Bill Irwin Interprets Beckett’s Most Challenging Texts

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Samuel Beckett’s
later prose is a remarkable substance. It sometimes reminds me of one of those
unstable heavy elements that, under "normal" atmospheric conditions,
can exist for only a brief time before breaking down into more "normal"
constituents. To read it closely is to feel simultaneously tickled by ordinary
impishness and bewildered by quicksilver slips in consciousness and a sinuous,
filmic shifting of self-contradictory imagery that refuses to resolve into singular
scenes. One does acquire vivid impressions–say, of a verbally hiccuping,
free-floating, black-humored, hyperarticulate describer of uncertain location
or form–but these don’t stay in the mind for long. By the time the
book is back on the shelf, they have transmuted, alas, into much simpler, more
mentally "tangible" memories.

The so-called
difficulty of Beckett’s writing up through the novel-trilogy, Molloy,
Malone Dies and The Unnamable, written between 1947 and 1950,
has been somewhat exaggerated. The narrators in those works do play around with
truth and occasionally leave their locations and physical forms uncertain, but
they are always grounded in a central storytelling consciousness that obviously
controls the mental games, playfully switches the multiple identities on and
off and ultimately reassures itself of its continuing existence and purpose
through exquisitely logical logorrhea ("I can’t go on, I’ll go
on"). The shorter prose after The Unnamable is a different animal.

In 1951, Beckett
found himself at a creative impasse and in a profound depression. He felt his
towering achievements were behind him–Waiting for Godot, completed
in 1949, sat ignored and unproduced until 1953–and the nature of those
achievements left him frozen. In a now famous 1949 text on painting called "Three
Dialogues," he identified his self-created cul-de-sac: art is "the
expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express,
nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together
with the obligation to express." Trouble is, this obligation to express
the ineffable "nothing" leaves the artist in danger of becoming a
negative hero. "All that is required now," Beckett continued, "is
to make of this…admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new
term of relation."

You could call
his impasse at this time a "crisis of relation" or "relatedness";
it had to do with figuring out how to "go on" without making a fetish
or conceit out of "going on." The 13 "Texts for Nothing"
are the residue of this struggle, fragmentary transitional pieces from a period
of great frustration when he worked out the methods and insights that would
carry him through his next great period of creativity. The earmark of this period
is an emphasis on reduction, concentration and withholding so severe–and
increasingly so–that it could never be confused with any pretentious pose
or prepackaged philosophy.

The wonderful
clown Bill Irwin deserves hosannas just for attempting to enter the "Texts"
imaginatively. There are shattering beauties in these pieces, but discovering
them takes unusual patience and perseverance–even, I imagine, for the new
vaudeville performer sometimes called "the thinking man’s clown."
Like "Fizzles," the "Texts" weren’t conceived as a
single story, only occasionally refer explicitly to one another and are of widely
differing quality. Thus, the usual difficulties of staging Beckett’s nondramatic
prose–illustration is almost always disappointing and reductive compared
with what a reader’s imagination can provide–are compounded by the
unusual difficulty of the prose chosen.

I happen to
think what Irwin has done here is brilliant. It’s one of the most confident
and intelligent prose adaptations I’ve seen. (By the 1980s, Beckett was
such an avant-garde icon that, even before his death in 1989, every one of his
nondramatic works had been adapted for the stage, with and without his permission.)
I can also see, though, that the 70-minute show–consisting of "Texts
1," "9," "11" and "13"–might be hard
going for those unfamiliar with the material.

The creature
spat out of the orifice at the top of the terrifically steep, 20-foot-tall,
rust-colored mud chute designed by Douglas Stein doesn’t come across as
fully human at first. He breaks his fall with a split that would cripple most
of us, brushes off his faded but immaculate, ill-fitting tramp-with-bowler outfit
(which will be filthy by the end) and tries to return up the impossible slope–to
undo his "birth," as it were. Various slapstick impediments intervene–sliding
back down, stepping in holes, puddles, tripping over rocks–which ought
to humanize him, except that his exceedingly strange, stiff-rubbery movements
and cadaverous white face with intense, eagle-blue eyes keep him suspended in
a puppet-like aura. He can’t get comfortable anywhere on the hill, not
only because it’s too lumpy, but also because his own body is foreign to
him. When he tumbles, for instance, he doesn’t break his fall with his
arms, as one might expect, but rather folds them under him, dropping like a
sack. And when he walks, he doesn’t so much step from place to place as
rock, pedal, prance or float in a tantalizing, flat-footed tiptoe. It’s
as if his head and each of his limbs were controlled by a separate, offstage,
infernal jokester. Even scratching his balls comes off as inadvertent choreography.

