The San Quentin Drama Workshop, Krapp’s last tape and Endgame, directed by Samuel Beckett, Peacock Theatre, 26 May—7 June 1980.
J. C. C. Mays
Krapp’s last tape, with Rick Cluchey, is the most recent of Beckett’s several productions in the twenty-year evolution of the text. This evolution is described in James Knowlson’s article in Journal of Beckett Studies 1, which describes how the text of the original Royal Court production (1958) was successively modified for the Schiller Theatre (1969), the Royal Court (1973) and the Petite Orsay (1975). Ruby Cohn in Just Play brings the story up to date, describing the changes Beckett made for Cluchey’s Akademie der Künste production (1977). Better still, if you can get hold of them, look at the extensive Director’s Notes published in the San Quentin Drama Workshop Program and in Bethanien Center Publications. (Incidentally, Ruby Cohn remarks on page 12 of her new book that the published versions of the plays do not incorporate the revisions Beckett has made in the course of directing. This is not true: while Rick Cluchey acts from a text very different from the Faber or Grove, it is not much modified from the English text in the suhrkamp taschenbuch series, which incorporates Beckett’s modifications up to 1974.)
Anyone who follows what I have been saying will know exactly what dramatic values Beckett is trying to adjust in his directing, and I think he has got it right. We are now down to half-bananas in the opening scene, flung symmetrically to left and right back-stage, and so on. Every detail is choreographed in a way so exact that the effort of holding it in place pulls the audience totally into the stage situation. At the same time, stylization is not allowed to dwindle into contrivance, a sense of urgency provides it with a rationale. Rick Cluchey’s Krapp immediately establishes this tension, and develops it, never allowing one aspect of his performance to overtake the other.
In this, I think his limitations as an actor even worked to his advantage, odd though that may sound. What I mean is, while I cannot recall his voice by itself at all, I can remember the complete sequence of his performance, and not least the moments of his speaking, actual or recorded. The reason must be that, though his voice has none of the qualities that encourage one to remember, say, Patrick Magee’s, no resonances and sudden perspectives that make it compelling in- its own right, it is exactly paced to the rhythm of the production. The space between words is exact, and geared to kinds of physical movement or the lack of them, and it is to the advantage of his overall performance that the musical beat is not accompanied by more tonal interest. Put another way, Cluchey’s Krapp is not one I should tune in to on the wireless, and it seems less than Magee’s to possess hints of genius, but by means of dedicated submission it gets from the printed page to the dramatic stage with less risk of losing itself among echoes. It is less obviously a tour de force and more definitive.
After a performance as taut and inclusive as Cluchey’s Krapp, I could hardly guess what would happen after the interval. The Dublin audience had been good, but I think they had been kept in their place by a predominance of visitors (mostly young, mostly American). Such a closetextured style of production might well have and indeed proved to have stirred ripples of discomfiture in local bosoms. After fifty-five minutes away from their drink, they were returning after another fifteen in more independent spirits. Will it hold up, Mrs Rooney? Will it hold up?
I wondered especially how Endgame would come across in an unbuttoned mood which could no longer be taken by surprise, because I had equally strong presuppositions about what to expect from Beckett’s direction. Very little is left to chance, even, for a reader, and Suhrkamp’s records of the 1967 Berlin production show unambiguously what further clarifications Beckett had introduced. The play has an intrinsic inevitability, a sense of things working themselves out in necessary forms, which I assumed Beckett’s direction of the San Quentin Workshop would repeat or take further. I assumed, that is, the production would be canonical like the one we had just experienced of Krapp’s last tape. What we were given was different enough to be disconcerting. I liked it less at the time than I do in retrospect, as I come partly to realize why it had to be as it was.
By contrast with Krapp’s last tape, which was controlled to the point of sometimes being hardly bearable in the small Peacock Theatre, Endgame was apparently the reverse, and, on the night I saw it, ran a full ten minutes longer than the Berlin production. It didn’t attempt verbal precision, and by so doing it jettisoned a dimension I had assumed to be integral, that of taking its audience through an exercise in linguistics, checking out the morphemes. The rhythm was jerky and oddly-coloured. Thus, Rick Cluchey as Hamm spoke in a variety of accents, especially in his longer canters (for instance, on the painter)—all sorts of American (including moments of plausible John Huston), Irish (South County Dublin and Armagh), Stratford and other English. Teresita Garcia Suro was an indistinct Spanish-accented Nell, who threw away her one long speech by being nearly inaudible. Alan Mandell was a contrastingly-strong Nagg, speaking loud English English, standard and cockney. Only Bud Thorpe’s Clov was consistent in low-profile, flat American. Perhaps my description exaggerates the divergences, but, without doubt, anyone who had gone for the formulaic satisfaction of the well-turned phrase—to shift gears through the text-book variations of the verb sprout, for example—was disappointed.
