Every dramatist must decide for whom he is writing his plays, and I’ve decided that I’m writing my plays for my wife, my children, and myself, and no others. This is a conception of elegant simplicity, reached after considering revisions to the form and content of the play I am now calling Erlkönig (formerly The Elf King). So much follows from that simple decision, even to the presentation of my plays themselves: from now on I seek no large theatres but will rest content with black boxes, with expected audiences of no more than 75 at a time, though I don’t even need that many, really; no pre-show or post-show music; no spectacle, at least so far as I and Aristotle understand it, no real scenery, only the speaking performer. No more than 75 minutes, I think. My people will speak quietly, because they are the kinds of people who would speak quietly, given their condition. And because I am not very good at experimentation, no experiments, except to the degree to which every new play is an experiment of some kind or another, but that drains the word itself of its meaning. So I suppose a kind of realism or naturalism, at least in genre, though I will endeavor to lyricise language to the extent that I am able. Any possible producers will be pleased to note the gratifying result of low, even minimal, budgets.
So what I will write here will be towards this play itself, and I must warn that I am only concerned with my wife, my children, and myself, and what I wish to show them using the stage and the drama. I have nothing to teach them, no wisdom, but it occurs to me that this is part of what I wish to leave them. In all my writing here I have only tried to determine what it means to love in a dying world, and the obstacles we ourselves place upon that path, and it is this that my children will have to decide for themselves. So not wisdom, but only passing thoughts on the subject, and how they materialise in our everyday world.
Those who seek other kinds of writing about other kinds of plays and theatre should from now on probably look elsewhere. My drama and theatre will be as far from a popular theatre as it is possible to be. None of this is new; looking over Word Made Flesh the other day I find nothing to retract, nor anything that militates against the kind of theatre I describe above.
Below, a post that I originally wrote in March 2011 under the title “Samuel Beckett, Mark Rothko and the courage of pessimism” and which has continued to retain interest for some. I still retain my faith in pessimism, a pessimism which — for a father with two young daughters — is a complex quality, obviously. But still I think it is appropriate.
Those who are constrained to find anything that can be defined as “joy” or “happiness” in Samuel Beckett’s work may have a formidable opponent in the author himself. (Perhaps one finds “courage,” but that’s a different quality entirely.) Beckett’s friend Harold Pinter once asked the dramatist to comment on the form of his work; Beckett replied in a letter: “If you insist on finding form [for my plays] I’ll describe it for you. I was in hospital once. There was a man in another ward, dying of throat cancer. In the silences I could hear his screams continually. That’s the only kind of form my work has.” In this one finds an echo of Rothko’s description of his work, which I paraphrased in an essay written in 2009 and which appears in my book Word Made Flesh: “Once, an observer called Rothko’s canvases of bright yellows and oranges optimistic ‘celebrations.’ Rothko responded that these colors, to him, were the colors of an inferno.”
It is not hard to discover the reason for the continuing, perverse misreadings of Beckett’s and Rothko’s work, but according to the artists themselves these are deliberate misunderstandings. Hypnotized by the surface qualities of comedy and beauty, not to mention the celebrity of these two artists (for no truly sensitive and cosmopolitan person, of course, could fail to admire this work), spectators remain on these surfaces and refuse to acknowledge the tragic qualities beneath. But the spectators lack the very courage of the artists themselves to confront the darkness at the center of these visions. If Beckett’s work were truly conceived from the perspective of Beckett’s own pessimism, as Rothko’s, it’s unlikely that the work would continue to be produced at all in the current atmosphere of a Culture Industry dominated by optimism above all things. The names Rothko and Beckett, as well as their work, are co-opted by this Industry, which utilizes them to their own blinkered ends. They represent not a will to power, or a will to life, or a will to express, but a will to renunciation and resignation, to transcend the screams through silence.