The world première of ‘Review: The world première of ‘Ohio Impromptu,’ directed by Alan Schneider at Columbus, Ohio.
Two American conferences, each of which premièred a short play, were the locus—if not the logos—of Beckettianna in the spring of 1981. As part of the 75th birthday celebrations for Samuel Beckett, Rockaby (written originally with Irene Worth in mind but played finally to the delight of the faithful—by Billie Whitelaw) was presented at a celebration at the State University of New York in Buffalo, New York (paired with a dramatic reading of Enough) on April 8, and Ohio impromptu, written for the international symposium at Ohio State University, Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives (May 7-9), was presented on May 9, featuring David Warrilow as Reader, with Rand Mitchell as Listener. Both productions were directed by Alan Schneider who, after 25 years as Beckett’s principal American director, is probably as close to the Beckettian ethos as any director, certainly any American director. These plays, gracious gifts from Beckett, were the second and third consecutive world premières of Beckett’s work staged in the United States since A piece of monologue, written for and staged by David Warrilow, which opened on December 14, 1979.
There is doubtless some press of tongue to cheek in the title of Ohio impromptu, but it is also straightforwardly descriptive, marking occasion and genre -impromptus à la Molière and Giraudoux (which were meta-theatrical or selfreflexive exercises), or more like the intricate little solo pieces Schubert, Chopin and Schumann called impromptus. Beckett’s impromptu for solo instrument (Reader) and conductor (Listener) is more binary in structure than the impromptu’s usual ternary form, two characters (apparently) and two movements (apparently). Seated like twin Krapps at a long, white, deal table, in an isle of light against surrounding darkness are Reader and Listener, ‘As alike in appearance as possible,’ long black coats, long white hair. The first movement sounds escape as its theme. Reader reads a narrative featuring a protagonist who is evidently a younger version of Listener since he wears the long black coat and sits before the ‘old world Latin Quarter hat’ described in the narrative (for a photo of Joyce in said costume see the page facing 81 in Ellmann). He has fled from an emotional liaison, but exactly who has left whom in the affair and under what circumstances is never detailed. Ignoring his love’s (unspoken) request to remain in familiar quarters where ‘my shade will comfort you,’ the protagonist has moved to unfamiliar rooms on the isle of Swans, ‘in a last attempt to obtain relief.’ Listener listens to the narrative without the pleasure Krapp recaptures listening to at least the erotic portions of his tape, but the protagonist—and perhaps finally Listener himself—has more success synthesizing the dialectic of his life than does Krapp.
The second movement features an apparently successful (if mystical or imaginary) solution to the emotional turmoil, which was not solved by flight. A man (Reader before us, visually an alter ego) appears to the protagonist to ease ‘his old terror of night.’ This apparition (or creation), apparently sent by his former love but as likely generated by or from Listener himself, reads to the protagonist through the night on account of what we broadly witness on stage for the play’s duration, but not exactly. Most of ‘the sad tale’ antedates the action we witness. The relation of narration to stage action is oblique, further refracted by the mirror image of the two characters. Reader (in the narrative) appears sporadically, ‘unheralded,’ reads, comforts, then disappears. Through these meetings ‘they grew to be as one’—if they were ever other, since they look alike and only a single hat sits on the table, and both are identically dressed. Such seeming unity echoes the earlier image of the conjunction of the divided stream: ‘How in joyous eddies its two arms conflowed and flowed united on.’ But the dramatic movement is contrapuntal, fugal, reading against playing, fiction against drama, ear against eye. Reader reports that he has had word from Listener’s old love that there was ‘No need to go to him again.’ Is this then the first that Listener hears the news? If so, past and present converge, and Reader is other, another, offering different tales. Or is this theatrical illusion? The information is Listener’s, in him already. What we witness may be repetition, performance, theatre. A play within a play within a play. Listener audience to his own telling, to himself. The play poses the problems of origins and audience. Whose voice are we listening to? Who is watching what?
The difference between narration and stage action defines the space within which the drama occurs. Only the visual images suggest identity. And in the narration no mention is made of Listener’s orchestrating the reading. But Reader seems to exhibit some freedom—he departs from the text to utter an impromptu remark, ‘Yes,’ and an impromptu repetition, but the freedom is illusion. The words are engraved in the text. The final, dream-like narrative image is played: Reader and Listener sit during a lightless, soundless dawn ‘as though turned to stone,’ lost in a mindlessness as deep as Murphy’s third zone, ‘Whither no light can reach. No sound.’ But the final visual image can be read differently: the figures raise their heads to look at each other. Although ‘Unblinking. Expressionless,’ the two figures suggest more mindfulness than mindlessness. The relief sought at the play’s opening may have been brought by the doppelgänger, but that element of narration is not necessarily confirmed visually.
Reader finally has been sent or created for company, in both senses as companion and for guests, the 450 or so literary critics who attended this performance. And although all theatre is for company, depends on company, Beckett is certainly meditating in Ohio impromptu on the play within the occasion, the artist speaking to his critics. The play, then, is not so much about solace as origination, creativity. Ohio impromptu finally brings to the fore the elemental creative process (or creative paradox) suggested in That time where the protagonist of narrative A would hide as a youth, ‘making up talk breaking up two or more talking to himself being together that way,’ or in Endgame where Hamm talks of ‘the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together in the dark.’ Derrida describes something analogues in Writing and difference: ‘To grasp the operation of creative imagination at the greatest possible proximity to it, one must turn oneself toward the invisible interior of poetic freedom. One must be separate from oneself in order to be reunited with the blind origin of the work in its darkness’ (7). In Ohio impromptu the two movements of the play, problem and solution may come together in the telling, but the unity depends on the difference. Finally, we are left with the problems of the origins of the tale.
In performance the initial stage image was filled with contrasts: black against white, life against death; revelation against concealment: white, waist-length hair spread over black coats, the actors’ faces covered with or shielded by fragile, boney hands, the figures emaciated, cadaverous, slightly androgynous, almost phosphorescent, the hair so long that it seems to have grown for years beyond death. Both actors were actively restrained, the power of the play swelling in the unsaid. Warrilow’s voice was fragile, cracking, unhurried, always on the edge of cessation. His stints in ‘Mabou Mines Performs Samuel Beckett,’ particularly in Play, Come and go and The lost ones (the last virtually a Warrilow monologue), and later his staging and performing A piece of monologue have helped him develop a discipline for and rapport with Beckett’s work. And Schneider’s tempo, his pacing, built the palpable tension of shivering glass in one’s hands—slowly. The play contains almost no movement, yet the final impression was balletic, precarious, the gesture suspended, the play balanced on its margin. Each knock, each turn of page, Listener’s one arresting gesture, especially the climactic recognition—the slightest movement gained prominence against the stasis. Schneider’s direction was understated, attentive, confident, allowing time for silence, for absence. The busyness of earlier work
gone, Schneider has become a deft miniaturist.