Is the work of Ireland's greatest dramatist being ossified by reverence? Colin Murphy watches three productions on tour and asks Beckett's first British publisher what the future holdsby Colin Murphy / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
One afternoon last October, I boarded a bus at the village of Glasson in the Irish Midlands for a two-hour, cross-country drive to a small town in County Cavan. The bus had “Waiting for Godot” emblazoned on the sides and, for passing helicopters, on top. In it were the cast and crew of the Gate Theatre’s Waiting for Godot, somewhere towards the end of what could alternately be described as a 40-night or a 20-year tour.
The Gate’s Godot was first staged in 1988, directed by Walter Asmus, who had assisted Beckett on a legendary production at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin in 1974-75. Based on Asmus’s notes from that production, it became an iconic production itself. It has been revived periodically since and this tour was conceived as a celebration both of the production and of the Gate Theatre, which last year celebrated its 80th anniversary. The night I joined them, at the Ramor Theatre in Virginia, County Cavan, the box office had a waiting list of 36 for a theatre seating just 200.
There was less of a clamour for tickets, and less of an air of celebrity, about the production of Endgame I saw in the Wicklow mountains this February. It was an icy night, and many of those who saw it had spent much of the previous week snowed in. Yet this was a production of similar pedigree to the Gate’s Godot: it was by the Godot Company, a touring theatre company set up by John Calder, who for over 30 years was Beckett’s friend and was the British publisher of his prose. Like Walter Asmus, Calder gleaned his formative insights accompanying Beckett at rehearsals. Like Asmus’s Godot, too, this was a rigorously faithful production, informed by Beckett’s own history of directing it and the extraordinary visual motifs of his text: the old couple in the ashcans; the man with blackened glasses in the homemade wheelchair.
At the opposite end of the theatrical scale was the National Theatre’s recent production of Happy Days, which played in the Dublin Theatre Festival last October and brought together an epic staging, celebrity glamour and rapturous audiences. Directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw, this was notable for an interpretation that pushed carefully at the boundaries of Beckett’s stage directions—boundaries fiercely guarded by the Beckett estate.
Warner had strained, less successfully, at these limits before. When her 1994 production of the short play Footfalls featured too many footfalls, the wrong dress and some misplaced lines, the estate revoked the rights, forcing the cancellation of a European tour and New York transfer. The NT’s Happy Days, however, marked the onset of happier times.
The “expanse of scorched grass” in which Winnie was buried to her waist became a vast landscape of ruptured concrete slabs; and Fiona Shaw gave a markedly glamorous interpretation of Winnie. Fintan O’Toole, assistant editor of the Irish Times, described it as “the first great milestone of the second generation of Beckett productions.” Yet, watching it, I found myself bothered by an irreverent thought. Interpretative subtleties are all very well—but could they not let her out of the mound of earth?
By the time I sat down to interview John Calder in March, these three Beckett shows had helped me to crystallise two questions. Was respect for Beckett’s original intentions threatening to become an anti-theatrical reverence? And could it even be that these touring productions, doing such great work to keep Beckett’s legacy alive in the 21st century, were actually conspiring to consign his influence to the 20th?
Calder had been criss-crossing Ireland by car since January. The Endgame tour had been a success, he reported, even though he had “great difficulty” in making bookings. “Beckett is known and respected in Ireland, but not that well read,” he explained. “People are still afraid of him. They think he’s a difficult writer, but he’s not.”
Calder’s efforts to make these plays available to audiences have an almost missionary zeal. Yet he is anything but democratic about their interpretation; he speaks with scorn of those who do “perverse things” with them. “If you try to set Endgame on the Moon [as one American company apparently did], or in some such different environment, the play just loses all its meaning.” There is room for manoeuvre, he insists, but his scale of what is “acceptable” is particularly subtle—even obscurely so. “People say that the Beckett Estate is very tyrannical, insisting that the [stage] directions are followed exactly. But there’s always room for little differences here and there, for little interpretations. But the words mustn’t change. The stage directions mustn’t change.”
