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Game Without End

1.

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!”1 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 will he hold the stage in the twenty-first? Plays survive not by being carefully preserved, not by being exhibited from time to time in theatrical museums, but by being tried and tested, taken apart and reassembled. The living playwright may have the right to insist that the play be presented with as much faithfulness to the original intention as the conditions of a collaborative art will allow. But if the dead dramatist continues to claim these rights from beyond the grave, then the play, too, will die.

Even if the actors, directors, and designers are willing to submit themselves to the dictates of a long-dead writer, the attempt to reproduce an authorized Beckett production from the 1970s will prove futile. Change is implicit in all theatrical art because the audience is part of the event and audiences vary from night to night, let alone from decade to decade. The Beckett style, once so powerfully strange, has now, moreover, been absorbed into the prevailing culture. If it is merely reproduced again and again, it will be, in twenty years’ time, so familiar that Beckett will have suffered an astonishing fate. His plays will have become nostalgic effigies of the twentieth century.

2.

What is most certainly “ahl wrahng,” however, is the notion that there is , or ever could be, a definitive, authentic text of a Beckett play, let alone a definitive production. The notion of a stable text is far from simple, even, as any Joyce scholar can attest, in the case of the novel. Texts for performance are inevitably more difficult to fix once and for all. And Beckett is, if anything, an extreme example. Even the canon of Beckett’s plays is still evolving. His first play, Eleutheria, written in 1947, is still unperformed, even though it was offered to theaters before Waiting for Godot was produced, and its publication in 1995 was highly controversial. It was not included in the Gate Theatre’s complete stagings of the plays in their marvelous Beckett festivals in Dublin, New York, and, most recently, London. But sooner or later it will find its way into the repertoire.

And it is by no means clear where Beckett’s prose ends and his drama begins. Most of his work falls comfortably into one or the other form. But Beckett gave his blessing to one-man shows by Jack MacGowran and by Barry McGovern based on the Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable trilogy, and allowed David Warrilow to present a public reading of his late prose piece Stirrings Still that was, in all but name, a theatrical performance. Likewise, Company, Mercier and Camier, and Worstward Ho were staged, without objection, by directors whom he respected.

But aside from such uncertainties about what does or does not constitute Beckett’s “complete” dramatic works, there is the unavoidable fact that no great writer has so deliberately eluded the very possibility of a single definitive set of texts. For Beckett’s practice of writing in two languages, French and English, is much more than a strategy to avoid the complications of Anglo-Irish identity or to escape the mighty influence of Joyce. For Beckett did not simply write his plays and prose works in French and then translate them into English or vice versa. His translations are also transformations and re-creations—in other words, original works. Christopher Ricks has pointed out, in his wonderful book Beckett’s Dying Words, that he utterly unsettles the apparently obvious distinction between “recycling and minting,” making “the antithesis of translation and creation…both indispensable and inadequate.”2

The English-language Endgame may be broadly recognizable as a version of the French-language Fin de partie, for example, but the differences of tone and detail are substantial, and they are apparent in both the dialogue and the stage directions. Consider, by way of illustration, the word that Clov uses to describe the world outside when Hamm demands “All is what?”: “What all is? In a word? Is that what you want to know? Just a moment. (He turns the telescope on the without, looks, lowers the telescope, turns toward Hamm.) Corpsed.”

This word “corpsed” has many layers. Its primary and somewhat archaic sense is “killed.” But it also functions as one of the self-referential theatrical jokes that Beckett uses to reinforce the enclosed nature of the action. “Corpsing” is actors’ slang for a mistake that causes a scene to collapse, especially inappropriate and uncontrollable laughter. So the word contains within itself the bleakness, the sardonic self-mockery, and the black comedy that are the essence of Beckett. It invites the actor to infuse the line and the action with all that dark laughter and ironic self-awareness. In Fin de partie, though, we have, instead of “corpsed,” the deliberately obscure Latin word “mortibus.” There is no in-joke and no similar invitation to the actor.

Something similar happens with the stage directions. At one point in the play, Hamm, Clov, and Nagg, attempting to pray, join their hands and close their eyes. They find, inevitably, that there is nothing to be expected from the Almighty. At this point, in French, Beckett directs that Clov and Nagg are “reopening their eyes” (“rouvrant les yeux“). In English, however, each is “abandoning his attitude,” implying not just that their eyes are opening, but that the whole prayerful posture is instantly discarded. Individually, these differences may seem small, but their cumulative effect is to create two “original” texts, each with a markedly different texture.

And, to make this process still more radical, Beckett continued to reconsider and at times rewrite his plays every time he directed them. After 1967, when the gap in his conception between text and staging had shrunk almost to nothing, Beckett took charge of the first productions of his new plays, signaling, in the process, that the actual realization of a work on stage, and not just the writing of the play, was the essential act of authorship. His later work, from Play onward, is almost literally unreadable. The written text is a mere schema; the work of art is the production. The implication, therefore, is that if a production of, for example, Play, is to be in any sense a staging of the work that Beckett created, it must reproduce as accurately as possible the experience of one of his own productions. And if that is so, then these plays are profoundly antitheatrical, substituting as they seem to do endless repetitions of a past event for the present tense in which theater happens.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Paradoxically, the more Beckett involved himself in the production process, the more unstable the plays became. As a director, Beckett came to believe, as he wrote to Alan Schneider when he was preparing Play, that “no final script is possible till I have had work on rehearsals.” He was to discover, in time, that no final script was possible after rehearsals either. The theatrical notebooks for the shorter plays, all of which were created in the period of Beckett’s active career as a director, reveal not the rigidity of an autocrat but the fluidity and flexibility of a true man of the theater at home with the inescapable contingency of an art form in which circumstances always alter cases. Far from offering to posterity an authoritative blueprint for the staging of these works, they show, in an appropriately Beckettian gesture, that finality is a cruel illusion because the Godot of a truly achieved text never arrives. Beckett’s revisions are not a mere matter of fine details or of a process of trial and error leading eventually to an ultimate, finished product.

Consider, for example, the most potent and frequently performed of Beckett’s late plays, Not I. As originally conceived, an illuminated female mouth, isolated high in the darkness of the stage, spews out a rapid flow of words, watched by an unspeaking “Auditor” clad in an Arab djellaba who raises and lowers his arms in a gesture of helpless pity. The presence of this character fundamentally affects the tone of the piece, dramatizing the distance between the one who suffers and the one who feels a useless compassion. However, having worked closely with Anthony Page on a London production in 1973 and directed it himself in Paris in 1975, Beckett remained, as the editor of the Notebooks, Stan Gontarski, points out, utterly ambivalent about whether or not the character of the Auditor should be retained. In 1986 he advised two directors to drop 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.”

  1. 1

    This is Schneider’s attempt to mimic Beckett’s Irish accent in print. See Entrances: An American Director’s Journey (Viking, 1986), p. 225.

  2. 2

    Christopher Ricks, Beckett’s Dying Words (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 96.

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