State of play: performance changes and Beckett scholarship

 

James Knowlson

 

Since the mid-1960s, Samuel Beckett has directed several productions of his main stage plays himself, mostly at the Schiller-Theater in Berlin, but also in Paris and London.1 In addition, in the case of a number of separate productions at the Royal Court Theatre in London, at the Odeon Theatre de France and the Pavillon de Marsan in Paris, as well as in Berlin, he has acted as informal adviser to the directors, George Devine, Anthony Page, Donald McWhinnie, Donald McWhinnie, Jean-Marie Serreau and Deryk Mendel2. As a result, certain of the plays have evolved considerably in the course of their transmission to the stage.

 

Surviving copies of Waiting for Godot from 1953, 1964 and 19753 show that Beckett has always been willing to modify his text in the light of difficulties encountered or highlighted by the process of staging the play. The shape of Waiting for Godot, for example, as seen in the author’s own 1975 production with the Schiller-Theater company in Berlin, was very different from that of Roger Blin’s original Paris production of 1953: tauter, more concise, more economical, but also dramatically more arresting and more rigorously justified.4 Since Beckett’s production of Krapp’s last tape in 1969, with Martin Held as Krapp, the play has changed considerably in its visuals and its stage business, even in the physical appearance of Krapp, as compared with the 1958 world premiere, which had Patrick Magee in the title role.5 For the mittens, the shabby dressing-gown and the shuffly, old carpet-slippers which were worn by Pierre Chabert and Rick Cluchey, the most recent actors to play the part under Beckett’s direction, transform the clown-decrepit of the printed text into a more overtly realistic old man, lost in dreams, fumbling clumsily with the tapes, wheezing heavily and cursing loudly. A production which continues nowadays to follow the original printed text only succeeds in demonstrating that Beckett was right as director in thinking that the keys, the envelope and the first drink really do hold up the opening of the play unjustifiably, when it already has the somewhat lengthy stage business with the bananas and banana skins. Instead, the substituted triple journey to the backstage closet to fetch the reels of tape, the ledger and the tape-recorder is dramatically more interesting because it holds back the explanatory element (the tape-recorder) until the end, and because it shows us an old Krapp in movement, as compared with his preliminary stillness. Productions of Happy days directed by Beckett in Berlin and London in the 1970s provided evidence of his dissatisfaction with the play’s first act, and in the most recent version in June 1979, with Billie Whitelaw as Winnie, he went some way towards resolving this by effecting a series of cuts, minor changes and rewrites.6 Finally, Endgame, which Beckett directed for the San Quentin Drama Workshop in 1980, was similarly subjected to many small cuts and revisions in the course of rehearsals which took place at the Riverside Studios in London.7

 

These changes have ranged from the most minute to the much more fundamental. The London production of Play in 1964, for instance, provided one of the most radical examples of change, when Beckett significantly altered the form of the Repeat. This change was subsequently recorded in a note inserted into later editions of the English text.8 But in the case of Not I directions concerning the Auditor’s gestures have varied for different productions - when the Auditor was present at all, that is and such changes have not found their way into the printed version of the play which has appeared in the collected Ends and odds.9

 

 

Changes have, in fact, been made in all of the plays on which Beckett has worked as director. Yet, up to the present day, the playwright has been unwilling to contemplate revising the various published texts in English and French in the light of the changes that he has introduced. An important preliminary task, therefore, which awaits any future editor of Beckett’s plays - whether the edition is to be tri-, bi-, or monolingual - is that of establishing an accurate, up-to-date text which will incorporate all of these changes. Of all Beckett’s publishers, the German house of Suhrkamp in Frankfurt has been the most responsible in taking account of such changes, not surprisingly perhaps in view of the fact that most of them originated in Berlin productions. Their photographic volumes recording Beckett’s Schiller-Theater productions, with an accompanying revised text in German, go some considerable way towards establishing a record of the modified versions of the plays.10 The same publishers have also printed a trilingual edition, in which Krapp’s last tape appears in an amended English text.11 Detailed work for a Theatre Workbook on this same play has revealed, however, that this record is incomplete. And the German editions do not, of course, take account of changes effected in productions by Beckett in Paris and London. Much research remains to be done, therefore, before an up-to-date text can be established for all of the plays.

 

A further task for an editor will be that of tracing, recording and interpreting accurate and detailed information on visual elements not already included in the stage directions, as well as on-stage business, lighting, set and costume designs, even, if possible, on the make-up used in these production. For, to choose only two examples, the omission by Beckett of Krapp’s ‘purple nose’ from productions with which he has been involved ever since the first production of Krapp’s last tape in 1958, or the adoption of a terrible, cadaverous pallor of countenance for Winnie in the second act of his own 1979 London production of Happy days - where it revealed a much wider chasm between the first and second acts than has commonly been accepted - indicate how such seemingly trivial elements can aid interpretation of the plays.

