A Year of Beckett in New York

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Lisa Dwan in Not I. Photo Richard Termine.

Lisa Dwan in Not I. Photo Richard Termine.

This is probably the best occasion for me to come out of the closet and confess my secret vice—a mild fondness for the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. A viewing of NYGASP’s The Yeomen of the Guard with an entirely unvictorian companion set me to thinking about certain genres of theatre and opera in which performance practices are prescribed by tradition or even some legal entity. NYGASP is well-known for throwing in a few uncanonical details, but basically they cleave to D’Oyly Carte’s no longer legally binding restrictions, because their audience of devotees expect that—in fact they derive great pleasure from stage routines which have no meaning whatsover in contemporary theater outside of a G & S. Perhaps the tastes of loving audiences have proven more binding than the D’Oyly Carte copyrights. This rigid repetition of gesture and delivery has also flourished in modern theater and opera, for example in Ruth Berghaus’ legendary production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, which I once discussed with the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who related her experience of performing Rosina in it. 1

Samuel Beckett during his lifetime and now his Estate have exercised close control over the performance of his plays. Beckett’s fanatical observation of the letter of his stage directions and the finest nuances of spoken language were notorious. He often directed performances himself or involved himself in the work of other directors. The plays make heavy demands of the actors, and Beckett himself carried this even further. One of the plays to be discussed here, Not I, is literally painful to prepare and execute. Beckett’s obsessiveness lives on in through his Estate, which is controlled by Beckett’s nephew, Edward Beckett and the agency Curtis Brown. During his lifetime, the publisher Jérôme Lindon of the Éditions de Minuit played a major role in this suupervision. This aroused some controversy in the case of Deborah Warner’s 1994 London production of Footfalls with Fiona Shaw, in which Warner transferred a few lines from one character to another and the action of the actress on stage was radically altered. Samuel’s nephew Edward saw a preview of the production which had already been authorised by the Estate, noted the divergences, and reported to Curtis Brown. The brief London run went forward, but travel to France was forbidden. Warner and Shaw are well-known for going their own way, and later Warner confessed her regret for the textual changes. Some critics and of course many theater makers have voiced their opposition to the Estate’s strict rule, but I rather applaud them. We live in an age of egotistical directors, who are ready to rework plays and libretti for no good reason, except their lack of education or their laziness in studying the text, and I am thankful that at least one area of theater is free from their antics. It’s easy to make pious noises about artistic freedom, but I think that complaints about Beckett’s restrictions killing the performance of his plays to be misplaced. Audiences enthusiastically look forward to Beckett productions, and I haven’t heard one person call a properly vetted production boring or routine. In his plays Beckett created an atmosphere, a mood, and an action, all expressed in the detail in his stage directions. Within the tight, Noh-like boundaries originally set by the author, there is a nervous energy to be found which propel an actor to astonishing heights of achievement, as in, say John Hurt’s performance in Krapp’s Last Tape, or, now, Lisa Dwan’s in the triptych of plays presented this season at BAM.

Here in New York, BAM has served Beckett well as a gathering place of Beckett performances from around the world, beginning with the Berlin Schiller Theater’s 1977 production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Beckett himself. In addition to the many performances which would have met Beckett’s own approval, of which Lisa Dwan’s evening is exemplary, given that she studied the roles with Billie Whitelaw, who created them and was directed by Walter Asmus, Beckett’s favorite director, BAM has hosted two stage productions of radio plays, All That Fall and Embers. Beckett was adamant about stagings of his radio plays, which he believed should be left alone, although he once considered a minimalistic production of All That Fall, with the actors sitting motionless on stools and only their faces illuminated. He authorized one production in his lifetime and a film for French television, both of which he disliked. The Estate approved the elaborate productions created by the Pan Pan Theatre of Dublin, in which the physical side of the productions, both in sets and sound, make claims of their own as sculpture or installation art, whilst Pan Pan’s All That Fall was in fact a recording, just as if it were prepared for broadcast, and in Embers, one didn’t see and hear the actors at the same time.

