Beckett in Oxford The San Quentin Drama Workshop Krapp’s last tape and Endgame, directed by Samuel Beckett,  Playhouse Theatre, 17-21 June 1980


Ann Beer


With a zest for travel reminiscent of the characters chasing Murphy, these productions have already moved between London, Dublin and London again, taking in Oxford en route. At the time of writing they are installed at the Arts Theatre, after a spell at the Young Vic, and they will no doubt continue to draw large audiences. Theatre-goers are presumably eager to see both Beckett’s newest interpretation of his work and, in the leading roles, an actor (Rick Cluchey) who is a former inmate of the prison where Waiting for Godot was once so memorably performed. Alan Mandell, who plays Nagg, is also an important figure. He was one of the actors in that performance of Godot, and encouraged the prisoners to set up their own Drama Workshop.


Newspapers and theatre publicity have seized every chance to chew over details of the London rehearsals, which Beckett allowed journalists to attend, and the San Quentin connection, famous ever since Martin Esslin used it as his vivid introduction to The theatre of the absurd. But after all the myth-raking it is surely time to concentrate on the productions themselves. Although the Workshop is small (Teresita Garcia Suro, who plays Nell, also does costumes and Bud Thorpe—Clov—the lighting), its background and the fact that Beckett has chosen to direct it compel serious attention. As expected, Beckett challenges the actors to work at his own demanding level, treating plays which are now more than twenty years old as fresh creations, changing details as he proceeds. If the result is an evening which both frustrates and fascinates, it is because one is never sure just how well the actors have risen to his challenge: the outline of the ideal performance stands tantalizing and unreachable behind the one given on stage.


Krapp begins with the table, in darkness, set a little to the right, the drawers facing the right-hand side of the stage, so that Krapp does not need to turn his back on the audience to open them. This significant alteration, like some others, has already appeared in other productions directed by Beckett. As the lights go up—very slowly—two areas focus attention: the table with its hanging lamp, and the doorway which separates Krapp’s den from his drink-supply. The doorway is full of a strong bluish brilliance, which shines out over the dark stage and suggests, if one can use so fanciful an image in so realistic a play, an entrance to some higher realm—or of course into the blissful oblivion of booze. Inevitably this double illumination alters the visual impact of Krapp’s table in its circle of cold light, the former focus of the stage picture. The change also modifies parts of the text, especially the moment when Krapp, aged 69, listens to the recording made by his 39-year-old self:


            The new light above my table is a great improvement. With all this

            darkness round me I feel less alone. (Pause.) In a way. (Pause.) I

            love to get up and move about in it, then back here to . . .

            (hesitates) . . . me. (Pause.) Krapp.


The old man is much less eager to move round in the dark, even if he can then return to his circle of light. Cluchey’s performance suggests that Krapp is now unsure about the dark (and perhaps about the neatness of the division separating it from light) and twice he looks over his left shoulder fearfully. Beckett’s production notebooks say that what he sees there is Old Nick, waiting for him. His shuffling run ‘with all the speed he can muster’ between the two lit areas therefore becomes one of the most poignant and lasting impressions of the play. I was reminded of an image in a much more recent work by Beckett, which suggests that this visual pattern has been in his mind for some years:


            to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow

            (. . .)

            as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared

            gently close, once turned away from

            gently part again

            (neither, 1976).


After the withering of his ideals about life and art, all Krapp has left are the two ‘refuges,’ where words, booze and bananas only succeed in forcing him to relive the brief moments of happiness he once had.


Cluchey is, paradoxically, a very ‘Irish’ Krapp, indeed sometimes dangerously close to the stereotype of the stage Irishman. He is engaging, drunken, sentimental, always playing to an audience. His American accent does not detract from this although it comes over strongly in words such as ‘box’ and ‘dunes’; indeed the richness of his voice contributes a lot to the warmth of the performance. It is strikingly different in timbre from Patrick Magee’s cracked and chilling tones. The costume also suggests a mellowing in Beckett’s conception of the character. Instead of the figure in severe blacks and whites with a ridiculous red nose and clown-like shoes called for in the text, Krapp is now a bearded, round-shouldered recluse, in slippers (Beckett’s own, as one newspaper reported) and an ancient dressing-gown. Dusty grey is the general colour, even for Krapp’s face, on which there frequently appears a preoccupied grimace like the corpse of a smile.


