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The No-Problem Playwright

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To the editors:

What is accomplished when a theatre critic begins a review by declaring that the author's plays are impossible to stage? One thing it does is to render moot any further discussion of this or that production.

That notwithstanding, on a literal level, nothing could be simpler to stage than a Beckett play, especially Krapp's Last Tape [August 11]. All you need, for all practical purposes, is a table, a tape recorder, some tapes, a dictionary, and two bananas. In fact, some Beckett plays seem tailor-made not only to be staged, but to be staged by a company without much money and by actors who for one reason or another can't learn lines. If Krapp's Last Tape is impossible to stage, then what would we do with a scene such as from Goethe's Faust in which wine emanates from tabletops and then suddenly turns to shooting flames?

Maybe what Tom Boeker really meant was that Beckett's plays are impossible to interpret. But then what if one stages a Beckett play without interpreting it? In fact, Beckett has always insisted that the text, not the actor (or the director) drive the interpretation of his work. As Marcel Duchamp once said, "There is no solution because there is no problem."

Had the text been included in Jim Ortlieb's "staging," we would have seen the protagonist looking up in the dictionary what we would have known was a word in the script. And we would have observed an old man's private annoyance at hearing his own pompous voice from younger days.

I would argue that what was omitted with the text would have been funny, even, or especially, to non-Beckett students. In fact, it was the very production that we saw, silent, text-stripped, that left Beckett still apparently inaccessible to those-not-in-the-know (one of which Boeker apparently prides himself in being) since it was, as usual, based on the assumption, unexamined, that Beckett's plays are "existential." They are not about anything. They are about the meaninglessness of existence. Hence, the actor's gestures and words on the stage are meaningless. (But somehow the props aren't.)

Why? Because (according to this attitude) Beckett is a minimalist, a sort of proto-scriptwriter of performance art. I think if we adopt this point of view, we do ourselves a great disservice.

Like Boeker, I had not read Krapp's Last Tape when I saw the production, and therefore I enjoyed Bitondo's Chaplinesque mugging. Next day, like Boeker, I read the script. Then I felt that Ortlieb had indeed denied us, Beckett students and lay alike, the essence of a fine play, which is suffused with, to quote James Joyce describing Ibsen, "a fine pity."

The play is not, as Boeker has it, simply and merely about a "wasted life." Rather, it is about an old man, who, in younger days, narcissistically documented his fight against growing old, or his denial of his mortality, on reel-to-reel tape recordings, which he has then carefully and just as narcissistically cataloged; and who, in his last tape, both capitulates and transcends.

Both the stepping-through that Ortlieb has staged and Boeker's review of it assume that the words of the play say nothing, are nothing, and are dispensable. So what we were given was performance art as a cultural list. Drama--the relationships among words and the physical--words to sounds of voices and to inflection, words to causes and effects, words to the question of their possible meanings--was withheld from us, along with, ultimately, the pathetic experience that lurks in that play.

Rob Rohm

Evanston

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