Friday, June 28, 2019

Samuel Beckett: Finding Not-So-Happy Days at the Movies

Last weekend my husband and I saw a big-deal production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, staged by James Bundy, the estimable dean of the Yale School of Drama. In the extraordinarily difficult central role, two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest was both luminous and heartbreaking, and the physical production could not have been faulted. And yet. And yet. Afterward, my spouse, who knows full well how I like to work my playgoing and filmgoing experiences into blog posts, mentioned that he doubted I’d soon be blogging about Beckett. As always, I’m happy to prove him wrong.

Beckett’s play, which well befits a master of the Theatre of the Absurd, takes place entirely on a bleak dirt mound, which I couldn’t help associating with global warming run amok. To make matters even more ominous, in the first act Wiest’s chatty Winnie is buried up to her waist in dirt. She can gab away; she can greet the day with a smile and a luxurious stretch of her arms; but she can’t leave. Then there’s Act Two: now Winnie is encased in dirt up to her neck. Only her head protrudes to try to find some small crumb of joy in her surroundings. In the long-winded Act One, I admit I got sleepy, though Beckett’s play is so dreamlike (or nightmare-like) that moving in and out of a doze somehow seems like an appropriate response. During Act Two, I stayed fully awake, and the play as a whole left me with a lot to ponder.

Of course no Samuel Beckett play should be taken literally. The 1969 Nobel laureate, author of such classics as Waiting for Godot and Endgame, viewed the human condition with a kind of comic nihilism that has no appeal for many audiences (my long-suffering spouse included). I remember hearing, though, that a traveling production of Godot, in which two tramps bicker while waiting fruitlessly for an important figure who never arrives, was greeted with awed attention at one performance. These particular playgoers were prison inmates, and they knew exactly the mangled emotions—and the feeling of endless, pointless waiting--that Beckett was trying to project. 

Always one to experiment, Beckett sometimes revealed in his plays a strong interest in human interaction with machines. Though he died long before the Age of the Internet, he liked to keep abreast of technological advances. A notable example is 1958’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a short play in which a single character, a man in his sixties, interacts with tapes of his own voice recorded thirty years earlier. And, unlikely as it may seem, Beckett also aspired to direct films, racking up 12 credits for staging short works for the camera. He made his first movie, simply called “Film,” in 1965, with the great Buster Keaton in the silent central role. I’ve heard that Keaton had no idea what the filmmaker was after, but he knew how to take direction, and the result is mesmerizing. In the seventeen minute black-&-white film, Keaton is seen almost  entirely from the rear, enveloped in a heavy black coat, his trademark porkpie hat planted firmly on his head. He scuttles down a wintry urban street as if pursued, and enters his shabby flat where whatever it is he fears still seems to be coming after him. A sense of doom infuses every frame, and Keaton’s mastery of his physical self allows us to share the dread he’s feeling., though an interlude involving two cats is extremely funny. Tension builds, until finally the impending horror stands revealed. But maybe you’d better see it for yourself. 

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