A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Samuel Beckett

The greatest dramatist of the twentieth century and the most influential, Samuel Beckett was forty-six when his first successful play, “Waiting for Godot,” written in French as En attendant Godot, opened in Paris in January 1953.  By then he had left Ireland to live in Paris, had befriended James Joyce and served as an assistant on Finnegan’s Wake, worked as a college lecturer, and written novels, poetry, and literary criticism.  None of his published work earned much attention.  As Krapp says, recording his year in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” “Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.”

Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland on April 13, 1906, at Cooldrinach in Foxrock, County Dublin, a locale made familiar to his readers and audiences.  At Trinity College in Dublin, he majored in French and Italian, having learned French as a schoolboy, a language in which he would write such works as Godot and Fin de partie, “Endgame,” which premiered in Paris in 1955-56.  Soon after their French premieres, these two works in Beckett’s English translations were seen in London and New York   Their reception varied from wild enthusiasm to misapprehension and condemnation.  At “Godot,” in its American premiere in Palm Beach, Florida, audiences walked out; others were less polite and voiced their disapproval during the performances.

Yet discerning critics were quick to appreciate the dramatic impact of these works, with their spare but sharp dialogue that varied from one-liners to recitative and from terse to lyrical, their blend of comedic and tragic, of silence and laughter, of jokes and formal addresses, and above all, their universal truths.   Didi and Gogo in their tramp attire are recognized as Everyman, waiting and hoping for the expected that never comes but just might do so one day, cheerful at one time and despairing at another, refusing to give up, each dependent upon and nurturing the other. Beckett’s minimalist style was hailed as a new direction in theater, and influenced playwrights to come, including Harold Pinter, with whom Beckett became friends.

Some critics accused Beckett of pessimism; others pointed out his optimism.  In “Endgame,”  Hamm is the blind master and ham actor (“Me to play”) who demands center stage and Clov his servant, always threatening to leave but failing to do so   If Hamm’s parents (“cursed progenitors”) are in ash cans, the small boy Clov sees through his telescope suggests a future : “a potential procreator?” asks Clov.  Hamm: “It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you any more.”

            Invited by the BBC to write a radio play, Beckett in 1957 produced “After the Fall,” a drama both moving and comic, about the arrival of a delayed train at a rural station and the villagers who go to meet it, each with a separate, identifying voice and story.  They include Mrs. Rooney, who has come to the station to fetch her blind husband from the train, a porter, a racecourse clerk, the station master, and youngster Jerry, who for a penny leads Mr. Rooney to and from his job.  Amid the many sound effects Beckett writes into the script, rural sounds of birds and animals, and human sounds of voices and feet of the passengers, we hear the rain start.  Mr. Rooney asks, “Who is the preacher to-morrow?….Has he announced the text?”  Mrs. Rooney: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.”  (Silence.  They join in wild laughter.)”   

The following year, “Krapp’s Last Tape” premiered at the Royal Court in London.  Seen most recently in London at the Beckett Festival at the Barbican Theatre, John Hurt performed the solo title role.  With square-cut gray hair and lined face, looking like Beckett, Hurt impressively portrayed the 65-year-old who each birthday tape records the past year and reviews his life by replaying some of the earlier tapes.  Finding the tape he made as a thirty-nine-year-old, Krapp plays and replays the episode recalling his love-making in a punt and the couple’s decision to end the affair, as the lines themselves echo the rhythm of the water.  Hurt’s face and body language recall the poignancy of lost love and a wasted life in a performance preserved on film, as noted below.

In Paris, where Beckett moved permanently in 1937, he met Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil, his partner for the rest of his life, although the two did not marry until 1961.  By that time, realizing that his estate could provide for Suzanne after his death, the two took the ferry from Boulogne on the coast of France to Folkestone on the Southeast coast of England, where they were married.  In 1941, when Paris was invaded by the Nazis during World War II, Beckett and Suzanne worked as resistance fighters and were nearly arrested by the Gestapo, who arrived just after the couple had fled to Rousillion in the south of France.

Following the war, Beckett wrote his first novel in French, Mercier and Camier, a delightful work about a duo whose comic wanderings by bicycle, told in a spare style, remind some of “Godot.”  He also wrote his novel trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable.  Irish actor Barry McGovern has created an impressive solo stage performance based on these novels, titled “I’ll Go On,” seen at the Beckett Festival at the Barbican in London and on a tour of colleges in the United States.   

