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.
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.”
What, then, is the definitive version of Not I? The one with the Auditor, whom Beckett “needs”? Or the one that can “do without him”? When Beckett directed the play again in 1978, he left the Auditor out, but he did not revise the published script to include this change or to suggest that the character was optional. So either one of two quite substantially different versions of the play can be regarded as definitive. And this is by no means a situation untypical of Beckett’s work as a whole. Gontarski sums up the situation admirably:
Not only did Beckett’s oeuvre now exist in multiple versions because he revised as he translated; that is, each self-translation became a textual transformation, the translation not a literary equivalent but essentially a new text, and one that did not supersede the original. Now even within each language multiple versions or texts existed. Critics and directors were forced into a position of building interpretations and mounting productions of Beckett’s work not so much on corrupt texts such as almost all English versions of Waiting for Godot, [as] on those the author himself found unsatisfactory, unfinished.
And what, after all, could be more Beckettian than this radical refusal to come to an end? The great irony of the belief that there is a once-and-for-all right way of doing Beckett is that it goes against the grain of the writer’s own aesthetic. How odd that a writer whose work makes the human subject disappear and meanings evaporate should be imagined as the ultimate human subject, controlling the meanings of his words from beyond the grave. How strange that a writer for whom life after death is the ultimate nightmare should be supposed to desire this endless afterlife. How peculiar that the followers of a writer who practiced the art of failure should hanker after some completely achieved, entirely successful Beckett production which need only be copied for a repeat success. How funny that an artist whose comedy so often depends on complete uncertainty about the intentions of the speaker should be regarded as himself having simple, easily definable intentions.
One way to escape the impossible task of faithfully reproducing such multifarious plays is to ask why Beckett entrusted his work so wholeheartedly to his favorite American director Alan Schneider. The most obvious answer, and the one suggested by both Schneider himself and those who resented his position as the keeper of the flame in America, is that the director was the playwright’s most obedient servant. The very title of Maurice Harmon’s absorbing edition of the correspondence between the playwright and the director, No Author Better Served, endorses this suggestion.3 In a letter to Beckett in 1973 complaining about a production of Endgame by Andre Gregory that he regarded as a “self-indulgent travesty,” Schneider added that he himself did not have “any hold on your works apart from your willingness to let me direct your plays and your trusting me to more or less carry out your intentions.” In his autobiography he writes of rehearsals for his own first American production of Endgame that he “found myself not only hewing more and more faithfully to [Beckett’s] printed demands, but demanding equal allegiance from the actors.” Elsewhere, he described himself simply as the “playwright’s surrogate.”4 And if this is so, it certainly supports the notion that fidelity was the characteristic that Beckett most valued in his directors.
But there is one rather striking difficulty with the notion that Beckett relied on Schneider because of the latter’s subservience: Beckett’s faith in the director came before Schneider had staged any of his work and survived the self-confessed disaster of their first collaboration. The two men met for the first time in Paris in 1955 when Schneider had been invited by the producer Michael Meyerberg to direct the American première of Waiting for Godot. Beckett knew nothing of the director and reluctantly agreed to meet him for half an hour, “making it very clear that even that amount of time was accorded to me out of duress.”
Far from demanding the right to issue detailed instructions to his director, Beckett was clearly reluctant to have anything to do with him at all. And, if anything, the actual results of this first encounter ought to have reinforced this initial wariness. Schneider’s American première of Godot in Miami was by most accounts, and especially his own, a debacle. Yet, during their first encounter, Beckett, in his own words, talked more “unrestrainedly and uncautiously” about the play to Schneider than to anyone else, including its first director Roger Blin. Instead of blaming Schneider for the failure, moreover, he wrote to him that “this Miami fiasco does not distress me in the smallest degree, or only in so far as it distresses you and…the thought has not crossed my mind that you are in any way to blame.”
So what made Beckett, almost from the very beginning, overcome his suspicion and place such implicit faith in Schneider? Their correspondence does not answer this question and neither, in any direct way, does Schneider’s autobiography, Entrances. But in Entrances Schneider does mention that the main subject of their first conversations seems to have been his own early life: “We talked for hours—my early life in Russia seemed particularly to intrigue him.”
It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that the basis for Beckett’s trust was not Schneider’s record as a director (about which, of course, he knew nothing) but the way his life had been touched by the terror and turmoil of the twentieth century. For Alan Schneider was also Abram Leopoldovitch Schneider, a child of the Russian Revolution, born in Kharkov in December 1917, just weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power, and raised in Rostov in the midst of the cataclysmic civil war. His parents were both physicians and, as Rostov changed hands, his father was inducted into the service first of the Whites and then of the Reds. Schneider’s earliest memories, as recorded in Entrances, are of hiding in the cellar while soldiers of one or the other army searched their house and shot his pet dog. The Schneiders were Jewish. His mother’s sister, Celia, died in Auschwitz. He himself was the victim of a serious anti-Semitic attack as a ten-year-old child in Maryland, where his family settled after they fled Russia.
