Theater archives

From the Archives…The Voice Reviews Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, 1960


“KRAPP’S LAST TAPE,” by Samuel Beckett, and “THE ZOO STORY,” by Edward Albee, both presented by H.B. Lutz, Richard Barr, and Harry Joe Brown, Jr., at the Provincetown Playhouse. The Beckett directed by Alan Schneider, the Albee by Milton Katselas.

Two short, disparate works have been jammed together to make a fascinating single evening of theatre at the Provincetown Playhouse. I happen to think that the pieces are presented in the wrong order; I would prefer the lyrical affirmations of Samuel Beckett to come after, not before, the hostilities and negations of young Edward Albee, but this is a matter of philosophy and personal taste which may be ignored. I shall, however, have to review “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “The Zoo Story” as distinct and opposing entities, even though they share in common the form and voltage of the brief tour de force.

Toward Love

“Krapp’s Last Tape” is almost certainly the most amazing piece of “incidental” writing of the decade. In one and the same pungent breath it is a comment on time past, passing, and to come; on the tinny mechanization of the age and the yet unquenchable wellsprings of the heart; on the anal desiccation and sterilization of all feelings or response in modern man, and his nevertheless immutable thrust toward love. One thinks of the greatest line that Dylan Thomas, or maybe anyone, ever wrote: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”—and then to find the same thing said by Samuel Beckett through the grotesqueries of a ludicrous skit that also involves the slipping of an aged gentleman upon a banana peel and the deliberate selection for deus ex machina of that twentieth-century monkey-toy to end all monkey-toys, the Stereo Tape Cartridge Player Recorder courtesy (in this instance) RCA Victor!

But to the play. It has only one character, old man Krapp, shuffling around before his desk, gourmandizing on his bananas, fidget-fingering through his dusty ledgers, selecting his dusty tapes, putting them on the machine, pressing the switch, listening to his own voice of 30 years earlier surge forth to reconstruct other days when he was already old and dry before his time, other days and other memories, memories of romantic and carnal love on some lazy distant afternoon—distant even then (or rather now, for “then” is now in “Krapp’s Last Tape”)—and presently rushing the machine along to get it to hurry up to the stunningly written “hot” passages, the long since vanished afternoon, the girl, the drifting boat, the girl’s eyes slitting against the sun, the faint scratch of her bare thigh; then stabbing the switch off and mumbling his present relieved scorn at these mercifully dead-and-buried idiocies of the fallible flesh; then suddenly stabbing it back on and scrabbling, scrabbling at the reels to back them up just once again to that single, flickering, aching memorialization of proximate youth, proximate life—and clutching, clutching the mechanical little voice-box in a final heartrending lover’s embrace of all that is or ever was worth having, saving, or losing in this world…

It is, as you can imagine, no easy piece to stage; and the performance by Donald Davis as Krapp and the staging in every minute particular by Alan Schneider—not least the phenomenal synchronization of living actor and dead voice—is inspired, inspirited, perfect: the first full realization in America of a work by Samuel Beckett. Since “Endgame” I have had strong private reservations about Mr. Schneider’s fitness to direct Beckett. I now publicly abandon them.

I AM IN MY best Brooks Brothers suit, sitting alone on a bench on the Fifth Avenue side of Central Park, not too many blocks away from my apartment, my wife, my children, my cats, my parakeets; I am killing part of a Sunday morning by browsing through a favorite book; suddenly a rabid young psychotic strides up to me where I sit, forces himself upon me, asks me all sorts of humiliating questions about myself, my family, my way of life; the more he probes, the less he indicates he thinks of me, and of our common capacity to break down the barriers of intercommunication—for no man should be an island, nicht wahr?—and in the end he baits me into fighting with him, physically, for the rights to the bench, until at last I allow him to murder himself on the knife, his own knife, which he has made me take in hand. Then we communicate, for murder is communication, nicht wahr? We have reached the only, and violent, means of communication between sexes (sorry, one sex), races, classes, mental states, moral sophistications, hips and squares. Or have we? And why should I have allowed this mad and knowing aggressor to force himself upon me? Why should I? The answer is I should not: I should have better sense. And in “real life,” believe me, I should; and so, believe me, would most of you; and you wouldn’t worry about the failure of all human intercommunication on that account. Maybe on other accounts. Maybe in the way Samuel Beckett might worry.

The above is somewhat of a précis of the plot of “The Zoo Story,” the contribution to the Provincetown double-bill of a young Villager, and comer, named Edward Albee. He knows how to handle a situation and dialogue and bring you up deftly to the edge of your seat. Whether he has anything less sick than this to say remains to be seen.

The production of “The Zoo Story” is on a par with that of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” William Daniels and George Maharis are sharp, subtle, and excellently “right” for their roles of Ivy League type and Society’s Scourge. The direction of Milton Katselas helps them in every way. In sum, an evening to jostle the nerve-ends and thank God for off-Broadway’s non-conformism.