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Thursday, 5 November 2009

Beckett the tinkerer (part one)

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.[1]

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".[2]

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?"[3]

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?

Beckett - Whitelaw
Beckett rehearsing
Footfalls with Billie Whitelaw
at the Royal Court Theatre, 1976

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)."[4] 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,"[5] 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).[6]

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.[7]

Kyle Manzay, left, and Wendell Pierce perform
Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

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[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

beckett.hurt 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.[11]

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:


Beckett Directs Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Part 1 (1985)

Beckett Directs Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Part 2 (1985)

Beckett Directs Beckett: Krapp’s Last Tape (1985)

Beckett Directs Beckett: Endgame (1985)

waiting-for-godot-image 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."[12]

Likewise when Carey Perloff had the opportunity to direct Charlotte Rae in Happy Days she had her daughter on set with her and at the time:

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.[13]

NWhitelaw - Winnieeedless 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."[14]

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).[15] 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."[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

A scene from the San Quentin Drama Workshop's production
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."[19]

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."[20] 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."[21]

celibidache 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:



[1] Paul Taylor, 'Theatre, Way Our of Line', The Independent, Friday, 18 March 1994

[2] Michael Billington, the critic for The Guardian

[3] Mel Gusson, 'Modify Beckett? Enter, Outrage', The New York Times, Saturday, March 26, 1994

[4] Katherine Worth, 'Beckett on the world stage', Christopher Murray, ed., Samuel Beckett – 100 Years, p154

[5] Linda Ben-Zvi, Women in Beckett: performance and critical perspectives, p x

[6] Belinda McKeon, 'Beckett was drawn back to Godot', Irish Times, Tuesday, September 08, 2009

[7] Belinda McKeon, 'Beckett was drawn back to Godot', Irish Times, Tuesday, September 08, 2009

[8] 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?

[9] Interview with Herbert Blau in Lois Oppenheim, Directing Beckett, p57

[10] S E Gontarski, 'Editing Beckett', Twentieth Century Literature, v. 41 (Summer '95) p. 190-207

[11] Beckett Directs Beckett, Grey Lodge

[12] 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.

[13] Carey Perloff, 'Three Women and a Mound: Directing Happy Days' in Lois Oppenheim, Directing Beckett, p165

[14] Interview with Antoni Libera in Lois Oppenheim, Directing Beckett, p123

[15] S E Gontarski, 'Beckett and performance', Lois Oppenheim, ed., Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies, p199

[16] S E Gontarski, 'Beckett and performance', Lois Oppenheim, ed., Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies, p201

[17] Maurice Harmon ed., No Author Better Served: the Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, p50

[18] Alan Mandell in James and Elizabeth Knowlson eds., Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett, p201

[19] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p 691

[20] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p 692

[21] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p 692, 693


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

For an essay with so many notes, it's curious that you do not offer any evidence for this "school of thought", nor for any reviews critising the recent production of WfG for playing for laughs. Were there any?

I suspect the latter absence is due to the criticism being far more nuanced that your caricature of them. The recent TLS review of Endgame gives a good account of how even apparently faithful productions can withhold Beckett's vision from the audience, albeit it with a pleasant evening out.

And Deborah Warner's tampering was not "slight" - it was a gross misrepresentation of the play.

Remember, we wouldn't have Beckett's plays at all were it not for his exacting standards.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for your comment, Stephen. The "school of thought" is something I have picked up from my reading of many books and essays on Beckett. It's not something I thought required proof. If it does then let me hold my hand up and say that I am one of those – as you also seem to be considering your comment on Warner's tampering – who does not like to see directors stray very far from the written word and yet, which is why I started this essay in the first place, I find that the written word that I have on my shelves is not definitive and because of this nor are many well-meaning productions. I had hoped that the Grove Edition would fix many of these 'adjustments' but sadly not.

I saw a video recently, a panel discussion (it's online somewhere but I can't find the link), where one director had made a change in Krapp's Last Tape concerning the last time Krapp exits for a drink and was very nervous about this. Once the play was over he learned that Beckett himself had made the same adjustment in one of his later productions.

As for my comment on the reviews of the most recent Waiting for Godot, I gleaned that fact from one of the episodes of Theatreland I saw so I don't have documentary proof I'm afraid. It was certainly not my attempt to caricature anything and I did go, as you noted, to some lengths to check my facts and provide links where possible.