The result of this approach was evident in both the Gate’s Godot and Calder’s Endgame: scrupulously faithful productions, performed with passion and insight by committed casts, but dominated by imagery so familiar that all surprise was absent.
Perversely, it seems to me, familiarity has made these plays more inaccessible: their visual motifs are so well known beforehand that they are more easily dismissed. Godot is “the one where nothing happens”; Endgame is “the one with the old pair in the bins”; Happy Days is “the one about the woman buried in the sand.” Like conceptual art, the point becomes the idea, not engagement with the work. Potential audiences stay away, thinking they know everything because they’ve heard the idea, while those that do attend don’t find these well-worn conceits surprising or disturbing. The radical encounter with the savage poetry of Beckett’s work is lost.
Calder disagreed, vehemently. A “great play” was above such decay, he said. He had seen Godot many, many times and insisted that it always “came over” if the text and directions were respected. Although he did concede one point: the plays may not be difficult, but they are demanding. “Beckett does need a certain amount of concentration because it is so intense. It requires a visceral response and an emotional response, rather than being lightly entertained.”
Calder’s intimate history with Samuel Beckett began in 1955 when, having been impressed by the London premiere of Waiting for Godot, he wrote to Beckett, asking if he might visit. Beckett wrote back, saying Calder should call when next in Paris. Calder phoned immediately, and was in Paris two days later. He was just too late. Hoping to secure the British rights to Beckett’s work, Calder found Faber had been there just before him. The plays were gone. But Faber had fought shy of the prose works, fearing them potentially obscene, and Calder took up the rights to them.
The men became friends. Calder was an erratic publisher and Beckett was a difficult author, changing his mind about what he wanted published, but for 50 years Calder championed Beckett and the other avant-garde authors on his list. And then, in 2007, he retired. Most of his list was passed on to Oneworld Classics. But—against his will—he gave his Beckett rights to Faber. Edward Beckett, nephew of the playwright and executor of his estate, had pressured him to do so, Calder said, and he wasn’t interested any more in fighting.
This means that, for the first time, one publisher has the British rights to all of Beckett’s work. Calder was sceptical about the virtue of this, assuming that Faber’s impulse would be to publish the prose in collected volumes with introductions by literary celebrities. When, however, I spoke recently to Faber’s poetry editor, Paul Keegan, he replied that they would be doing exactly the opposite. “The most urgent thing,” he said, “is to put the house in order. To focus on the factuals.” One of Faber’s signature projects for 2009, their 80th anniversary year, will thus be the publication of Beckett’s collected works in 17 volumes—the first five to come in May. Accompanied by short and strictly informative prefaces, the focus will be on accuracy.
Accuracy has ever been a problem for students of Beckett, who have had to sort through discrepancies between British and American editions, and between French originals and Beckett’s own translations into English. But there has also been a secondary consequence of the historical separation of Beckett’s rights between plays and prose—that, while the plays were popularised, the prose has languished in relative obscurity. Faber’s collected works should help to address that.
Twenty years after Beckett’s death, his work is entering a second generation. On stage, as we have seen, leading interpreters are pushing at the boundaries of what the estate perceives as permissible. In print, there will soon be a newly-authoritative collected works. And yet the greatest service will be done only when the estate loosens its leash on the plays. For that leash has become a noose; and, unless things change, it will choke this supposed second generation of stage productions at birth.
Take Deborah Warner’s Happy Days. This was a novel, daring approach to one of Beckett’s great plays. But, for all its ambition, to anyone other than a Beckett aficionado what would have been most striking was not that it differed from the specificity of Beckett’s instructions, but that it adhered so carefully to their premise. It was still “the one about the woman in the sand.” And who needs to see that (again)?
At stake is a truthful encounter with Beckett’s vision. And Beckett’s is a vision we still need. In Calder’s words: “Life can be pretty horrible for most people; you have to have courage to get through it, and Beckett gives us that courage somehow.
He always says, however bad the world is, human beings have the capacity to make it a little bit better, and we should.” Therein lies the truth of the play we need to see: not “the one about the woman buried in the sand,” but the one about despair and courage. That will be a show worth driving for.