‘Footfalls’ and ‘Not I’:  The La Mama production of 1980

 

Thomas J. Taylor

 

It is not from some misplaced reverence for Samuel Beckett’s works that seasoned directors adhere strictly to the stage directions that accompany the texts of his dramatic pieces. Unlike more traditional playwrights who indicate but who do not, except in certain moments, prescribe exact stage directions, Beckett calls for diligent replication of the number of steps, the angle of perceptions, the length of pauses, the timing of camera shots, the volume of sound, and such like, and to deviate from his carefully prescribed directions is to immediately reduce the effectiveness of the production and the impact of the symbols and images embedded in the text. ‘Taking liberties’ has never been so devastating to the authenticity of a Beckett play as in the River Arts Productions’ recent offering of ‘Two by Beckett’—Footfalls and Not I at the La Mama, ETC Theatre, East 4th Street, New York.

 

Lawrence Sacharow, the director, cannot excuse his disregard of Beckett’s stated directions as a new interpretation, or as an attempt to transform the text into a unique theatre experience. No such explanation is available to pass off his disregard for three essential stage directions Beckett notes at the beginning of Footfalls. The first, ‘Strip: downstage, parallel with front . . .,’ might possibly be excused on the grounds that the tiny theatre in the basement of La Mama precluded nine steps across the stage. Sacharow’s solution was to have May walk from upstage audience-right to downstage audience-left, sharply and starkly away from and toward the audience, perhaps at a 60 angle with the parallel Beckett had in mind. Instead of presenting a uniformly consistent profile, always equidistant from the audience, May seemed to come into and out of focus, now off, now near, one ‘feat’ wheel in darkness, the other so close that front-row witnesses instinctively leaned back to avoid being struck by the tattered ends of May’s garment. There was no attempt whatsoever at trying for Beckett’s lighting direction: ‘dim, strongest at floor level, less on body, least on head.’

 

But much more disconcerting to this observer was Sacharow’s disregard of Beckett’s meticulous, agonizingly careful description of May’s walk and turn, described and illustrated by Beckett in the text, as follows: ‘Turn: rightabout at L, leftabout at R.’ This direction, in my opinion, is non-negotiable. Like Firs’ final position and the broken-string sound at the end of Chekhov’s The cherry orchard, here the playwright shall insist. Sacharow has Margo Lee Sherman, as May, wheel ‘leftabout’ at both ends of her walk; no constriction of the stage space, and no other reason apparent to the audience, requires this fundamental and wrongheaded variation on Beckett’s direct and distinct prescription. By somehow misreading or ignoring Beckett’s direction, Sacharow loses the delicate image of May’s path and leaves the (competent) actress burdened with an awkward, unbalanced, over-large turn, much too physical, too energetic for the silence and the sense of May’s vigil, and almost grotesque in its clumsiness.

 

This stridency carried over into the voice qualities of both actresses as well. Gretel Cummings’s ‘Woman’s voice from dark upstage,’ was visible throughout the production, in profile above and to audience-left of May’s path. What Sacharow was trying to do by embodying what surely must be one of Beckett’s disembodied voices in the mind could not be construed from the performance. Lines which, according to both the sense of the scene and to Beckett’s stated directions (‘Voices: both low and slow throughout’), should have drifted to the audience in a timeless, weary monochromatic timbre, lashed out at the audience in hard tones, like ritual chants from between clenched teeth, loud, grating and abrasive, never taking into account the verisimilitude that underlies the imagined conversation between May and her mother. ‘Low and slow’ does not preclude realistic discourse; Sacharow turned the piece into disjointed shrieks of irrational non-communication. The ‘story’ of May and her mother was lost entirely.

 

It is to Beckett’s credit that his lines alone held the audience’s interest for the half-hour or so the play was staged (‘performed’ would be a somewhat inflated term). Persons coming to Footfalls for the first time through Sacharow’s production have yet to experience the graceful realization that Beckett has created, given a director who treats the stage directions with the respect they deserve.

 

Not I was more successful. Margo Lee Sherman’s strong, well-trained voice did credit to the lines, firing off the anguished phrases with excellent breath control and a strong sense of what Beckett had in mind. Unfortunately, on the night I witnessed the performance, Ms. Sherman was slightly out of place on her seat, or else the pin light had slipped, and her neck and chin (not her mouth) were all that was visible (part of the problem may have been that the light came from above, not below, as Beckett indicates). Thus we missed the fundamental image, the mesmerizing dance of tongue, teeth and lips that haunts anyone who saw Billie Whitelaw’s performance of this work, a performance which will probably always remain the definitive one.

 

One should not rule out the possibility of an ‘interpretation’ of a Beckett piece. But Sacharow’s changes add nothing and take away too much. Mabou Mines’ David Warrilow has shown how Beckett can be transformed by the intelligent application of variations. More recently, a University of Cincinnati production of Waiting for Godot featured a fat Lucky and a gentlemanly English Pozzo, successfully reversing the traditional casting for these roles. It is not out of reverence, but out of respect for the careful, even painfully selected, articulation of theatrical accompaniments to the verbal text, that directors of Beckett’s plays should follow, literally to the letter, his detailed stipulations.