We're not entirely restrictive. We're not . . . conservers of museum pieces. Not at all. — Edward Beckett
There is a school of thought (passionately held by many) that holds that it is tantamount to sacrilege to tamper with one of Samuel Beckett's texts. In the most recent (and most successful) run of Waiting for Godot some have criticised the production for playing for laughs. Had they forgotten that this was supposed to be a comedy?
It is true that his estate now keeps a wary eye on new performances and has waded in where it thought the director was overstepping the mark. And some have done exactly that. A famous one is where director Deborah Warner tampered – slightly – with Beckett's one-woman play, Footfalls. She made two main changes:
[T]here were two occasions when a small number of lines had been purposely reassigned, spoken not by the ancient mother (who is present in the play just as a voice) but by her daughter.
Rather than pace up and down the one narrow strip of stage, Fiona Shaw's May has two fields of operation: a rostrum erected at the front of the dress circle where, on each turn of her robotic shuffle, she has to clutch nervously at the overhanging masonry; and the dark vast void of the main stage.
There were also some issues concerning May's costume. For one critic, the effect of Warner's changes was "a bit like seeing someone doodling on a Rembrandt".
Most people frankly wouldn't have noticed the changes nor objected once they were pointed out but the Beckett estate had the play shut down and a planned production in France stopped.
While condemning the production, Edward Beckett, the playwright's nephew and executor, said: "I don't want to preserve the plays in aspic. I think that would be harmful to Sam and to the estate. We're not trying to produce cloned productions, but we insist they play the play as Sam wrote it."
Watching the production at its opening performance, he thought, in the manner of a Beckett character, "This can't go on." In that performance, five lines of dialogue had been transposed from mother to daughter. At the estate's insistence, the lines were returned to their original speaker. But there were other problems. "The production destroyed the play's timing, atmosphere, the ghostly aspect," Edward Beckett said. "The hypnotic effect of the words was shattered by the perambulation. And for what purpose?"
You can read an interview with Edward Beckett here.
But where did the man himself stand? Should his plays be simply performed as opposed to interpreted? Since Billie Whitelaw has already given the definitive performances of Winnie in Happy Days, May in Footfalls, W in Rockaby and Mouth in Not I — each under Beckett's exacting personal direction — why don't we simply set up a screen in front of the audience showing her doing it right and be done with it?
If we can take a cinematic example, what about the 1998 remake of Psycho which duplicated Hitchcock's 1960 original only this time in glorious colour? In general this wasn't well received. And the big question was: Why not? The consensus was that it brought nothing new to the table, so what's the point of it? At least Tim Burton's "reimagining" of Planet of the Apes was a genuine attempt to update the material even if it too didn't succeed.
The fact of the matter is that "[t]hough protective of his plays' integrity, [Beckett] was always ready to approve or admire when he saw something unorthodox that worked (italics mine)." It is true that Beckett did, on occasion, made a fuss. He tried to stop the first New York production of his 35-second play Breath on the grounds that his stage directions weren't being fully adhered to. One has to bear in mind that Breath consists of nothing but stage directions. Certainly, the producers of Oh! Calcutta, to which the sketch made a contribution, must have realised that there's a significant difference between 'Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold light about five seconds' and the same orders with the phrase 'including naked bodies' tagged on after the word 'rubbish'.
This was an exceptional case though. In most instances Beckett actually sought compromise if indeed he did anything. He did make every effort to stop productions of Waiting for Godot where women took the leads. To his mind it was ludicrous to tamper with the roles: "Women don't have prostates," he commented at one point, referring to Vladimir's constant need to urinate because of his ailing prostate.
Many of the appeals made to Beckett requesting permission for performances of this kind were of a fervently personal nature, and he actually yielded in at least one case, telling a German director that her production could go on as long as it had only one run, and as long as the publicity for the production made clear his position of "total disapproval" (his German publishers, however, refused to authorise this Godot).
He had no problem with the tramps' colour though:
[O]ne of the productions in which Beckett became most deeply invested in a personal sense took place in South Africa, during a period of particularly bad political turbulence. Beckett despised the policy of apartheid in South Africa, and had ruled that his plays could only be performed in non-segregated theatres. […] But in 1976, the young director of a new, mixed-race Johannesburg troupe wrote to Beckett's agent requesting permission to stage Godot as its debut production. The cast was intended to be multi-racial, as was the audience, and Beckett consented, but the cast turned out eventually to be entirely black and the scanty audiences almost entirely white, due to the great risk involved for black people in attending the production.
The director Herbert Blau, who introduced American audiences to some of the country's first productions of Samuel Beckett, found Beckett's often vehement objections to his texts being adapted both a little strange, and out of character:
Beckett taught us before theory that paratextuality is built into the language, and, as with the gospels derided by Didi and Gogo, no text is sacred. That people are inclined to do odd things with Beckett's own texts is, one might say, a matter of poetic justice.
