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Ellen Mease (Grinnell College)
"Courting the Void": Opening the Play's Inner World

    Barbara Becker and Charles Lyons, who worked together on a production of Happy Days, wrote in a joint essay in 1985/6: "The central aesthetic problem for the director and actor is to embody the Beckett text, in performance, without supplying the scenic, psychological or emotional contexts that Beckett the playwright has carefully removed from the text." Jonathan Kalb, arguing against the impositions of the modern "director's theatre," defends the advantages of hewing to Beckett's minimalist lead. Angela Moorjani has advocated an aesthetics of indirection, allowing the unseen and unsaid to remain just that, as inducements to the free-play of the audience's imagination. The central dramatic action of most of the plays is a character's recitation of a text or performance of a routine designed, as habit is, to give shape to inchoate experience and provide some sense of human identity in an environment, often bizarrely stripped of detail, that lacks the usual confirming coordinates of time and place—a road and a tree, a mound of scorched earth, a darkened void, faintly lit floorboards. The absence of contextualizing scenic information, coupled with the gaps in memory that threaten the characters' mooring in time, contributes to what Lyons and Becker call the Beckettian crisis—that radical sense of uncertainty in the struggle of these dramatic figures to come to grips with themselves. (As the tailor in Nagg's story observes, we are the victims of a cosmic joker who did not take our measure in making the world, at best indifferent, at worst inimical to our needs.) "The inherent danger in performing Beckett is to explain theatrically what the playwright goes to great effort to keep indeterminate. " Efforts at "explicitation"—representational re-settings like the Boston underground—can interfere with the communication of that central crisis of a consciousness forced to speculate on its own identity in the absence of any determinate reality beyond its own workings, in prolonged iterations of a poetically spare, well-worn routine that is our only recourse as we waste and pine. Beckett notoriously refused to interpret his own work—if I knew who Godot was I'd have said so in the play. In rehearsals he turned his actors to the tasks of making music and movement, using the formal media of the stage, verbal and visual, to give shape to the poetic ideas of the plays, tightly structured echoes and rhythmic repetitions of musical phrase, movement pattern, gesture, posture and pose. The poet refashioned himself as a theatre artist. The production notebooks and abundant rehearsal accounts attest to Beckett's disciplined efforts to make less more as he clarified his theatrical images. Rather than prescriptive, they are descriptive models of exacting practice. (Like Brecht's modellbuchs, they can also spare us the labor of reinventing the wheel.) In a world of information and image overload, we all stand to gain from the example of such patient elaboration. Beckett's prose hones our abilities at close reading; the plays, realized in the details of their formal abstraction, teach us to see not with the eyes of this world but the inner world, on the cusp of Murphy's third zone.

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