Beckettian Bravura

Can there be grandeur in helplessness? Could Renaissance craftsmen spin cotton candy?

Marian Seldes's chin is difficult to conceal. Not that you'd normally want to: This is, after all, one of the distinguished chins of our time, attached to an actress every bit as distinguished in other respects. Hence, I imagine, the producers of Beckett/Albee have chosen to let the distinguished chin remain visible during the performance of Not I that opens this quadruple bill. Their choice, though understandable, is misleading: The speaker of Beckett's brief, compulsive monologue is a mouth that has come detached from its human being in some unexplained limbo, and is now compelled to tell its life story over and over again to a mute, featureless figure that responds only with a series of helpless shrugs—or are they gestures of compassion? For the mouth is indeed pitiable. It insists on telling its story in the third person; pressure from a questioner we don't hear only makes it assert more emphatically that the story is about "she," i.e., not I. And the story itself is a picture of selfhood denied, the narrative of a woman who has apparently made no human connection her whole life long, silent even when put on trial (crime unspecified) and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

The mouth's denial of self, repeated eternally, becomes her hell; all these tiny "dramaticules" of Beckett's later career are really pictures of hell, or at best purgatory. It may take an effort for the ordinary theatergoer to step over the border into this ethereal world, but once across, it's startling how close that world seems to ours. The beauty of the surreal outrages that Beckett visits on our normal playgoing expectations comes from their simple realness. These are stories of real people undergoing real emotions; they're merely doing so as abstract fragments of humanity in an implacable godless nowhere. Even in Footfalls, where Beckett ostentatiously violates dramatic logic by making the play's middle scene flatly contradict the other two, the situation makes perfect sense: When a self-sacrificing daughter devotes her life slavishly to the care of a dying mother, their roles reverse; after death (or maybe before) it's impossible to tell who's haunting whom. The play's last line sums up, along with the daughter's perplexity, the joy and terror a willing audience can derive from these pieces: "Will you ever have done revolving it all in your poor mind?" No, we won't; and that's the wonder of it.

Because the eccentric, seemingly arbitrary shapes of Beckett's tiny pieces are in fact inevitable, each so anchored in its specific passion, they ask something of the theater that it doesn't normally give: a commitment that goes beyond theatricality. The text has to emerge not as words people say, but as language that has taken over the body and is now charging ahead on its own. With other authors, you play the role; in Beckett you have to let the role play you. Hence the problem with displaying a Seldesian chin where Beckett calls for a disembodied mouth: The chin asserts the personality, and nobody's chin asserts more splendidly than Marian Seldes's. Its visibility sums up the flaw in director Lawrence Sacharow's production: Seldes and her partner, Brian Murray, approach the roles with their chins out, literally and figuratively. Both are actors in the heroic mold, linked to the 19th-century tradition of theatrical grandeur; their instinct onstage is to make their presence felt, to shape, to underscore, to give the audience the pleasure of watching the bold brushstrokes with which they create.

Literary lovers: Seldes and Murray in Counting the Ways
photo: Carol Rosegg
Literary lovers: Seldes and Murray in Counting the Ways

This is magnificent, but it isn't Beckett, whose characters belong to a different, perhaps lower, order of being, creatures of an inner poetry of torment that evolved from naturalism, where the central figures are more often helpless than heroic. One can imagine Murray and Seldes vulnerable, but never helpless. "Birth," Murray roars at the opening of A Piece of Monologue, trying to animate this seemingly adramatic text. The speaker is apparently a man forced to relive endlessly the instant of his death in the shabby room where we see him. Murray, fierce, intense, and bitter, is as vivid and improbable in the role as a tiger in a Harlem apartment. In Footfalls, we get not just the chin, but all of Seldes, as the daughter endlessly pacing a narrow strip of light. When she wheels around, flinging her head back, the image evoked isn't self-sacrificing slavishness, but Mrs. Siddons in the sleepwalking scene.

I'm not complaining: Mrs. Siddons and the tiger enrich our lives; Beckett actors merely play Beckett and let him do the enriching. A correctly phrased complaint would be: Wonderful as it is to see this sublime acting team face Beckett's challenge, they need a better-fitting piece of material. For proof, watch them after the intermission in Counting the Ways, Edward Albee's amiable, trifling dissection of a withered marriage. Did the Renaissance have a lost art of cotton-candy making? Seldes and Murray, spinning out the fun of this play, are like master craftsmen, leaders of their guild, handcrafting cotton candy instead of fine lace or Cremona violins. This, in its light way, is a perfect fit; in an earlier era, theatergoers would have paid repeat visits just for the heartbreaking look on Murray's face when Seldes says, "There aren't any raspberries." Raspberries for this pair? Indeed not.

 
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