Rehearsal notes for the German premiere of
Beckett’s ‘That time’ and ‘Footfalls’ at the
Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin (directed by Beckett)
Walter D. Asmus
Translated by Helen Watanabe
The rehearsals began on 1.9.76 and the première was on 1.10.76. The rehearsals were in the morning between 10.00 am and 2.00 pm, about half of the time being devoted each day to each piece. Beckett had already staged both pieces in London early in the same year. In London he had worked with Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls. They both knew one another very well and right from the start the rehearsals had gone ahead in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and intuitive sympathy. In Berlin, Beckett was confronted with an actress whom he didn’t know in the part of May, an actress whose work in the theatre is based on the search for realistic concrete motivations and who is not willing or not able automatically to work in an intuitively structural way. The rehearsals therefore evolved in an atmosphere of productive questioning on the part of the actress, and of respect on the part of Beckett for the striving of a very talented actress to perfect her role by constantly seeking, in her own way, for access to the characteristics of the ‘strange, mysterious’ figure of May. This process of tense concentration, which took place under constant reciprocal esteem, in an atmosphere of unfeigned effort, resulted in an exciting production. It is therefore not surprising that the greater part of these notes is devoted to this process. The fragmentary diary character has been kept purposely, because I think that in this way the most essential characteristics of the course of the rehearsals are reproduced most faithfully. More emphasis has been placed on recording remarks and observations which are important for their content and also on the difficulties of the production rather than on an apparently smooth course to a definite goal. May became quite naturally a dominant, central figure such as corresponds to the reality of the text.
Beckett comes to the theatre around 9.30 am. He has arrived the day before in Berlin and wants—one is accustomed to this from him—to begin work as quickly and purposefully as possible. The part of the mother is not yet cast. The choice is between two actresses whom Beckett will meet later in the morning. In the meantime, there is a discussion in the studio with the technical director and the chief lighting technician. Beckett describes precisely the rhythm of the lights in both pieces. In Footfalls the unit of time should be seven seconds each time, in That time ten seconds. The bell at the beginning of Footfalls dies away in seven seconds, then the light comes up during seven seconds and one can see May walking. At the end of the three parts, the light fades out each time inside seven seconds, the bell dies away in seven seconds, and the light comes on again in seven seconds. At the end of the third part, the light comes on again after the bell, lights up the empty strip for seven seconds and then fades out. In each part, the light will be somewhat darker than in the preceding one. Therefore it is darkest when the strip is lit up without May at the very end. Correspondingly, the bell gets slightly softer each time.
In That time the light comes on for ten seconds, remains quite bright for ten seconds and then fades correspondingly to a darker level, which leaves the head of the man in twilight.
After this introductory technical explanation, accompanied all the time by new modifications of the exact description, the meeting with the two actresses for the mother’s role takes place. Both read the part of the mother and a short conversation follows. The choice is obviously unpleasant to him, he calls it discreetly ‘a little embarrassing.’
Immediately after this he is introduced to the actress for the part of May, Hildegard Schmahl (called H in the following). She is in her mid-thirties and has already played many big parts at the Schiller-Theater. She is a rather introverted, sensitive, meditative and serious person, who, in the last few years, has increasingly turned towards the enlightened, politically motivated theatre.
A slight embarrassment ensues. H says she has difficulties with the text. ‘I don’t understand the play.’ Beckett emphasizes the importance of the footsteps. The walking up and down is the central image, he says. This was his basic conception of the play. The text, the words were only built up around this picture.
‘But how is the figure of May to be understood then?’
Only hesitantly does Beckett take up this challenge to give more detailed information about the play. In the thirties, he says, C.G. Jung, the psychologist, once gave a lecture in London and told of a female patient who was being treated by him. Jung said he wasn’t able to help this patient and for this, according to Beckett, he gave an astonishing explanation. This girl wasn’t living. She existed but didn’t actually live. According to Beckett, this story had impressed him very much at the time.
The rehearsal takes place in the Studio, a little theatre with about 150 seats which are raked steeply as in an arena. The strip is about 6 feet away from the first row of seats and stretches from right to left over about two thirds of the whole width of the stage which is 33 feet.
Beckett explains the walking again. It begins on the right with the right foot, on the left with the left, each time 9 steps from right to left and back again. He demonstrates this.