Beckett has apparently decided to strip the stage business to the minimum which is dramatically necessary. Again this continues a trend already visible in his earlier productions. Krapp spends much less time looking in drawers, has no keys, only glances once at his scrap of paper, which is not obviously an envelope. Even his watch has disappeared; perhaps the futility of our efforts to order and control time now seems an obvious enough theme without this physical reminder. Another economy is the loss of the hymn to evening; Miss McGlome’s name and the reference to Vespers remain as hints of the symbolism linking the passage of a day with a human life. Now the only approximation to song is Krapp’s intoning of the self-mocking words ‘Be again, be again’ as if they are the bells at Croghan, sounding on two notes just over a minor third apart. The rather odd pitch provides a satisfying echo for his remark on tape as a younger man: ‘sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness.’


A new linking of Krapp’s life in the present and in the past concerns his exploits with Fanny, the ‘Bony old ghost of a whore.’ Instead of the text’s ‘better than a kick in the crutch,’ Cluchey supplies, leering with cheerful vulgarity, ‘better than a finger and thumb.’ The sad contrast between this and the punt scene (‘I lay down across her with . . . my hand on her’) could hardly be clearer.


It is now a long time since Beckett said to Colin Duckworth, ‘I’m not interested in the effect my plays have on the audience. I simply present an object.’ Occasionally changes suggest that in this case, at least, he has thought about his audience. He may have changed the vague ‘Connaught,’ Miss McGlome’s birthplace, to the much more specific ‘Kerry’ because he was thinking of his Dublin spectators. And the adjective ‘queer,’ which Hamm uses of himself in Endgame, may well be altered to ‘strange’ to prevent the audience from seeing a joke about homosexuality where it is not intended. Beckett is no doubt equally aware of the overall effect which this double-bill will have one many viewers. He has been reported as saying that he prefers to see Endgame done alone, and the feeling would be shared, I suspect, by many of those who attend these productions. It is a harsh test of an audience’s endurance to inflict on them, after a short, easily-grasped play and a half-hour interval, a much longer and more difficult work. The strain on the main actor must also be, to use Beckett’s own words, ‘inhuman.’


Having said this, I wonder whether Beckett has not deliberately magnified the contrast between the two plays. Endgame stands out as an extraordinary, alienating work when compared with the more easily accessible Krapp’s last tape. After the first play’s graceful shape, Endgame gives the impression of being disturbingly unstructured, which is of course part of its effect. The long single act is far removed from the two elegantly balanced acts of Godot or Happy days and allows no easy divisions or predictions. It exploits the audience’s anxiety, frustration, even anger; a single, slow turn of the screw without even the reassurance of a conclusive end. Clov is still on stage as the lights fall, the boy—if he exists—still alive outside the refuge.


For walls, Endgame uses the same black hangings as Krapp; perhaps Beckett is thinking of the Elizabethan convention in which the stage was hung with black for tragedies. But a cruelly exposing light makes the effect quite different. Instead of Krapp’s enticing open doorway there are two high, blind windows. White sheets of paper hide behind the curtains like Hamm’s white eyes behind their lids. The picture ‘Hanging near door, its face to the wall’ in the text has disappeared, another ruthless exclusion of the non-essential. Significantly (although dissatisfaction with the translation of the passage may also have been a motive) Beckett cuts out the one explicit recognition of the audience’s existence, Clov’s ‘I see . . . a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy.’ Even though Clov comes and goes from his kitchen, it is no more real to us than the world beyond the windows. Using a text so full of theatrical self-reference, this production accentuates the feeling that the characters are performing entirely for each other. At every level they are playing with language, illusions, different roles, emotions, but none of the activity is directed at the audience. A kind of fourth wall seems to separate us from them.


Hamm is, of course, the actor par excellence, ‘hamming’ many of the scenes he creates to keep back the silence. Cluchey distorts the pronunciation of words with relish: lawftier, procreat-or, awe-fill, as if chewing them into pieces. He is vermilion-faced, robust in spite of his disabilities, and has a hearty appetite for the acting out of a life which only had significance in the past—if it ever did. Especially vigorous are his ‘chronicle,’ where even phrases such as ‘lit it with . . . let us say a vesta,’ (pronounced ‘Vest-ah’), burst with sensual pleasure, and his reaction to the news that the pain-killers are finished. His agonised disappointment is not remotely real—but it is over-acted with tremendous gusto: ‘Good . . .! (Pause.) No more pain-killer! (. . .) But the little round box. It was full!’ Even pain has become a subject for play.


