Endgame, Beckett for Purists at American Repertory Theatre

Is Beckett a Genius Whose Work Should Never be Changed?

By: - Mar 11, 2009

ART Endgame ART Endgame

Endgame by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Marcus Stern
Set design by Andromache Chalfant
Costume design by Clint Ramos
Lighting design by Scott Zielinski
Cast: Hamm, Will LeBow
Clov, Thomas Derrah
Nagg, Remo Airaldi
Nell, Karen MacDonald
At the Loeb Drama Center
The American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA
Feb. 14 to Mar. 15
Running Time 75 Minutes
Quick Link to American Repertory Thaetre

How things have changed in the twenty five years since the American Repertory Theatre last performed Endgame.  The first time they performed this work, it was in a stunningly original version which sold out every seat, but ran afoul of the playwright. In that famed production under Robert Brustein's tenure as Artistic Director, not one word of the script's dialog was changed, but everything else was up for grabs.In that outing, the director JoAnne Akalaitis reset the location from a bare room with two mostly covered windows, to a subway station in a post apocalyptic world. She decided to add an overture composed by her ex-husband Philip Glass, which  was certainly not in the script, either. Then she had the audacity to hire two black actors, raising yet another issue for Samuel Beckett and his minions who hated creativity, except from their star author.

Barney Rossett, President of the Grove Press (Beckett's publisher), sent warnings to Beckett of these changes, and added a few more, just for good measure. He claimed that Hamm's legless parents, Nagg and Nell came out of their trash bins to do a song and dance number. Not so. And that portions of the production were performed underwater. There may have been dark puddles in the wrecked station, but certainly no underwater ballets. Supposedly the finicky Beckett did actually authorize an underwater version of Endgame. Go figure.

Ultimately, A.R.T. received a telegram refusing permission for the production to proceed. In that wired message, Rossett spelled out his other problems with the production: that the play was focusing on "the plight of the homeless" and making Endgame about miscegenation, instead of, one would guess, death, abused parents, slavery and other existential hopelessness.

In a talkback after the performance I saw, the actor Thomas Derrah recounted the incident which transpired while he was with the company. "If the whole affair proves anything, it is that Samuel Beckett was one grouchy old fart," Darrah said. "And that his publisher did not always feed him accurate information," he added.  Beckett's representative was clearly alarmed by reports of the Akalaitis version and spread the news to the author. "Of course, Beckett never bothered to come to see it, he just took this representative's word for it," Darrah added.  Anyone who has studied Beckett knows that the playwright himself often moved the goalposts, and that to this day much energy is expended deciding which version of a play he intended to put on stage. His history of revisions was notorious, yet the dictatorial Beckett had zero tolerance for those unknown to him to change a word, a pause or a direction.

Of course, lawyers for both sides brought out their dueling arguments, the courts intervened, and in the end, the show went on.  A.R.T.  had to attach a note in the program from the author stating that "Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me."  That notation was duly balanced with another note from Robert Brustein that "Samuel Beckett's plays are among the most powerful documents of the modern age - but except in published form they are not etched in stone...and despite hearsay representations to the contrary, (our production) observes the spirit and text of Mr. Beckett's great play."

So we come to the current production, reviewed earlier in BFA,  which has been  met with almost unanimous acclaim.  It is as authentic a Beckett production as one could ask for. Under a contract between the Beckett estate and A.R.T. it was agreed that nothing, absolutely nothing, in the published script could be changed. So A.R.T.'s second production is for the Beckett never-change-anything zealots. Director Marcus Stern and Set Designer Adromache Chalfant have attempted to make Beckett's human story compelling within the playwright's abstract framework. But this also meant working within great limitations.

Without question, this is an Endgame that has a great deal of authenticity to it, but it also shows its age and problems.  Beckett found humor in people's unhappiness. He could be amused by some child crying plaintively for "another sugar plum", or "more pap".  In Endgame,  we get to enjoy Nagg and Nell  doing exactly that - as aging parents who are as helpless as little children - in the pure version, but the humor Beckett found in it is not there for a modern audience.  The pair elicited some anemic titters and giggles, more for their clowning than for their situation.

Comedy and farce are supposedly infused throughout Beckett's Endgame, but in this theatre of the absurd, nobody really laughs. There's plenty of bickering, and one-upmanship, but the humor is the cleverness, not the punch line.

"What is there to keep us here?"

"The dialogue."

"Nicely put, that."

A sometimes listless audience may have tried to nod off but was quickly brought back to the play by repeated blowing of Hamm's whistle as he summoned Clov, his son/servant. This more than the play itself served to keep about half the audience attentive and awake while the other half was most clearly absorbed in the words themselves. One of the problems with Beckett for the average theatre-goer is that much of what is said and is happening has a context that must be understood in order to make sense of it. Somehow this does not seem right. Beckett may be brilliant, but Beckett is not Shakespeare.