The production was nonetheless so exactly structured in other ways one had to assume the pleasures of the crisp phrase were denied with conscious intent. The production deliberately and systematically sacrificed the all-embracing verbal tautness, which is exhilarating, to advance another range of interests. For a start, keeping Clov closer to the expected norm, and dissipating and modifying the violence and threat in Hamm, is in keeping with playing Nagg as he is, even amplifying him, and curtailing the impact of Nell. To the extent that the theme of the tormentor-tormented is modified, Nell’s contribution can, indeed must, be muted, and Nagg’s directed towards centre-stage.
Musicalization of gesture was at the same time more exact than that of language—or rather, the effect was consistently more bracing—and it followed as far as I know in the wake of Beckett’s previous productions. Nagg knocked on Nell’s bin in a way identical with the way Hamm knocked on the wall, while Thorpe’s lanky Clov was stooped but not staggering. The changes from the Faber/Grove text were in the direction of simplicity. Thus, Clov’s opening business is modified, and he draws first the right-hand and then the left-hand curtains; Hamm doesn’t use his grimy but not bloodstained handkerchief to wipe his eyes; Clov doesn’t train his telescope on the audience on the first occasion he has it, and doesn’t move Hamm from centre-stage as he searches for the telescope later; Hamm doesn’t throw away the dog—which is small, and of no obvious breed—he thinks better of so doing and clutches it to himself at the last.
Before I go on, it must be said that these changes, even as I describe them, appear less as clarifications than progressively as interventions in the play’s meaning. They shade very quickly into aspects of a radical adjustment, which is not easy to assimilate if you come to the production with as many preconceptions as I did. To continue the list in the form of questions: how to assess the amended version of the characters’ faces? Hamm’s was unnaturally red, Nell’s unnaturally white, Clov’s only pale, and Nagg’s not made-up at all. Or what to make of the fact that, after Clov has pushed Hamm round the stage for a second time, he doesn’t go up the steps to look out of the window at the sea: he merely pretends that he does, and manifestly lies to Hamm? Clov’s knocking echoes Nagg’s and Hamm’s earlier, and thereby participates in a gestural and auditory pattern, but the deception modifies his role in other ways I would have thought more important. Or why does Clov take the alarm clock—which doesn’t replace a picture, since there is no picture in this production, and which he has previously used to startle and upset Hamm, by creeping up on him with it—and set it down first on Nagg’s bin but finally on Nell’s? It is one of the last things on stage to be illuminated as the lights go down at the close. All I can report is that such differences between text and performance were not as discomfiting at the time as the peculiar verbal colouring, though undoubtedly the revisions of action and speech are related. It is absolutely fitting that, given Nell’s stifled inaudibility, she should be so remembered at the close.
One is led to this degree of trust because the San Quentin production has complete integrity, and is played to an exact idea which, even if it is not what you expect, is riveting. The only proper response to such a selfless kind of art is to trust it wholly. Coming to terms with it afterwards is less simple, but two provisional conclusions might be offered. The San Quentin versions of Krapp’s last tape and Endgame in their different ways are classic, in that they embody modifications by Beckett of his own concerns. The modification of Endgame is of particular interest because it seems to me to suggest ways of modifying the meaning of the play that are not only clarifications, but also allow it to come closer to the values of his more recent writing.
Beckett’s modifications are, secondly, inseparable from the company he has directed—their abilities and limitations. The San Quentin Drama Workshop is, as far as I know, the first and only non-professional repertory group Beckett has rehearsed, by which I mean their range and resources are obviously more restricted than stars like Billie Whitelaw and Pat Magee and theatres like the Comédie Française and the Lincoln Center. Clearly, therefore, things as obvious as Rick Cluchey’s and Teresita Garcia Suro’s vocal range, or the rather badly-constructed dustbins, were what Beckett started with or knew he would have to work with. In the circumstance, he has shown how texts that aspire to exact embodiment may nonetheless compromise with the means of that embodiment, and each maintain its integrity. If you don’t have all the resources of the Schiller Theater, physical and human, you are not condemned to a non-Beckettian production. You can produce and act against the idea of the modified play, if a director can think it through.
This last is a particularly salutary thought in Dublin, where stage-traditions push insistently towards establishing rapport with an audience. The custom has somehow grown up that the audience shall be given something to laugh at, or, if not, to cry at, for fear they might be bored. Of course, the tradition can sustain a great deal, but it doesn’t have much to do with Beckett’s kind of theatre, which seems restrictive by comparison. I doubt if Irish theatre is prepared for the discipline and apparent self-abnegation which would enable it to learn from the San Quentin Workshop; indeed, it is more likely to recoil from it.
The San Quentin Workshop was well received in Dublin, but in this land of a thousand welcomes not all of them are what they seem. One notice was written by a reporter whose name really is J. Joyce, and was headed ‘FOXROCK MAN HAS PLAY ON AT PEACOCK.’ It told us that Beckett, the son of a well-known local building-contractor (sic), had gone to school in Stillorgan, that he now lives in Paris with his wife Suzanne (‘The couple have no children’), and that his plays ‘have been well received abroad.’ ‘He also has a preoccupation with dustbins, broken bicycles and sand.’ Which is pretty funny, and also not.