Sounding Beckett, a program that combines three late Beckett plays with new works by contemporary composers, will open at the Classic Stage Company on 14 September 2012 and run through 23 September. The brainchild of Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of Washington DC’s Studio Theatre, the evening will present productions of Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe, and Footfalls with a cast that includes Kathleen Chalfant, Philip Goodwin, Ted van Griethuysen, and Holly Twyford; Ms. Zinoman directs. Following the stagings, new compositions inspired by the plays will be performed by members of the Cygnus Ensemble: the composers are Chester Biscardi and Laura Schwendinger (Footfalls), David Glaser and Laura Kaminsky (Catastrophe), and John Halle and Scott Johnson (Ohio Impromptu). The project grew out of a performance that took place at the Library of Congress earlier this year. Tickets are now available here, and more information is available at the Web site for the project here.
Returning to New York next season will be Fragments, Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s production of five short texts by Beckett, as part of the 2012-2013 Theatre for a New Audience schedule. This will open on 21 April 2013 and run through 5 May; it is an encore performance of the production which played at the Baryshnikov Arts Center last year.
Below, two related notes, both from 2011.
Did Samuel Beckett “embrace” life in all its pleasures and joys? Director Peter Brook thinks so, according to an interview in the 20 March 2011 issue of the Boston Globe:
“They thought he was a sort of austere and rather forbidding, monk-like figure who looked at everything with a dark eye and saw nothing but human misery,” Brook said … . “And to find this man who loved women and good drink and good food and lived in Paris for choice, and was always every morning in a cafe, where he would be sitting enjoying himself with various friends, this man was not that.”
Likewise the work, said Brook. He has been convinced for 50 years, ever since he saw the New York premiere of Happy Days, that there is “a shining thread running through” Beckett’s plays, even a capacity for joy. That it’s been largely overlooked, he said, is the fault of the existentialist movement.
“It was part of the human climate of the time,” explained the director, speaking from experience. In 1964, Brook directed the RSC’s Theatre of Cruelty season. “This was a time when in Europe there was a feeling that optimism was a bourgeois luxury that was too easy, and that the truth was something tougher and harder, and that the world’s bourgeoisie were refusing to look this in its face.”
Brook engages rather dangerously with the biographical fallacy (as well as misinterprets existentialism, which certainly sought to engage with society for its improvement, to the extent that many of its founding members, including Jean-Paul Sartre, were Socialists or Marxists) — that the life, in this case Beckett’s gregariousness, contains at least one primary key to the work: “I knew Beckett, and I found him a man of enormous humanity and humor and a really good companion and friend. Nothing was more enjoyable than to be with him,” Brook says. Because Beckett’s kindness, generosity and delight in some bourgeois pleasures are well documented, both critics and audiences have found this a singular means of finding that “shining thread” as evidence of a hilarious Beckettian optimism, as if Beckett himself were only a slightly more reticent Brendan Behan.
Arthur Schopenhauer, too, loved a good wine, a fine dinner and a good play; but does this necessarily undermine the pessimistic character of either his work or Beckett’s? Because both writers surveyed the vast spectrum of human experience, there are moments of joy and happiness to be found in the work of both writers, but do they outweigh the darker conclusions to which their writing leads? It has been my experience that those of an ordinarily melancholy disposition in their work are, as people, excellent companions: often witty, quick to find a joke in the darkest conversation, and genuinely compassionate. But it has everything to do with the man, and the way in which he believes human beings should conduct themselves among others, and not the writing, which describes the ways in which human beings normally conduct themselves among others. Especially in early Beckettian prose, let alone the early drama, there’s considerable comedy: the spectacularly unfortunate Lynch family of Watt, the apparent reference to Jonathan Swift’s feckless Lemuel Gulliver in the Lemuel that concludes Malone Dies. But I must say this “shining thread” is exceedingly hard to come by in the post-1962 plays Play, Not I, Footfalls, A Piece of Monologue, Rockaby (the climactic line “fuck life” being the shining thread of joy here, I suppose), Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe or What Where; or the post-1962 novels How It Is (especially here), Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, or Worstward Ho. These works constitute by far the majority of Beckett’s mid-career and late work; and perhaps one is reminded of film director Sandy Bates‘ frustration with an audience that is sorry that he’s stopped making movies similar to his “earlier, funnier” films.
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.