This week again I visited the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork to see The Godot Company‘s production of three of Beckett’s short plays: Rough for Theatre I, Play and Not I. People usually have a love or hate relationship with Beckett. I love Beckett and Not I is one of my favourite plays. This was just what I needed. The extra treat was that the director, Sergio Amigo, and John Calder, a friend and publisher of Beckett, were there to introduce the plays and answer a few questions after the performance.
People often see Beckett as depressing and pessimistic. I would argue that he is more realistic than anything else; the problem is that the reality of life is not the most pleasant and people generally do not like to face it. If you actually look at his plays a bit more closely, you can see them as a celebration of human perseverance despite the grimness of human condition. This is brilliantly illustrated by the blind man in Rough for Theatre I who, when asked why he does not let himself die, answers: “I’m not unhappy enough . . . unhappy, but not unhappy enough”.
Beckett was a strict stage director and his plays are actually still under copyright so that new productions have to follow his stage directions, which give indications on the slightest little detail such as lighting, movements and so on. It thus does not leave much leeway for directors and actors to play with and interpretations can only be minimal.
As you might notice in the three plays here, Beckett’s protagonists are often crippled or incapacitated in one way or another. They are also often people who need others to complement them. The plays are thus relevant in today’s world where we live next to one another but are alone in the end.
Language is another concern central in Beckett’s theatrical oeuvre. Beckett, like many postmodernists saw language as inadequate to represent reality and as arbitrary. His distrust for language can be seen in the way his plays got increasingly shorter and movements took precedence over language, but also in the imperfection of language to communicate: Beckett’s protagonists are often seen as delivering monologue rather than talking to each others. His dialogues are also often humourous as a result of this discrepancy between language and reality he constantly tries to foreground. I cannot help thinking of Winnie in Happy Days who keeps repeating “it’s a happy day!” while buried up to her neck.
The lives of Beckett’s protagonists are like ours, weighed by the mundanity of life: one day after another getting us closer to the only certainty in life, death. Yet, Beckett’s protagonists display endurance and still managed to get through the days. Is it not the story of our lives? As John Calder says: “He is writing about you”.
Rough for Theatre I was written in French in the late 1950’s. It is about a blind street musician and a crippled in a wheelchair. Their lives have no purpose any more, yet they keep on going and might find relief in the companionship their encounter brings. They complement each other; however, their need for each other might be too overwhelming to find relief in such companionship. It was a touching play and probably the most accessible of the three played that night.
Play is about a triangular love relationship. Man, woman 1 and woman 2 are in urns, with only their heads appearing, and tell us the story of an affair twice. It is fast-paced and there is no dialogue between them. All their lines are prompted by a spot throwing a bright light on them. During the questions and answers, the actresses explained how different it was for them to learn their parts as they could not interact with the other actors but had to deliver their lines at the right moment and perfect pace, without inflexions or facial expressions.
This is the BBC version of Play, directed by Alan Rickman:
Not I is a monologue told by a female “Mouth” to an auditor in complete darkness, only Mouth is supposed to be lit by a spotlight. It is a jumble of words delivered at a rapid pace and one can barely make any sense out of it. Mouth tells the repressed unpleasant experience of this “tiny little girl”, insisting that it did not happen to her. When Beckett produced this play, Billie Whitelaw played the role of Mouth. However, Beckett suppressed the auditor, who wears a black robe and raises his hands in a gesture of impatience, for the stage performance as he thought that his presence did more harm than good to the play (see ubuweb). I had actually forgotten about the auditor’s presence and was surprised to see him on stage. His presence was distracting, particularly when he raised his arms in a gesture that did not seem like impatience.
This is Billie Whitelaw’s performance:
I have read The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett, but as you might have understood from this post, the plays take another dimension when performed. For instance, reading the words of Not I is nothing compared to watching it played; you need the pace of the delivery as it becomes so hypnotic. It is not often that the shorter plays are produced; they are even less accessible than his other plays and Calder argued that, in them, Beckett tried to give only the essence and thus cut them to their bare minimum. I certainly hope to see more in the future.
This is a link to a website dedicated to Beckett and offering many interesting resources.