I take you last point too. I am well aware of his exacting standards both as writer and director. The point I wanted to make in this essay was simply that he kept working on all his plays right to the end of his life, "tinkering" as I put it. I have a great deal of affection for Beckett's work. I do hope that comes through in these essays.

Scattercat said...

I've always loved reinterpretations and reimaginings, myself. The only time they rankle me personally is when they seem to be ham-handed (i.e. subverting the work to a political point rather than seeing something new in the work) or if they just totally miss the point in some egregious fashion. (Like the most recent movie version of "I Am Legend," for instance.)

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Jim, I am happy to have found such a long post on Beckett, one of my favourite writers since even before I could read in English.
I am reading your post but I am writing here also for another reason:
I have at last decided to write a post with an enquiry on Eliot's Four Quartets. It might seem strange but it has been very hard for me to be simple and concise in the post.
Please if you feel you can leave your comment you are very, very welcome and if you have time please tell your friends to leave comments too.

Best wishes,

Kass said...

Authors and writers who insist on a pristine interpretation of their work are like over-protective mothers not wanting to send their children out into the big bad world on the first day of school. As writers, we would like to have as much control as is humanly possible, but our "babies" are going to be taken and molded by the life experiences of a variety of readers or viewers. Just as we have no control over what other people think of us personally, we have no control how anyone else interprets our endeavors. Any intelligent reader (or viewer) knows where to read the original of any work and won't be perverted by creative interpretations.
'Porgy And Bess' has written into the copyright, that a full-stage production has to be performed by black singers. I agree with this purity of artistic intention, but to make it punishable by union fines and cancellation of performances, is perhaps taking it too far. If people don't want to see or hear white artists singing "Porgy," they can stay away. Will the heavens collapse if loose interpretations abound all over the planet?
Whose play is it anyway?
(click link)

Jim Murdoch said...

It's certainly a fine line, Scattercat, and one to be crossed with care. And the problem is, as Kasscho points out, where do you draw the line? Doing Shakespeare in modern settings seems to work fine up to a point but when a work hinges on a mindset that no longer exists it can look oddly out of place. I watched the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still last night and it wasn't quite as awful as the reviews had led me to believe but the kneejerk kill-'em-kill-'em-now attitude that was so central to the sci-fi of the fifties felt out of place in a post-E.T. society even if the War on Terror has neatly replaced the Cold War. In Porgy and Bess however being black is fundamental to the plot, it's not a petty whim on the composer's part, and I would suggest setting it in the 21st century would take away from its impact considerably.

Tommaso, I'm no expert on Eliot so I doubt I'll have anything constructive to say but I will pop over and have a look at your article.

And, Kasscho, interesting article. I like the point about works being in the public domain. I think that's a reasonable line if we are going to draw one and while copyright lies with the author then his or her wishes should be respected. As a writer I agree that I can't control how anyone thinks about my work but I can damn well control what they get to see and apart from one editor when I was very young who I allowed to take a hatchet to a collection of my poetry – and partly because of that – I think I have only sanctioned one minor change in anything I have had published although I did rewrite a poem on an editor's suggestion because she pointed out a possible reading that I had not seen myself.

My concern about your "any intelligent reader" comment is that the majority won't. I've certainly never gone away after any play (Beckett excepted) and checked to see if they've done it right; I have faith in the intentions of the production team. Sometimes I have learned about liberties that have been taken particularly by film directors and I have to say it annoys the hell out of me but I'm overjoyed when they get it right and you can get it right and produce two very different productions. I remember watching the early BBC production of Nineteen Eighty-Four one night (with Peter Cushing as 'Smith') followed by Michael Radford's film the next night (with John Hurt) and they were very different and yet still faithful to the original text and tone.

I know 'reimagining' is the new buzzword kicking around at the moment and I have no problem with reimagining a work. Leonard Bernstein reimagined Romeo and Juliet but he called his work West Side Story.

Good article by the way. I wish I'd run across it in my research for this.

Kass said...