These, presumably, are the kinds of things that Schneider and Beckett discussed during their first encounters in Paris in 1955 and that formed the bond between them. Instead of interviewing the young director for the role of unquestioning apparatchik, the playwright wanted to know about his brush with history. Instead of looking for someone who would execute his commands to the letter, Beckett was drawn to a man whose life had been touched by the disasters of war and the horrors of the age. This, after all, is the same Beckett whose friend and fellow member of the circle of James Joyce in Paris, Paul Léon, had died in a concentration camp in 1942, whose oldest French friend, Alfred Peron, had survived Mauthausen only to die shortly after its liberation from the ill treatment he had received there, and who explained his decision to join the French resistance rather than remain in the safety of neutral Ireland by his outrage at the Nazis, “particularly in their treatment of the Jews” and the fact that they were “making life hell for my friends.”5 To lose sight of the fact that Beckett might have identified more closely with Schneider’s experiences of the great upheavals of the century than with his potential as a good and faithful servant is to misunderstand not just the relationship between them, but the whole relationship between Beckett’s strange, apparently timeless plays and the fierce contingencies of history.
Beckett was, in fact, utterly inconsistent in his attitude to the literal faithfulness of productions. With those he did not know and did not trust, he was fiercely unbending. To those he knew and liked, he allowed the most extraordinary liberties. When, for example, one of his favorite actors, David Warrilow, asked permission to make a film of the prose piece The Lost Ones, Beckett not merely agreed but told him, “No such request from you will ever be refused by me,”6 implying that the important thing was the nature not of the request for a change but of the person who was asking for it. Personal regard was no less weighty a factor than faithfulness in Beckett’s choice of collaborators. Writing to Schneider in 1962, he remarks on his decision to entrust his work in Britain to George Divine of the Royal Court:
I have decided to give Royal Court first option on all my work in the future, this applying to both revivals & to new work. Devine is the nicest and most decent man one could meet and this is very important to me. He is not a great director, but most conscientious and painstaking and will always let me be in on production.
And Beckett’s long relationship with Schneider is full of the same generosity to those he considered nice and decent. Time and again, Beckett answers questions, explains his own vision of a particular piece, but stresses Schneider’s freedom to find his own solutions, or, as he puts it in 1981, having answered questions about Come and Go, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Play: “But, dear Alan, do them your own way.” And at times this willingness to trust the director goes beyond the bounds of friendly generosity and becomes an explicit acknowledgment that the spirit of a work is more important than the letter. In 1963, while Schneider is preparing the first American production of Play, Beckett sends him detailed advice but adds, in a passage that surely must go right to the heart of the matter: “What matters most is that you feel the spirit of the thing and the intention as you do. Give them that as best you can, even if it involves certain deviations from what I have written and said.”
Likewise, in 1964, when Beckett has just seen Film, directed by Schneider, he suggests that the work’s value does not depend on the extent to which his own intentions have been realized:
Generally speaking, from having been troubled by a certain failure to communicate fully by purely visual means the basic intention, I now begin to feel that this is unimportant and that the images obtained probably gain in force what they lose as ideograms…. It does I suppose in a sense fail with reference to a purely intellectual schema…but in doing so has acquired a dimension and a validity of its own that are worth far more than any merely efficient translation of intention.
Here, precisely, is the Beckett that will hold the stage in the new century. The merely efficient translations of what are thought to be the great man’s intentions will fade into dull obscurity. The productions that allow their audiences to feel the spirit of suffering and survival in our times will enter the afterlife of endless reimaginings.
January 20, 2000
This is Schneider’s attempt to mimic Beckett’s Irish accent in print. See Entrances: An American Director’s Journey (Viking, 1986), p. 225. ↩
Christopher Ricks, Beckett’s Dying Words (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 96. ↩
The letters span the period from 1955 until 1984, when Schneider was killed by a motorcycle as he crossed the road to post a letter to Beckett. Beckett’s side of the correspondence, at the insistence of his estate, is edited to remove all references to subjects other than the plays and the theater. Since the full texts can be read in the John J. Burns Library of Boston College, this stipulation seems pointless, especially when it forces Maurice Harmon to omit, for example, a passage footnoted as “SB comments on political situation in America.” ↩
In an untitled essay on Beckett contained in his papers at the University of California, San Diego, and quoted by Lois Oppenheim in Directing Beckett (University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 3. ↩
Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (HarperCollins, 1997), p. 325. ↩
From a letter to Warrilow in August 1984, quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 608. ↩