 

The main difficulty in dealing with material concerned with the play in performance arises directly from the unusual nature of the theatre as an art form, combining, as it does, a highly precise, very concrete stage reality with a fundamental ephemerality. This particular combination may well constitute an important part of the theatre’s appeal, but it undoubtedly presents very real problems for the theatre scholar. One production may differ radically from another, sometimes in ways that are not at all easy to record. One performance may even differ from another in the course of the same theatrical run. How then does one manage to record specific details of something which is characterized by fluidity, fragility, relative unpredictability and impermanence? And is it of importance anyway that one should be able to do this? The aims of the scholar are after all quite different from those of the copyist, although there are some scholars who believe in the importance of noting down production details merely for the sake of theatrical history. Beckett’s work as a director represents, however, a further phase in his efforts to perfect his own work for the stage. As such, preservation of his directorial efforts is of added interest and can also be of value as an aid to critical understanding of the plays.

 

One needs to remember, nonetheless, that one is dealing with a theatrical realization and not an ideal representation of the plays. This means that, in Beckett’s own productions just as much as in any others, choice has had to be exercised in all kinds of areas, accommodating the plays to individual actors or groups of actors, to a particular theatre or a set of circumstances within that theatre. The problems experienced in lighting the figure of the Auditor, for example, in Pas moi (Not I) in the Petite Salle of the Theatre d’Orsay in Paris were directly responsible for the eventual omission of that figure from the production altogether. Similarly, the manual dexterity of the actor playing the role of Krapp has at least played some part in determining whether the tape-recorder should or should not be operated `live’ by the actor.12 On the whole, Beckett has preferred to have it operated by an assistant stage-manager from the wings, but not exclusively so. Choice, and quite often compromise, has therefore to be taken into account. It is extremely difficult, for example, to determine how much Beckett’s own recent approach to the character of Winnie for the Royal court 1979 Happy days - frivolous, slightly dotty, bird-like in her hand movements - was influenced by his appraisal of how the relative youth, good looks, voice and vocal range of Billie Whitelaw (with whom he had worked on several occasions before) could be successfully accommodated to the role. This kind of uncertainty is enough in itself to emphasize the need for caution and for an awareness of the nature and circumscriptions of the theatre as one handles this kind of material.

 

But how can information arising out of Beckett’s own productions of his plays best be recorded, and how can the authority and clarity of insight of the author become his own director be made available to the scholar in his study? Several different answers to this question can be given, which relate both to what has already been done and also to what remains to be achieved. First, Beckett is his own most immaculate of scribes. His production notebooks for Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s last tape, Happy days, Play, Come and go, That time and Footfalls have all been preserved and are meticulously ordered, very detailed and extremely thorough. All of these notebooks have now been donated to a single collection, that of Reading University Library, and it is hoped that they will eventually be published in a series entitled The production notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Secondly, Beckett has also acquired a number of what might be termed ‘secondary scribes’ who have recorded details of his various productions with considerable fidelity. These productions are described in books or articles by Michael Haerdter, Walter Asmus, Pierre Chabert and Ruby Cohn.13

 

But production notes, or even the director’s own production notebooks, naturally do not always exactly match up with the finished work. Nor do they tell us everything that we want to know. It is here that acting scripts, first-hand reports of actors, lighting, costume and set designers and other theatre technicians come very much into their own. Ruby Cohn’s most recent book, Just play: Beckett’s theater, the bilingual edition of Happy days/Oh les beaux jours14 and the Theatre Workbook on Krapp’s last tape fall draw on personal recollections and this kind of first-hand theatre material. And Dougald McMillan’s and Martha Fehsenfeld’s book Beckett in the Theatre, to be published by John Calder (Publishers) Ltd., will do this much more systematically and over a wider field.