Jim - I appreciate how thorough you are in considering our comments. I think what we are discussing here is so central to the angst of all artists. We want to be heard. We want to be understood. We want to get it RIGHT. It's so frustrating sometimes that we can't influence (OK, I'll admit I'd like to FORCE) people to CARE. The integrity of our intentions IS important - I guess that's why I keep CAPITALIZING.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Kasscho. Yes, I appreciate all the comments people make. The last thing I want to do is present myself as an expert on anything. I do my research and hope for the best and I'm always delighted when someone goes to the bother to add to, or if necessary correct, what I've said. I expected to touch a few nerves on this one although I can't if I'm truly honest help but feel I have a foot in both camps. I have seen Waiting for Godot several times and spent weeks studying the play so I personally would welcome a different take on it but then I'm very well aware of what Beckett's intentions were. That said I saw a modern dramatisation of Julius Caesar a good many years ago on the tele, set in modern times with contemporary dialogue, and it really opened up the play for me. Of course the play I saw was called Heil Caesar if I recall correctly to differentiate it from Shakespeare's work. So there are arguments for and against. I do like the 'as long as it's in copyright' rule though – makes sense to me.

Kass said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kass said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Art Durkee said...

You know, I think there's a middle ground.

I can totally forgive Beckett for being "controlling" for the simple reason that his directions are essential to the work's meaning, not just its presentation. Beckett's core style is still so different, even radical, that it matters how it's presented. I could say the same thing, frankly, for some of Sam Shepard's more unusual plays, like "Tongues." So if a director takes too many liberties, it can completely undo the artist's point and purpose, and that IS a problem.

But I think it really matters what style and contents the work has, and is about. I think there might be more leeway, if you will, in interpreting Shakespeare than Beckett, in part because the style and contents are so different. With Shakespeare, the poetry of the words matters a great deal, and shapes the action. Stage directions are minimal to begin with. Shakespeare was a popular writer, let's be clear: he was a commercial writer trying to make a living at his writing, during his lifetime. He wasn't An Artist, and I doubt he thought of his plays as High Art himself. So his very intent and style and purpose are different from Beckett's. Both are mature art in their own way, but the different expectations brought to the work itself, not just by the interpreters but by the writers, make for differing amounts of leeway in the interpretations.

I'm not sure you COULD recast a Beckett play without changing it utterly. I say that as someone who has read the plays as literature, as well as seen many of them performed (live and/or video).

But the opposite extreme, that the writer has NO control over how their work is received, interpreted or presented is frankly quite silly. Of course it can happen, but not even audiences really go for it; such productions rarely have successful runs, because the audience has expectations, too, which are part of the equation.

One DOES have a certain amount of intentional control over one's own work. One can manage, if not "control," where one places one's work, where one tries to get one's work presented, and one can write commentaries, if necessary.

When one places one's writing out there in the world, indeed it is true that the work is like a child turned loose, and must make its own way in the world. But one doesn't lose all control or influence on the outcome, either. There are many factors involved, and some of these the artist can manage. One way to do that, if one feels one is being extremely misrepresented, is to withdraw consent. Film directors do this all the time; if you ever see a film where the director is listed as "Allan Smithee," you should know that this is a pseudonym that directors will use if they think that their film has been so badly mishandled by the studio—re-edited or whatever—that they won't sign their name to it. Some directors do put their name on the film if, later on, they get a chance to re-edit the film, or whatever, to get it to conform again to their intentions or vision.

Art Durkee said...

My favorite movies tend to be original screenplays, not adaptations from novels or plays. (There are a few obvious exceptions.) Most adaptations, or re-imaginings, are problematic in one or another—simply because the requirements for the different media can be so different. I have found, however, that some filmed versions of more avant-garde plays, including but not limited to Beckett, work extremely well *because* the author was clear in their directions and their vision. Beckett's "Film" is a case in point. Film versions of famous plays often don't survive as well, *unless* they're filmed versions of staged versions, or based on them closely enough that the stage magic comes through. I think of the differences between, for example, the original Hollywood production of "Our Town," which had some lovely sets and lighting and a score by Aaron Copland, but made the play's ending into an artificial Hollywood happy ending; a few decades later, a new film of the play, with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager character, was essentially a filmed version of the play, and used some of the play's essential magic, including pantomime, to great effect, and was a much more satisfying version of the play.

i guess I don't really have a point here, except to say that I think the extreme viewpoints on either side of this matter are inherently fraught, and problematic. Even Beckett knew that, as you point out with your examples.

Dave King said...