A different sort of production of All That Fall directed by Trevor Nunn came to the 59E59 Theatres in Manhattan last autumn from the Jermyn Street Theatre in London. In this case, the Estate relented and allowed the play to be performed live on stage by visible actors. Their requirement was that it be presented as a radio play, that is, as a live broadcast performance of a radio play. The actors gather in a broadcast studio, sit on chairs at the side walls when they are not on, and when they are, perform to a set of suspended microphones. There are some crude props, mainly to create sound effects, and one’s attention was drawn every now and then to the studio and the fact that a broadcast was in process. On the other hand, the actors acted in costume, and although they held scripts and pretended to need them to deliver their lines, we often forgot about the studio for considerable periods and were carried away by Beckett’s story, rather a more detailed one than we are accustomed to.

It seems that Beckett, in 1956, having attracted the attention of the BBC with Waiting for Godot sufficiently to earn an invitation to write a radio play and attempting the genre for the first time, was liberated by the form’s invisibility. He felt free to include all sorts of specifics regarding place and occasion: the Irish locality, the countrified relationships, the horse races, the car, the train, etc., etc. For once in his career, Beckett created an “Irish play,” set in an Irish location and populated with Irish characters, in a way not unlike that of J. M. Synge. It is certainly not his only play to refer to particular Irish places, but it is by far the most extensive from beginning to end. It is also full of names, places, and details remembered from his childhood. What could be more Irish than the phrase, “a beautiful day for the races?” The place is named “Boghill,” based on Foxrock, a southern suburb of Dublin, home to  famous racecourse, where Beckett grew up in Protestant gentility, a way of life reflected in the play. All That Fall was a great success with listeners and the BBC administration, and Beckett was so pleased with the play that he was adamant it should remain true to the genre in which he wrote it. (Recordings of the original broadcasts of all of Beckett’s works for radio are available in a four-CD set from the British Library: click here to order.) This was by no means the first attempt to stage the radio play. It has tempted the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier in the past, without success in getting the rights.

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Beckett's All That Fall.

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Beckett’s All That Fall.

In this case, three similarly exalted figures in contemporary British theater, the director Trevor Nunn, and the actors Eileen Atkins, 78 at the time of the production, and Michael Gambon. This was Nunn’s first success in obtaining rights from the Beckett Estate, after obstacles of various kinds, granted only with the proviso that All That Fall be presented as a radio play. And, as I have said, that is exactly what he did. The result was perhaps a bit busy, considering the voices in the void Beckett desired, but who would not be entranced with the performances of the two legendary leads and their colorful supporting cast? It was every bit the virtuoso turn we expected, but much more. Above all, Gambon and Atkins projected the ease and familiarity of a long-married couple most affectingly—beyond that they created a true impression of a long common life behind them. Their separation, due to Dan’s residence in a nursing home, was heartbreaking in its way, not that she didn’t have the force of her own routine to rely on. One could certainly not appreciate this production without the sight of Atkins’ and Gambon’s expressive faces and above all their splendid eyes—that above all was the best justification for putting the play on stage. On the other hand, the most delicious irony of the performance was Eileen Atkins’ slight figure going through the labors that Maddy Rooney, her 200 pound character, required. In a radio play we could imagine her Wellesian entrapment in a vehicle, but the delicate Atkins brought it off with a charm that happily takes up residence in one’s memory. Michael Gambon on the other hand, is a big man with a powerful, resonant voice. His presence is even larger than his frame. It would be easy for such a man to hide behind a bluff manner, but Gambon commands a vast range of nuance, and, furthermore, he opened himself totally to the character, Beckett’s language, and the audience. His acting combined extreme refinement and vulnerability under his larger than life presence. The way he and Atkins were able to share a stage spoke for their immense talent and experience. They worked as a couple, because there was this delicacy in Gambon’s power and strength in Atkins’ lightness. It was a rare privilege to see these two greats perform together. The experience was marred only by the general amplification that was used at 59E59. I was told that it was necessary for Ms. Atkins, but Mr. Gambon and the rest of the cast were amplified as well, and in places he seemed to roar like a lion. Presumably amplification wasn’t necessary at the 70-seat Jermyn Street Theatre, where the production originated in a limited run.

The supporting cast could not have been more convincing or involving in their semi-rustic parts, above all Billy Carter, who is currently playing in New York in Conor McPherson’s Port Authority, and Catherine Cusack in her delicious turn as the churchy spinster, Miss Fitt. This was such an enjoyable evening at the theater that I hate to mention that the on stage action was in fact an unnecessary enrichment of Beckett’s original concept and a distraction from his purely auditory creation, which, to the audience, should be a sound space, an invisible, but vividly heard Boghill, not a BBC studio.

