John King (Florida Atlantic University)
“A Multitude in Transports of Joy”: The Cons (and Pros) of Beckett on Film
Samuel Beckett was notoriously protective about interpretative choices in productions of his stage drama—while he couldn’t or wouldn’t clarify the motivations of his stage directions, he was adamant about them being performed just right, and was reserved in making his plays available for production without his supervision. In an important way, then, the Beckett on Film project—which in 2001 ambitiously released cinematic versions of the entirety of Beckett’s writing for the theater—represents a major shift in what has been done with his drama. Nineteen different directors had the opportunity to interpret Beckett’s work without Beckett’s guidance (and interference) and without the limitations (and the strengths) of the theater. The consequences of this translation are complex.
One obvious consequence is that the stage dramas are now available to be seen by any individual or institution that can front the $150 cost of the DVD set. Although “Waiting for Godot” ironically made its American debut in Miami Beach, as someone who has grown up in South Florida I have had only two opportunities to see Beckett’s theater—both times it was his play called Play. Richard P. Michaelson, an Amazon customer who reviewed this DVD set, comes to a similar conclusion from his vantage point in Iowa: “we living in the desert cannot but rejoice at this cool drink.” If more people watching Beckett is a good thing, then the Beckett on Film project is a good thing.
According to producer Michael Colgan, there are three aesthetic advantages to presenting Beckett’s drama on film: (1) directors can add context to the works to make them more accessible, (2) the occasional doubling that Beckett demands in his casting can be perfectly accomplished through cinematic special effects, and (3) close-ups can make the work more personal. Only the second of these items represents an unequivocal advantage, as the others court cinematic hubris by altering the effect of what he wrote.
Of greater concern, the two-dimensionality of film counteracts what journalist Tom McGurk calls “the subjective relationship with the members of the audience and the play.” The actors can never look their audience in the face, and vice-versa. This paper’s title alludes to the metatheatrical moment in Endgame, in which Clov points a telescope at the “auditorium” and informs Hamm that he sees “a multitude ... in transports ... of joy.” The essence of this joke is performative, and subject to change as an audience changes, representing thus gradations on a scale of irony: from an audience’s wry laughter of self-awareness to sarcasm at an audience’s expense. Conor McPherson’s film, however, cannot point the telescope at the auditorium, and he arbitrarily chooses to have Clov select Hamm as the focal referent for this observation. An important dimension of the theatrical drama—that the audience is implicated in the performance—is lost on McPherson’s screen translation. Part of the playfulness (what Howard Pearce called “speculation and transformation’) is eroded from the play.