A really great post - which I had great difficulty reading yesterday. Couldn't get it to scroll. Seems okay today.
You let a little light in on an issue I have always found disturbing. I can accept as a matter of course that the author should have such control over his/her work, but the estate...?
The nearest analogy I can think of is in music: could - should - a composer, never mind the estate, have control over the way a pianist interprets his/her sonata?
I did say "as a matter of course", but I am not totally convinced even there. A playwright is entitled to some control, I think. Maybe not total.
Thanks again. You may like to know that your post sent me back to watch Krapp's Last Tape again. You put me in the mood!

Jim Murdoch said...

Stephen, a friend sent me a link to that YouTube video I was on about. It's I'll Go On: An Afternoon of Samuel Beckett. It's an interesting discussion although the woman who says that Not I is about a rape has it all wrong. As you know Beckett rarely talked about the meaning of his works but on this point he was very clear, that was not what he had in mind when he wrote the piece.

There is always middle ground to be found, Art, and the facts prove that, in his lifetime, Beckett himself was far less litigious than many have come to regard him. I don't honestly know if his estate is worse or better based on what I've read. The general rule of thumb is where they completely overstep the mark as appears to have been the case with the production of Footfalls I referred to at the start of the article and even there every effort seems to have been made to keep the production running so I don't know.

The point you make about the differences between Shakespeare's stage directions and Beckett's is well taken but not all of his plays have as meticulous and exacting stage directions as one might imagine – his primary concern was the voice, the words. I'm talking about his written instructions because as a director he exacted control over everything. All you have to do is ask poor old Buster Keaton what it was like on the set of Film to prove that point not that as far as I'm aware anyone has tried to reimagine that work.

Now, as for all the poor "Allan Smithees" out there my heart goes out to them. I'm always saddened to hear scriptwriters talk about how their work is mistreated by the film industry. What I don't get is why the powers that be can't take a step back and realise what they're putting out is bad. Yes, it's making them money but do they not realise that if they upped the quality it might actually rake in still more money? People do read and are influenced by reviews.

As far as adaptations go most simply can't compete with the original material, there's simply not enough time, but good jobs have been done and often these encourage people to dig out the source material. Even films as dire as I: Robot - they released a film tie-in but it wasn't a novelisation it was Asimov's original short stories. The same goes for many other films. My copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has a photo of Jack Nicholson on it and even though I saw the film on its original release I read the book first: both are great works in their own right.

I'm not sure if I've ever seen Our Town. I'm sure I've never heard the film score. I've got a lot of Copland's work but recordings of his film work don't surface too often and are usually dear.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, no, I can accept that an estate could exert control on behalf of an author. I don't think that's unreasonable. The question, for how long? That's where I think the existing copyright time limits are reasonable. But that's simply my opinion.

I find it fascinating to listen to different recordings and often quite upsetting. I have, I think, two recordings of Barber's Essays for Orchestra but neither corresponds to what I have in my head and I'm always disappointed when I play them. I can remember the cover of the LP I originally listened too – I borrowed it from a music library – but I've never seen it since because I'd snap it up.

I love musical notation. I think it is quite beautiful. And I especially love its precision. You can specify so much and yet it is amazing just how different individual performances are. Even a simply instruction like Largo can be misinterpreted which is why some composers actually specify tempo in quantifiable terms. Composers do seem to be far more tolerant when it comes to differing interpretations of their work. I'm sure there are more but the only one I can think of who made a real fuss was the British composer Sorabji. This wee quote from Wikipedia is illuminating: In a letter from Sorabji to his good friend Peter Warlock, he writes, "You claim that I write monstrosities which only the composer can play. What if they were meant only for the composer?" A fair point. He was notorious for refusing permission for his works to be publicly performed and since he had independent financial means there was no reason why he should acquiesce. He was every bit as camera shy as Beckett too. I saw a documentary on him once where he only allowed stills to be taken or something awkward like that – it was a while ago.

And, Kass, well, I never noticed any typos or anything but then much slips by me. I should have also mentioned in my comment that my daughter met her partner online and they've been together, happily cohabiting, for three or four years now. Mind you, she was looking. And I can't pass comment on your avatar since all I can see at the moment is an empty square.

Anonymous said...