If All That Fall, with all its local detail was a diversion from the stark universality of the French plays which made Beckett famous, Embers (1957, first broadcast 1959) shows a return to that earlier spareness, although it tells a story—not chronologically—about specific characters: Henry, a failed writer, ridden with psychological issues and blockages of thought and speech, his wife Ada, who is either estranged or dead, and their daughter, whom Henry has detested since birth. The physical surroundings are reduced to a strand and the sea, constantly present in the sound of the surf, which occupies a permanent central place in Henry’s mindscape. His life is thwarted by his inability to put an end to the sound of the sea in his head. He makes up stories to drown out the sound—without success. His father, who attacked Henry as “a washout,” regularly took swims from that strand. One day he didn’t come back. Was his drowning an accident or a suicide? The play consists of two monologues which frame a dialogue between Henry and Ada. In which Henry’s bad relationships with the people in his life—first and foremost his father—unfold.



The Pan Pan Theatre’s production of Embers, with its impressive sculpture of a human skull which the two actors actually inhabit, mostly obscured from the view of the audience, as required by the Estate. The skull is constructed out of parallel wooden slats, so that the form is partly transparent. The shifting lights can alter its appearance in a radical way. It rests on the sand of a beach, surrounded by a battery of bare loudspeaker attached to clear plastic rods. The concept is brilliant, and the visual impact of the design inspires a feeling of awe, entirely appropriate for the contemplation of a tortured mind, but one flaw basically ruined the performance for me: the voices were painfully loud. A few audience members, got up and left after a minute of this, and at times I felt like following them. When I’m barraged by excessively loud sound, I shut down, and I had to struggle not to do that during the performance. The human owners of these voices, Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuirí, performed superbly with both strong feeling, diction which conveyed the full beauty of Beckett’s language, and the nuances of meaning, ambiguity, and non-meaning in the text. It’s just a pity it was so damned loud.

On the other hand, Embers, with which I had previously been totally unacquainted, made a powerful impression on me as a depiction of the struggle of the writer—and ordinary human being—with words as sound and bearers of meaning. The play is often characterized as difficult or a failure, and Beckett himself is known to have had reservations about it. This was not apparent to me as I watched and listened in the theater. So something of the production’s best qualities must have gotten through the excruciating emissions of the loudspeakers.

The opening scene of Pan Pan Theater's production of Embers at BAM: Andrew Bennett as Henry. Photo Ed Lefkowicz.

The opening scene of Pan Pan Theater’s production of Embers at BAM: Andrew Bennett as Henry. Photo Ed Lefkowicz.

So, in “reimagining” Embers, as director Gavin Quinn describes his treatment of the radio play, he introduced an element of pain that the author passed over. Not I, on the other hand, is agony from the get-go, above all, for the actress who has to enter into the miserable world of Beckett’s character and be strapped into total immobility for the duration of the mercifully short play. The diction, intended to be delivered “at the speed of thought,” is unpleasant in tone at its very mildest, and there are a number of hideous human sounds and horrible shocks over its course. Billie Whitelaw, who created the role in London, remembered that the management of the Royal Court Theatre had to black out the illuminated sign for the exits and the toilets. Some audience members could not endure the play even though it is only around twelve minutes long and would actually go to the toilets to hide.

When Beckett wrote for the stage, he had a precise, detailed image of everything the audience was to see and hear. In this case, it is only the rouged lips of the performer, occasionally the shadowy figure of an Auditor, and nothing else. A spotlight is trained on the mouth, and the performer’s head is strapped to a wooden board, while her arms are restrained by metal bars. Memorizing the runaway, free-associative script, making oneself one with Beckett’s dismal imaginative world, the physical preparation and rehearsal, and finally the performance are all severely restrictive and uncomfortable. Jessica Tandy, who performed the world premiere at Lincoln Center, couldn’t manage it, and had to resort to a teleprompter and compromises in her restraints. Billie Whitelaw, who worked closely with Beckett himself on the play, didn’t have that luxury and wouldn’t have thought of it anyway. Beckett wanted every syllable to be correct and correctly pronounced. One might assume that there was some sadism in his attitude, but on the contrary, his loving kindliness inspired Whitelaw to follow him to the letter.