There is a technical run-through of Part I which goes very quickly, since the stage directions in the text can mostly be followed.
After the longish passage beginning with ‘straighten your pillows?’ H asks: ‘Does she do that every day?’ ‘Yes, that is routine.’
H: ‘Without feeling?’ ‘Yes, routine.’ The bedpan can express some feeling, i.e. warmth, he says.
The first section is read and Beckett points out that the tempo should not be too slow. The dialogue should flow and should have only a few, quite definite pauses - which means that the pauses indicated in the text, with a few exceptions, are relatively short.
In this first part there is the only conversation between the mother and May, which, however, should be fairly neutral. When for example May asks ‘Were you asleep?,’ then that is not so much an interested question as a routine statement.
In Part II the mother speaks of the daughter, in the third part, the daughter of the mother, in a way that is exactly parallel. ‘One must sense the similarities of both narratives. Not so much from the text as from the style, from the way that the text is spoken.’ Beckett explains to the mother why she interrupts herself in the sentence ‘In the old home, the same where she—(pause)’ and then continues ‘The same where she began.’ She was going to say:’ ... the same where she was born.’ But that is wrong, she hasn’t been born. She just began. ‘It began. There is a difference. She was never born.’ There is the connection with the Jung story. A life, which didn’t begin as a life, but which was just there, as a thing.
H: ‘The conversation between mother and daughter has something very practical and normal - it has nothing lyrical about it?’ ‘Yes, while May is speaking she is perhaps thinking of something quite different, perhaps she is occupied with her story.’ Beckett says. ‘The position of the body will help to find the right voice.’ Beckett demonstrates the stance: the arms crossed, with the hands clasping the shoulders in front. ‘When you walk, you slump together, when you speak, you straighten up a bit.’ And the steps? ‘If the play is full of repetitions, then it is because of these life-long stretches of walking. That is the centre of the play, everything else is secondary.’ ‘Is the posture supposed to express fear?’ ‘No, not fear. It expresses that May is there exclusively for herself. She is isolated. The costume will look like a ghost costume. It is described in the play: ‘Tattered . . . A tangle of tatters ... A faint tangle of pale grey tatters.’ It is the costume of a ghost.’
The formal technical course of the play is made more precise. The walking should be like a metronome, one length must be measured in exactly nine seconds. The fade-out at the end of Part I begins with the third step from the left, so that it is dark after the ninth step, i.e. in seven seconds. The mother speaks her text at the end of Part I on certain definite steps of May’s. The first ‘May’ comes on the fourth step while May is walking from right to left, the second ‘May’ on the eighth step. May says her ‘Yes. Mother’ on the fourth step when she is walking from left to right and on the sixth step of the same stretch, the mother begins with ‘Will you never have done?’ The sentence ends immediately before the turn. During the next length (from right to left) the mother begins on the second step with ‘Will you never have done revolving it all?’ and ends before the turn on the left.
Referring to the mother, Beckett points out that for her a most dramatic story begins with ‘Till one night . . . she called her mother and said . . .’ That was the turning point for mother and daughter.
H asks about a translation detail: ‘Why is South Door translated by ‘Nordpforte’ (North Door)?’
‘That is a correction.’ says Beckett. ‘South Door is too warm, North Door is colder. You feel cold. The whole time, in the way you hold your body too. Everything is frost and night.’
Part III. Beckett says that ‘Sequel’ was first translated by ‘Epilog’ (epilogue) but he found ‘Folge’ (continuation) better. In the English it is a pun: ‘Sequel’ = ‘Seek well.’
The Voice in the third part could be a bit more alive than in the first. ‘One can suppose that she has written down everything which she has invented up to this, that she will one day find a reader for her story—therefore the address to the reader (‘Mrs Winter, whom the reader will remember. . .’). ‘Words are as food for this poor girl.’ Beckett says. ‘They are her best friends.’ She is a most strange being and that must be absorbed into the tone—just like her enjoyment of modeling the words, of their sound. Everything depended on the dramatic effect.
