[27 June 2008]
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Andrei Belgrade
Produced by Brooklyn Academy of Music
25 April – 18 May, 2008
BAM Harvey Theater
Note: The coming Lincoln Center summer festival (July 2-27) will feature A Gate Beckett Season. The event combines three monologues: Eh, Joe,I’ll Go On, and First Love. Liam Neeson, Barry McGovern, and Ralph Fiennes will perform.
“I tell this story worse and worse,” moans decaying old Nagg from his trashcan, wasting the few moments allotted him to speak. But this is Beckett, and we are all dying, and worsening through repetition is maybe not a bad place to be.
Brooklyn Academy of Music’s recent production of Samuel Beckett’s 1957 one-act Endgame was BAM’s second Beckett play this season and a real gem in the Beckett revival that has so thoroughly overcome New York. Director Andrei Belgrader’s take is precise, stark, and, unlike so many staged interpretations of Beckett’s work, unapologetically literary. Even the master might have been pleased—despite the movie-star presence of John Turturro heading the cast.
Four characters inhabit a vague jail-cell of a stage. It is gray. The light coming in from the windows is also gray, revealing nothing more about the space and time of Endgame than we have from the dialogue. The world outside may or may not be post-apocalyptic; but it doesn’t matter, because there is no world outside.
The four are stuck with each other, but each also endures a personally tailored solitary confinement. Blind Hamm (Turturro, channeling all the hammy grandeur of Al Pacino—at his best—doing Shakespeare) is dying in his wheelchair. Detail: he insists on being rolled to the exact center of the room, stage, world.
Hamm’s thrall and tormentor is crippled Clov (Max Casella, all feeble physicality), whom he raised, and in turn tormented, from childhood. Finally, Hamm’s progenitors (those “hated fornicators”, played by the pitch-perfect, agonizing, and adorable Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch) are quite literally contained in separate trashcans, stage left. Detail: the trashcans are just far apart enough that the straining, dying elderly couple can’t quite kiss. Welcome to this Sesame Street.
No wonder, then, that Beckett’s dramatic work has been largely viewed as Theater of the Absurd (but make no mistake, Endgame is Waiting for Godot‘s evil twin); or as a metaphysical investigation of “deep human truths”—whatever those are—or just avoided at all costs. Endgame is hysterically funny, and Beckett both lures and confronts us with that humor: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” Nell says, and we laugh at the line and wince. But something else is going on.
Beckett (out-Brechting Brecht; or compare with Godard’s cinematic breakthrough in the 1967 films Two or Three Things I Know About Her and La Chinoise) never for a moment lets his audience ignore the artifice of his structures. “Me—to play,” Hamm announces in the first line. It is an invitation to the game, to be sure, but also a stark declaration of intent: I, the actor, will be taking this role. What will they be talking about? “Ah, the old questions, the old answers! There’s nothing like them.” Or, when Clov wonders aloud bitterly what is keeping him here, Hamm responds: “The dialogue.”
John Turturro and Max Casella in BAM’s Endgame—Photo (partial) by ©Richard Termine.
Beckett retold (or worse yet, humanized on stage by an ambitious director) always sounds god-awful. In our post-Beckett world, a line like “I’m warming up for my last soliloquy” inspires sheer dread, and it should: almost inevitably, smug postmodern smarminess follows, a kitschy and banal nod to yesterday’s avant-garde. Umberto Eco identified the enemy of highbrow culture not as lowbrow, or pop, but the dreaded MidCult: today’s commercial product impersonating yesterday’s earnest art. Think of the last artsy documentary you saw. In fact, anything that begs to be described as “artsy” will fit the bill.
But while so many stagings of Beckett have veered determinedly into MidCult, the texts are still anything but, as even a single good performance makes so clear. The dialogue is both self-conscious and silly, but never smug. Each sentence aims to be as true as possible, as naïve as that may sound. Hamm tells us he is playing someone, because he is. Occasionally the accumulation of so much truth brings a kind of stripped-down ecstasy; other times, it is infectious. (My date, as we walked out of Endgame wondered plaintively, “Why are we talking like Beckett characters?”)
Beckett’s language also achieves an astonishing cultural autonomy. It does what we usually assume language cannot do, and reaches for unprecedented abstraction and objectivity. It cost him dearly: to avoid his native, culturally-marked English, in the late 1940s, Beckett began writing mostly in French and then translating himself back. Beckett is the mathematician of 20th century letters, the closest we’ve come to a universal literary language. His plays, like his best novels, record language as it spins through all possible permutations.
Endgame, ironically, is good enough to reveal in retrospect what was missing in BAM’s otherwise thoroughly enjoyable Happy Days production in January, directed by Deborah Warner. Happy Days was more of a hit with audiences, but there’s the rub. Even buried alive to the neck, Fiona Shaw made Winnie utterly believable, a flesh and blood woman breaking through her lines—the banally Quixotic, heroically deranged, optimist next door.
Her bravura performance proved, without a doubt, that Shaw is a really, really stupendous actress, but Beckett wouldn’t have stood for five minutes of it. Suspension of disbelief is against the rules of the game: it might be our most dangerous aesthetic deception, and contrary to popular convention, it is not endemic to the art.
Lest we jump too fast to the conclusion that Beckett was a control-freak killjoy (okay, perhaps fair), let’s compare the situation with a different medium of art. Can we imagine a curator adding a decorative frieze to Mark Rothko’s 1954 Red, Orange, Tan and Purple and a helpful gloss: “Looks like the Namib desert!”? What about stenciling in a lovely sun-blanched tree and one solitary snow-mobiler?
With literature, and with literary drama, convention is much harder let go.