  Another highly successful stage production based on Beckett’s prose is the adaptation by Katharine Worth (Samuel Beckett’s Theatre, Oxford University Press, 1999) of his autobiographical novella “Company,” acted by Julian Curry as the solo live performer plus recorded “voices,” and directed by Tim Piggott-Smith.  It won an award at the Edinburgh Festival, and was seen in Dublin and London before receiving its American premiere at the Lehman College Center for the Performing Arts in New York in 1988.  For Ohio State University’s Beckett Symposium held in celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday, he wrote “Ohio Impromptu,” while “Rockabye,” with Billy Whitelaw, premiered  in 1980 at the University of Buffalo.

As his fame grew, Beckett became uncomfortable with all the attention he was receiving worldwide.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, Beckett hid in Tunisia while a friend accepted for him.  As the plays were becoming classics in their day, and were being produced all over the world, Beckett closely involved himself with their stage productions and attended rehearsals, insisting that their stage representations adhere to his directions in the text. 

Problems with his eyes led to operations for cataracts, and as a smoker, he also developed emphysema.  His last important prose work was Stirrings Still in 1986, and his last poem “What is the Word,” written that same year.  He died on December 22, 1989 and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. 

The Beckett Film Festival held at the Barbican in London in September 2001 presented nineteen films of the plays, created by Channel 4 television in England, with major actors directed by nineteen different directors.  Described below, the films offer a permanent, accessible record of Beckett’s plays as presented at the time of the millennium.

“Waiting for Godot” is the jewel in the crown of this series.  Probably this is due to the fact that it adheres closely to the stage production seen at the Barbican Theatre’s Samuel Beckett Festival in 1999 and previously in Dublin and New York.  With Barry McGovern as Vladimir and Johnny Murphy as Estragon, these roles are as well played as I believe they ever will be.  All the lines are made meaningful, the character of each man is plumbed to its depth, while both the comedy and the serious implications are given full value.  Also, the authentic Irish accent preserves the music of the lines

As reviewed above, John Hurt is perfect as Krapp in the film of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” based on his stage appearance.  Directed by Adam Egoyan, the film loses something of its claustrophobic setting when staged, but this said, its concentration on Hurt brings out all the nuances of the character, the old man’s regret, anger, humor, and acceptance as he listens to the tape of himself at thirty-nine.

“Rockabye” is directed by Richard Eyre, with Penelope Wilton as the sole actor, the “prematurely aged” woman in a black dress, rocking, listening to a recorded voice, sometimes speaking with it, recalling and becoming her dead mother when, at the end, at the “close of a long day,” she goes “down the steep stair,” and joins her mother: “and she said to herself, time she stopped.”  In close-up at the end, the camera reveals her fist, first clutching the arm of the rocker, then relaxing and hanging limp.  Ms. Wilton subtly modulates both her facial expression and her voices (actual and recorded) in a remarkable performance in which her body does not move, for the rocker rocks itself.

Billie Whitelaw originated the role in “Rockabye” but now Ms. Wilton makes it her own.  The same cannot be said for the film of “Not I,” also originated by Ms. Whitelaw.  Julianne Moore as Mouth lacks both the urgency and the desperation Ms. Whitelaw brought to the role.   Under the direction of Neil Jordan, this new cinematic conception lacks both clarity and a sense of urgency.  Beckett’s Mouth, who fills the screen, belongs to a woman spilling out the story of a life in which she was characteristically mute.  But Ms. Moore’s carefully made up, tooth-gleaming mouth seems like a toothpaste ad rather than a menacing member cut loose from the body of the speaker.  The Auditor is excised.

The film of “Catastrophe” is imaginatively conceived by director David Mamet.  Harold Pinter acts the Director, Rebecca Pidgeon his Assistant, and John Gielgud (in his final performance) the figure on the stage being “arranged” artistically by the director, who is interested only in the visual effect, not the human being on stage.  The political implications of the 1982 play are clear, for Beckett dedicated it to Vaclav Havel, who at the time was under house arrest by the Czech Communist government.  In a darkened theater, the Director is barking orders to his Assistant, who is noting down and agreeing with his every remark, except for one timidly offered suggestion, which the Director rejects. Dominating and shaping the human on stage, Pinter gives a masterful performance, reminiscent of his then current portrayal of the cruel but cool interrogator in his play “One for the Road,” where his victims, like Gielgud here onstage, are too terrified to speak.