Beckett reads out individual passages. ‘Amen’ to be spoken as two syllables. The walking will be slower in the third part. Just as the light from Part I to Part III becomes constantly darker, the tone quieter, so the walking gets slower. When she begins to walk, there’s a small hesitation, as though she were unsure if she should walk or not. H doesn’t know the text by heart yet. Beckett says with the exact posture and the memorized text the inner relationship to the role will also come. She has difficulties in reproducing what Beckett demonstrates and what he tries to get across. ‘I can’t do it mechanically, I must understand it first and then think . . .’ At the end of the rehearsals—Beckett already in his coat—he again points out the similarity between daughter and mother. ‘The daughter only knows the voice of the mother.’ One can recognize the similarity between the two from the sentences in their narratives, from the expression. The strange voice of the daughter comes from the mother. The ‘Not enough?’ in the mother’s story must sound just like the ‘Not there?’ of Mrs W in Amy’s story, for example. These parallelisms are extremely important for the understanding of the play, he says.
Run-through. Too much colour. Quite still. No movements with the head, and the eyes open, fixed. The voice is too normal and healthy is Beckett’s criticism of May. ‘Monotone, without colour, very distant. You are composing. It is not a story, but an improvisation. You are looking for the words, you correct yourself constantly. You are in the church with the girl. The voice is the voice of an epilogue. At the end it can’t go any farther. It is just at an end.’
Technical details. ‘Will you not try to snatch a little sleep?’ should only begin with May’s third step and ends immediately before her turn on the right. May’s posture is still not quite right. When she walks she is bent over, when she stands she straightens up slightly.
‘Slip into the walking. She is on her way before one has grasped the fact that she has begun to move.’ The hands should be visible in both directions. The costume designer thinks May is in fact an old woman. ‘No, she is ageless. One could go very far towards making the costume quite unrealistic, unreal. It could, however, also be an old dressing-gown, worked like a cobweb.’
Run-through. Beckett proposes to differentiate the mother-daughter voices in the narratives, in order to create a further analogy. May’s voice is grey, becoming rigid, quite small and slow.
Beckett shows a photo of Billie Whitelaw in the London production. He demonstrates her posture. The left hand at her neck, the right arm crossed over the left and the right hand clasping her left shoulder. The posture should reinforce the tension. The fingers grip the arm rigidly.
Part I is already going much better. It is still too slow, however. The speeches are now following basically on from one another, apart from individual pauses. Still May is not satisfied with her tone. ‘It is a terrible sing-sing now. When you do it,’ she says to Beckett, ‘each tone sounds like a real conversation.’ ‘Yes, the tone is hard to hit off,’ he says. It must sound as though May was standing on the side-lines, not as though she were in the midst of it. Beckett demonstrates. The tone must be colder. A monotone but not without tension.
H says: ‘No, each word which is spoken must also have its meaning, it shouldn’t just be a monotone . . .’
In the second part May should move her lips twice during the mother’s text, as though she were murmuring something to herself, from ‘she has not been out since girlhood’ until the interruption in the sentence .’ . . the same where she—(pause)’ and then again from .’ . . till one night, while still little more than a child’ until ‘May: Not enough.’ Each time at the end of the lip-movements she drops her head and closes her eyes for a moment. Beckett asks to have the lip-movements timed—they should be roughly the same length, and in fact one is 22 seconds and the other 24 seconds.
In the course of the third part Beckett interrupts: ‘That is not right yet.’ From the beginning, it should be much more mysterious.
‘Yes, it could be, if it is audible.’
Above all, it is important that the narrative shouldn’t be too flowing and matter-of-course. It shouldn’t give the impression of something already written down. May is inventing her story while she is speaking. She is creating and seeing it all gradually before her. It is an invention from beginning to end. The picture emerges gradually with hesitation, uncertainty—details are always being added . . . And his final comment: ‘A very small play, but a lot of problems concerning precision.’
Before the rehearsal, Beckett explains an idea for the end of the play. In order to avoid the impression that the piece was over with the second-last fade-out, a vertical strip of light should be visible in the background, which could give the impression that the light was falling through the crack of a door. Then it would add a vertical accent to the horizontal light on the strip which would remain lit after each part. At the very end of the play, the empty strip will be faded out first, then, after seven seconds, the vertical strip of light. In this way, the aesthetic aspect and a technical necessity will be combined.
