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Staging Sam: Beckett as Dramatic Character
By Hersh Zeifman

By Michael Hastings
Sam's Last Dance
By Sean Dixon
Burnt Piano
By Justin Fleming


On January 3, 1956, Waiting for Godot had its now notorious American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. The critical (and, more important, audience) response was mostly baffled and dismissive: the play was viewed as incomprehensible, an Irish/Gallic hoax. When Godot opened on Broadway later that spring, its producers were so desperate for an audience that they were reduced to advertising for "seventy thousand intellectuals"; only intellectuals, it appeared, could appreciate such an abstruse and deeply enigmatic work.

Flash forward fifty years, to a winter evening in 2005. I'm ensconced, as usual, in front of the TV, mindlessly watching one of my favorite programmes, the medical series House. In this particular episode, the mother of a critically ill patient whose time is running out refuses to approve a risky surgical procedure for her son until she gets an opinion from the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC apparently takes its own sweet time responding to such requests; as one of the show's doctors dryly comments, "Godot would be faster." House is broadcast--and that's broadcast, not "narrowcast" on public television or specialty cable like HBO--on Fox, one of the major American television networks and thus not, I hasten to point out, a normal haven for intellectuals. Later that same evening, I finished a mass market paperback novel, Michael Fredrickson's A Cinderella Affidavit, a legal thriller without even a trace of intellectual pretension or merit. At the novel's conclusion, Matthew Boer, its disillusioned protagonist, decides to stop practicing law; one of his partners, Ira Teitelbaum, tries to dissuade him:

"It won't be the same old shop without you," said Ira, his voice softer.
Matthew forced himself to smile. "We used to be together at the top of the Trifle Tower, Ira. But I was respectable in those days. Now they wouldn't even let me up."
Ira laughed. "Goddamn English majors."

At the risk of exposing in public my appalling taste for schlock, I relate these anecdotes in order to illustrate how pervasive Waiting for Godot has become in the culture at large--and not just for English majors. Fredrickson's novel doesn't even bother to identify its Beckett quote--assuming, rightly or wrongly, that no such identification is now required; the formerly bewildering and impenetrable intellectual puzzle of a play has become, over the course of time, a classic: familiar and iconic. And so has its author: it should come as no surprise, then, that interest in and admiration for Beckett's work have extended from the writing to the writer himself. Witness, for example, the many biographies published both before and after Beckett's death, capped by James Knowlson's magisterial Damned to Fame. Even more indicative of this embrace of Beckett's art and life is the number of plays in the past few years in which Beckett appears as an onstage character--three of which are the subject of this article.

Romola Garai as Lucia Joyce in Michael Hastings's "Calico," directed by Edward Hall, Duke of York's Theatre, London, 2004. Photo: John HaynesThe most mainstream of these plays, and in some ways the least successful, is Michael Hastings's Calico, which opened in London's West End in the spring of 2004. Beckett is only a supporting character in Calico; the play's primary focus is on James Joyce and his family, particularly his mentally disturbed daughter Lucia, whose existence Hastings claims has been "vapourized." Hastings is revisiting familiar territory here: in the introduction to his 1984 play Tom and Viv, which shines a harsh spotlight on the marriage of T.S. Eliot and his mentally disturbed first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he describes Viv as "that painted shadow in the background . . ., Stalinized into cultural obscurity." Calico, like Tom and Viv, is Hastings's attempt to reposition a marginalized female figure by placing her at the centre of his play, thus giving her a voice. Lucia's psychotic behaviour, the play argues, stemmed from the tensions within a deeply dysfunctional, perhaps incestuous, family. And it is into this family, in the Paris of 1928, that the 22-year-old Sam Beckett gingerly steps.

Lucia was madly in love with Beckett--and for once the cliché is literally true: her unrequited love was indeed a kind of madness. She fantasized that she and Sam were married and the proud parents of three sons, living an idyllic life in Galway where in his spare time her schoolteacher husband "wrote novels about landed Protestants." It's hard to imagine a more unlikely bourgeois scenario for Beckett, and yet, in his desire to help, he reluctantly participates in Lucia's fantasy--an act, Hastings writes, of "astonishing compassion."

In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann states that both Joyce and Beckett were "addicted to silences"; it is this essential silence of Beckett's character that Hastings captures most believably in Calico. Scene after scene features Sam lurking quietly in the background, a silent witness to the family romance being enacted in front of him. And in two revealing conversations in the second act of the play--first with Nora Joyce and then with Lucia--Sam manages to engage in a genuine dialogue in which he never once opens his mouth. If only he had remained silent throughout, however, for it's when Sam speaks that Calico goes seriously wrong. "Beckett's mind," Ellmann notes, "had a subtlety and strangeness that attracted Joyce as it attracted, in another way, his daughter."

