24 June 2009

Beckett, Beckettry, Beckettish

I very much enjoyed Cutting Ball Theater’s production last March of Will Eno’s monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), but I walked out of the theater thinking I probably didn’t have a whole lot to say about it, which is an occasionally awkward reaction. I was really impressed by the quietly modulated performance of Jonathan Bock (directed by Marissa Wolf); when he came to take his bow he was smiling in a way that told me how effectively he had created a character different from himself. I also had to sympathize with him because part of the play involves asking audience members questions, and since I prefer to sit in the front row he turned to me to ask what my dreams were or something, and I’m sorry, I know actors work hard, but they’re getting nothing out of me. I was also amused that after I had praised the consistently inventive stage design at Cutting Ball, they did a show that was on a practically bare stage.

I had been a bit irritated by the constant repetition of the New York Times’s description of Eno as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” Initially I think I reacted that way because I felt the reference to Stewart was arbitrary and trendy – if the first part of the monologue reminded me of anyone, it was early 1930s Groucho Marx. But as I walked to BART, stepping over discarded drug paraphernalia and strategically crossing streets to avoid as inconspicuously as possible the more threatening-looking huddles of street folk, sure that when I arrived at the station I would have a long wait for a miserably noisy and dirty crowded train, I realized the Beckett comparison was bugging me because this was exactly the sort of mundane low-level anxiety and suffering that he specialized in, and that I hadn’t seen in Thom Pain’s more colorfully picturesque suffering.

I guess any sort of poeticized bleakness gets compared to Beckett, the way a certain type of restrained romance written by a woman will always get compared to Jane Austen. But the thing about Beckett is that his characters aren’t just obscure citizens – they’re so marginal they practically don’t belong to society. And it’s only Beckett’s incredible innate sense of rhythm that can make their often obsessive and repetitive speech powerful and memorable. Comparisons to Beckett are a lot to live up to, and there’s really no need for them. I’ll happily see where Eno goes next on his own.

Thom Pain’s monologue, centering on childhood incidents involving animals and then on his girlfriend’s breaking up with him, seemed very much a young man’s story (maybe that’s where the “Jon Stewart generation” thing comes from, though I haven’t noticed that Stewart’s appeal is that age-specific). So I can’t help wondering if we aren’t just seeing the extravagant drama youth enjoys; Beckett’s characters are way beyond this stage. And though the notable grotesquerie of some of the monologue avoided the trap of being “interesting” and “quirky” in that overly contrived and very literary way, I couldn’t help remembering Laertes: “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, she turns to favor and to prettiness.”

What’s so awful about a lot of life is that it’s not bad in an interesting or unusual or dramatic way; it's just bad in a low-level, miserable, and annoying way. What struck me, oddly enough, is that the situations in Thom Pain were too dramatic. This play differs fundamentally from what Beckett does, which is to present the ordinary and banal so relentlessly and even literally (think of the way he embodies a metaphor of individual isolation by frequently showing people living in garbage cans, trapped in jars, or buried in sand piles) that they become funny and tragic. Beckett’s people are so marginal they don’t even realize they’re marginal. I realize it’s a tricky thing, trying to portray the banality and boredom of suffering without also being banal and boring, but it’s a truth about life that’s worth exploring. That may not be what Eno was even trying to do, but to me that’s where his work differs from Beckett’s, and for me there's a purer truth in Beckett's more austere artistry.

But perhaps I see these things in Beckett because that’s what I respond to. Years ago (so unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the critic making the point), someone writing about Dickens pointed out that for Chesterton he was a genial, humorous and good-natured writer, whereas for Shaw he was an acid social critic and reformer. You’re going to treasure Pickwick Papers or Little Dorrit depending on your inclinations. We see what we’re looking for in great artists. We carry around these general impressions of even our favorite writers, and can free ourselves from vagueness we didn’t think we had only by re-immersing ourselves in the actual nuanced words.

That’s a roundabout and perhaps dubious way of approaching the next show I saw at Cutting Ball, Krapp’s Last Tape. So here’s another monologue, with Paul Gerrior as Krapp (and David Sinaiko as the recorded voice of the younger Krapp), this time directed by Rob Melrose, Cutting Ball’s artistic director. The performance was fine but didn’t really gel for me, for reasons that no doubt have more to do with my moods and my feelings about this particular play than with the production; I liked Gerrior (though what was up with his weirdly sexual way of eating the bananas?), but Krapp’s Last Tape has always been, and remains, my least favorite of Beckett’s plays.

Krapp listens to old tapes of himself reminiscing about a woman he knew. He’s going on about the woman at one point and I suddenly really wanted to hear from her, and what she thought of this man, but you don’t get her voice at all, even as repeated by him. It’s a very inward play, exploring a layered moment of memory, but it’s a moment, not really a drama. Perhaps it’s simply that as an aging, inwardly absorbed man myself, I already spend far too much time with someone like that.

That was the close of Cutting Ball’s rich and ambitious season. Check out their next season; the Hidden Classics reading series looks particularly exciting.

And for further Beckett, I recently discovered (in a letter to Gramophone magazine, of all places), that the British Library has available a four-CD set of the radio plays he created for the BBC. I had some problems with their balky website so I wasn’t able to place my order until a couple of days ago and hence have not yet received my copy, but to me this sort of thing is self-recommending, and you’ll already know if it is for you as well.


John Marcher said...

As another aging & inwardly absorbed man, I pretty much had the same reaction to that Krapp. Your comments on Beckett are very interesting and I hadn't specifically considered his characters in that light before. Medea vs. Medea is something I don't think I can miss and I agree the season looks promising.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Medea vs Medea definitely caught my eye.