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Forget Beckett? The very idea is absurd

Times Staff Writer

HAPPY birthday, Samuel Beckett!

Somehow Hallmark greetings and candles on a cake seem inappropriate for a writer whose epitaph could be the opening line of one of his late theatrical works: “Birth was the death of him.”

Undoubtedly, Beckett’s mordant sensibility would have found it amusing that the birthday boy has been dead since 1989. But otherwise this protracted centennial hubbub commemorating his nativity on, of all days, Good Friday 1906, would have made the shy, self-exiled, thoroughly agnostic Irishman nervous in the extreme.

Shortly after hearing that he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, Beckett fled with his French wife into hiding to avoid the “catastrophe” of publicity. Imagine how he’d react to the current annus horribilis in which he’s being globally feted with festivals of his work, exposed through reminiscences (collected in this year’s “Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett”) and treated to incessant interpretations of his corpus by a species he considered beneath curates, cretins and sewer rats, if you’ll allow Vladimir and Estragon from “Waiting for Godot” to speak for him -- yes, I’m referring to the lot of critics.

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The one treasurable thing to come out of this anniversary hoopla is the handsome multivolume Grove Press edition of his collected work, though one can’t be sure that Beckett would have appreciated this form of monumentalizing any more than he would have approved of the well-intentioned “Beckett on Film,” in which all of his 19 plays were made available on a DVD boxed set.

The revels are beginning to die down, though not before UCLA Live’s International Theatre Festival pays homage with three offerings this month to pique the interest of Beckettian veterans and newcomers alike. Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland’s “Access All Beckett” consists of two bills: One, presented in 2004 at the Rubicon Theatre Company, features Conor Lovett delivering excerpts of Beckett’s prose trilogy -- “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable”; the other (performed by Lovett and Ally Ni Chiarain) pairs “A Piece of Monologue” with dramatic recitals of “Enough” and sections of “Texts for Nothing.” In addition, the Gate Theatre Dublin’s lauded touring production of “Godot,” directed by Walter Asmus, returns to satisfy the curiosity of those still wondering what made such a fiendish experimenter a canonical necessity.

After the myriad tomes assuring us of his preeminence among postwar writers, it’s not exactly clear how the strangely muttering voices filling the voids of his blasted landscapes speak to us today. What was once so radical -- tramps on an apocalyptic heath, characters popping out of trash cans, an isolated mouth foaming verbal ooze -- has become instantly recognizable, even familiar.

No one would dare call Beckett dated, but has he been consigned to a fixed place in history -- a line in the sand between modernism and postmodernism, the absurdist cutup who gave midcentury existentialists the green light to laugh at the joke that’s on all of us?

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If Beckett is more admired by artists and intellectuals than loved by a new generation of readers and theatergoers, it probably has to do with the failure of even his most devoted followers to accept just how completely he broke with tradition. For a writer who adamantly resisted not just the structural conventions of the novel and play but the whole consumerist apparatus in which they were served and gobbled up, there’s something odd about the way his work continues to be assimilated into existing modes of presentation (the 8 o’clock curtain, the star-studded DVD set, the bound library volumes), as though nothing has changed at all.

Beckett came into prominence in 1953 with the French premiere of “Godot,” a play the critic Kenneth Tynan said forced us “to reexamine the rules which have hitherto governed drama, and having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough.” And this most gallows-minded of dramatic poets still exerts a special hold on the theater, as witnessed by the recent stampede for tickets to the London staging of “Krapp’s Last Tape” starring another Nobel laureate (and unabashed disciple), Harold Pinter.

Recent assessments have attempted to establish priority between his novels and his plays. What’s clear is that the theater brought him wider renown and continues to be how he’s most commonly introduced to new audiences. In fact, “Godot” has become a brick in the path of a solid liberal arts education. The same cannot be said for even his greatest novelistic achievement, the wickedly sublime trilogy.

The remarkable aspect of his legacy, however, is that he managed to redeploy the resources of two divergent mediums in the service of his tragicomic vision. In the process, he reshaped the contemporary novel as well as the play and kept scholars scrambling to explain just how he did it -- something he had precious little patience for.

“I feel the only line is to refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind,” Beckett wrote to the American director Alan Schneider. “And to insist on the extreme simplicity of dramatic situation and issue. If that’s not enough for them, and it obviously isn’t, or they don’t see it, it’s plenty for us, and we have no elucidations to offer of mysteries that are all of their making.”

