Beckett on Film
review by Gregory Avery, 13 December 2002

When the theatre director Alan Schneider consulted with Samuel Beckett prior to staging the first U.S. production of Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot, one of the initial questions he asked was who Godot was supposed to be. To which the writer replied that, if he knew, he would have said so in the play. And, as to why  audiences often found themselves puzzled as to the meaning of his plays, Beckett is quoted as having told one critic, "It's all misunderstanding." To this, on another occasion, he amended, "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out."

Nonetheless, one approaches the nineteen films, of various lengths and sizes, that comprise the Beckett on Film series with some wariness. On the one hand, Beckett has been typed as a purveyor of "alienation", one whose works are difficult and obscure to most people, and whose plays feature performer who are seen deposited in urns or in trashcans. Would the films emphasize these qualities at the expense of the humor, pathos, and humanity that can also be found in them? On the other hand, Beckett has become something of an institution, one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, and, thus, one whose works are often presented or discussed in the monochrome hues of "edification". Would the films treat Beckett's work in such an overly reverential style that would sacrifice, again, the humor, pathos, and humanity that can also be found in them?

The answer is that, for the most part, the films in the Beckett on Film series (which have been brought out on home video in the U.S. by Ambrose Video this past fall) are splendid and have made the transition from stage to screen quite nicely. There are many fine performances to be seen, several by actors who had the chance to previously play and hew these roles during a presentation of all nineteen of Beckett's plays at the Gate Theatre, in Dublin, in 1991. Michael Colgan, who produced that series at the Gate and has co-produced Beckett on Film, has also succeeded in obtaining the services of several notable film directors who turn out to fit nicely with the works they have chosen to film. The only caveat imposed on the project, coming from the Beckett estate itself, was that the works were to be performed as written, with no changes in dialogue.

For the eleven-minute Act Without Words -- II, a "mime routine" for two performers, Beckett instructed that it was to be performed on a "low and narrow platform, violently lit in its entire length". The director Enda Hughes has set the piece on a length on motion picture films, running horizontally across the length of the screen (replete with the optical sound track visible in the long shots), and the action unfolds, in three film frames, from right to left. In the first, a sullen man emerges and goes through what amounts to a daily routine, from getting dressed to eating then undressing and "retiring" for the night---each time, he has to stop and think about what he is next supposed to do. This includes the lugging of a large, full sack into the second, middle frame of the "film" we're watching, after which he, himself, crawls into the sack, literally, a second empty sack that he takes along with him. A long pole, or "goad" as Beckett described it, pokes the second sack---from which emerges a second man, smiling, peppy, engaged in all he does (including giving himself a stimulating scalp massage before combing his hair). He scrupulously dresses, consults his pocket watch regularly to self-satisfying results, and lugs the full sack into the third frame, after which he "retires" and withdraws into the empty sack---and the "goad" then prods the sack from which emerges the sullen man, to begin to repeat his particular routine all over again... At which point, as Enda Hughes himself notes, Beckett, "with impeccable comic timing, drops the curtain".

Beckett himself described his first play, Waiting for Godot, as a "tragicomedy", and while the Godot in the Beckett on Film series may not have recognizable name stars, it is nonetheless one of the best productions of the play I've ever seen before -- Barry McGovern, stick-tall and with dark, piercing eyes, and Johnny Murphy, shorter and with a great rabbity grin, both played Vladimir and Estragon in the 1991 Gate Theatre presentations. Question: Here, "Godot" is pronounced as "GOD-oh" instead of "Go-DOUGH", which is how I've been pronouncing it for the last thirty-odd years. James Knowlson's comprehensive 1996 biography of  Beckett, Damned to Fame, does not offer any clarification on the matter. And the kinescope made of a 1961 TV. broadcast of Godot, starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel and directed by Alan Schneider, pronounces it as "Go-DOUGH", and Schneider would've gotten it directly from Beckett himself. The change in pronunciation may have something to do with the conscious effort made by the producers of the Beckett on Film series to give an Irish sound to the performances of works by the Irish-born playwright.

