapp's Last Tape is a play about a 69-year-old man on his birthday listening to a tape he made on his birthday 30 years earlier, on which he has recorded his decision to separate from his girlfriend, and his certainty that he has finally discovered the meaning of things and that great days of accomplishment lie ahead--"The fire that burns in me now!" It is a play, in other words, about the folly of choosing art over life, and getting this means getting the poetry right.
      The inspiration of Kelly's performance of Krapp's Last Tape is the contrast he allows between the voice on the tape, so full of life but so wrong about what matters in it, and the voice of the actor, the older Krapp, acid with bitterness. One of the things that makes this production work so well is that the voice of the younger Krapp is Kelly's own voice, recorded some years earlier. Another is that Kelly has, in his old age, acquired a countenance not unlike Beckett's. You feel it is not only a performance.

There is a passage like the one in which the younger Krapp describes his final parting from his girlfriend in almost every play Beckett wrote; they are the lyrical keys to the treasure box. But the one in Krapp's Last Tape, as Kelly reads it, is the most poignant. The lovers are floating together on a little boat when Krapp decides to tell her goodbye. "I asked her to look at me and after a few moments--[Pause.]--after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over to get them in the shadow and they opened. [Pause. Low.] Let me in. [Pause.] We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! [Pause.] I lay across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side. [Pause. KRAPP's lips move. No sound.]"
      "Let me in": The whole force of the play is in these three words. The passage is a poem, and it has to be enunciated with heartbreaking delicacy. You cannot hold back out of a fear of over-sentimentalizing: The bananas and the other stage business take care of that for you. There is more than enough absurdity in Beckett to keep the tenderness from becoming maudlin. Albert Finney once tried the part of Krapp in an English production, but Beckett was disgusted. "He had about as much poetry as an ashtray," he said.


* To read Krapp's Last Tape, click here.
Louis Menand teaches English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Photos by Tom Lawlor for Lincoln Center Festival '96

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