Review: ‘Pas’ and ‘Pas moi’

at the Théâtre d’Orsay, Paris, 11 April 1978.


James Knowlson


The opening night of Beckett’s new translation of Footfalls (Pas), directed by the author, together with a reprise of the earlier Pas moi, again directed by Beckett, had all the ingredients of a major French theatrical occasion: a jour de relâche elsewhere to enable directors and actors to attend (and they were there in scores, among them Peter Brook and Roger Blin) and hoards of paying customers waiting to rush into the central seats not taken by invited guests, as curtain-up time came—and, of course, went. The setting was the large auditorium of the Théâtre d’Orsay, rather than the Petite Salle where Beckett had had so much trouble in 1976 in lighting the figure of Auditor in Pas moi, eventually excluding him altogether. In this case, the sheer size of the auditorium became a major barrier to involvement with Mouth’s dilemma. From anywhere other than the first few rows, Mouth became little more than a speck of light, seemingly very high in a black firmament; too much like a remote star than a throbbing mouth. The pulsating movement that accompanies the flood of sound was therefore totally lost, as was the sense of an object which is still recognizably part of a human body.


Madeleine Renaud’s performance is quite different from that of Billie Whitelaw in the 1973 Royal Court première—slower, more measured, delicately phrased, more intelligible, but certainly less overwhelming; her laughter at the idea of a merciful God is more restrained and less bitter and her screams are less searing. Madeleine Renaud has a fine, moving voice. Yet the part surely needs to be played by a younger actress more capable of sustaining the speed at which this piece should move. Auditor reappeared in this production, lit this time from above, and illuminated only at times when Mouth renounced the first person singular. His gestures of compassion worked, however, on this occasion, and Beckett introduced a new, final gesture with Auditor placing his hands over his ears at the end of the play, unable, it would appear, to bear any longer Mouth’s confession. In this version, the lights go down on Auditor, as they fade on Mouth. In the much larger auditorium, his presence is vital and the innovatory gesture registered far more successfully than the movements of his arms had done in earlier productions.


Pas (Footfalls) was new to the French audience, although the text had appeared earlier in the Nouvelle Revue Française and was on sale as a volume with four ‘esquisses’ in the foyer (Editions de Minuit, 1978). The well-known film-actress, Delphine Seyrig, played May and Madeleine Renaud spoke the (amplified) voice of the mother. Age and experience here came into their own to present a deeply moving commentary on her daughter’s obsessive pacing, ‘revolving it all . . . in [her] poor mind.’ The strangeness of this ‘girl who had never really been born’ came through strongly in Delphine Seyrig’s performance, but absence and distress seemed less convincing there than in Billie Whitelaw’s original May. There are other difficulties with the French version of this short piece with its play on names. Amy as the anagram of May becomes in French quite unambiguously ‘ami’ but the original May ‘mais’ possibly creates a further level of confusion to a French ear. There is something less satisfying also - and in this performance rather lamb-like—about the monosyllabic ‘mère,’ whereas the English ‘mother’ allowed more naturally for the prolongation of sound.


Visually the production was beautifully conceived. There was no enigmatic ‘moon through passing rack’ but the vertical elongated strip of light was preserved from the Berlin production like a door into the old house left slightly ajar, but serving a dual function, indicating to the audience when the four separate phases of the play have ended and contrasting visually with the dominant horizontal plane of all the movements. The sounds of May’s pacing and the swish of her skirt were beautifully managed and her costume formed a suitable ‘tangle of tatters.’ Mile. Seyrig’s (own) hair-style, on the other hand, seemed much too modern and ‘Afro’ for this ghostly figure. Lighting was from above rather than from below, a further change, of course, introduced by the author into his text. All in all, it seemed to me a serious error of judgement to mount these two powerful miniature dramas in so large a theatre. Inevitably so much is lost. It was also quite disastrous to preface the two plays with a half-hour mime spectacle called Histoires, inspired by Beckett’s work and executed by the Théâtre du Labyrinthe from Rheims. Movements recalled the figure in mud of How it is, as well as Watt’s ‘spavined gait,’ bundles of old clothes emerged slowly from station locker type doors, and a woman steam-ironed throughout by the side of the stage. The noise of the steam-iron was impeccably reproduced and the principal actor mimed with inventiveness and skill. It remained a long, long half an hour, almost as long as a version of Pinter’s Silence I once saw which introduced pauses which seemed to last for minutes between ‘caught a bus . . .’ and  .’ . . into town’!