Does the filming of Samuel Beckett's complete works compromise his theatrical legacy?
By Jonathan Kalb
Thirteen years after his deathand 50 years after the premiere of Waiting for Godot—the play that made boredom (of a sort) respectable in the theatre—Samuel Beckett is still something of an incalculable quantity. Among professors, aficionados and major arts institutions, his stature could hardly be more secure. He is the indispensable playwright of the 20th century, standing perfectly, edgily, on the cusp of the print and media ages, the modern and the postmodern, the esoteric and the familiar.
At the same time, certain basic questions about this author’s appeal and accessibility refuse to go away. His Nobel Prize and the ever-growing mountain of criticism about him aside, who is Beckett really for? Is he, as his partisans have always argued, a dramatist who can please a wide general public if only audiences would drop their conventional expectations and steer clear of intellectual “analogymongering” (Beckett’s word)? Or is he necessarily more rarefied than that, a sort of magical Maeterlinckian “blue bird” that instantly turns pink and mundane upon contact with the adulterated air of the entertainment industry, with its incessant trend- and fashion-mongering? Obviously, Beckett has millions of devoted admirers, but do directors and producers serve his legacy when they reach out to the benighted masses and compromise with them to try to win him millions more?
No undertaking in recent memory has pressed these questions more than Michael Colgan and Alan Maloney’s “Beckett on Film” project, one of the most ambitious investments to date of talent and cultural resources on Beckett’s behalf. Colgan conceived “Beckett on Film” as a media-friendly extension of the acclaimed Beckett Theatre Festival that he produced in 1991 as artistic director of Dublin’s Gate Theatre and that visited Lincoln Center in 1996. In a June 2000 New York Times interview, he described himself as driven by “missionary zeal” to connect Beckett with a new, wider audience, a generation brought up on electronic media, by producing new film productions of 19 of Beckett’s 20 stage plays (excluding the never-produced Eleuthéria), many with internationally famous actors and directors such as David Mamet, Harold Pinter, John Gielgud, Jeremy Irons and Julianne Moore.
The resulting films, released last winter in Ireland and the United Kingdom, have now arrived in the United States as videos. Seven of the shorter ones were broadcast by PBS in September, in a “Stage on Screen” program hosted by Irons, and on New Year’s Day PBS will follow up with a broadcast of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film version of Waiting for Godot, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the play’s world premiere at Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. PBS currently has no plans to broadcast any more of them. Americans who wish to see the remaining 11 works must purchase the whole project on DVD for $149 from Ambrose Video.
“Beckett on Film” is no cynical effort to stoke the star-maker machinery with a novel, sexily inscrutable fuel; it is clearly a product of loving and intelligent devotion that is often remarkably successful at subordinating star egos to the needs of Beckett’s art. There is another side to the project, though—particularly pronounced in its American broadcast form, featuring reductive wraparound commentary by Irons (“Beckett created chilling images of human entrapment”; “Beckett broke nearly every rule of drama”)—that illustrates the cost of spreading the good word of Beckett via mass-marketing tools in the media age.
Beckett is no stranger to publicity frenzies. When Bert Lahr tussled over who was “top banana” in a Miami Godot (ridiculously billed as “the laugh sensation of two continents”) or when Steve Martin and Robin Williams carved out time from Hollywood careers to appear as Didi and Gogo at Lincoln Center, Beckett’s drama and its intended performance context were more or less intact. Adapting the works to another medium and using celebrity clout to pry open doors of mass-media popularity and “Masterpiece Theatre” respectability—doors that Beckett never knocked on—are other matters entirely. Walter Lippmann once said that the real problem with evangelists is not that they are always bad but that they are “possessed with the sin of pride.” Beckett famously said that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” Yet the presumption behind the very form Beckett’s plays have ended up in—films, broadcast TV and video—is that pride and worldly success are fundamentally good.
Beckett, as is well known, disliked adaptation and would never have approved this project (he turned down dozens of similar requests). Adaptations nevertheless took place with remarkable frequency even during his lifetime, resulting in a variety of small scandals that made the question of authorization—who had permission and who didn’t?—eclipse the much more interesting question of what was actually achieved and how it stacked up to what Beckett conceived. All of these artists, then, deserve a close look at what they produced.
