Review: ‘Lessness’ at the Oxford Playhouse, 17-2Q February 1982, performed by the Rohan Theatre Group, director and designer Lucy Bailey
In his judicious chapter on what he aptly calls ‘the plays out of their element’ Clas Zilliacus, in his indispensable Beckett and broadcasting, speaks of ‘a growing respect for Beckett’s insistence on safeguarding the integrity of the vision he has encoded, medium and all’. Beckett’s insistence is epitomized by the letter Zilliacus quotes as an epigraph to his book: ‘frankly the thought of All that fall on a stage, however discreetly, is intolerable to me’. It is clear, however, that on the question of generic transposition Beckett has mellowed over the years; there has even been a ‘production’, bizarre though it might sound, of the Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit. Such enterprises obviously derive from the deep conviction on the part of his interpreters that Beckett is not so much ‘a poet in everything he writes’ as the familiar claim runs, but rather ‘a dramatist in everything he writes’. The idea holds up well, for obvious reasons, when the generic transposition is relatively slight: radio play into stage play, stage play into film, and so on and so forth. But it is naturally more threatened where Beckett’s prose works are concerned. Yet it is precisely the ‘translation’ of prose works into drama that has most occupied creative interpreters in the theatre in recent years. One thinks of the Mabou Mines Lost ones, of the radio production of the same text, of radio readings of Lessness and Company. Recently there was Chaikin s compilation Texts based on Texts for nothing, with a coda from How it is. And the Rohan Theatre Group, encouraged and supported by Francis Warner, staged at the Oxford Playhouse, in what was quietly but firmly described in the programme as a ‘world premiere’, a text which, notwithstanding the radio reading of blessed memory, one might summarily have dismissed as unstageable: Lessness.
For someone who had always been convinced that prose was prose and drama was drama, Chaikin’s Texts must have raised more questions that it answered. On what grounds, one might ask, did Chaikin omit phrases from the Texts which at one and the same time serve to distinguish one text from another and contribute to the hidden logic that links one text with another? How far did he see the coda from How it is arising naturally out of the world of the Texts? And if dramatic effect, irrespective of textual accuracy, is all that matters, was Chaikin not exceptionally mobile by comparison with Beckett’s fictional moribunds, brilliantly inventive though his movements were? Did his voice, moreover, have the requisite timbre for Beckett’s words, as Jack McGowran’s, Pat Magee’s, Ronald Pickup’s and Billie Whitelaw’s undoubtedly do? One’s predisposition to admire Chaikin’s ambitious experiment was somewhat tempered by the reality of watching it.
The Oxford Lessness was undoubtedly more ‘Beckettian’ than Chaikin’s Texts. Lessness can, of course, be presented complete, as Texts for nothing - in a solo performance, at least- manifestly cannot. But it was not only a respect for Beckett’s text that made Lessness more ‘authentic’, for no producer would wish Lessness shorter than it is (it plays for some thirty minutes) and an edited Lessness would wreck the structures upon which it is built. More importantly, the director, Lucy Bailey, treated Lessness in a manner that Beckett himself, if he were to mellow still further, might treat it. One says this knowing (courtesy of the director herself) that Beckett suggested to her that, if he were to produce Lessness it would be (like almost all the recent plays) a monodrama, with a singular masked figure stage centre and six recorded voices emanating from the encompassing darkness. But Lucy Bailey’s approach remains Beckettian. Firstly, by virtue of her recognition that Lessness is an exceptionally abstract work, even by comparison with the other ‘late’ pieces, and her determination that any residual hankering after naturalism was to be overcome. Secondly, by virtue of her knowledge of how important precision is in staging any Beckett work: a strict attention to pauses and to lighting was observed. Thirdly, by deciding that the dramatic image, or visual impact, would have to retain the attention of an audience that might be utterly bewildered by the repetitive and in some ways rebarbative verbal fabric.
Lucy Bailey’s prime rationale, it would seem, was to treat Lessness as if it were a kind of hybrid to which Play and That time had substantially contributed. In her Lessness (as distinct from Beckett’s hypothetical one) the high disembodied head of That time, shorn of its straggling locks, occupied a recess in the centre of a severe black flat and stared silent and unmoved (in this respect, unlike That time) at a point above the audience’s heads, roughly at the same angle to the perpendicular as in That time. In a circular fashion around this dominating central image were disposed, at regular intervals, the six actors and actresses who had been assigned (as in the radio production of Lessness) the ‘Ruin’, ‘Earth’, ‘Man’, ‘Mindlessness’, ‘Past and future denied’ and ‘Past and future affirmed’ elements of which the text is made up. Those familiar with Martin Esslin’s definition of these categories, or Ruby Cohn’s, or what were taken to be Beckett’s own on the dustflap to the 1970 Calder and Boyars edition, might baulk at the second and third of these (‘Earth’ and ‘Man’; compare the dustjacket’s ‘exposure’ and ‘wilderness’), though a reference in the programme to a manuscript owned by Francis Warner and marked up by Beckett may account for what would otherwise seem an unwarranted simplification. But the mise en scène stressed, in any case, that differentiation was less important than integration and, as the light conjured words from the six heads - an effect analogous to that familiar from Play - one could almost forget that three voices (those at 12 o’clock, 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock) were female, and that three (those at 2 o’clock 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock) were male. The same tonelessness, slightly moderated as Lessness wore on, diminished the endemic differences of register. An equal excellence in sonic values, not present in this production, might have eradicated differentials altogether. But the director must have decided, no doubt rightly, that visual values had to take precedence.
Four features distinguished the images on the circumference from the image at the centre: 1) that they faced ‘fixed front’ as Ping would say; 2) that they were surrounded by outcrops of a jagged rock-like material which gave them a disconcerting quasi-‘halo’ effect; 3) that they were only intermittently visible during each ‘paragraph’, whereas the central head, less bright, was permanently so; 4) that they spoke. Visually, thanks to a really excellent lighting director (Peter Wiggins) the technical problems of such an enterprise were triumphantly solved. The movements of the light did nothing, it should be said, to make Lessness seem a text of crystalline logic. But since we know that an element of randomness affected the text as it stands, this is no doubt proper. It may even, I suppose, be said that, whereas Lessness as a prose text seems to demand an interpretation of its reader, Lessness as a drama may be enjoyed ‘without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Yet one virtue of the Oxford production was that it made the six constitutive clusters seem like fragments of a unique utterance - as if the silent central figure were seeking some absolute, unimpeachable, solitary utterance of unanswerable finality. This is not, I think, an effect available to a reader of the prose, since the uniform typography stresses the paragraph and the sentence rather than the elements of which they are composed. And this stage production even had an advantage over the excellent radio version (where sonic values naturally had to take precedence and were much more sensitively rendered), in that the penultimate paragraph, in which all six voices speak, was particularly telling, with all seven heads lit. It was as if one had really reached the heart of this unruly labyrinth.
The Oxford Lessness was much more a semiotic ‘play of signs’ than I, rightly or wrongly, presume the prose text to be. Whether one could say it was a play tout court, irrespective of its provenance, seems to me to remain problematic. Certainly, in spite of (and no doubt because of) raising less questions than Chaikin’s Texts, it made for a more satisfactory theatrical experience, and abundantly justified Beckett’s ‘approval’ of the project, however ‘intolerable’ he may have privately found the idea. On this evidence, the future of generic transpositions is entirely dependent upon the discretion which Beckett’s letter on All that fall of 1957 refers to in passing. Certainly one shudders to think of what a less principled and sensitive director may yet make of works not intended for the stage and unlikely to flourish there.