Sometimes you can’t put your finger on what you’ve been missing until you encounter it again. After seeing two fine revivals of plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter — “Waiting for Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum and the British production of “The Caretaker” at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, respectively — I suddenly realized how ravenous I was for language in the theater with poetic density and grit.
Beckett, 20th century playwriting’s No. 1 game-changer, and Pinter, his most original disciple, were writers steeped in literature. Their education and training didn’t come courtesy of an M.F.A. program, with its cramped curriculum divorcing the stage from the other arts. They were carving paths for themselves as wide-ranging men of letters, to use a phrase that has sadly gone the way of “bibliophile” and “public intellectual.”
Of course great artists such as Beckett and Pinter are anomalous. (Nobel laureates still haven’t gone into mass production.) Yet there’s something to be learned from the example of two writers whose spectacular destinies can be glimpsed in their literary beginnings.
Beckett, a brilliant student of Romance languages, had a formative association with James Joyce, wrote a penetrating essay on Proust early in his career, and was as conversant with Dante as he was with the major philosophical currents of his day. Remarkably, he wound up having as profound an impact on the novel as he had on drama. (Only Chekhov, who revolutionized the short story while transforming the future of playwriting, can match this legacy among modern authors.)
Pinter, a young devourer of Dostoevski, Kafka and Joyce, was an actor and director as well as a playwright and screenwriter, but his identity as a poet preceded his dramatic work and he confined himself to poetry (and political rabble-rousing) in the last years of his life. Although Julian Sands’ recent one-man tribute to Pinter at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble didn’t convince me that Pinter’s standing as a poet matches his standing as a playwright, the tensile strength of his dialogue, with nary an extraneous work, is inseparable from his lifelong poetic labors.
Trailblazers fired by stubborn integrity, Beckett and Pinter had an innate recognition of the distinction drawn by Jean Cocteau between “poetry in the theater” and “theater poetry.” Neither was interested in bringing back verse drama, as T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry had attempted to do. Their mission was to create new forms of dramatic poetry, which for Beckett would involve the interweaving of high and low registers into a kind Schopenhauerian vaudeville and for Pinter would entail the stylized redeployment of vernacular into menacing comedy.
The “absurdist” label has stuck to Beckett and Pinter since the publication of Martin Esslin’s seminal book “The Theatre of the Absurd” in the early 1960s. Esslin’s designation provided a useful if somewhat crude way of differentiating this new (and far from homogenous) crop of playwrights from the existentialist writers. In short, it wasn’t so much vision as craft that separated the plays of Beckett and Pinter from the dramatic works of Jean-Paul Sartreand Albert Camus. The same metaphysical doubts and pervasive skepticism about language were in play, only now they were being embodied in diction, character and the dizzying illogic of what remained of plot.
This history is worth emphasizing because there is often an assumption by avant-garde hard-liners that if you praise a playwright’s literary prowess you’re probably the type of person who would prefer to read a play than see it on stage. But Beckett and Pinter (to say nothing of Shakespeare) demonstrate the way theatrical poetry, to invoke Cocteau’s term again, can begin on the page.
Beckett, in fact, was quite adamant that directors adhere to what he wrote, issuing politely rebuking letters to his collaborators when even seemingly incidental liberties were taken — and no one would dare call him anti-theatrical.
A ruthless economy and rigorous attention to detail are hallmarks of both playwrights’ styles. Beckett and Pinter orchestrate language and gesture the way a great poet composes a poem — by refining out all the inessentials. No wonder as they got older their works grew shorter, as though in an unending race to arrive at more distilled versions of themselves.
The opening of “Godot” offers a microcosm of Beckett’s entire play, which trades linear development for a deepening meditation. “Nothing to be done,” announces Estragon. “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion,” replies Vladimir. One of the many delights of Michael Arabian’s Taper production is the way Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern balance the clowning and philosophizing into one seamless act — the tramps doing what comes naturally, filling the void that surrounds them.
The setting and action of Pinter’s “The Caretaker” are more familiar on the surface, but the terse dialogue in which no question is ever satisfactorily answered suffuses the atmosphere with a forbidding mystery.
When Aston asks Davies, the old man he has charitably invited into his room, “Where were you born then?,” the response could hardly be more Pinteresque: “What do you mean?” The stage directions indicate that Davies says this “darkly,” though Jonathan Pryce needs no such reminding in a performance that understands the territorial battle that’s implicit whenever two strangers are placed in the same Pinter cage.
Only those with genuine erudition can wear it as lightly as Beckett and Pinter. Likewise, only those who have practiced their craft as intensely as they have can make such astonishing verbal precision seem so effortless. No narrowly focused professional theater school could ever prepare the way for this kind of artistic breakthrough, though perhaps the biographers of Beckett and Pinter would do us the service of inventorying their reading material during their apprenticeship years. The intellectual range would no doubt point out what our ubiquitous training programs (and I’ve taught in quite a few of them) are leaving out.
The looseness of so much of today’s playwriting comes in no small part from the shift away from dramatic poetry to dramatic writing, a less medium-specific pursuit in which the “storyboarding” of plots is considered equally applicable to theater, film and television. What’s important is a good yarn rather than a trenchant vision. The stage in this scheme is nothing but a steppingstone to a more remunerative opportunity.
Dramatic poets might not get rich, but they endure. They become part of a tradition in which poetry and philosophy merge before a grateful public. The legacy of Beckett and Pinter — alive in the works of Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Will Eno and Enda Walsh, among others — isn’t in danger of going away. But the values they represent are in for an uphill fight.