Yet there is little evidence of that subtlety in Calico's dramatic portrait of Beckett. Everything Sam says in the play is bland and predictable; there is nothing truly eccentric--truly Beckettian--in Hastings's Beckett. He is reduced, instead, to a plot device: an Irish version of the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. (Williams's Gentleman Caller may be named O'Connor, but he's finally as all-American as public speaking courses and chewing gum.) With enormous tenderness Sam first supports Lucia's delusion and then, because he must, destroys it. But there is no recognizable flutter of a heartbeat behind this façade of a character--only a dry and lifeless stock figure who happens to bear the name of a famous writer, a man of few (unexceptional) words spoken with a slight Irish brogue.

The Beckett we encounter in Canadian Sean Dixon's 1997 play Sam's Last Dance, on the other hand, is anything but dry and lifeless. Well, maybe technically lifeless: the play's opening image is of Sam's "pale face in a tight spotlight. . . . All around there is darkness, though from the spill we can see he is standing in a confined space. It is actually as if he is lying on his back, and we are watching him from above." Sam will return to this "sarcophagus" throughout the play, but he is not in fact dead; we find him instead in that liminal space which he later describes as "[t]he moment between stirring still and stop." Like all the contemporary playwrights under discussion, Dixon has done his homework, thoroughly researching both Beckett's life (Knowlson should sue for a share of the play's royalties) and, more significantly, his art: there are direct or indirect allusions to at least a dozen Beckett works in the play. "Here I am at last," Sam announces; "Alone at last." And yet Sam is not alone; "to one on his back in the dark" comes company. The nature of that company, and what it implies about his "aloneness," is the subject of Dixon's play.

The character who accompanies Sam during the course of the play is "a dead ringer for an older Buster Keaton," the star of Beckett's Film--one Stone Face confronting another. Unlike Hastings, Dixon doesn't attempt to capture the "real" Beckett--whatever chimera that might be--in his play. All we can ever truly know is the public persona, this solitary figure struggling brilliantly to both invade and evade the nothingness which surrounds him--a persona Dixon uses as a springboard to dramatize two interrelated aspects of Beckett's aloneness. "We have some unfinished business, you and I," Buster informs Sam.

Since Film was, according to Buster, "a piece of shit," he has come to offer Sam a second chance: their next collaboration should be "[a] show called 'Show.'"Sam is intrigued: to write, for once in his life, a work about what he terms "Moreness." And so, in "a landscape casually reminiscent of the setting for 'Waiting for Godot'" but lit now by the sun instead of the moon, Sam creates a show fairly bursting with "Moreness": a World War II action film in which he gets to sing and dance, leap from bridges, blow up a Nazi train and save all the great paintings of Europe. This show-within-the-play is deliberately contrived and often silly, but it raises a poignant issue: the psychic toll on Beckett in choosing to create--even if there was no true choice--a body of work that continually strives for Lessness, that explores so relentlessly the darkness of human existence, that measures with harrowing precision the exact confines of his aloneness. Beckett has given his public a great gift, but at what cost?

Buster knows the cost--but that's because Buster, Dixon directs, is to be played by a woman with a French accent; "[y]ou look like my wife . . . Suzanne," Sam informs him. Here is the personal, as opposed to the artistic, side of Beckett's perceived aloneness; the more he disappeared into the "Vanishing Point" of his writing, the more Suzanne felt shut out. "[A]ll the written evidence," she laments, "shows that he is alone. / Not two . . . anymore, just one." Only by impersonating Buster, by appearing with Sam in his show, can Suzanne leave her "mark" on him. In their shared derring-do adventures, the pair thus becomes a kind of hyperactive Gogo and Didi--no waiting required; Beckett may have banned cross-gender casting in Godot, but not in Suzanne's revisionist fantasy. "This is what I wanted," she confesses to her husband. "To be inside the work. Walking among the words of your work. . . . I could have been a face in the spotlight. A mouth. A pair of eyes. The sound of a breath. It's the only kind of erotic experience you can have with this man." Sam's last dance--the romantic moment she and Sam share in the play--is in actuality Suzanne's last chance for that erotic experience; Dixon has subtitled the play "an introverted love story." Yet however much she tries to connect with him, Sam is still alone at the end of the play. The final stage direction reads: "He reaches for her. She disappears. He turns to face out. Looks up. Blackout."

