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Krapp’s Last Tape
by Samuel Beckett
The Gate Theatre (Dublin)
Directed by Michael Colgan
Krapp – John Hurt
It occasionally strikes me, to my own bemusement, that walking along a street on an average day, I might have in my pockets as many as three devices capable of recording pictures, even moving pictures, and perhaps two for recording sound. Modern technology has given ordinary people—anyone—an unprecedented ability to make precise literal records of what can be heard and seen at any given time and place. Using a device smaller than my hand I can create a seamless journal of sound, text, still images, and movies, if I choose, but I refrain. I rarely put these capabilities to use—only if there is something extraordinary…like the bizarre Australian accent of a tour guide on the Palatine last year, as he spun absurdities to his rapt crowd. (I wasn’t fast enough…) I am wary of these literal records. Are they the death of memory? Even during my undergraduate years, when the goings-on had every appearance of memorable times, I eschewed keeping a diary, taking notes, or even taking pictures. If I ever wrote about those times, I wanted to write from memory, with all its confusions and conflations, believing that someone else would be keeping an accurate chronicle of events to rescue me, if I needed it.
When Samuel Beckett set to writing Krapp’s Last Tape, the technology of arranging particles of iron oxide on plastic tapes in such a way that sound waves could be recorded was only about twenty years old and less than ten in common circulation outside Germany, adapted to everyday use so that anybody might make their way to a retail store and acquire a machine the size and weight of an overnight case full of books and use it to record memories, interviews, or the sounds of events as they happened. Before that there were more or less cumbersome and sonically less than satisfactory solutions using wire, discs, film, and cylinders of metal foil or wax to record sounds. In the early days such recordings, if preserving the voice of some special individual who had died, could be invested with supernatural properties, as if the machine were a device with mediumistic powers. In Dracula (the work of another Irish Protestant Trinity College graduate and man of the theater), Dr. Seward puts his shiny new, expensive phonograph to potent use as a personal diary, although his difficulties in referencing his diary, necessitating the use of another new invention, the typewriter, recall some of Krapp’s labors.1
While others may have seen something similarly fresh and futuristic in the tape recorder, which, requiring no great skills to use at a basic level, came one step further to the reproduction of living sound, Samuel Beckett looked beyond, to a time in the future, when an old man might seek out a reel he had recorded thirty years earlier for remembrance’s sake, for pleasure or pain. When we go to see Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s vision has more than fulfilled itself. Some members of the audience may never have seen a machine like Krapp’s in everyday life. A young person’s fingers, made agile by video games, might hesitate or stumble in the process of threading the tape around the rollers and the capstan. If you came on boxes of tape like Krapp’s at a flea market, say, you would have to find a machine to play them, an old one, in the same place, hoping that it worked as you carry it home. “Tape” seems only to have gathered evocative power as an antiquated technology.
There is a tendency—or perhaps was a tendency, when people of my generation first saw Beckett’s earlier plays, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, or Krapp’s Last Tape, as young people. As what we knew as the “Theater of the Absurd,” they had immense influence on us. As such, we generally accepted them as metaphysical messages of universal import. For us they provided vistas inside Beckett’s head, rather than creations sufficient unto themselves. The next step is to try to interpret them autobiographically, to see Beckett in his characters. We are likely to find a bit of the author in all his characters, but, I believe, John Hurt spoke sensibly, when, in an interview connected with an earlier performance of the play, he said, “I don’t think that Krapp is an actual autobiography, but there are autobiographical pieces in it, things taken from his life.” If, as Hurt said in his previous sentence, “Beckett loves his characters tremendously,” they must be separate and distinct from himself: Beckett was as free from narcissism as he was from sentiment.
For one thing Beckett was not a diarist. As far as anyone knows, the only diary he ever kept was a journal he maintained during his travels in Germany in 1936-37 for specific reasons of his own, and these were more immediately external than internal, like Krapp’s: Beckett used them as a travel diary, an aid to his studies of art in the German museums he visited, his central interest at the time, and as a creative notebook.2 Beckett wrote in his entry of Oct. 6, 1936: “at least they are not self-communion”—which is exactly what Krapp’s recordings are. On the other hand, Beckett had an early and persistent interest in diarists as characters, and they appear in Malone Dies and in a work Beckett planned but never wrote during his German travels, called Diary of a Melancholic. Krapp, I believe, can be considered a diarist, although he adheres to the practice of making only one entry each year, as the central event of his joyless birthday celebrations—which makes him rather an annalist of extremely narrow scope: his own life, which revolves mostly around his impermanent, but “engrossing” sexual relationships with certain women. His parents and their deaths are a part of it as well, his work as a writer and its lack of success, and his struggle for “laxation,” always undone by his appetite for bananas. The rest is occupied by drinking, “More than 20%, say 40% of his waking life.” We learn all this from his 39-year-old voice, as recorded on the tape, although we see the 69-year-old Krapp’s somewhat curtailed consumption of bananas and hear his perhaps less restrained indulgence in alcohol on stage.
He refers to his recordings as “P.M.’s” (“Post Mortems”) or as a “retrospect”—exercises occasioned on a perspective rather more turned to the distant past than the past twenty-four to seventy-two hours. I personally cannot think of any major figure, above all, a writer, who kept an audio journal. For Krapp, his annals remain very much within the sphere of books and paper records, since he has carefully catalogued each tape in a ledger, and stored the numbered tapes in numbered boxes. His laborious and ultimately chaotic search for the tape emphasizes their archival nature: he works with them physically as if they were books.
