Staging Sam: Beckett as Dramatic
By Hersh Zeifman
By Michael Hastings
Sam's Last Dance
By Sean Dixon
By Justin Fleming
On January 3, 1956, Waiting for Godot
had its now notorious American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse
in Miami. The critical (and, more important, audience) response was
mostly baffled and dismissive: the play was viewed as incomprehensible,
an Irish/Gallic hoax. When Godot opened on Broadway later that
spring, its producers were so desperate for an audience that they were
reduced to advertising for "seventy thousand intellectuals"; only intellectuals,
it appeared, could appreciate such an abstruse and deeply enigmatic
Flash forward fifty years, to a winter evening
in 2005. I'm ensconced, as usual, in front of the TV, mindlessly watching
one of my favorite programmes, the medical series House. In
this particular episode, the mother of a critically ill patient whose
time is running out refuses to approve a risky surgical procedure for
her son until she gets an opinion from the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC apparently takes its own sweet time responding to such requests;
as one of the show's doctors dryly comments, "Godot would be faster."
House is broadcast--and that's broadcast, not "narrowcast"
on public television or specialty cable like HBO--on Fox, one of the
major American television networks and thus not, I hasten to point out,
a normal haven for intellectuals. Later that same evening, I finished
a mass market paperback novel, Michael Fredrickson's A Cinderella
Affidavit, a legal thriller without even a trace of intellectual
pretension or merit. At the novel's conclusion, Matthew Boer, its disillusioned
protagonist, decides to stop practicing law; one of his partners, Ira
Teitelbaum, tries to dissuade him:
"It won't be the same old shop without you,"
said Ira, his voice softer.
Matthew forced himself to smile. "We used to be together at the top
of the Trifle Tower, Ira. But I was respectable in those days. Now
they wouldn't even let me up."
Ira laughed. "Goddamn English majors."
At the risk of exposing in public my appalling
taste for schlock, I relate these anecdotes in order to illustrate how
pervasive Waiting for Godot has become in the culture at large--and
not just for English majors. Fredrickson's novel doesn't even bother
to identify its Beckett quote--assuming, rightly or wrongly, that no
such identification is now required; the formerly bewildering and impenetrable
intellectual puzzle of a play has become, over the course of time, a
classic: familiar and iconic. And so has its author: it should come
as no surprise, then, that interest in and admiration for Beckett's
work have extended from the writing to the writer himself. Witness,
for example, the many biographies published both before and after Beckett's
death, capped by James Knowlson's magisterial Damned to Fame.
Even more indicative of this embrace of Beckett's art and life is the
number of plays in the past few years in which Beckett appears as an
onstage character--three of which are the subject of this article.
The most mainstream of these plays, and in some
ways the least successful, is Michael Hastings's Calico, which
opened in London's West End in the spring of 2004. Beckett is only a
supporting character in Calico; the play's primary focus is
on James Joyce and his family, particularly his mentally disturbed daughter
Lucia, whose existence Hastings claims has been "vapourized." Hastings
is revisiting familiar territory here: in the introduction to his 1984
play Tom and Viv, which shines a harsh spotlight on the marriage
of T.S. Eliot and his mentally disturbed first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood,
he describes Viv as "that painted shadow in the background . . ., Stalinized
into cultural obscurity." Calico, like Tom and Viv,
is Hastings's attempt to reposition a marginalized female figure by
placing her at the centre of his play, thus giving her a voice. Lucia's
psychotic behaviour, the play argues, stemmed from the tensions within
a deeply dysfunctional, perhaps incestuous, family. And it is into this
family, in the Paris of 1928, that the 22-year-old Sam Beckett gingerly
Lucia was madly in love with Beckett--and for
once the cliché is literally true: her unrequited love was indeed a
kind of madness. She fantasized that she and Sam were married and the
proud parents of three sons, living an idyllic life in Galway where
in his spare time her schoolteacher husband "wrote novels about landed
Protestants." It's hard to imagine a more unlikely bourgeois scenario
for Beckett, and yet, in his desire to help, he reluctantly participates
in Lucia's fantasy--an act, Hastings writes, of "astonishing compassion."
In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann states
that both Joyce and Beckett were "addicted to silences"; it is this
essential silence of Beckett's character that Hastings captures most
believably in Calico. Scene after scene features Sam lurking
quietly in the background, a silent witness to the family romance being
enacted in front of him. And in two revealing conversations in the second
act of the play--first with Nora Joyce and then with Lucia--Sam manages
to engage in a genuine dialogue in which he never once opens his mouth.