The 19 films were originally shot in 35 mm, and for me the gems among those broadcast in the U.S. (and I’ve seen only these eight so far) are Lindsay-Hogg’s Godot, Mamet’s Catastrophe and John Crowley’s Come and Go. The former two take shrewd advantage of film’s particular affinity for realism to enhance important aspects of these plays. André Bazin once wrote that the difference between theatre and cinema “is much less a question of actor and presence than of man and his relation to the decor.” Theatre can’t meaningfully exist without actors, said Bazin, but “drama on the screen can…A banging door, a leaf in the wind…the mainspring of the action is not in man but nature.” Beckett’s theatre is famous for stressing actorly presence more than any other, inviting audiences to brood on that presence within flagrantly symbolic, hermetically sealed worlds (Clov: “There’s no more nature”). Still, Godot and Catastrophe at least accommodate the possibility of a real world, of “nature” outside the entrapping, metaphorical box the audience shares with the actors.
Only one other film record of Godot has circulated widely in America before this one, and, interestingly enough, it was made for television and then transferred to 16-mm film for rental-distribution in the days before VCRs. Directed in 1961 by Alan Schneider and starring Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith, the film had a cartoonish setting with puff-pillow background hills that epitomized TV-studio artifice, and its cast took frequent liberties with Beckett’s lines. The actors in Lindsay-Hogg’s film version—now transferred to DVD—are, by contrast, letter-perfect in their lines, and their setting looks for all the world like a real, muddy dirt road with rocky berms on either side, the sort of desolate place whose utter nondescriptness might well seem artificial to a viewer with no memory of such forgettable roadsides all over Ireland.
The gain yielded by this bleak setting is an enhancement of the play’s given circumstances. The unchanging, slate-gray sky makes Didi’s complaint about the cold more plausible than it is in a climate-controlled theatre, for instance, and the real dirt on the ground, shown in close-up, makes an action like Gogo’s retrieval of the chicken bone seem much more desperate than it does onstage. The main loss of this setting nullifies the play’s numerous theatre jokes, which deliberately confound the characters’ given circumstances, calling their verity and consistency into question. Is Pozzo really blind? Lucky really dumb? The first-act gag in which Pozzo enters with the rope and then exits out the opposite wing before Lucky is seen, for instance, is impossible without a proscenium.
The greatest value of this new Godot film is that it preserves the splendid performances of Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy as Didi and Gogo for posterity. After a decade playing these roles together (in the Gate production, directed by Walter Asmus), these two are like an old married couple who have refined their patter and squabbling into a sublimely self-conscious art; even the hints of stale repetition between them seem germane to the play’s “rehearsed” aspect and are therefore poignant. Their smooth Irish accents make many lines that previously sounded abstruse seem habitual and down-to-earth, and their admixture of naturalistic and artificial behaviors is consistently strange (look at their inscrutably smug faces when they “accidentally” fall on the fallen Pozzo). It’s true that all the action is pushed much more toward the naturalistic than it was in Asmus’s stage production, which laid much greater stress on self-consciously repetitive gestures and movement patterns, but to me this adjustment was understandable, even necessary, if Godot was to satisfy as film.
may think of the ground rules of “Beckett on Film”—no cuts, no text changes,
no gender-bending, all reportedly key to securing the Beckett estate’s
permission—it is clear that once launched on the road of film production,
the producers’ most pressing concern had to be how to make good films.
The one means of guaranteeing bad ones was to avoid creative transposition
entirely and simply mount stage productions recorded by cameras running
on automatic at the back of the house.
Catastrophe is the most natural candidate for filming in the Beckett canon. As Beckett’s only play with an unambiguous political thrust, it comes off as more realistic than the others and is thus (ironically) less dependent on the metaphorical resonance of actors’ literal presence in a theatre. Written in 1982 and dedicated to Vaclav Havel, this brief work takes place in a theatre where a dictatorial director (played by Harold Pinter) and his servile assistant (Rebecca Pidgeon, sporting a good British accent) prepare a silent Protagonist (John Gielgud in his last acting performance, at age 96) for humiliating public display.