Visually Hamm is quite distinct; Clov, as well as Nagg and Nell, is gaunt and ashen-faced. All three can be seen as the three nails to be hammered by their round-cheeked oppressor, clearly in this production a near-relative of Pozzo. But Clov too contributes to the sense of cruelty, exploiting Hamm’s blindness with a new game. Not only does he describe Hamm’s dog as ‘nearly’ white when here it is dark brown; he also presents it to him rear-end forwards, so that Hamm’s question: ‘Is he gazing at me?’ becomes especially ludicrous. When told to open the window, Clov merely makes an appropriate noise by banging the stepladder, and Hamm is satisfied. Even if Clov did open the window one feels it would not matter. The important thing is simply to keep the ball rolling, whether it be a ball thrown for a ‘dog’ in a game or what Krapp called ‘the old muckball’ on which we live.


It is unfortunate that the four actors involved in the production are so varied in level and range of experience. All of them spoke quietly at times for a theatre as large as the Oxford Playhouse, which must have doubly alienated some members of the audience. Bud Thorpe is slow initially, so that the first sequences of repartee with Hamm lack edge, but he looks the part with his air of mixed hostility and earnestness and his long stiff legs. As the play progresses he grows with it; his scene with the dying Nell, when he feels her pulse then lets her hand drop slowly out of sight, becomes one of the most moving moments of the play. One realises that Nell’s death, if indeed it is death, is the only escape we witness. Clov may feel great compassion for her pain, and mourn for her, but there is even a kind of envy as he stands bent over her in silence.


Nell is, however, the production’s major disappointment. Teresita Garcia Suro, not a native English speaker, produces her words in an extraordinary drawl, with mechanical intonation and a curious accent. If the aim is to suggest her closeness to death, the aim is not achieved. Instead important passages, like the memory of Lake Como, have a deadening effect on the ear and the imagination; their significance and beauty are lost.


No doubt the contrast with Nagg accentuates Nell’s inadequacy. Alan Mandell is a superb and experienced actor who manages to convey with only hands, head and voice an impressive range of attitudes and emotions. Visually he is perfect, bearing a curious resemblance to a death-mask of Dante in Florence, and he is so strong a presence on the stage that the theme of paternity, with all its implications, often comes out clearly. In the praying scene, the three generations (taking Clov as Hamm’s son, real or adopted) create a symmetry reminiscent of a triptych; it seems fitting that Nagg is the one to begin his ‘Our Father’ audibly, as the only one without an earthly father present beside him, and that his is the longest attempt to make contact. The performance also makes clear the provocative nature of lines like Hamm’s ‘But for me (gesture towards himself) no father’; is he confirming Clov’s reply (‘But for me, you would have had no father’) or denying his own father, on the stage beside him (‘But for me there was no father.’)? One is reminded of his cutting denial of the Heavenly Father, ‘The bastard! He doesn’t exist!’ Rick Cluchey may not have the authority and depth which some distinguished actors have shown in the part. He is, however, entirely capable of revealing Hamm’s typically human desire to remake reality according to his own imaginative needs, like the madman in his cell, who looks out at ‘All that loveliness’ and sees only ‘ashes.’


The evening as a whole is a harrowing experience, both by design (Endgame’s ‘power to claw’ is certainly greater after the gentle and humane atmosphere of Krapp) and by accident - Krapp is almost too emotional and Endgame only partly achieves the impact of which the text is capable. But for all this it is a valuable experience to see this unusual group presenting plays under Beckett’s own direction. And there is always the pleasure of finding, in such circumstances, that a new perspective has suddenly appeared, perhaps to Beckett himself. To end on a comically gruesome example, how fitting it is to replace Clov’s description of the biscuit he gives to Nagg (‘Spratt’s medium,’ and in French ‘le biscuit classique’) by ‘Spratt’s Boneo.’ The bone-shaped biscuit which Nagg, already skeletal in appearance, vainly tries to suck, reminds us that Hamm has described and treated Clov as a dog, and preached ‘Lick your neighbour as yourself.’ Humour, black or white, newly interwoven patterns of imagery, a light touch, all combine with the compassionate pessimism in both plays to mark out Beckett’s special qualities as a director. He still has the power to move audiences not just intellectually but at an emotional level for which there are no words.