Darcy Bonser and Catherine Wilkin in Justin Fleming's "Burnt Piano,"  University of Melbourne, 1999Suzanne also appears as a character in Burnt Piano, the 1999 play by Australian Justin Fleming, but, like Beckett himself, only in a supporting role. The play's protagonist is Karen Idlewild, a bookseller who, as her name suggests, idolizes Beckett--both the man and his writing--with an almost religious fervor. "He is a man unlike every other man," Karen proclaims reverently at the very beginning of the play. According to Suzanne, Karen sees Beckett as a "prophet" and "oracle," a "Christ from out of the desert," while her father Pete accuses her of worshipping Beckett as a "Guru" and "Patriarch." Karen has been sending Beckett letters her entire life, none of which have been answered; but now, in 1989, after a family tragedy in which one of her two young sons, left briefly alone while she was out running an errand, was killed in a house fire, she has come to Paris with her father and remaining child in order to meet him in person. After such knowledge--after such pain and loss--what forgiveness? Beckett, Karen claims, is "the only person who can understand," who can explain to her the meaning of her own tragic past.

The work of Beckett's with which Karen especially identifies is Waiting for Godot; she was born on January 3, 1953, the date of the first performance of En attendant Godot in Paris, and because of this and other coincidences, she considers the play her "star sign." Burnt Piano contains numerous quotations--some acknowledged, some not--from Beckett's most famous play. But more significant than these various allusions is the fact that Fleming's play itself, like Sam's Last Dance, becomes a kind of alternate version of Waiting for Godot. Beckett is Karen's Godot; if only she can meet him, she'll be saved. And so, like Gogo and Didi, she waits--as the Act One curtain lines emphasize: when her son Jonah collapses at the very end of the act, she phones Emergency Services and informs them: "Yes, I'll wait. J'attends." Composing one final letter to Beckett in Act Two, Karen sends Jonah to deliver it--for "in [Beckett's] writing," she reminds us, "it's a child who brings messages." Thus it is Jonah--the boy who was saved while his brother was "damned"--who winds up twice encountering both Sam and his wife, their dialogue hauntingly echoing the form, rhythm and often exact words of the Boy's meetings with Gogo and Didi in Waiting for Godot.

The Sam we see in Burnt Piano is, appropriately, most often a ghost, a shadowy figure bathed in a "mysterious dream-light"; Karen meets him throughout the play, but only in her imagination. And whenever he is not a ghost--in the two domestic scenes with Suzanne, for example, who humanizes him--he is simply a frail old man in the last year of his life who plays the piano and is fond of whiskey and chess. Here is Fleming's point, and the reason Suzanne was included in the play: Beckett is neither God nor Godot, but all too fallibly mortal. Karen has imagined him, as we imagine all our gods; whatever universal truths she sees in his writing are her own creation. As Suzanne tells Jonah: "Monsieur Beckett knows nothing she does not know herself!" Beckett's writing contains no magic key to unlock life's mysteries or explain away its miseries--as Karen discovers when she finally meets Sam at Suzanne's graveside near the end of the play. Their "conversation," which occupies almost five pages of text, is totally one-sided; remarkably, Sam never utters a single word. "I had long imagined his counsel," Karen later comments. "Instead I was given his silence. . . . Or had I been waiting for his wisdom? And, instead, I found my own illumination." Beckett's writing is only a mirror: the consolation and self-forgiveness Karen learns from him resides, ultimately, within herself.

And so we have three very different versions of Beckett as a dramatic character in three very different plays. In Calico, we learn next to nothing about Beckett qua Beckett--or, as Lucky would say, quaquaquaqua Beckett; he provides merely a convenient biographical opportunity for Hastings to explore the true focus of his play, Lucia Joyce. Beckett proved useful primarily because, like Mount Everest, he was there. Sam's Last Dance and Burnt Piano, on the other hand, genuinely attempt to engage with Beckett qua Beckett--or, at any rate, with Beckett in his role of writer. In their desire to explain why Beckett's writing is so profoundly meaningful to so many people, both Dixon and Fleming decided to bring Beckett onto the stage--to let him, in effect, speak for himself. Ironically, however, although their tremendous admiration for Beckett comes through clearly, neither playwright is able to capture Beckett's complex personality. Their portraits of Beckett are thus at best only portraits of his public persona; all any of us can do, the plays suggest, is project onto Beckett the man our own individual responses to Beckett the writer. Despite his forays from one side of the footlights to the other, then, Samuel Beckett remains, in the end, as stubbornly elusive as his most famous creation.


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