When it came to directing his own plays things were a little different:
Between 1953, when Waiting for Godot was first staged in Paris, and 1967, Samuel Beckett served a fourteen-year theatrical apprenticeship, moving from being a consultant in the staging of his dramatic works to taking full responsibility for their direction. During his twenty-year directing career, 1967-1986, Beckett staged some seventeen productions of his work in three languages, English, French, and German. Each time he returned to his plays — most often to texts already in print — to prepare them for staging, he was dissatisfied. He found his plays wordy and incompletely conceived for the stage, and so he set about revising them as he staged them. Of Godot, for instance, he has said on more than one occasion, "I knew nothing about theatre when I wrote it," and during rehearsals in Berlin in 1967 for Endspiel (Endgame) he conceded that the play was "not visualized" (Theatrical Notebooks. Vol. II xv).
As Beckett grew increasingly dissatisfied with his plays as published, he decided in 1986, after years of suggesting that theatrical directors not stage the published scripts but follow instead his directorial revisions, to authorize publication of his theatrical notebooks and what he called "corrected texts" for his plays, that is, texts which incorporated the revisions he made as a director, along with the notebooks in which the rationale of those revisions was worked out. This was an extraordinary decision on Beckett's part, essentially repudiating his dramatic cannon as published and available to the public, and offering instead a much more fluid and multiple series of performing texts.
The changes he made in his plays were sometimes minor and sometimes not: in Not I he excised the role of the Auditor completely, brought it back and then removed it again (to date though no script for the play suggests that the elimination of the Auditor is a directorial option); in Krapp's Last Tape he changed Krapp's costume and appearance, fiddled with the stage directions (most noticeably removing the slapstick element from the play) and in What Where, which I'll come back to, he took advantage of modern technology to reduce the actors to talking heads floating in space, a radical departure from the written text.
In 1985 Samuel Beckett directed Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame as stage pieces with the San Quentin Players:
Though the initial productions as staged in 1985 already brought forth substantial changes in the published acting texts of the plays, each time a re-mounting of the productions occurred additional changes were made. The same was true during the production period for these television versions, with Beckett sometimes making textual changes on the telephone even as a given scene was being taped.
These films are now regarded as the definitive productions as far as the text goes but who is to say what further changes Beckett might have made had he lived longer. You can see all of these here:
I never got to see the most recent production of Waiting for Godot, the one featuring Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart but I did get to see some snippets care of the Theatreland programmes on Sky Arts 1. One thing that was brought up several times by the actors was the ephemeral nature of theatre. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the arguments but the simple fact is that the vast majorities of productions of Beckett's plays worldwide come and go and will be forgotten in time. And in time he will be just another Shakespeare with people questioning the productions of the day and arguing about the validity of any given performance or interpretation and there will be no on left who worked with Beckett or even knew him to say yea or nay.
And that is how it should be. A play is a thing to be discovered in exactly the same way as a symphony is. Have you any idea how many times Beethoven's Fifth Symphony has been recorded? I think I have four copies myself. And who is to say which one is right? For starters they don't make instruments the same as they used to. But each performance brings out something the conductor saw and thought deserved to be highlighted. Plays are no different.
There was a recording of Krapp's Last Tape that Beckett got to see where, as the lights faded, all we were left with was the red light of the tape recorder. This fortunate happenstance delighted Beckett. It wasn't scripted because he's never thought of it at the time he wrote the play being pretty unfamiliar with how this new-fangled mechanism worked. In a letter to Alan Schneider Beckett described it as "the beautiful and quite accidental effect in London of the luminous eye burning up as the machine runs on in silence and the light goes down."
At the time of rehearsals my daughter Alexandra was just a year old, that age when the favourite game is pulling everything out of Mummy's purse. Often during the Happy Days rehearsal process Lexie would sit in the corner of the theatre, stealthily opening my purse and removing the contents. . .
I should interject here that by 'purse' she means 'handbag' — I have an American wife, I know about these things.
. . .arranging everything in a circle around her. She knew the contents of the bag by heart; it was not the surprise factor that kept her returning to the "empty-the-purse" game but, instead, the sheer joy of recognition in seeing those familiar objects reappear every time the game was played. She exhibited so many of Winnie's behavioural traits that Charlotte and I would stop rehearsals and watch Lexie perform her illicit game.
Needless to say the women took this joy from Lexie and incorporated it into the performance. Was that wrong? Beckett fathered no children so it's unlikely he was around them enough for them to have a direct effect on his writing but, had he been the director, might he not also have taken opportunity of the synchronicity of the moment?