Beckett himself spent much of his life in France, and several of his plays, including Godot and Endgame (which was originally titled Fin de Partie), were written in French, partly, Beckett explained, because of the discipline of writing in another language. In his early years, he spent long periods of time walking around Paris with James Joyce, and their conversations are believed to have provided the inspiration for Beckett's later two-character piece, Ohio Impromptu (which is performed, beautifully, in the film series by Jeremy Irons). Beckett worked in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France, and went into hiding for a time to avoid being captured. Before starting work on Godot, he read an account which described the life that Beckett's friend Alfred Péron endured in one of the camps -- how he was regularly beaten by the capos who ran the place, and how, after days of hard labor and malnourishment, he would recite passages from Baudelaire and Verlaine to alleviate the abject misery. Both Godot and Endgame have been interpreted as dramas which could be taking place after some post-apocalyptic period -- in the film series, Vladimir and Estragon are shown waiting for Mr. Godot in a setting which appears to be made up of blasted mounds of concrete and cement, while in  "Endgame", which unfolds within the confines of a single room, Hamm, who is blind and confined to a rolling chair, repeatedly asks Clov, who may or may not be his son, to tell him what can be seen of what's left of the world through the tiny windows on either side of the room. Endgame is also the "trashcan piece", but we find out that the two elderly characters, Nell and Nagg, who reside in the trashcans at the back of the room are probably Hamm's parents. "Why did you engender me?" Hamm furiously asks Nagg. "I didn't know," Nagg replies. "What?" Hamm asks. "What didn't you know?" "That it would be YOU," Nagg acidulously replies.

Beckett was reluctant to accept the Nobel Prize for literature when he was informed he would be its recipient in 1969, but he did so anyway, partly on behalf of the publishers who had supported his work over the years and who could now benefit from the imprimatur that the prize permitted. He resisted any and all offers to turn his plays into films (the 1961 TV. broadcast of Godot, directed by Schneider, being the exception; Beckett also wrote an original treatment for a short film, entitled Film, in 1964, along with plays for television and radio). Beckett could also take umbrage with liberties taken with his work, such as a production that changed the opening line of "Godot" from "Nothing to be done" to "Nothing doing". But he would also travel any and everywhere where he was asked to help with a production of one of his plays that wasn't working (he would later take up stage direction himself), and he worked prolifically, including during a period in the 1960s when a benign tumor was removed from his upper palette, creating difficulties for a time with his being able to eat, drink, or smoke.

Beckett's dialogue can require a good deal of work in order to find the right cadence, emphasis, and rhythm that would yield forth both its inherent meaning and poetry to the audience. This is why the one clinker in the Beckett on Film series turns out to be Patricia Rozema's filming of Happy Days, in which the defiantly optimistic dialogue delivered by the main character, Winnie, is reduced to a drone of prattle. (Unfortunate, since this one of Beckett's best-known plays -- Ruth White and, later, Jessica Tandy performed it on the New York stage, while Madeleine Renaud played it on the Paris stage opposite her husband, Jean-Louis Barrault). Compare this with the range and depth that is conveyed by Susan Fitzgerald in her performance of Footfalls, or Stephen Brennan in A Piece of Monologue, short pieces found elsewhere in the series. The meaning is in the words, and the words are the meaning. In these, too, the directors found ways to complement the performances cinematically -- Footfalls is clothed in a beautifully melancholy twilight of grays and silvers, while Monologue is filmed in an almost Expressionistic black-and-white which nonetheless turns Brennan's eyes into deep, transfixing pools of emotion that are almost too unbearably moving to watch.

I wished that David Mamet's film of Catastrophe had been a little more satisfying -- Mamet sets the action in an actual London music hall, and has Rebecca Pidgeon and Harold Pinter playing two people who arrange a mute figure -- John Gielgud, in his very last appearance as a performer -- in order to achieve the right combination of pose, lighting, and mood that would convey the "catastrophe" they're looking for. I also wasn't terribly satisfied with Neil Jordan's filming of the monologue "Not I", which is delivered by Julianne Moore, but it's a difficult piece to perform in the first place -- Beckett instructed that it be performed with only the performer's mouth visible, something which confounded both directors and performers who tried to enact the piece onstage. For "Breath", the producers came upon the idea of getting the artist Damien Hirst -- he of the sharks exhibited in formaldehyde tanks, and the medicine cabinets with hundreds of individually designed and hand-made pills displayed on the shelves -- to film it. Beckett was invited by Kenneth Tynan to contribute a sketch to Tynan's adult revue "Oh! Calcutta!", in 1969. Beckett responded with a piece in which the stage lights would go up, then down, on a setting comprised of strewn detritus, all of which would last for the entirety of the intake, then exhalation, of a human breath – forty-six seconds. (For the New York production, someone included a few naked bodies, positioned so that their wares would be on display -- not what Beckett had in mind, and he let Tynan know as much.) Hirst has filmed it, however, as Beckett intended, one long camera movement, beginning and ending in darkness, over mounds of what looks like discarded hospital supplies, upended medical tables and gurneys, blue surgical gloves, sealed medical waste bags, components for computers, and, finally, a pill bottle laying on its side (Keith Allen provides the vocalization on the soundtrack). At first, you think it's dismissible, but then you decide to give it a second look, then a third...