If only he had remained silent throughout, however, for it's when Sam
speaks that Calico goes seriously wrong. "Beckett's mind,"
Ellmann notes, "had a subtlety and strangeness that attracted Joyce
as it attracted, in another way, his daughter."
Yet there is little evidence of that subtlety
in Calico's dramatic portrait of Beckett. Everything Sam says
in the play is bland and predictable; there is nothing truly eccentric--truly
Beckettian--in Hastings's Beckett. He is reduced, instead,
to a plot device: an Irish version of the Gentleman Caller in The
Glass Menagerie. (Williams's Gentleman Caller may be named O'Connor,
but he's finally as all-American as public speaking courses and chewing
gum.) With enormous tenderness Sam first supports Lucia's delusion and
then, because he must, destroys it. But there is no recognizable flutter
of a heartbeat behind this façade of a character--only a dry and lifeless
stock figure who happens to bear the name of a famous writer, a man
of few (unexceptional) words spoken with a slight Irish brogue.
The Beckett we encounter in Canadian Sean Dixon's
1997 play Sam's Last Dance, on the other hand, is anything
but dry and lifeless. Well, maybe technically lifeless: the play's opening
image is of Sam's "pale face in a tight spotlight. . . . All around
there is darkness, though from the spill we can see he is standing in
a confined space. It is actually as if he is lying on his back, and
we are watching him from above." Sam will return to this "sarcophagus"
throughout the play, but he is not in fact dead; we find him instead
in that liminal space which he later describes as "[t]he moment between
stirring still and stop." Like all the contemporary playwrights under
discussion, Dixon has done his homework, thoroughly researching both
Beckett's life (Knowlson should sue for a share of the play's royalties)
and, more significantly, his art: there are direct or indirect allusions
to at least a dozen Beckett works in the play. "Here I am at last,"
Sam announces; "Alone at last." And yet Sam is not alone; "to one on
his back in the dark" comes company. The nature of that company, and
what it implies about his "aloneness," is the subject of Dixon's play.
The character who accompanies Sam during the
course of the play is "a dead ringer for an older Buster Keaton,"
the star of Beckett's Film--one Stone Face confronting another.
Unlike Hastings, Dixon doesn't attempt to capture the "real" Beckett--whatever
chimera that might be--in his play. All we can ever truly know is the
public persona, this solitary figure struggling brilliantly to both
invade and evade the nothingness which surrounds him--a persona Dixon
uses as a springboard to dramatize two interrelated aspects of Beckett's
aloneness. "We have some unfinished business, you and I," Buster informs
Since Film was, according to Buster,
"a piece of shit," he has come to offer Sam a second chance: their next
collaboration should be "[a] show called 'Show.'"Sam is intrigued:
to write, for once in his life, a work about what he terms "Moreness."
And so, in "a landscape casually reminiscent of the setting for
'Waiting for Godot'" but lit now by the sun instead of the moon,
Sam creates a show fairly bursting with "Moreness": a World War II action
film in which he gets to sing and dance, leap from bridges, blow up
a Nazi train and save all the great paintings of Europe. This show-within-the-play
is deliberately contrived and often silly, but it raises a poignant
issue: the psychic toll on Beckett in choosing to create--even if there
was no true choice--a body of work that continually strives for Lessness,
that explores so relentlessly the darkness of human existence, that
measures with harrowing precision the exact confines of his aloneness.
Beckett has given his public a great gift, but at what cost?
Buster knows the cost--but that's because Buster,
Dixon directs, is to be played by a woman with a French accent; "[y]ou
look like my wife . . . Suzanne," Sam informs him. Here is the personal,
as opposed to the artistic, side of Beckett's perceived aloneness; the
more he disappeared into the "Vanishing Point" of his writing, the more
Suzanne felt shut out. "[A]ll the written evidence," she laments, "shows
that he is alone. / Not two . . . anymore, just one." Only by impersonating
Buster, by appearing with Sam in his show, can Suzanne leave her "mark"
on him. In their shared derring-do adventures, the pair thus becomes
a kind of hyperactive Gogo and Didi--no waiting required; Beckett may
have banned cross-gender casting in Godot, but not in Suzanne's
revisionist fantasy. "This is what I wanted," she confesses to her husband.
"To be inside the work. Walking among the words of your work. . . .
I could have been a face in the spotlight. A mouth. A pair of eyes.
The sound of a breath. It's the only kind of erotic experience you can
have with this man." Sam's last dance--the romantic moment she and Sam
share in the play--is in actuality Suzanne's last chance for that erotic
experience; Dixon has subtitled the play "an introverted love story."
Yet however much she tries to connect with him, Sam is still alone at
the end of the play. The final stage direction reads: "He reaches
for her. She disappears. He turns to face out. Looks up. Blackout."