The power of allusion

BECKETT’S groundbreaking project was to turn his back on the hard-to-shake demand that artists disclose some kind of prophetic knowledge within their work. Gifted though he was academically, he was never seduced by sententiousness, which he might have defined as the art of sounding smarter than you are.

“If you really get down to the disaster,” Beckett observed, “the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable.”

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His interest was in the area of mind that lies beyond the consolation of words. He set for himself not the great philosophical question of how to live but the artistic challenge of representing being itself. Consciousness was his subject, less for its peaks than for its limits. He was particularly fascinated by its obsessive circularity, its bondage to a needy, recalcitrant body and its habit of drifting back and forth between a lost past and a confounded present.

Historically, it’s not so difficult to grasp. Beckett was writing at a time when faith in language and rationality had been dealt a mortal blow. As Europe lay smoldering after World War II, how could writers reinforce a myth of human progress?

Beckett’s method was the inverse of that of his early mentor and fellow Dubliner in Paris, James Joyce. “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one’s material,” he said. “He was always adding to it.... I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding.”

The ruthless economy Beckett imposed on his writing -- boiling things down to a minimalist essence -- is one of its signatures. “Ohio Impromptu,” a late dramatic sketch, begins with “Little is left to tell” and ends with “Nothing is left to tell.” Of course, between those two points lies a dramatic universe that the playwright made uniquely his own.

Reading Beckett today continues to be exhilarating. The tensile strength of his staccato sentences, the idiomatic hilarity (particularly pungent in the English translations he prepared or carefully oversaw of his more muted French prose) and the ironic debunking of literary and religious quotations are just a few of the pleasures he offers.

But the challenge of his writing has only grown in an age in which expediency has become the highest virtue. One can’t plow through “Molloy” and the others the way one can a batch of Ian McEwan novels. Beckett requires an almost Zen-like attention to the moment. With the Internet cultivating a new generation of attention-deficit readers, the level of concentration it takes to wend down an associative stream (as opposed to steamrolling down a narrative superhighway) may be beyond what most of us are prepared to give.

Perhaps this is why the nondramatic works in UCLA Live’s program have an urgency that the Gate Theatre’s “Godot,” seen at UCLA in 2000, doesn’t: The novels and short fiction seem more in danger of slipping into a nebulous category of respected but ignored -- or at any rate, known only to the rarefied few.

Which isn’t to say that Beckett’s theater is assured of a robust longevity. The estate, following the author’s lead, has conservatively insisted upon fidelity to the texts, legally objecting when directors have grown too independent-minded in their conceptual approaches. One can partly understand the thinking. Beckett carefully conceived his theatrical values, which are difficult enough to get right. To adulterate them with less precise staging ideas is to diminish his works’ metaphoric power. Yet the collaborative nature of theater requires some degree of openness to unforeseen possibility.

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More intimate possibilities

ONE area that has been grossly underexplored has been the way in which the plays are presented. How we attend a theatrical event influences our expectations of it. Beckett wanted us to have the same relationship to a performance as we do to a painting or a poem: To experience it not as consumable commentary but as a new addition to our world.

Generally speaking, producers haven’t been imaginative enough in figuring out how to offer the plays outside of the tyranny of our entrenched theatergoing habits. Imagine being able to circulate among Beckett performances on a late Saturday afternoon the way you can paintings at a gallery. Some of his plays are just a few minutes long. Why can’t the logistics be toyed with so that audiences can have more flexibility?

The most misguided approach -- and this is thankfully not the case with the two touted Irish companies coming to UCLA Live -- is to top-load the event with celebrities, as in Mike Nichols’ 1988 production of “Godot” at Lincoln Center with Steve Martin and Robin Williams.

Beckett always had a thing for great clowns (Bert Lahr and Buster Keaton served him particularly well), but acting in his plays requires an uncommon selflessness. Theatrical stars who succeed in his work -- Michael Gambon, to name a recent example -- have to overcome the tincture of their overpowering personalities. The finest Beckettian performers -- Jack MacGowran, Patrick Magee, Billie Whitelaw -- have had a genius for becoming part of the theatrical landscape rather than lording over it like some personified Milky Way.

These artists understand that, for all of Beckett’s fabled darkness, his light is too brilliant to eclipse. By letting it shine unimpeded, they help illuminate what he wryly -- and for once, inaccurately -- described in his novel “Murphy” as “the nothing new.”

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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‘Samuel Beckett Centenary Celebration’

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood.

When: Begins Nov. 7. See www.uclalive.orgfor details.

Ends: Nov. 19

Info: (310) 825-2101


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