Beckett only started making major changes in his plays after watching them over and over again, till they were in danger of becoming stale, till he could really distance himself from the text and see the thing as a work apart from the words on the page. In Nacht und Träume we have the following stage directions:
9. From same dark R appears with a cup, conveys it gently to B's lips. B drinks, R disappears.
10. R reappears with a cloth, wipes gently B's brow, disappears with cloth.
and that's it. In his production "Beckett used a wine glass and a studiously folded napkin, which evoked association of objects used during mass" whereas when Antoni Libera directed his version he used "a 'poor-looking' cup and a 'poor-looking' wrinkled cloth . . . to intensify the impression of the poverty of the Dreamer: even in his most extravagant dream he sees objects that he probably uses every day; only the fact of who uses them and for what is remarkable."
Was he wrong or are Beckett's stage directions simply imprecise? Is that what the problem is? Or does it really not matter? Considering how pernickety many of Beckett's directions are — at least the aspects he considers important — one has to say, no, not in this case; the overtones that the choice of vessel and type of cloth are clearly secondary to what's going on. This doesn’t mean they shouldn't be given some consideration — what else is a director supposed to do when faced with a Beckett play? — but they are not the be all and end all.
Performance became an increasingly important part of the creative process for Beckett. But as far back as 1956 he was becoming aware that what he had written had its limits. As he wrote to an American friend, Pamela Mitchell, on 28th September 1956: "The new play [Fin de partie] is now as finished as it is possible before rehearsals (italics mine). And the same in 1963 when he wrote to Barney Rosset: "I realise I can't establish definitive text of Play without a certain number of rehearsals."
This of course is simply fine-tuning but it sets the groundwork for the discoveries he made during later rehearsals and performances when actors did more than simply repeat his words parrot-fashioned. A simple example would be the "personal relationship" between Krapp and his tape recorder that Patrick Magee projected in his performance; this goes beyond words. One would have imagined though in the 24 years between that first performance of Fin de partie and the 1980 performance by the San Quentin Drama Workshop that he would have ironed out the creases but apparently not. The actor Alan Mandell (who played Nagg in that production) remembers:
Beckett was a tireless editor, making many cuts and changes in the text during the rehearsal period. 'There's too much text,' he would say with irritation in his voice, and then he would make a cut. It had to do with the way a line scanned, so that a change in a line, though minor to the actor, was major to the playwright.
A scene from the San Quentin Drama Workshop's production
of Endgame featuring Alan Mandell as Nagg
In his biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, his friend James Knowlson acknowledges that his reputation "as a tyrannical figure, an arch-controller of his own work, ready to unleash fiery thunderbolts onto the head of any bold, innovative director, unwilling to follow his text and stage directions to the last counted dot and precisely timed pause" was somewhat exaggerated and "the truth of his position was more complex and certainly more interesting than this caricature suggests."
Let's take two examples, the American Repertory Theatre Company's 1984 production of Endgame in a subway and the 1983 Belgian production in a former warehouse flooded with water. Which do you think he made a fuss over? I would have though the both of them but that wasn't the case. The Belgian production went ahead unchallenged whereas the American version almost reached the courts; a compromise was met — "Beckett insisting in an agreed programme insert that that the play, as it was being staged, was no longer his play." Understandably the director was aggrieved. He saw this as double-standards and once you get down to it he was right. "It made a tremendous difference [to Beckett] if he liked and respected the persons involved or if he had been able to listen to their reasons for wanting to attempt something highly innovative or even slightly different."
My own personal opinion is that I welcome innovation. The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache is well known for his unorthodox interpretations of the works of major composers like Beethoven and Mahler. Indeed his recorded performances differ so widely from the majority of other recordings that this has led them to be seen by some as collectors' items rather than mainstream releases, 'one-offs' rather than reference recordings. Is that a bad thing? When you've heard Beethoven's Fifth as many times as I have it does lose some of its magic and what you need is someone to make you look at it afresh. Celibidache's version is the most stately I've ever heard; it never gets ahead of itself. Celibidache is not saying that this is the way is must be done, rather this is how it can be done. And I accept new interpretations of Beckett's work in much the same way.
In Part two of this article I'm going to look in close detail at one particular play, What Where and show how Beckett couldn't leave this one alone.
In the meantime let me leave you with a graphical score animation of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony:
 Michael Billington, the critic for The Guardian
 Katherine Worth, 'Beckett on the world stage', Christopher Murray, ed., Samuel Beckett – 100 Years, p154
 Linda Ben-Zvi, Women in Beckett: performance and critical perspectives, p x
 Paratextuality incorporates every secondary “text” e.g. reviews or author interviews all become part of the paratext. How many people come to the Bible without some prior knowledge that colours their interpretation of the text itself?
 Letter to Alan Schneider, 4 Jan. 1960, qtd. in M. Harmon, ed., No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998) 59.
 S E Gontarski, 'Beckett and performance', Lois Oppenheim, ed., Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies, p199
 S E Gontarski, 'Beckett and performance', Lois Oppenheim, ed., Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies, p201
 Maurice Harmon ed., No Author Better Served: the Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, p50
 Alan Mandell in James and Elizabeth Knowlson eds., Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett, p201
 James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p 691
 James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p 692
 James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p 692, 693