Suzanne also appears as a character in Burnt
Piano, the 1999 play by Australian Justin Fleming, but, like Beckett
himself, only in a supporting role. The play's protagonist is Karen
Idlewild, a bookseller who, as her name suggests, idolizes Beckett--both
the man and his writing--with an almost religious fervor. "He is a man
unlike every other man," Karen proclaims reverently at the very beginning
of the play. According to Suzanne, Karen sees Beckett as a "prophet"
and "oracle," a "Christ from out of the desert," while her father Pete
accuses her of worshipping Beckett as a "Guru" and "Patriarch." Karen
has been sending Beckett letters her entire life, none of which have
been answered; but now, in 1989, after a family tragedy in which one
of her two young sons, left briefly alone while she was out running
an errand, was killed in a house fire, she has come to Paris with her
father and remaining child in order to meet him in person. After such
knowledge--after such pain and loss--what forgiveness? Beckett, Karen
claims, is "the only person who can understand," who can explain to
her the meaning of her own tragic past.
The work of Beckett's with which Karen especially
identifies is Waiting for Godot; she was born on January 3,
1953, the date of the first performance of En attendant Godot
in Paris, and because of this and other coincidences, she considers
the play her "star sign." Burnt Piano contains numerous quotations--some
acknowledged, some not--from Beckett's most famous play. But more significant
than these various allusions is the fact that Fleming's play itself,
like Sam's Last Dance, becomes a kind of alternate version
of Waiting for Godot. Beckett is Karen's Godot; if only she
can meet him, she'll be saved. And so, like Gogo and Didi, she waits--as
the Act One curtain lines emphasize: when her son Jonah collapses at
the very end of the act, she phones Emergency Services and informs them:
"Yes, I'll wait. J'attends." Composing one final letter to Beckett in
Act Two, Karen sends Jonah to deliver it--for "in [Beckett's] writing,"
she reminds us, "it's a child who brings messages." Thus it is Jonah--the
boy who was saved while his brother was "damned"--who winds up twice
encountering both Sam and his wife, their dialogue hauntingly echoing
the form, rhythm and often exact words of the Boy's meetings with Gogo
and Didi in Waiting for Godot.
The Sam we see in Burnt Piano is, appropriately,
most often a ghost, a shadowy figure bathed in a "mysterious dream-light";
Karen meets him throughout the play, but only in her imagination. And
whenever he is not a ghost--in the two domestic scenes with
Suzanne, for example, who humanizes him--he is simply a frail old man
in the last year of his life who plays the piano and is fond of whiskey
and chess. Here is Fleming's point, and the reason Suzanne was included
in the play: Beckett is neither God nor Godot, but all too fallibly
mortal. Karen has imagined him, as we imagine all our gods; whatever
universal truths she sees in his writing are her own creation. As Suzanne
tells Jonah: "Monsieur Beckett knows nothing she does not know herself!"
Beckett's writing contains no magic key to unlock life's mysteries or
explain away its miseries--as Karen discovers when she finally meets
Sam at Suzanne's graveside near the end of the play. Their "conversation,"
which occupies almost five pages of text, is totally one-sided; remarkably,
Sam never utters a single word. "I had long imagined his counsel," Karen
later comments. "Instead I was given his silence. . . . Or had I been
waiting for his wisdom? And, instead, I found my own illumination."
Beckett's writing is only a mirror: the consolation and self-forgiveness
Karen learns from him resides, ultimately, within herself.
And so we have three very different versions
of Beckett as a dramatic character in three very different plays. In
Calico, we learn next to nothing about Beckett qua Beckett--or,
as Lucky would say, quaquaquaqua Beckett; he provides merely a convenient
biographical opportunity for Hastings to explore the true focus of his
play, Lucia Joyce. Beckett proved useful primarily because, like Mount
Everest, he was there. Sam's Last Dance and Burnt Piano,
on the other hand, genuinely attempt to engage with Beckett qua Beckett--or,
at any rate, with Beckett in his role of writer. In their desire to
explain why Beckett's writing is so profoundly meaningful to so many
people, both Dixon and Fleming decided to bring Beckett onto the stage--to
let him, in effect, speak for himself. Ironically, however, although
their tremendous admiration for Beckett comes through clearly, neither
playwright is able to capture Beckett's complex personality. Their portraits
of Beckett are thus at best only portraits of his public persona; all
any of us can do, the plays suggest, is project onto Beckett the man
our own individual responses to Beckett the writer. Despite his forays
from one side of the footlights to the other, then, Samuel Beckett remains,
in the end, as stubbornly elusive as his most famous creation.