 

Such material needs, however, to be made available for direct consultation by theatre scholars, together with set designs, models, still photographs, audio and video recordings, theatre programmes and other ephemera. Experience suggests that, in this respect, the established Theatre Museums and other subsidised collections inevitably tend to cast their net far too wide to be a great deal of use to Beckett specialists and, in any case, except for press cuttings, they often lag behind in the field of contemporary productions. Tracing and assembling theatre material is best done, moreover, by those with some theatrical experience who can proceed to acquire items more or less systematically. Otherwise, invaluable items are likely to be destroyed or lost, as theatre practitioners quite properly from their own point of view - move rapidly after one production on to the next. There are, after all, still many copies of Beckett’s early poem Whoroscope in existence, but there is, or rather was, only one Giacometti tree, executed for the 1961 Odeon Theatre de France production of Waiting for Godot and no-one seems to have any idea what has happened to it.15 As scholars we are perhaps so conditioned to working only with books and manuscripts that the importance of this kind of theatre material is only gradually coming to be recognized. It seems important for theatre research that special collections should be established in a number of different places, each of them perhaps possessing its own special area of interest. What after all, is being done at present with Pinter, Stoppard, Bond, Ionesco, Frisch and Durenmatt theatre materials, even though it is known that many of these dramatists played an important part in the staging of their own plays? There will certainly be little point in looking in thirty to fifty years time.

 

In the case of Beckett, the University of Reading has attempted to gather together such material into a single specialized collection. Although manuscripts and printed books still constitute the main body of the holdings, this collection also includes theatre designs (by Matias for Beckett’s own productions), a large number of still production photographs, many theatre programmes, posters and other ephemera, as well as the important set of manuscript notebooks mentioned earlier.’’ Yet this collection still has large gaps and is nowhere near as systematic or as comprehensive as one would have wished.

 

Another area where progress is likely to be rapid, as video-recorders become increasingly commonplace, is the filming and use in teaching and research of video-recordings of Beckett’s plays. In many cases, legislation still needs to be introduced before such material can be used legally. Reason suggests, however, that this is likely to be only a matter of time. As the appendix to this article shows, there is already a substantial cache of video-recordings in existence from different countries, mostly of the plays that Beckett wrote especially for television, but also recordings of some of Beckett’s own stage productions in Berlin and London. Anyone who has been able to compare the two different versions of Ghost trio - the English, directed by Donald McWhinnie with Beckett’s assistance, and the German one directed by Beckett alone - will appreciate the value of having this primary material available for detailed study. Finance has also recently been provided to enable a film to be made about the preparation, rehearsing and acting of one of Beckett’s most recent short dramatic pieces, Rockaby (1981) with Billie Whitelaw creating the part of the woman in the rocking chair. As I write, Beckett is in Stuttgart for rehearsals and recording of a new piece for television, Quad, involving 4 players or dancers and a number of percussion instruments.

 

In the future, such video-recordings will clearly play an extremely important part in theatre scholarship and in the teaching of drama. At the moment it remains very difficult to raise the capital to film or video-record important productions of plays. Harold Pinter, Lindsay Anderson and a number of others had in mind the value of preserving exceptional productions of stage plays when they tried, and partially succeeded, in raising money in the United States to finance the recording of these productions on film. As was pointed out at the time, such productions may well acquire great celebrity in the course of a theatrical run, but they remain every bit as ephemeral as the forgettable rubbish. Video ­recordings may offer only a pale reflection of the original theatrical event, but they are infinitely better than nothing. The incompatibility of line between the television systems of several different countries is a practical problem that may be solved, though not without expense. At present, at least in Great Britain, the primary problem is obtaining video material from public corporations, and showing it legitimately.

 

Apart from establishing a text for a critical edition of Beckett’s plays, what, one may ask, are the lines of research that would benefit most directly from study of the kind of material referred to here? First, such production material is just about all that we have to enable us to answer some of the major questions that pose themselves concerning Beckett’s approach to the theatre. Under what influences did it evolve? Were these influences purely theoretical? Or were Beckett’s dramatic methods developed pragmatically? Were they guided perhaps by working with a director who was also an expert on lighting techniques, like George Devine,17 or by someone with an all-round theatrical expertise, like Roger Blin? At present few of these questions can be answered with any degree of certainty. Yet, in the absence of any marginal comments by Beckett on the writings of Craig, Appia or Artaud, study of the theatre notebooks, interviews with actors, directors, lighting and set designers offers perhaps the best chance we have of establishing what might be called a Beckettian ‘theatrical poetic’. Secondly, it will almost certainly be neces­sary to make extensive use of the production notebooks before the analysis of dramatic shape and rhythms in Beckett’s major plays can be taken very much further. But thirdly, and in my view most importantly, a study of this material can scarcely fail to help the critic to resolve questions of understanding and interpretation.