This is the
sort of meditative physical comedy on which Irwin built his reputation. It has
sustained him marvelously in several productions of Waiting for Godot,
and it’s perfect for the relatively conventional "scene" of "Text
1." This is the only one of the "Texts" grounded in a more or
less stable image of place ("The top, very flat, of a mountain, no, a hill,
but so wild…quag, heath up to the knees, faint sheep-tracks, troughs scooped
deep by the rains") and the effort of a coherent, embodied consciousness
to thrust itself reluctantly into life by telling itself stories. The narrator
may be dead–"They are up above, all round me, as in a graveyard"–but
that suggestion is purely in the spirit of morbid farce that infuses the dramatic
works from Godot and Endgame to Play and Film. Great
clowns have always worked wonderfully in these works–that is, when they’re
willing to subordinate their personal shtick somewhat and play second banana
to Beckett.

The greater
challenge is really in the later "Texts," which are increasingly cryptic
and preoccupied with tortuous, picayune and self-canceling deliberations. The
astonishing disembodied consciousness of "Text 13," for instance,
is no longer even interested in locating an essence of "self," or
in projecting coherence on anyone or anything through the telling of stories.
It’s like a mind-spirit roaming the ether, and can be just as hard for
readers to grasp. Irwin does "domesticate" this and the other disembodied
voices to some extent–as any individual actor would–by resolving them
into a singular personality whose private jokes, sillinesses and poetic inclinations
we can grasp psychologically. Beyond this, though, his project here involves
thwarting the essential "relatedness" of the clown, who, regardless
of any ambience of melancholy or misadventure he might possess, always exists
for the purpose of entertainment in the audience’s mind. The clown is the
negative hero par excellence. For my part, though, I was stunned at how Irwin
was able to complicate this too tidy picture with both his body and his voice.

He never clowns
in this performance in the sense of begging for love, and he always speaks in
odd, unexpected phrasings, elongating certain words and swallowing others, sometimes
using those strange deliveries to set up arbitrary little adventures for his
arms and legs. At one point, for instance, the act of warding off an imaginary
blow ("what if finally they had plucked up heart and slightly stressed
their blows, just enough to confer death") transforms into a bizarre looping
motion for his arm, which then pulls his whole body so badly off balance that
he falls. This sort of "play" may not exactly be a mind in the ether,
but it’s a long way from the cogently broken wholeness of the characters
in Godot or Fool Moon (the Broadway show Irwin conceived and performed
with David Shiner).

There are points–frequent
ones–when Irwin’s swallowed words and other verbal-musical strategies
simply prevent one from hearing or comprehending his lines, and this is when
one remembers why Beckett loathed adaptation. There are good reasons why he
called some of his later texts "plays" and others "stories"
or "texts." Although his later plays are themselves sometimes dismissed
as difficult, they actually contain many effective aids to apprehension, such
as repetition and richly ambiguous, nearly still tableaus on which the audience
meditates as it ponders the words. Some adapters have made changes in the prose
texts to duplicate these dramatic circumstances–a freedom the Beckett estate
would never allow today.

For better
or worse, Irwin speaks his four chosen "Texts" as published. His staging
is shrewd, fun and utterly uncompromising. At its best it also produces flashes
of the uncanny experience of reading these strange journeys into the turbulent
void of perception and imagination.

Classic Stage
Company, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rdt & 4th Aves.), 677-4210 x2, through
Nov. 5.

Hard Feelings
By Neena Beber

Selma Rogers,
the central character in Neena Beber’s Hard Feelings, is
an electrolysist who wants to be a writer. She also wants to regain custody
of her daughter, whom her alcoholic mother is keeping from her. Selma shares
a house (whose walls are made of grass in this Women’s Project production)
with her senile grandmother and her lesbian lover Finola Cornflakes, a grief
counselor who may or may not be British. Finola moves out, leaving a pair of
bunny slippers that magically restore granny’s memory, then shows up in
Selma’s writers’ workshop, taught by the abusive Dr. Disposio. He
is prone to shouting helpful feedback like, "Flaccid, Cornflakes!"
(my favorite line from any recent play).

Hard Feelings
is the sort of work you leave scratching your head in amazement that the author
was able to make such sheer silliness so tenacious and moving. There are places
where the humor could have been tightened and the focus on Selma’s fear
strengthened, but Beber has a keen ear for dialogue and a wonderful sense of
the murky border between healthy and sick fun, and these are what stick in mind.
The production is smartly directed by Maria Mileaf, brightly designed by Neil
Patel and wonderfully acted by its five-member cast led by Seana Kofoed.

Project Theater, 424 W. 55th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 239-6200, through
Nov. 4.