Roving thoughts and provocations

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Six Chairs in Search of an Audience

Roger Viollet/Getty Images
A performance of Eugene Ionesco’s Chairs, Paris, February 1956

Last night I walked out of a play. It was too painful. Too boring. At the same time I understood why so much that is experimental in literature has come to us via the theater.

This is Milan. The play was advertised as Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. A friend had encouraged me to go and it was years since I had seen the piece. Only on arrival at the theater did we realize that this was not quite what was on offer. The cast would not be using Pirandello’s script, or indeed any script. In an attempt to recover the revolutionary spirit of the original and unmask the bourgeois and authoritarian mechanisms of the theater, each player would play his part as he chose. Actors they were not. Or not professional actors. They were youngsters, apparently politically-motivated, or with strong opinions about themselves and about the theater. After about five minutes it became clear the evening would be dire.

But it is not this performance or these particular pretensions that I want to talk about, but the absolute difference between bailing out of a book, a movie, and a theatrical performance. When you head for the exit in the cinema, something I do fairly often, you possibly bother the person next to you for a few seconds, but you can’t upset what’s happening on the screen or change the mood of the evening. However bad or good, the film is done and dusted. As for a book, when you’re not impressed by what you’re reading, your only resistance to putting it aside is the money spent and the time already invested. No one will be disturbed or offended when you send it off with the old newspapers for recycling.

The theater is quite different, especially the small, intimate stages where experimental material first gets an airing. In this particular case, for example, our only exit from torment was via a door to the left of the stage. Leaving thus meant not only upsetting the people sitting either side of us, who might well themselves be struggling to get into the spirit of the piece, but likewise alerting the actors to our negative verdict, perhaps with disastrous consequences. Maybe the cast would lose what confidence they had. Perhaps others seeing us leave would get up and follow. So no sooner had my friend and I whispered to each other our desire to escape than I began to feel guilty. Give them a chance, I thought. Another ten minutes. No, another twenty.

Unfortunately, there were no scenes or acts in this play, at least not so far, and no interval when one might disappear discreetly. Even Godot has two acts, I thought. And it was at this point that it occurred to me why Beckett was so much better known in the theater than in his novels, even though for the Beckett fan the novels are infinitely more interesting than the plays. Anyone new to Beckett, opening the trilogy and seeing those long pages—no paragraph breaks, no dialogues, or none punctuated, no immediately obvious plot, strange ideas, strange emotions, strange non sequiturs—might well be daunted, might even imagine the writer was merely incompetent or self-indulgent. Likewise with the baroque prose of Murphy, or the mad computations of Watt, or the repetitive bleakness of How It Is, or the knotty, gnomic compression of Texts for Nothing. You have to be a determined, patient, ultra-receptive reader the first time you approach Beckett in prose.

In the theater on the other hand the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors, good or bad as they may be, creates a sense of reality and immediacy, a heightened state of attention. Having paid for your seat, having promised yourself a special evening, and finding yourself sitting in the middle of a long row beside others who have also paid and promised themselves a special evening, others whom you imagine have similar interests to your own, people willing to spend time and money supporting avant-garde culture, a community almost—in these circumstances you are probably always going to hang on at least thirty minutes, however bewildered and sceptical you may be. And thirty minutes should be enough for Beckett’s enchantments to begin to work. Simply the emotional experience of being in the theater, the sense of occasion, the positive atmosphere of people engaging in an intellectual pursuit together, provides the necessary momentum for tackling the great enigma of Beckett’s work.

And not only Beckett. I remember in particular an experience with Ionesco’s play The Bald Soprano, which imagines the tedious dialogue of two mindless and spectacularly insignificant English couples. Again I was watching it in Milan, so this was an Italian translation of Ionesco’s French, which in turn was his own translation of his original version in Romanian. I had never seen a Ionesco play before. For the first twenty minutes or so the performance seemed wooden to a degree, and, being English myself, the satire of Englishness, as it initially came across in the play, something the Italian cast were perhaps over-stressing for reasons all their own, seemed way off the mark.

Had this been a movie I would definitely have headed for the nearest pub. But I was trapped in the very front row of a small experimental theater with people sitting cross-legged on the floor around me. There was a definite feeling of shared watching, nothing like the separateness one has in the cinema. It would have been unkind of me to go. And suddenly the play began to work. The sheer mechanical inanity of the dialogues and the weird dislocation of the non sequiturs began to excite me, to the point that at the end of the performance, when, after the final mad scene, it appears that the whole play is simply starting over in a kind of loop, I was actually rather disappointed when it didn’t continue.

One appreciates then why certain avant-garde departures might only take off in the theater, and particularly in the kind of theater where the public attaches some self-regard to their willingness to tackle difficult material. Alas this also means that a lot of long-suffering folks will end up sitting through hours of tedious nonsense, and then try to cheer themselves up by imagining the work was not so bad after all.

This I am not willing to do. It may be a question of age. After about forty minutes of the Pirandello that wasn’t Pirandello, there came a moment when, quite suddenly, all the actors retreated into the deep shadow at the back of the stage. Whether they had actually gone and this was a scene change, or whether they had faded in order to rematerialize in some revolutionary statement of the way theater ought to be, I do not know. I grabbed my friend’s hand and said, Now!

It was a matter of seconds. How much we disturbed the others and whether the actors were aware I just don’t know. But the fact is that no sooner were we out on the street than we both experienced a sort of mad euphoria. We had done it! Overcome inhibition, reclaimed our lives and our time, refused to succumb to high-minded conventions governing proper behavior in the theater. Stepping into the nearest bar and ordering a beer we even began to feel we had had an experience worth paying for. Perhaps the actors had succeeded in their revolutionary intent.

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