Anthony Minghella's turn with Play (the title, it turns out, has a double meaning) -- the "urn piece" -- substitutes camerawork and editing in place of the spotlight which illuminates the three characters -- a wife, her husband, and the mistress whom the husband takes for a time -- who take turns in reciting the sorry events which occurred from when the wife discovers her husband's infidelity to when the three of them go their separate ways, each wondering what has become of the other. When the characters have finished with their narrative, Beckett's concluding stage instructions are, "Repeat Play."

The performers in Minghella's film -- Kristin Scott Thomas (wife), Alan Rickman (husband), and Juliet Stevenson (mistress) -- are still confined, up to their necks, in urns, set side by side, and they are made up so that they appear to have a green, decomposing quality to them. They also follow Beckett's stage instructions to the letter -- when they have to "repeat Play", the camera seems to almost careen back to where the first character has to speak the first lines of dialogue. It's the most technically audacious film in the series, and it's brilliantly done. (For the record, the first half runs seven minutes and thirty seconds, the second seven minutes and twenty seconds.) It's great to see Juliet Stevenson again (her performance in Minghella's 1991 film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, was, for me, one of the cinematic high points of the 'Nineties), and, for all the elaborateness that has been brought to bear in the filming, Minghella still delivers what Beckett intended, a sort of awe and terror over how the characters have become doomed -- doomed by their own actions, in fact -- to a kind of purgatory where they keep repeating and replaying to themselves the same past series of events over and over, whether in an actual purgatory or one that may exist only in their interior consciousness.

It is appropriate that the last play of the series is Rockaby, and not just for the obvious reasons. A thirteen-minute monologue performed by actress Penelope Wilton, it has a gentle, cantering quality to it. The film series has a number of standout performances in it -- Michael Gambon and David Thewlis in Endgame, the three actresses (Paola Dionisotti, Anna Massey, and Sian Phillips) who perform the dreamlike Come and Go, David Kelley and Milo O'Shea as the blind beggar and the crippled man in Rough for Theatre--1, John Hurt in Atom Egoyan's filming of Krapp's Last Tape, Jim Norton and Timothy Spall as the two highly divergent clerks ("Now, let's have the positive elements.") in Rough for Theatre -- II, and Niall Buggy's incredibly nuanced and delicate rendition of That Time, a piece originally written to be played by three actors instead of one -- and Wilton's performance proves to be no exception. Set against beautiful shades of black and brown, her character recounts her experience sitting before a window in her rocking chair, a window which, "pane before a face", both separates her from the world and frames her existence within it to the outside world. She watches for others, within windows facing hers, another person behind another pane of glass opposite her, until, in the end, she makes the decision to quit this farce, with one brief, rough, brisk expression, and the rocking comes to a halt, like the flip of a switch: "Rock her off."

By accounts, Samuel Beckett himself was not a colic man -- one acquaintance saw him give, literally, the coat off his back to a person down on his luck, in a bar in Montparnasse -- who used his work to express and confirm his misanthropy and contempt for the world. Rather, he gives expression to persons and experience that otherwise would have no voice, but which gives insight to some of the most personal and life-shaping questions and conditions that, sooner or later, everyone must face. The biggest accomplishment of the Beckett on Film series is how it shows the humanity at the heart of Beckett's work, how he used his craft to say, yes, it is there, even amidst the most bleakest and trying of circumstances, but it is not extinguished, and it patiently continues to endure and to exist.

Directed by:
Walter Asmus
John Crowley
Atom Egoyan
Richard Eyre
Charles Garrad
Damien Hirst
Enda Hughes
Neil Jordan
Robin LeFévre
Michael Lindsay-Hogg
David Mamet
Conor McPherson
Anthony Minghella
Katie Mitchell
Damien O'Donnell
Karel Reisz
Patricia Rozema
Charles Sturridge
Kieron J. Walsh

Written by:
Samuel Beckett

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not 
been rated.





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