The material was perfect for David Mamet, who knew instinctively how to maximize both its cruelty and its implicit subversion of authority, and who also understood that a theatre interior, carefully filmed, could resonate deeply as a stand-in for a ruthless natural universe. Dimly lit close-ups of Gielgud’s puffy, varicose skin stress the actor’s actual frailty and ratchet up the emotion behind his character’s climactic act of defiance: raising his head without directorial sanction. Mamet sharpens the action by harrying it, as it were, cutting too quickly for comfort from shot to reaction shot and back as Pinter’s abrasive voice jabs out degrading orders. The manic editing strongly suggests the presence of a tyrannical film director behind Pinter’s absurdly pompous stage director, a suggestion that cleverly builds on Beckett’s basic conception of autocracy embarrassing itself.
John Crowley’s Come and Go, by contrast, is a superb film made without significantly altering the dramatic terms of the stage play: The actors do just what they would do on stage with the camera centered in front and stationary except for occasional, unobtrusive zooms. This six-minute “dramaticule” from 1965—a quasi-conversational interlude for three impersonally behatted women seated on a bench, who rise and exit in sequence, leaving the remaining pair to whisper about the absent one—is an exquisitely unsettling bit of drollery (the whispers seem to be about terminal illness). Come and Go established the general features of all Beckett’s later drama: the primacy of a meticulously delineated stage picture; the patterned movements of ghostly figures who speak in “colorless” voices and walk “without sound of feet”; the use of surrounding darkness as a sort of animate void that swallows and regurgitates figures at will. All this is beautifully realized by Crowley with a subtlety and technical perfection that recall nothing so much as Beckett’s own television plays.
What’s this now? Television plays by Beckett? Yes, as it happens, he wrote six plays for television (and directed them himself), as well as six others for radio and one film, all of which are as penetrating in their self-conscious uses of those media as his plays are of theatre. You will not learn about them from Irons’s wraparound commentary, however, and “Beckett on Film” doesn’t include new productions of them. They are, nevertheless, unspoken yardsticks of achievement for any Beckett film. One reason Beckett opposed adaptation was that he devoted considerable time and attention to thinking through how his lifelong preoccupations of being and non-being, minimalization of means, “non-relation” in art, could be explored in recordable media. The figure called O (for object) in the 1964 Film (originally played by Buster Keaton), for instance, isn’t merely an aloof old man scurrying for sanctuary in a busy urban environment but also a soul in flight from “perceivedness.” Film is about film, the diabolical pursuit of all inquiring and defining eyes (divine, artistic or mechanical), and its emotional and philosophical heft issue from the fact that O is literally not there—he is an image made by light projected through celluloid. Similarly, Beckett’s television-play characters are nominally people but more emphatically patterns of tiny, fluorescing dots whose ghostly comings and goings on box-like screens are typically viewed within isolated, box-like rooms.
The only one of this first group of “Beckett on Film” directors who apparently ignored Beckett’s media works is Damien O’Donnell, and as it happens, his project, What Where, is one of the two plays that Beckett himself reimagined for television (the other was Krapp’s Last Tape). What Where, written in 1983, is Beckett’s last stage work, about serial, seriocomic torture within a clan of nearly identical figures in long gray gowns and long gray hair. It was transformed by Beckett in 1986 into an ever stranger television work in which oval-shaped faces pop in and out of a black background like sentient peas trapped in a diabolical shell game. O’Donnell had no obligation to follow this precedent, of course, but what he did do—set the action in a tomb-like library and dress the characters in identical, clean-cut, Mao-like jackets—is considerably less mysterious than either original. O’Donnell’s eerie library setting picks up amusingly on the pun in Beckett’s line “Give him the works”—immersion in the classics as torture—but it discourages broader meditation on the nature and identity of the cruel power at hand.
Breath, directed by the visual artist Damien Hirst, is a similar case. Hirst is best known for exhibiting sectional slices of real cows, sharks and other dead animals in galleries and museums, and he brought his distinctive sensational touch to his film version of Breath, a wry, 35-second piece in which the curtain rises and lowers on a pile of trash as an inhale and then an exhale are heard. The film’s trash pile, in typical Hirstian fashion, is mostly medical waste sitting atop a thin white sheet that twirls and flies through black space like a fugitive satellite. The breath is the play’s only human presence (it’s Beckett’s most concise statement regarding the theatre event as a birth and death), but in the film the breathing sound reads as “nature,” possibly wind, or the whoosh of the flying object. Watching this fanciful caper, I wondered whether any play existed, anywhere, less amenable to filming than Breath. That Hirst couldn’t help trying to make the piece exciting when the play’s very point is its dullness, however, reaches to the heart of that question about Beckett’s supposedly dormant potential for mass appeal.
