Your correspondent could have it levelled at him that he is not qualified to comment on Samuel Beckett, not having studied English Lit., and not having read his prose. I did see ‘Waiting for Godot’ many years ago, during my later university years, if I remember rightly, but I was almost certainly too young, too inexperienced, to understand what it was all about, if indeed it was about anything whatsoever.
So my decision to see ‘The Beckett Trilogy’ at Melbourne’s Playhouse last night was at once odd, yet tinged with the thought: this is stuff I should be exposed to as part of my latter years’ re-education – sort of a unit in my personal University of the Third Age. The publicity blurbs in the Arts Festival brochure were designed for scepticism: ‘Kill to get a ticket’ (The Scotsman). ‘..worth dropping everything to encounter’ (Irish Times). These exhortations were unable to fill the theatre. But then they were written by hacks, directed by flacks. No one would kill to get a ticket to an intense, impeccably performed three hours of Beckett novels, adapted for the stage and presented by one man, Conor Lovett, with nothing to obtrude, obscure, prop up or otherwise interfere with words except the man himself, in drab overcoat, standing in a circular spotlight.
Lets get the plaudits over with: it was undoubtedly a mighty performance delivered by an actor of great accomplishment. The accent was soft, avoiding any appearance of working the irishness of it all. Indeed the Irish had little, if anything, to do with the message. This was ‘Everyman’ speaking. In chaos and in crisis. It was a world known to African, Asian, American, European and as relevant today as in the world in which it was written.
No, perhaps more revelant. Certainly it was for those of us with some age and experience. Those who can perhaps contemplate the confusion of it all as time and life passes.
Thus the three hours were an emotionally intense journey. Difficult, certainly. Don’t go to Beckett for a fun night out. Mind you, some had, perhaps, come with some enjoyment mind. And this was a downside. What to do with an audience, attuned to the Melbourne Comedy Festival perhaps, who titter and giggle at every absurdity, every sexual reference, every expostulation? Perhaps, sometimes, they were displaying embarrassment. Who knows? But the sad part was that Beckett wrote some beautifully funny lines. They were delivered with the impeccable timing of a fine actor with a feel for both the comedy of the lost as well as their drama. But so much self conscious laughter had ensued that those truly comic utterances were diminished. More’s the pity.
The three novels in question, ‘Molloy’, ‘Malone Dies’ and ‘The Unnamable’ were unknown to me, so no analysis of their transition to the stage is possible. For me it appeared to be a slow progression through some stages of life that many of us have already begun. We say too much, or was it too little. How do we reconcile ourselves with the voices? And are they the voices of others, or just our own voices repeating the incessant noise we assimilate daily. Was it the same man speaking? It does not matter much. Everyman finds himself first in a confused state, not knowing where he is heading, except to that terrible place, perhaps nursing home or hospice, perhaps backroom in a country hovel, where the advanced decrepitude of loved ones draws out the impossibility of communication. Relationships change, though memories remain; where knocking the fist against a demented head becomes as much an expression of love (I am still here for you) as it is despair. And the petty indignities subjected on the disabled cyclist as he wends his uncertain way towards his mother’s place just remind us how little changes. Yet something has changed mightily in the years since Molloy was written. Beckett cannot have known how many of us, in the twenty-first century, will have experience of loved ones in the grip of confusion and physical destruction but have a heart still pumping and something going on in the mind, whatever it may be. In Beckett’s day the old broke their hips, caught pneumonia, died of many causes. We did not know how to keep them all alive. Then, few lived on into the total destruction of old age. Now, it seems, we work to ensure that destruction is for all to suffer, whether as inmate of the new asylums or as visitors. The author’s vision is the more frightening for this.
And then it all gets worse. Malone, in ‘Malone Dies’, clearly knows he is dying. Unlike Molloy, his direction is clear although the confusion and uncertainty remain. This seems a time where stories become the escape. But stories of youth do not permit escape; the story progresses to the asylum. Is this a metaphore for the place where we shall all resolve the voices in our heads? On an outing, the instigator, a well meaning lady, breaks her hip. Two inmates are killed by a third. This is a chaos we all surely fear.
In the final act the round spotlight is replaced by a narrow focussed footlight, conjuring up a narrowing of reality, and a mighty shadow, perhaps representing death itself. This was the most difficult for your correspondent, perhaps because, by then, after two and a half hours of dialogue, it was becoming hard to maintain concentration. Everyman’s confusion had become intense, the pressure of voices too much to bear. And the continuity, it there ever was any, got lost. Here was a man, alone. Afraid to be alone, yet indeed not alone because of those incessant voices, urging, pressuring, disturbing. To me it invoked that terrible period just days before death, the footlight a harsh bulb of the emergency room, the mind unable to separate the dream from reality. The jumble is all that remains for the victim and the observer. Hope for a quick move to the hospice and generous shots of morphine.
Death must surely be a relief. But Beckett, at the end, even expresses his fear that death may not be any different. Frightening stuff.
But perhaps I didn’t understand.
Addendum apropos different perspectives on Beckett’s humour: Monday 18 October
A lovely story from Conor himself: On Saturday night there was some form of altercation in the front row. Conor had just made himself a “tree”, at a pause in the monologue, when two men had words. Loudly. Apparently one found the other’s incessant guffawing unbearable. Connor turned his head towards them with an enquiring look. “Sorry” said one. The other, pointing his finger, said “it was his fault”.
The performance continued, otherwise uninterrupted.