Said one playwright after years of frustration in the Film and the Theatre world , '' I have come to the conclusion that either the Director should write their own script , OR the Playwright should start directing their own work ;
Lest it ends up being the skeleton of one person and the flesh of
another . ''

Jim Murdoch said...

And, of course, that is what Beckett did, didn't he, Dinesh? Writer-directors are not uncommon in the film industry these days. The problem they still face are the backers and not all are willing to leave the creative side alone which is why we end up with such mangled offerings presented to us in the name of entertainment. But when a writer-director does get his or her way, as Rebecca Miller did with Personal Velocity it can work out very well. (See my review of both book and film here.)

Anonymous said...

There will always be people who believe - ' The Art that does not sell is no art . '

It's the ' Same old moans and groans from the cradle to the grave . '

Rachel Fenton said...

I thought your essay was well nuanced, Jim, and I anjoyed reading it. As someone who has only ever read Waiting for Godot, and never seen a production of it, I can say that, as a text it makes for some interesting interpretations. But plays are meant to be played, not read, aren't they? However, at some point the audience of any medium is going to interpret what is being presented to them, however they wish. No one, writer or playwright, can control that.

BTW I love the absurdity of the prostate line re: female cast...wonder how they'd do the other line mentioning male anatomy?

The theatre of the absurd - so serious it's...well..

Great essay.

Jim Murdoch said...

Then, Rachel, do, please, take the time to click on the links I provided. May I also recommend the astounding performance of Billie Whitelaw in Not I: it's in two parts - Part 1, Part 2 - and all from memory.

There are several other Beckett plays available on YouTube in whole or in part.

As for your point about the other line in the play, yes, that had never dawned on me. Well noticed. As for 'Theatre of the Absurd', as far as I can remember Beckett never cared for the expression.

Anonymous said...

Referring to your introduction to this Blog Jim , i'd like to draw attention to this line -

'' The facts show that Beckett was himself guilty of tinkering with his own works making sometimes quite drastic changes in later years. ''

Isn't ' Guilty ' a rather strong word to be used for an author who wishes to make changes in his work after apparently deciding on the final text .
The idea has been taking shape in his mind since the inception and he alone knows best how it should be nurtured or modified .
It is 'his' baby eventually .
Does the fact of its being published in any way stop the creative process in the author's mind ; Or is he supposed to take a public approval before editing it further , now that it has been published .
It is not uncommon for writers to speculate on the course their work would have taken in a different set of circumstances .

Somebody trespasses this right of an author ,when they consider themselves worthy enough to alter the work to suit their needs , and the word ' Guilty ' can be used justifiably .

The moral questions can be raised in the latter case alone .

Looking forward to your comment .

Jim Murdoch said...

'Guilty' is just a word, Dinesh, don't read too much into it. I chose it to reflect what others were doing to his work. If it is a crime for others to muck around with an author's work then could you say that he was guilty of a similar 'crime' if he did the same? Of course not. It's his work and he can do what he likes with it. It's just a word. I couldn't think of a better one at the time.

Talia said...

I'm from a school of thought that differentiates between the written play and the performed play. A writer creates a text, a director and his actors create a performance. If a writer wants to direct, he should be a director. If he wants complete creative control from the page, he should stick to novels.

Jim Murdoch said...

All schools of thought are welcome here, Talia and I tend to agree with you more than disagree. My own feeling on Beckett's plays - the written texts that is - is that they are nowhere near detailed enough. There is a lot of scope for a director to misinterpret Beckett's intentions. Which is why his theatrical notebooks ended up being printed. I suppose they're the nearest anyone is going to get to (to use cinema parlance) a shooting script.

Talia said...

I think you've definitely got a point, Jim. This post has definitely encouraged me to research more into the perspective of those putting on the plays as well as writers.

Anonymous said...

One reason for this , Jim , could be the ' condition of not knowing ' .. which forms the basis of Beckett's writing .
How could precise directions be given in the area where the Ambience is ruled by ' the unknown .. '

Sam had little to do with the Emperical world -
'' I'm not interested in the normal .
I'm only interested in the Abnormal ''

What certainty can be expected from someone who embraces ' uncertainty '

Beckett did the best he could , and also paid a price because he cared for his work .
It has just been twenty years since his death , and who knows what variations of Beckett's plays
lie in store ..

Like his famous sentence -
'' There's nothing to be done ''

..There is nothing really that CAN be done to prevent what will happen .

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