Slyly, Beckett adds: ‘Then they will know when it is the end—I hope.’
The problem lies still in the third part, especially from the Mrs Winter story on.
‘How can I make this story fit together, it keeps falling apart on me?’ H’s eyes are watering from strained gazing. She is in despair.
Beckett again demonstrates and explains: the gaze to the front, into emptiness. Sometimes it looks as though H were looking at someone. ‘That is not right. By every means try to keep the tension . . .’
H: ‘I can’t get it any better at the moment. But I understand it more all the time. I think I can do it. Can I just ask something quite simple? How is it that when you speak the text it gets more and more tense and exciting, when the story always slips away from me?’
Beckett’s explanation: That comes because she is not enough ‘for herself.’ She is too much in the concrete space of the theatre, not absolutely enough concentrated on May, in this figure. A psychological explanation lies perhaps in the fact that with her story May speaks her last words, she has turned everything to and fro, this is now her epilogue—but for him, Beckett, that is not so important, more important is the absolute encapsulation of the figure in itself.
Beckett sits right at the top in the last row. Run-through. The acoustics turn out to be a problem. A lot cannot be understood. ‘It?’ spoken with a question mark is a difficult problem, says Beckett. He has tried it, can’t do it either. He tries it. ‘You can do it . . .’ calls H. She is bathed in sweat from the exertion of her narrative. ‘I am still too over-tense.’ The position of her hands is corrected. During each stretch of her walk one hand must be clearly seen.
H interrupts herself again during the Mrs W story. ‘I can’t go on ...’ She tries it again. Tears run over her face: ‘I don’t want to make it unpleasant for you. I’m not crying . . . it’s just the tension inside, in my head. My God, what torture . . .’
Beckett turns to the mother; the microphone is tried. The voice is still too breathy.
Here is the danger for Charlotte Joeres, the actress playing the mother. She has a tendency towards a loving, lyrical tremolo in her voice and is therefore in danger of giving the figure a soft, pathetic element. She, too, must try for more coldness of expression.
Then Part III again. ‘Faint, but by no means invisible’ etc.: colder. In the Mrs Winter story: ‘The daughter speaks slower than the mother.’ The whole should not be too sad, it should under no circumstances sound tragic.
H tries out a modified walk and does it for Beckett. An animal, ‘tigerish’ walk along imaginary bars. The turn is accomplished as though before an invisible wall: slight raising of the head and a scarcely perceptible jerk back of the body as though before an obstacle. Beckett is skeptical. It is perhaps too realistic in intention? The strip is covered with wooden boards, The shoes make a light sound—too light. Beckett proposes a slight hesitation before each turn, as though she didn’t know exactly whether she should go on or not.
H is still not satisfied. ‘How is it that I can’t get it?’ Beckett finds her too soft. ‘Sometimes you have it, then it gets lost again.’ He speaks the text, doggedly, almost maliciously, uncompromisingly. ‘When you feel yourself too far away from the right tone, you have already failed. You are looking in your acting for the right tone, that is fatal. You are acting in too healthy a way . . . Try gradually, while you speak the words, to see the whole inwardly. It has a visionary character . . . it is an image which develops gradually. When you begin to narrate the story, you don’t yet know the end . . . It is too easily narrated.’
‘I will leave you alone for a few days.’
H has been to a psychiatric clinic and has had discussions there with a doctor about female patients who suffer from obsessions. She promises herself a more concrete approach to her part from this. During the run-through, she again breaks off during the Mrs Winter story: too long drawn-out. No tension.
The best run-through so far. The Mrs W story takes shape. It narrates something. It’s taut and logical and exciting, cold and uncompromising. Everyone is relieved.
‘That was not your strongest performance,’ says Beckett after the run-through. In the Mrs Winter story the two voices are again tried out: the mother and Amy. H sharply spits out ‘Mrs W’ and ‘Amy’ each time as the name of each speaker, as though she wanted to play one name off against the other, as though they should bounce off each other. The argument between Mrs W and Amy can be still quicker. It ends with the sentence ‘The love of God . . .’ which, with pauses, hesitatingly, is almost sung and so dissolves the tension of the preceding passage.