Billie Whitelaw and Samuel Beckett rehearsing Not I

Billie Whitelaw and Samuel Beckett rehearsing Not I

After seeing Lisa Dwan perform Not I at Battersea in 2006, Edward Beckett invited her to discuss the play with Billie Whitelaw. This led to coaching sessions, in which Dwan fully absorbed what Beckett had communicated to his favorite actress. Eventually Whitelaw shared Beckett’s production notes with her. Dwan’s performance was basically quite similar to the 1977 film made of Whitelaw’s performance, but even faster, with sharper, edgier consonants. There is something superhuman in Dwan’s virtuosity. Both actresses agree that living with this nightmarish play is harder than its physical challenges. Dwan reports in her program note that Billie admitted “how she never quite recovered from that role…’I lost a piece of me in there and it never got any easier…I will not play that role again, I cannot, if I do I shall go mad.’ We agreed the hardest element of all is the attempt to suppress one’s own internal Not I. In the nightly terror that the piece always produces—the thoughts, like vultures, hover over his lean lines.” Finally, Walter Asmus, the German director who had worked closely with Beckett on several productions, saw Dwan perform Not I, and invited her to work with him on the trilogy of plays we saw at BAM.

No less than Embers, but in severely distilled form, Not I tells the grim story of an unloved girl, born out of wedlock, who is virtually aphasic from lack of human contact in childhood, who bursts out in strange rants, most distrubing to the people around her…and something traumatic happened in her life, we know not what exactly. We can picture her suburban life, which includes a visit to a supermarket. Curiously the only locality mentioned by name, Croker’s Acres, is close to Foxrock and its famous racecourse. As in Embers, the external world only leaves chaotic imprints on the character’s psychic landscape. They float in a matrix of painful emotions and frustrated desires. Also as in Embers, early misfortune has weakened the integrity of the character’s personality to the point that the character can’t identify herself as an individual. The title, Not I, alludes to that. Her disassociation from her self is actually psychotic, but not from any other cause than neglect by indifferent humans. There is an existential dimension in Not I, but at its core, it is a tale of pure human misery created by the emptiness of humanity.

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo Richard Termine..

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo Richard Termine..

After a period of darkness just long enough to give Ms. Dwan time to remove the black makeup she wore for Not I and a costume change, she reappeared in Footfalls, in which she walks back and forth across the stage in a rigidly planned pattern. Her character’s name is May. As she paces, like the pendulum of a clock, she engages in dialogue with her very elderly mother, asking her if she needs this or that—ministrations she has been performing for years, or perhaps only in her mind, if, as we suspect, her mother is dead, alive only as a voice in her mind. Or is perhaps May the ghost? Eventually she begins telling a story about one Amy and her mother, Mrs. Winter. As she becomes more involved in her story, she actually becomes Amy—in keeping with the fragility of human identity, when memory and relationships fail to reenforce it. The ambiguity of this situation makes us wonder who is real and who is imagined, or who is alive and who else might be a ghost. Eventually the woman vanishes into darkness. At the premiere and elsewhere, a second actress has assumed the voice of the mother, but here Dwan did both. Her performance combined precision in the elaborately synchronized patterns of movement and speech with an empathetic immersion in Beckett’s elusive character and powerful feeling. Beckett wove many complexities into this brief play, more than one can absorb in a single viewing, and Dwan seemed to have visited them all, like a soul who has visited hell, seen many things, and has come back to tell us about it with fragmentary, ambiguous phrases, which do not describe the experiences as much as evoke them with terrifying suggestion.

Lisa Dwan in Rockaby. Photo Richard Termine.

Lisa Dwan in Rockaby. Photo Richard Termine.

In Rockaby (1980) human activity is also confined to a constant, repeated movement. A prematurely aged woman in a black, high-necked evening gown sits immobile in a rocking chair, which is propelled back and forth in synchronization with Beckett’s dimeter verse. The woman listens to her own recorded voice as it recounts her own life and that of her own deceased mother. The mother is gone, the daughter’s life has gone by, aging her before her time. She is kept going only by her instinctive desire for “more” (maw, Ma). Loneliness dominates the story and the scene. Finally the incessant rocking stops, her head falls to one side. She may be dead. Billie Whitelaw, who created the role, remarked how she was permeated by loneliness as she played it, rather like the devastating effect of Not I on the actor. As in Footfalls, Lisa Dwan has embraced the dangerous feelings in the play—a feat of considerable bravery, especially in this hour-long show in which she must successively dwell in three dark places of the soul. Like the others Rockaby imposes daunting technical demands on the actress, but the performance can’t possibly come to life unless the she has felt all the dreadful things that lurk in the darkness, experiences them completely in herself, and can open that feeling up for the audience.