In “Play,” director Anthony Minghella uses a variety of close-ups of the three characters in separate urns. When the play is staged, each is spotlighted as he or she speaks; here, the speaker is in close-up.  With Juliet Stevenson as Woman 1, Kristen Scott Thomas as Woman 2, and Alan Rickman as the Man in the middle, the three are lively interpreters of Beckett’s triangle.  Stevenson as W 1 is worrying, even alarmist, with Scott Thomas cool but more deadly.  As the wavering husband (“Adulterers take warning: never admit.”), Alan Rickman is perfect, believing everything he says about each woman in turn.

As a final shot, Minghella draws the camera back from the three urns, from which now only the actors’ heads project, to reveal a landscape of urns, with other heads, all murmuring.  Using close-ups means that the dialogue comes across more clearly and more easily understandable than at times in the theater.                  

“Happy Days” is directed by Patricia Rozema and stars Rosaleen Linehan as the cheerful and optimistic Winnie, whose opening line is “Another heavenly day,” despite the fact that she is buried up to her waist. Linehan is most impressive as she tosses up the items from her handbag and endures the hot sun in what looks like a desert. By the end, when Winnie is buried up to her neck, she is still cheerful though no longer able to divert herself with the contents of her large handbag. Richard Johnson plays her husband, who finally arrives on the scene.

“Endgame,” staged by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (“The Weir”) starred Michael Gambon as Hamm and David Thewlis as Clov.  Although the actors were effective, this film suffered from the setting having to conform to cinematic demands.  As “Endgame” is both a game of chess and a play within a play, with references to both, the set Backett specifies is important to the staging and needs to be seen throughout as the background to the drama: “Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn [at the beginning].  Front right, a door.  Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture.  Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet two ashcans.”  By moving the camera continually to focus upon one and then another of the actors, the director diminishes the importance of the set as background to a “play” within the action.

As the shorter works are less frequently staged, the films are especially useful, perhaps offering the only opportunity for students and playgoers to see these pieces acted.  “Ohio Impromptu” stars Jeremy Irons as both the reader and the listener in this twelve-minute play about losing a loved one. In the nineteen-minute “Rough for Theatre I”  Milo O’Shea and David Kelly, one blind and the other in a wheelchair, discuss the possibility of joining forces in the interests of survival.  The hilarious “ Rough for Theatre II,” ten minutes longer, is directed by Katie Mitchell and features Timothy Spall, Jim Norton, and Hugh B.O’Brien.  Two men discuss whether a third should be allowed to jump from a window.  Having reviewed his life, and having been diverted by caged love birds, they finally decide to let him jump, only to discover that he is already dead.

“Act Without Words I” and “Act Without Words II” are mime plays.  In I, directed by Karel Reisz, Sean Foley is stranded in a desert, and tries to reach for various objects that might bring relief or escape, but they are always out of reach, although he persists in trying.  In II, directed by Enda Hughes, two players participate in a never-ending cycle of activities in which player A is slow and awkward, while B is “brisk, rapid, precise” as they dress and undress, get into sacks, and perform, absurdly, everyday rituals.  In “A Piece of Monologue,” directed by Robin Lefevre, Stephen Brennan tells of birth and death in a fragment of a story that opens a window on the past.

In “That Time,” Niall Buggy is the listener, only his face and a shock of white hair seen, during three monologues covering three separate periods, the voice of the speaker burdened by time and visions of nothingness.  Charles Garrad directs.  “Come and Go” presents Anna Massey, Sian Phillips, and Paola Dionisotti  as three women sitting on a bench, reminiscing about their school days.  John Crowley directs the nine-minute work.

The short film of “What Where” is director Damien O’Donnell’s version of Beckett’s work about the abuse of power, in a changeless world where each person serves as both interrogator and interrogated.  The actors are Sean McGinley and Gary Lewis.

“Footfalls,” like ”Rockaby,” is concerned with a mother and daughter.  Here, instead of rocking, the daughter paces repeatedly, as she tends her sick mother, whom she loves.  With Susan Fitzgerald and Joan O’Hara, directed by Walter Asmus.

The entire project is a commendable undertaking, preserving Beckett in performance, always preferable to Beckett on the page.  This great playwright wrote for the voice, as did Shakespeare, and to see the works acted is a plus.  That some performances and interpretations are better than others in conveying Beckett to the viewer is true of any presentation, but taken as a whole, the film project is successful, for it provides audiences now and in the future with versions of the plays as acted in the year 2000.