The lighting transitions are tested. May gets a little spot-light on her face at the wheeling-points which is only added when she stands still. The crack of light at the back is about 1/3 of an inch wide and about 5 feet high, quite straight and bare. The stage is hung with black velvet, The strip is steeply lit from the front to mark its boundaries clearly. The difference in atmosphere between the three parts turns out to be a difficult business. The light should be as weak as possible without becoming unbearably dark.
H breaks off again at the beginning of the Mrs W story. A general feeling of helplessness. She says she just has to work on by herself. Beckett suggests that he go. Perhaps he is pushing her into a false conception of achievement, he says. H rehearses on until 4.30 pm. We again discuss the problem of concentration, i.e., what Beckett terms the ‘being for herself’ of May and the visionary development of the story. The constant modifications in the text must emerge jumpily, violently, sudden formations of associations which form a chain of thought.
In trying to produce the images from the inside, H has strongly tended up to now to emphasize the words with more or less unconscious movements of the body, especially of the head. Here lay the basic gesture of a natural way of speaking which softened the story and allowed no artificiality to appear. H tries to hold her body quite stiffly, to avoid every small movement. An artificial immoveability develops, a tauter articulation takes over the soft, agreeable modulation. A concentrated creation of art does indeed emerge, a cold, stiff, encapsulated being, the ‘being for itself’ of the figure comes across.
The so-called first principal rehearsal. Ruby Cohn and an audience from the theatre are there. Even from the first sounds, one senses that H is on the right track. Nothing soft, nothing which is not binding, nothing accidental in her way of speaking. A great coldness and tautness without sentiment. May stands independent of her surroundings as a concentrated bundle on the strip of light. No superfluous movement distracts, the tension communicates itself to the observer, one is drawn into the undertow of her story—the concentration is passed on and challenges the observer to an absolute concentration. Beckett is satisfied with the result. ‘You have found the trick’ is his comment.
Some of those present misunderstand the strip of light in the background as a mistake—as though the velvet curtain had been left slightly open by accident.
Experiments with the strip of light: it is placed diagonally, to the left, to the right. Beckett suggests jokingly that it be made into a cross, then it can’t be a mistake. Finally it is decided to make it a foot longer.
The second principal rehearsal on the next day and the dress rehearsal go very well. The whole room is hung with black velvet in order to force the attention of the audience absolutely on the illuminated strip.
Beckett defines first of all the function of the three loud-speakers. They are supposed to make the transition from one story to another clear. It is the same voice but the stories are taking place at different levels of time. The voices flow without serious interruption into one another and are only differentiated by the position of the loud- speakers on the left, in the middle and on the right of the 8 foot high platform on which the man is sitting. The B story has to do with the young man, the C story is the story of the old man and the A story that of the man in middle age. From a great distance he hears the voice he has today, says Beckett.
Klaus Herm reads. Beckett speaks the text from memory with him, only moving his lips, breaking in at times to correct. Herm tries to construct images from the content, makes breaks, reads for the sense.
Beckett interrupts after the first A story. It should be spoken quite quickly, he says. Since Herm can’t physically manage to speak it without pauses, he should make pauses where it is necessary, which would then be cut out by the sound engineer. At the end of Part I the voice gets quieter from ‘to keep the void from pouring in . . .,’ with ‘the shroud’ the light will come on for ten seconds (later this is changed to 15 seconds), stays for 10 seconds very bright and then fades in the same space of time back to the original twilight level. Part II begins quietly ‘Like a car drawing up, a machine . . .’ The play consists of three parts in which the speeches A B C are each present four times in a different order. In the following the speeches will be denoted as A1, A2, etc., B1, B2, etc., C1, C2, etc.
The rehearsal begins between Beckett and Herm with quotations from the text. Both throw the ball to each other with visible delight. Key words like ‘when was that,’ ‘after this,’ ‘after that’ are accentuated and stretched out with joy. At the end of each speech somewhat slower, at the end of the twelfth speech slowest of all. The first recording is made of Part I.
The pauses in the text are not yet cut out precisely enough, one can still sense them. The new beginning also seems to differ too much from the last preceding word, it is too loud and strong. The loud-speakers are placed too far apart and are moved to a maximum distance of roughly 18 feet apart. In the sound studio another recording is made, the pauses are cut out immediately. Between A, B, C there must be a transition without interruption, as for example in music from A minor to C major, Beckett says. A flow without beginning and end, without very much being emphasized or pointed up.