In 1998, I was invited to speak and lead a talk-back session at Classic Stage Company after a performance of Andrei Belgrader’s production of Waiting for Godot (starring John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub), and two spectator comments from that evening have stuck in my mind ever since. One man said, “What Beckett wants to say in Godot is perfectly clear, but the pace of life is so hectic today that the work just seems rooted in another time.” Another added: “I was bored in the wrong way. I see the courage in the work, but I’m just not sure that emptiness, or ‘the void,’ is the dominant metaphor in our life today.” These were intelligent remarks, not at all in the typical philistine mold of Beckett skepticism from a generation ago, and a crusade like Colgan’s challenges them directly. He thinks the skeptics are wrong; Beckett is not antiquated, bleak, un-hip or unsuited to the crammed consciousness of the info age. Perhaps the challenge is somewhat more threatening than that, though. Perhaps the really important question is: How far from Beckett should those who care about him travel to meet intelligent people such as those two back-talkers on their own irremediably worldly turf?
At least two of the “Beckett on Film” directors have thoroughly thought out ideas for adaptation: the Hollywood heavyweight Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), who directed Play, and Enda Hughes, who did Act Without Words II. In both cases the finished works are much more conventionally entertaining than the originals; they are richly cinematic and tolerably sensitive to the sources of dramatic power in the dramas. In Play, three heads, two female and one male, protrude from identical gray urns and take turns speaking at tongue-mangling speed (mostly about the details of their love triangle), “provoked” by an interrogative light that could be seen as a fourth character. Famously, this action repeats in its entirety after playing through once.
No filmic substitute is possible for the way Play’s purgatorial situation entraps the audience along with the plainly uncomfortable stage actors (who can neither fully stand up nor sit down). Thus Minghella chose to illustrate the implied post-death environment, setting the work in a mistily gloomy landscape, replete with a Godot-like tree and dotted with hundreds of muttering heads in urns extending into the endless distance. A camera replaces the persecuting light, repeatedly “capturing” the three actors in urns in the foreground (Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson) from various angles while calling frequent attention to itself through abrupt interruptions of leader footage, burned-out footage, noisy power-zooms and more. The overall effect is edgy, strange and interesting: purgatory as an interminable film shoot, humanity as actors condemned to endless reiterations of a salacious and trivial love story. At the same time, the sacrifices are blatant to anyone who knows the original: realistic detail and special effects are now the main foci, rather than the desperate lines spat into the darkness (“Is anyone listening to me? Is anyone looking at me?”) and the awful basic circumstance of rote repetition. No language, no matter how powerful, could compete with the attractively caked blue-gray clay on these actors’ faces, or the marvelously particularized, Blakean background that practically promises spectacular magic.
Act Without Words II also features a mysterious offstage force that controls the characters’ destinies. Hughes’s approach to it combines animation with film-history references and a different sort of technical self-reflexiveness. The work is a lugubriously comic mime for two characters who represent opposing attitudes to life. The filmed action takes place within three frames of an animated strip of film stretched horizontally across the screen, where the goad is a cartoon and the actors (Pat Kinevane and Marcello Magni) move with the halting, discontinuous flow of a silent film. Other than using the halting flow to insert modest magic tricks (such as making a carrot disappear), Hughes makes no effort to provide cinematic corollaries for the offstage force. Her emphasis is on maximizing the activity’s comic melancholy in its new film context, which required careful and resourceful thinking outside her medium’s box.
