In his autobiography, the American director Alan Schneider recalled his attendance with Samuel Beckett at the first run of Waiting for Godot in London in 1955. Whenever a line was misinterpreted or an extra piece of stage business was added, Beckett would clutch Schneider’s arm and exclaim, in a clearly audible stage whisper, “It’s ahl wrahng! He’s doing it ahl wrahng!” That loud whisper still sounds in the ears of those who stage Beckett’s plays now. No other dead dramatist remains such a daunting admonitory presence for his directors and performers. Where most great playwrights were content to write the text of a play, Beckett wrote the entire theatrical event. He specified, not just the words, but the rhythms and tones, the sets and the lighting plots, and these specifications are preserved in the remarkable series of notebooks whose publication by Faber and Faber is now completed with S.E. Gontarski’s exemplary edition of Beckett’s ledgers for productions of his short late plays.
Where most plays invite the active participation of actors, directors, and designers in determining the meaning of the work, Beckett’s work demands that the meaning remains indeterminate. Where theater artists think of themselves as interpreters, any interpretation of a Beckett play is necessarily a reduction. With these plays, creative intervention seems like crass interference. The director is haunted by the playwright’s stern ghost, frowning, clutching his arm, whispering at every deviation, “It’s ahl wrahng!”
Even before Beckett’s death a decade ago, this angry whisper was heard. In the last years of his life, Beckett became involved in some fierce altercations with directors who strayed too far from his own vision of his plays. In 1984, he strongly objected to an American Repertory Theatre production of Endgame directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, explicitly set in a New York subway tunnel after a nuclear war. He tried to have production stopped and eventually allowed it to proceed only with a program note in which he disavowed it in the strongest terms and said that “anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.” In 1988, he and his publisher Jerome Lindon forced the Comédie Française in Paris to withdraw certain alterations of, and additions to, the prescribed setting and costumes from a production of Fin de partie by Gildas Bourdet, leading to Bourdet’s own decision to take his name off the credits. In the same year, through the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Français, Beckett took legal action to prevent a Dutch company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur, from staging an all-woman Waiting for Godot. When he lost the case, he banned all productions of his plays in Holland.
This state of affairs forces those of us who remain enthralled by Beckett’s plays to ask an awkward question. The moral integrity and artistic authority of Beckett’s response to the terror of his times make him arguably the playwright of the twentieth century. But …