This is not the only BAM performance I regret seeing only once. More riches of Beckett’s imagination would reveal themselves through Lisa Dwan. We are fortunate that people close to Beckett, who saw her earlier work and appreciated its quality have reached out to her to carry on what Beckett himself taught Billie Whitelaw. In the field of music there are institutions in place to pass the performance style of older living composers on to younger generations, as in Tanglewood’s Elliott Carter Festival in 2008, in which Tanglewood Music Center Fellows could work side by side with the musicians who premiered much of the music. This project began when Edward Beckett first saw Lisa Dwan perform and proceeded on to Billie Whitelaw and Walter Asmus.

The full immensity of Beckett’s poetic imagination inhabited Dwan’s performances. If Dwan’s unforgettable performances are to be called “museum pieces,” as some would claim, since they follow the letter and spirit of Beckett’s instructions as closely as possible, then human experience is nothing more than a visit to Madame Tussaud’s…in the dead of night.

  1. “There were these, what I call “blue-light” moments where I just felt like what I was doing made no sense whatsoever for reality and so for myself, and it’s proved useful for other productions too—I just call it a blue-light moment. I’m in a blue light, (laughing) for myself, and I just imagine myself in a blue light, meaning that I have perfect independence from whatever’s going on onstage; whatever I’m doing has absolutely no effect on anybody else. It’s just me! making my little hand movements like this, and nobody…it’s not gonna get any reaction from anybody, it’s not gonna…that’s my blue-light moment. And one, I went three times to do The Barber there, and the last time that I was there I did an interview also with a fellow who had seen the original production, and he told me, during the interview, he said, “Well, of all the mezzos that…or of all the singers that I’ve seen do this, you’re the one who is most similar to the original intent. And I said, “Okay, after we finish the interview, we’re gonna go back to this: please, would you tell me what the original intent was, of this, because I’ve asked at the theater and nobody can: they just say “because you do it this way.” And so at a certain point you just stop asking questions, and you just go into robot mode, and you just do it that way. And so then he explained to me…kind of the whole…why it was so shocking, this production, and what the whole charm was and what Berghaus was trying to achieve, and what the whole Bauhaus and everything like that, and what the whole movement was about, and it just it helped, you know, to understand the context in which I was being asked to do these things which for me were completely nonsensical. It was completely hysterical to me that I got that from a reviewer, from a critic, you know, who I was doing an interview with…It was very valuable. But it was a shame not to have that…In some sense…when you’re doing a production like that—again not every singer is interested in that—there are those that have the façade between, the distance between the facade and their own selves, and they’re happy carrying around a little mask of Rosina onstage. I’m not happy, I’m not comfortable. It makes me feel really idiotic and out-of-place, and not comfortable. It would be really interesting for me as a singer to…when you go in for one of these productions, to have some sort of a presentation packet of material saying, “This was the concept. This was what was so revolutionary about the concept. This was what they were trying to achieve with this production.”…some kind of, you know…note from the director from when the director did it the first time, saying, “This is what I’d like to achieve,” and maybe even follow-up material: “In this scene it didn’t seem like it worked, and I’d really like to have this emotion come across, or this kind of conflict come across, or this kind of juxtaposition and complete disparity come across.”…it’s…when you get to work with a stage director who is involved, like David McVicar, you have time for those kinds of psychological discussions, and for me it makes me feel like a fish in water. When I’m in a production like that, I feel the difference. (snaps fingers) Day and night. You’re not acting anymore you’re inhabiting the role, because you know your thought process from one step to another.” from “Vivica Genaux talks to Michael Miller about Acting, Regieoper, and Taking the Waters: the Interview, Part III,” December 12/2012: http://newyorkarts.net/2012/12/vivica-genaux-michael-miller-acting-regieoper-terme-interview-part-iii/
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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