As Beckett himself put it, "Godot is rollicking beside this awful thing, "Gott hilfe mir, ich kann nicht anders" (God help me I can do no other!) The desolation of Endgame is not the desolation of the world we live in , or one to come, but the despair of Beckett's own horrific mind. He focuses less on communicating with the audience, than of forcing it to hear his tale of unremitting woe. Oh, Beckett cleverly dances around his melancholic meanderings with an endless play on words, and Music Hall antics, but their taste is still bitter.  Beckett-holics have come to understand this and approach Endgame differently from you and me.

In fact, to enjoy this work, one needs to read up on the author. But even if there were Cliff Notes for Endgame, requiring such preparation removes it from accessible art, and places it out of the reach of popular audiences. This can be overcome by a good director taking liberties. The administrators of his estate discourage better understanding of Beckett by their blind devotion to his every comma. (In Beckettese, a pause is a long pause, a period is a medium pause, a comma is a short pause.)

In the 1964 London production of Endgame, Beckett instructed an actor: "Let's get as many laughs as we can out of this horrible mess." Beckett had quite a sense of humor. It comes through in his letters to friends. Dry. Warped. Peculiarly Irish, perhaps. Imagine filmmaker Tim Burton and Jerry Lewis in one body. Beckett had what only can be described as a weird sense of humor. But when Beckett's estate basically chastises a company for doing exactly that - telling the story in a fresh way  - the dust of obscurity is settling upon his relevance for modern audiences.

In this production, other things got in the way, too. The sound was thin, much of the dialog was hard to fathom, and oh, those endless pauses. Sometimes Beckett can be more fun to talk about than to actually see on stage. Beckett can also be glorious and riveting.

Waiting for Godot at the Berkshire Theatre Festival last summer was so well done patrons returned for second and third performances. What makes one production so magical, the other less so?

Last summer's Godot was memorable because of the changes that BTF director Anders Cato brought to this classic. The same sort of things that landed ART's Joanne Akalaitis in so much hot water a quarter ceentury ago.  Like Akalaitis, Cato chose to add sound before the acts. He changed the usual barren outdoor landscape to a white washed interior with the forlorn tree. He dressed Vladimir and Estragon in hipster garb and incorporated all manner of vaudeville routines for their hats and other props. And he cast Lucky as a younger man instead of a bent over octogenarian.  Some purists hated it, but the public loved it, identified with it and made it one of BTF's most memorable productions ever.

The secret of many great plays is their ability to morph. If they are staged as exercises in precious words and never changing ritual, the life can drain out of them in an instant. Yet approached sensitively and creatively, they can speak to whole new generations. Beckett and his estate seem to have forgotten that theatre is a collaborative art. If his works continue to be held hostage to ritualistic performances, they will wither from popularity. Not that they have ever been very popular with mass audiences to begin with.

It is clear that the many deaths in Beckett's family around the time he wrote Endgame had a strong influence on him and our approach to his works. Sam spent endless hours by the bedside of relatives, waiting for them to die. He was part of a close Irish family, and participated in the endless rituals surrounding the process of death. Much of it is amazingly absurd.

So, when directing a German cast he told them: "I would like as much laughter as possible in this play. It is a playful piece." During the course of the performance at ART, there was only the feeblest of laughter, and not very much of it. Somehow, in following the letter of the script, the heart of the play was lost. Thomas Darrah, as Clov, did develop  quite a bit of shtick with a ladder, setting it up, moving it, climbing up to check the level of the water or sand through the slats on the windows, and sliding down again.

Beckett is at his best when he successfully infuses morbid comedy into his existential themes of endless waiting, never-ending disappointment and long awaited death.

While this A.R.T. production adhered to the letter of the original script, Darrah, for one, excelled at the physical comedy as did Remo Airaldi and Karen McDonald as Nagg and Nell. These were the elements that earned the best laughs.

In addition there were some unexpected surprises including one which is likely a little A.R.T. insiders joke.

Stern and Chalfant designed the set for this production which - for reasons unnknown - was raised four feet above the normal stage floor. Though painted black to mask its obviousness, its effect was much like making the stage an altar.  (The better to worship Beckett's work upon?) At the end of the play, the walls slowly blew apart, leaving the actors in mid air, alone on a sort of island.

That ending was not in the script. Beckett's ending is strange to begin with, and this unexpected twist made the final words stranger still.

"Since that's the way we're playing it...let's play it that way...and speak no more about it...speak no more"

In that outing, the director JoAnne Akalaitis reset the location from a bare room with two mostly covered windows, to a subway station in a post apocalyptic world. She decided to add an overture composed by her ex-husband Philip Glass, which  was certainly not in the script, either. Then she had the audacity to hire two black actors, raising yet another issue for Samuel Beckett and his minions who hated creativity, except from their star author.