 

Two instances of how production details can illuminate fundamental themes of the plays must suffice. First, as I have suggested more fully elsewhere,18 in the early printed version of Krapp’s Last Tape, the various items of stage business were specific enough, but, by Beckett’s own exacting standards, they were imperfectly integrated into the thematics of the play. So, in his later productions of this play, these elements were incorporated much more closely into what emerged as a whole choreography of sound and silence, movement and stillness, light and darkness, which corresponded to what are, at root, Manichean divisions in Krapp’s approach to the world of sense and spirit. It was, I believe, the emphasis that Beckett put on these contrasting elements in the set for his productions of the play, in the lighting used, and in Krapp’s physical appearance, as well as in what might be described as the ‘Gnostic pages’ in the Schiller-Theater notebook that has helped critics to perceive clearly the theme of separation and reconciliation . . . which lies at the heart of the play.19

 

My second example demonstrates how, by looking at dramatic utter­ances with performance detail in mind, one is guided to look closely both at form and vision in Beckett’s work. The extract examined consists of a single sentence from That time, which Beckett directed in Berlin 1976 with Klaus Herm as the Listener: ‘Tottering and muttering all over the parish till the words dried up and the head dried up and the legs dried up whosoever they were or it gave up whoever it was’. We know from Walter Asmus’s account of the Berlin production that when directing the play, Beckett stressed in this speech the ‘object’ status of the person in the drama by emphasizing the ‘it’ in the phrase ‘it gave up whoever it was’.20 It is worth noting that this alienation from self is anticipated by the repetition of the definite article (‘the words’, ‘the head’, ‘the legs’), by the separation of these elements by the conjunction ‘and’, and by the device of repetition itself. But this alienation is accompanied by an image of ‘drying up’ which is a recurrent psychotic image of consuming fire, just as the conversion of the Other and (as a kind of self-defence) the Self into a ‘thing, a mechanism, an "it", being petrified’ is a common enough experience among psychotics.21 Beckett uses the ‘ontological insecurity’ of his old man, however, here not to highlight mental instability, but to reflect upon painful aspects of existence and, primarily, to present a concentrated image of human isolation in a world that is hurrying about its business, ignoring the signs of decay, disintegration and death with which it is surrounded. But the repetition and the archaic ‘whosoever they were’ phrase also recapture the style of the Authorised version of the Bible. And the images of physical paralysis and decay may echo those found in King David’s laments in Psalm 22: ‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death’. Echoes of the Psalmist’s words - probably used in this instance unconsciously by Beckett - and the shades of a Laingian ‘divided self’ fuse into an utterance in which dramatic rhythm and repetition already mark out the process of depersonalization at work in the text.

 

This second example, however slight it may appear, serves to epitomize how material arising out of the play in performance can focus attention and sometimes even bring new evidence to bear upon issues which lie at the very heart of the play’s meaning. Study of the production notebooks and related materials should, therefore, if properly conducted, not only reveal much about Beckett’s practice as a director, but finally, and in some ways more enduringly, assist in formulating an optimum reading of his plays.

 

 

 

 

 

 


1 Beckett’s productings at the Schiller-Theater in Berlin (mostly at the smaller Werkstatt Theater) were as follows: Endgame, September 1967; Krapp’s last tape, October 1969; ~:lappy days, September 1971; Waiting for Godot, March 1975; That time and footfalls, October, 1976; Play with Come and go, October 1978. In Paris, he di(ected Come and go at the Odeon Theatre de France in 1966; Krapp’s last tape at the Theatre Recamier in May 1970 and again at the Theatre d’Orsay (Petite Salle~ iP April 1975; Pas moi was on the same programme in April 1975;,~Footfalls)at the Theatre d’Orsay in April 1978, again with Pas moi. In London, he directed Footfalls in May 1976 at the Royal Court Theatre, and Happy days in June 1979. He also directed Krapp’s last tape with the San Quentin Drama Workshop in Berlin at the Akademie der Kunste in 1977 and Endgame with the same company, rehearsals being held at the Riverside Studios in London in May 1980, for performances in Dublin and an American tour.



2 Beckett attended rehearsals of Roger Blin’s original January 1953 production, helped George Devine with the London Endgame in October 1958 and Donald McWhinnie with Krapp’s last tape at the same time. He assisted Jean-Marie Serreau with a May 1961 revival of Godot at the Odeon Theatre de France and with Comedie in June 1964. He assisted Anthony Page with Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court Theatre, London in December 1964 and advised the same director on Not I in January 1973 at the same theatre. He assisted Donald McWhinnie at the Royal Court with That time in May 1976. Earlier, Beckett had attended Deryk Mendel’s rehearsals of Godot at the Schiller-Theater in 1965.