Neither of these works has the full enigmatic tenacity of Beckett’s originals, but both are smart, earnest and splendidly executed: They deserve to be called films, not just filmed plays. The only work I’ve seen so far that strikes me as a travesty of Beckett’s play is Ohio Impromptu, directed by Charles Sturridge. Ohio Impromptu is a 1981 piece for two men, called Reader and Listener, dressed identically in long black coats and long white hair, who are seated at a table with their heads bowed and propped on their right hands with a single black hat between them. In the play, their faces are hidden or half-hidden as one reads aloud to the other about a presumably bereaved man who “moved from where they had been so long alone together to a single room on the far bank.” The suggestion is that only one man is really present, the man in the story who moved “in a last attempt to obtain relief,” and the reading is part of his imaginative mourning or healing process. Beckett, however, adds the extra enigma of an extraordinarily quiet and subtle conflict between the alter egos. Listener interrupts Reader six times by knocking on the table, cueing him to repeat the previous phrase. Only when Listener knocks again is Reader apparently allowed to continue, and only when the story ends do the two look at each other, as if for the first time.
In Sturridge’s film, both men are played by Jeremy Irons, whose face is visible almost the entire time. As Reader he remains taciturn, but as Listener he becomes a veritable fount of superfluous acting, providing innumerable realistic expressions such as nods, blinks, fidgets and sighs. These choices render a pointedly enigmatic emotional encounter largely comprehensible, and they make the whole timeless episode seem rooted in a unique (i.e., non-cyclical) moment. Furthermore, Irons glances at himself so many times that he ruins the bombshell climax of the final look. Sturridge, it seems, was so eager to advertise his rather obvious perception that the two men may be one (Reader fades away at the end and the black-and-white, windowless room acquires a window and color) that he neglected the play’s other ambiguities. When his camera isn’t dwelling devotedly on Irons’s deep, pained expressions, it’s panning or circling to include both figures in gratuitous, “Look, no seams!” displays of technical prowess.
The silver lining in this story is that Sturridge and Irons help clarify an important issue. It isn’t possible to be both a movie star and a great Beckett actor—not at the same time, at any rate. One has to choose, because the two paradigms are mutually exclusive. Saying this isn’t to advocate any morbid new religion of failure and obscurity, or part of any sectarian attempt to preserve Beckett for an effete coterie of initiates. It’s a recognition of how this artist’s aesthetic of diminution, restraint and humility has always challenged the ego-worshiping norms of the buzz-happy, sped-up modern world. Interestingly, less confusion reigns on this issue in other arts, where Beckett has long been a major influence and a favorite object of direct transformation by painters, sculptors, musicians, choreographers and video artists (these connections are an enormous subject, about which the scholar Lois Oppenheim has published two books). It’s in the theatre—with its perpetual, inexorable compromise between art and show biz—that Beckett’s ardent supporters have most often found it hard to accept that he was genuinely indifferent to much of what they craved from this world.
From a 1968
letter to Alan Schneider:
“Olivier & Plowright came up with a hot offer for [the radio play] All That Fall at National. I said no but they came over and insisted. Larry kept saying: ‘it’d make a GREAT SHOW’! However said no again. Impossible in the light… They were a bit fed up with me…”
The man is now gone, of course, so his work needn’t be held hostage to this indifference. Nevertheless, the act of advocating or promoting him (“a GREAT SHOW!”) is still and will always be paradoxical, because the most beneficent media apparatus inevitably molds everything it touches to its own shape, making the alien ordinary, foisting names on the unnamable. As Beckett’s Unnameable says of the voices that persecute him: “I am walled round with their vociferations, none will ever know what I am, none will ever hear me say it, I won’t say it, I can’t say it, I have no language but theirs.”
I think there is great value in the “Beckett on Film” productions, even the shortsighted ones, provided they aren’t misconstrued as standard or definitive. Colgan began this project by saying that his dearest wish was to introduce Beckett to thousands for the first time, and he will no doubt have that satisfaction. These DVDs will find their way into private collections and school libraries far afield of the urban centers where Beckett is a household name and live productions of his works are usually seen. But this ease of access confers a major responsibility on the Beckett estate: Having sanctioned Colgan, it must take care that the DVDs don’t stand without competition for decades and become standard. A greater loosening of restrictions now seems inevitable, lest what began as a sincere attempt to refresh a reputation end up doing permanent harm to it.
Jonathan Kalb is the author of Beckett in Performance and the editor of the Hunter On-Line Theater Review www.hotreview.org.
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