The young, tongue-tied Beckett of the 1930s was no better off than we. Trapped politically and ideologically by the situation in Ireland, he could neither support British imperialism nor ally himself with Irish nationalism: imagine (Protestant) Beckett writing rousing patriotic songs. Paris was a haven in one sense, but he ached under the palpable load of his immediate literary inheritance there, the modernist monuments of James Joyce and Marcel Proust.
Beckett discovered Joyce in 1928 in Paris, and the latter soon put his talented young compatriot to work. Beckett translated chunks of Joyce’s Work in Progress (soon to become Finnegans Wake), wrote polemical articles in defense of the Joycean aesthetic, and so forth. In exchange for reading proofs for two thirds of Work in Progress, Joyce reputedly gave Beckett 250 francs, an old sweater and several ties he didn’t like.
Joyce—who might have been a little Hamm to Beckett’s Clov—felt terminal in the way Beckett has seemed to so many since: how do you move beyond a project that seems to have finished off the form? In one of the more mythologized epiphanies of 20th century literary lore, Beckett burst respectfully free, and through his crippling writer’s block, with one dramatic paradigm shift. If literary modernism had sought hitherto to innovate through accumulation (Joyce’s parodies and streams of consciousness; Proust’s expanding sentences and layered memories), Beckett would advance by subtraction.
Painting was, perhaps, the crucial source of his inspiration. The Parisian visual avant-garde was on fire; painting, like music, seemed light-years ahead of its sister arts. Beckett was an early champion of abstraction and a brilliant art critic. In the ‘30s he socialized with Marcel Duchamp, Giacometti, the Van Velde brothers, and was briefly Peggy Guggenheim’s lover.
His critical writing from the late ‘40s, in turn, is shockingly moving and sincere, and readily translates into a personal manifesto. In “Les peintres de l’empêchement” (available in the essay collection Disjecta), he wrote that “Henceforth the painter can take one of three paths. The path of returning to the old naivety, in the twilight of its abandonment: this is the path of the penitent. Then there is a path that isn’t one, but a last attempt to live on the conquered country. And finally the path forward of painting that is unconcerned about an outdated convention…”
If audiences could deal with abstraction and intellectual resistance in painting, then why not in literature? Why not in drama? Lingering bourgeois conventions (bourgeois more in Flaubert’s than Marx’s sense) must be overturned here, as well.
In a sense it was already happening, but in forms that seemed to pose less direct challenge to the hegemony of the literary word. In 1965, Beckett made his sole cinematic foray with the 21-minute Film. Buster Keaton played O, the object of the gaze, fleeing the camera eye E. We can imagine the rest.
I never realized just how much Beckett’s plays take from both slapstick comedies and modern dance until I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov perform in the luminous Beckett Shorts at the New York Theater Workshop (NYTW) in December 2007. The shorts, set to brilliant and glacial music by Phillip Glass, stealthily take theatrical abstraction and precision to a new level. The first two of the four were by far the best, Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II.
Without the distraction of language at all, and with that leading man, drama unapologetically annexes ballet. The precision of Beckett’s stage directions makes total sense when understood as choreography. Baryshnikov is also one of the few people alive that you want to watch falling with a sharp object in his hands.
So why has Beckett taken over New York again now, 50 years after his most controversial breakthroughs? An easy explanation is the recent centennial of his birth, in 2006. A burst of British productions celebrated the centennial over a year ago; their success opened the floodgates and floated West.
Besides the two BAM productions and Baryshnikov’s NYTW show, most regularly selling out, the coming Lincoln Center summer festival (July 2-27) will feature A Gate Beckett Season. The event combines three monologues: Eh, Joe, I’ll Go On and First Love. Liam Neeson, Barry McGovern, and Ralph Fiennes will perform.
But there seems to be more to it. Beckett is unmistakably in the zeitgeist, blooming grayly at every corner. Fittingly, he is all over New York’s visual art scene as well as the stage. The recent Jasper Johns: Gray show at the Metropolitan Museum will, one day, in an ideal world, provide the color insets for an Illustrated Complete Works of Samuel Beckett. (The two became friends in the 1970s, and Johns actually created a set of prints for Beckett’s Fizzles.) Beckett lurks beneath the entire exhibition and finally receives outright homage in the final rooms, with Johns’ 2005 Beckett The painting, you guessed it, is abstract and gray.
The ongoing 2008 Whitney Biennial, a brave and quiet show I didn’t like at first viewing but have since utterly re-evaluated, also takes direct inspiration from the master. Co-curator Henriette Huldich writes in the catalogue that the Biennial explores Beckett’s “lessness” in contemporary art. The show attempts a kind of restrained clarity, pushing against individual and cultural legacies in modern art. It does so with an intelligence and larger vision missing from, say, the New Museum’s inaugural Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. The best reviewers have responded to the Biennial with a grudging, if muted, enthusiasm; the Beckett motif registers as “glamorization of malaise,” if a bit “smart for its own good.”
Have we, in some sense, caught up to Beckett? Why are his works and theoretical ideas so suddenly relevant? And why does his project, completed and a dead end to an earlier generation, seem now to open a possible way forward to young artists?
Pessimists conjecture that Beckett’s sophisticated take on bleakness and nihilism connects with a generation alienated by violence, discredited meta-narratives (socialism, liberal humanism), and increasing global uncertainty. Fair enough. But that worldview misses entirely the heart-rending emancipation of Beckett’s lifework—he did it, he broke free from Joyce, Ireland, Paris, and all the rest of them—and his insatiable hunger for the avant-garde as such.
Within even the parameters of Beckett’s pitilessly strict rules, it is still possible to push further. In the 1983 Worstward Ho, his audacious penultimate bit of prose, we are offered a motto that is even, perhaps, shattering in its optimism, and that, perhaps, we can still get behind: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”