3 A photocopy of the original 1952 edition of En attendant Godot inscribed ‘Prompt Copy 1953’, corrected by Beckett for the first Theatre de Babylone production by Roger Blin, is preserved in Reading University Library, MS 1485/1. The corrected playscript for the December 1964 Royal Court production is owned by Beckett’s British publisher, John Calder. The 1975 production of Godot at the SchillerTheater, Berlin is recorded in two annotated copies of the German text preserved in Reading University Library (MS 1481/1/1 and MS 1481/2), as well as by the two production notebooks referred to in the next note.



4The two manuscript production notebooks of the Berlin March 1975 production of Godot are in Reading University Library, MS 1396/4/3 and MS 1396/4/4. This production is described by Walter Asmus in Theatre Quarterly, vol. V, no. 19, Sept.-Nov. 1975, pp. 19-26. The account had first appeared in Theater heute. See also Ruby Cohn, Just play: Beckett’s theater, Princeton U.P., Princeton, N.J., 1980, pp. 256-266. This production has now been recorded on a gramophone record, Deutsche Grammophon, Stereo. 2LP 2752008, Literature, 1981.



5These production changes are recorded in Samuel Beckett: Krapp’s last tape. Theatre workbook no. 1., ed. James Knowlson, Brutus Books Ltd., London, 1980



6These cuts and minor rewrites are recorded in Beckett’s copy of Happy days, annotated for the Royal Court June 1979 production, and preserved in Reading University Library, MS. 1478 and in Beckett’s production notebook in the same collection, MS. 1430.



7This production was rehearsed in London but opened at the Pike Theatre in Dublin, before going on to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and on an American tour. An annotated copy with corrections is in Reading University, MS 1974 and some of Beckett’s production notes are also preserved, MS 1975.



8The change recorded in the 1969 Faber reprint arose out of Beckett’s work with Jean-Marie Serreau on the French production and followed discussions with George Devine. See Samuel Beckett: an exhibition, Turret Books, London, 1971, p. 92, nos. 277 and 278.



9Ends and odds, Faber and Faber, London, 1977 and Grove Press, New York, 1977.



10 In order of production these are: Samuel Beckett inszeniert das ‘Endspiel’, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1969. With text, photographs and containing Michael Haerdter’ s production diary. See also Materialen zu Becketts ‘Endspiel’, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1968 (with no text); Das letzte Band. Regiebuch der Berliner Inszenierung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1970, with text, photographs and articles; Samuel Beckett inszeniert ‘Gluckliche Tage’. Probenprotokoll von Alfred Hubner Fotos von Horst Guldermeister, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1976, with textual changes, photographs, and production diary, but no text.



11 Samuel Beckett, Das letzte Band. La demiere bande. Krapp’s last tape, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1974.



12See interviews with Patrick Magee, Donald Davis, and Jean Martin in the Theatre Workbook



13Michael Haerdter’s production diary referred to in footnote 10; Walter Asmus’s notes on Beckett’s 1975 production, referred to in footnote 4 and his production diary on That time and Footfalls in Journal of Beckett Studies, no. 2, Summer 1977, pp. 82-95; Pierre Chabert, ‘Samuel Beckett as Director’ in the Theatre Workbook, pp. 85-107; Ruby Cohn, Just play, chapter 12, ‘Beckett Directs’.



14Happy Days. Oh les beaux fours. A Bilingual Edition ed. James Knowlson, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1978.



15Photographs of this production showing the Giacometti tree still exist, taken by Photo Pic and Photo Bernand of Paris.



16See The Samuel Beckett collection: a catalogue, ed. J.A. Edwards, The Library, University of Reading, 1978.



17See Irving Wardle, The theatres of George Devine, Jonathan Cape, London, 1978, pp. 207-208.



18In ‘Krapp’s Last Tape: the evolution of a play, 1958-1975’, Journal of Beckett Studies, no. 1, Winter 1976 and in the Theatre Workbook.



19See James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the skull: the later prose and drama of Samuel Beckett, John Calder, London, 1979, and Grove Press, New York, 1980, pp. 81-92.



20Walter Asmus, Journal of Beckett Studies, no. 2, Summer 1977, p. 93.



21See R.D. Laing, The divided self: an existential study in sanity and madness, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1965



 

 

 

 

Appendix

Video-recordings and films of Beckett plays in America, France, Germany and Great Britain.

 

1. America

·        Krapp’s last tape. Directed by Alan Schneider with Jack MacGowran (made in early 1970s) produced by Mark Wright. No public transmission.

 

2. France

 

3. Germany

 

4. Great Britain

 

London University Audio-Visual Centre (11, Bedford Square, London, W.C.1.)

 

Additional video material