The B story is the most emotional, the C story however is cold, almost cynical. There is still the problem of the uninterrupted flow of the text. Herm would like to make still more pauses, which would then be cut out. Beckett demonstrates the speaking himself: flat, in- audibly breathing, murmuring, dreamy, without any noticeable interruption, he goes through a whole speech without stopping. In order to acquire the flow of the text both of them go through whole passages with imploring gestures ... If one could get by without cuts, keeping the same tempo constantly, that would be best . . .
Beckett comments in C7 that the text here is a difficult place for the audience: ‘. . . the old rounds trying to wangle you into it,’ whereby he emphasizes the ‘it.’ That is a story of depersonalization - seeing oneself as an object . . . In A8 ‘the passers pausing to gape . . .,’ that is from the Bible, he says.
Herm: ‘Yes, from St Luke’s Gospel.’
Beckett: ‘I looked it up, but I didn’t find it, aha, Luke . . .’
Herm tries to read with small pauses for breath. This turns out not to be practicable. There are too many and a staccato impression results and not the desired legato.
Part II B5. Beckett insists on a small pause after ‘muttering (:) that time . . .’
B6. Beckett accentuates the parallelism in the order of the speeches where individual units begin with an emphasized ‘never,’ ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘no,’ ‘always,’ ‘no’ and which
culminates in the key-word ‘vows’ at the end, which should be spoken with a lot of ‘tenderness.’
A series whose individual members are separated by small pauses can be found in C7: ‘. . . till the words dried up and the head dried up and the legs dried up . . .’
B8. A further small series: ‘no stir or sound only faintly the leaves in the little wood behind or the ears or the bent or the reeds . . .’
This rhythmical rendering of the text goes into the recording.
The recording of the second part is unsatisfactory. The new beginnings after the pause are still too strong and loud. Through this, unmotivated accents are created, the flow of the text is ruined. A new method is tried: Herm reads up to a certain point, makes a pause,
and begins again with the text a few words before the stop, so that with the first words an acoustic balance has already been achieved. The overlapping turns out, when we hear it, to be practicable. A very good smoothness in the text results.
Beckett reminds Herm to remember the ritardando at the end of Parts I, II and III. Above all at the very end a dramatic effect should be achieved: ‘will it go on again.’
Herm reads Part Ill.
Beckett finds it too chopped up and too little flowing. He demonstrates. At the end of the last speeches in the B A C series, Beckett misses the emotion. It should not be sentimental but he has the impression that Herm is too occupied with technique, with breathing, etc. There is too little feeling in it. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to read it once with too much feeling. It could always be reduced afterwards.
Beckett comments on the silence after each of the three parts: in these moments the man comes back to the present. While he was listening to his voice he was in the past . . . During the listening everything is closed. In the silence he is startled to find himself in the present, everything is open. It is not decided whether he opens his eyes and the voice stops for that reason or whether the voice stops and therefore he opens his eyes.
The recording of the previous day seems to him to be too even and lacking in tension.
Herm suggests making a new one immediately. Beckett is agreeable but strangely uneasy.
Finally, he says, half jokingly, he can’t bear the text any more . . . he is completely impregnated with it . . . We make the recording without him.
At the play-back of the recording Beckett is visibly bored with it. He finds the text too long. It is his mistake, he says, to have been so fixated on the flow. It becomes too monotonous. How would a recording be in which the text is spoken quite normally, with breaths?
Herm tries it over a microphone, it doesn’t sound bad.
The recording which has been spoken for the ‘sense’ is running. It is unbearably long. Beckett twists nervously. The recording is 30 minutes long. 8 minutes longer than usual. The text loses all tension, gets at the same time a false significance.
The ‘flow’ is the right way. A new recording with pauses cut out is very good. It gains a tempo which forces one to concentrate when listening, simultaneously a power of suggestion which pulls one into the story, structured by the highly dramatic moments of the silence, in which the white-haired head in the black surroundings begins to sway and the wide-open eyes provide a picture of fixed horror.
The text flows without being monotonous and its images are present in the round without a long-winded narrative resulting. All the chopping and changing has produced the best possible result.