Just as Box Three Spool Five is an annual entry of a diaristic nature, the present Krapp’s interaction with “that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago” seems to be a dialogue of sorts, although it consists mostly of switching the tape on and off and running it forwards and backwards, looking up a pretentious Latinism in the dictionary, and gestures of disapproval. Krapp’s réplique comes only in the penultimate speech, when he records a “virgin” tape for his 69th birthday. As he speaks into the microphone, distant memories overcome his more recent narrative and they break down, impelling Krapp to rewind once again, this time more radically: “he wrenches off the tape, throws it away, puts on the other, winds it forward to the passage he wants, switches on, listens staring front.”
Beckett was fifty-one when he wrote Krapp, immediately inspired by hearing a radio broadcast of Patrick Magee reading from one of his novels, and of course he wrote it for Magee to perform. Fifty or thereabouts is an age when many people experience a sort of break in their lives and begin to look back at the earlier part of our lives with some intolerance, if not disdain. As John Hurt said, “It’s about your perception of how you reconstruct your own life, how you accuse your old self.”
Memory and regret is universal. How many times in one day do you hear people say “if only” or “only if” – those two words that should never go together in the English language. You think: “I could have been so much this if I’d done that – if I’d played things differently.” In other words, saying: “If I wasn’t the person I was at the time making those decisions.” But that, of course, is what you were and that is what you are now. It’s something that is universal. This goes some way to explaining the spell that the play has on an audience, because it so acutely touches that point in everybody. We examine ourselves constantly.
Of course we all engage in these self-examinations throughout our lives, but at fifty people are often aware of a change in perspective—and a sickening feeling that one has wasted years. Beckett chose to dramatize this experience as that of a much older man, who performs the tape ritual on his thirty-nine-year-old self, as he had, back then, listened in on a yet younger self, “at least ten or twelve years ago.”
The thirty-nine-year old Krapp felt he could be almost cavalier about the tape he listened to, while the elderly Krapp is compelled to search for exactly the tape he wants. Even with this clarity, the reel is not where it should be, and he scatters the boxes and tapes in frustration. When he listens to the tape, it raises his irritation and regret to anguished levels. He is thoroughly exasperated by the arrogant boor he has called into his solitude, but when he records his sixty-ninth birthday tape, his life seems diminished in comparison with the earlier one. His narrative falls apart, as he is overcome with nostalgia, and he violently aborts the recording, to reach for Box Three Spool Five. The remembered sexual encounter proves more rewarding than the present one, and Krapp loses himself in memory, as he listens.
John Hurt previously played Krapp in a successful stage production which was later filmed for television by the director Atom Egoyan for the project, Beckett on Film, in which all nineteen of Beckett’s plays were filmed—now available as a DVD boxed set. The director of the present production, Michael Colgan, was one of the producers. Thanks to BAM’s New Wave Festival, Hurt’s reprise of Krapp’s Last Tape has enabled the great film actor to make his New York stage debut, and for us to see his stage work on this side of the Atlantic. The Beckett International Foundation based at the University of Reading keeps tight control of how Beckett’s plays are produced, and we should not expect to see any striking innovations. Audiences should be grateful for this, because it gives them some chance of experiencing the play as the author intended it. Beckett’s concept of the play evolved with time, and his later activity as a director of his own work has given us a wealth of notes and documents indicating how he himself produced Krapp, with some modifications to the text as his work progressed.3 As we all well know, it has for some time been the fashion for directors and actors to work freely with the texts they perform, so this production is an all-too-rare opportunity for us to enjoy a disciplined and respectful representation of a modern classic. Furthermore, there was the pleasure of seeing a master actor work economically within the framework of the playwright’s indications.
To appreciate John Hurt’s extraordinary gifts, it is not necessary to see him display his originality as manipulations of the text he has been given. He is the kind of actor whose genius emerges as he strives to bring the author’s imagination to life with the utmost precision, the most refined art, a sharp intelligence, and a tender heart. He has so intimately become one with Krapp’s actions and words that everything seems effortless in the understatement of his approach. There is even a bracing touch of English dryness in his delivery of the language, which seems timed to the millisecond. Between them Messrs. Hurt and Colgan have created a singularly serious version of Krapp, which is how the play evolved under the author’s direction. Krapp’s clown-like features in the original version—his whitened face and purple drinker’s nose—were eliminated. In this production, not even Krapp’s classic slip on the banana peel is funny. We are rather overcome with sympathy for the pain that Hurt so poignantly expressed. This is not to say that Hurt didn’t get his share of laughs from the audience: most of these were verbal, or aroused by Krapp’s sour reactions to his younger Doppelgänger preserved on the tape.
Above all, Hurt brought clarity to Beckett’s words and to its theatrical structure as well. He drew attention to the integrity and substance of the learned Irish modernist’s classic text, rather than any interpretation he or the director might impose on it. This attention to the “text” is healthy. When one is new to the play, there is tendency to be transported by what is suggested rather than what what one sees and hears. Beckett did not create his silences for nothing. But the specifics of what Krapp says and does have their own beauty and power, and this grows with time and repeated performance. Krapp’s birthdays keep recurring in a cycle not indicated in the text, a “real” way, whenever the Foundation and its agents allow it, not to mention the DVD and the other recordings made of it. In fact Hurt’s performance was so full of subtle details, that I regretted not activating one of the devices I was carrying in my pockets. But that would have violated not only the house rules, but my own. A theatrical performance comes alive only between the players, the spectators, and their memory. To “tape’ it would be to kill it.