Splinter Group

at Raw Space

According to Deirdre Bair’s biography of Samuel Beckett, the avant- garde novelist-turned-playwright believed for a time in the early 60s “that the perfect play was one in which there were no actors, only the author’s words and the audience to receive them.” Certainly one of the charms of Beckett’s plays–if charm is an appropriate word for an author as obsessed as Beckett with death, decay, and paralysis of the will–is his use of the language. Many of Beckett’s best plays–Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape–are at least as interesting on the page as they are on the stage.

So last week at Splinter Group’s two-evening “mini-fest” of Beckett plays, all of which are directed (by Matt O’Brien and Craig Bradshaw) with rare intelligence and a pitch- perfect understanding of Beckett’s worldview, I kept wondering how much of what I was watching sprang from Beckett’s attempts to leave actors and directors less and less room for “error”–i.e., individual interpretation.

In Play, the work being rehearsed at the time Beckett voiced his desire for an actorless theater, he did everything in his power to stifle his actors’ more actorly impulses. His stage directions have all three characters immobilized in gigantic urns, from which only their heads, facing forward, protrude. Beckett further limits them by noting that the actors’ faces should “remain impassive throughout” and their voices “toneless except where expression is indicated.” Their sole means of communicating: Beckett’s words.

The actors’ autonomy is further compromised by the fact that they don’t interact–they don’t even seem aware of each other’s existence. An actor can only speak when illuminated by what a number of critics have dubbed the “interrogator’s spotlight.”

Paradoxically, in Splinter Group’s production all of these limitations tend to heighten the work’s drama. An air of slow torture hung over the piece, as if we were glimpsing a circle in Dante’s Inferno where sinners are endlessly given the third degree.

And seemingly despite Beckett’s intention, the actors’ personalities shined through. Watching these three actors–Jill Towsley, Bradshaw, and Karen Gundersen–I couldn’t help but admire their fortitude and empathize with their discomfort. But it was sometimes hard to separate the fictional pain their characters were supposed to be feeling from the real aches they must have felt being unnaturally rigid for such a long time.

Compared to Play, Krapp’s Last Tape (written five years before) is full of activity–Krapp eating a banana, walking around his place, pawing through his box of tapes. Most of this, though, is secondary to the central action of the play: Krapp at age 69, listening to a tape of himself made when he was 39. Like the three actors in Play, Matt O’Brien is given very little room in which to communicate Krapp’s pathetic state. But he manages to do so with disarming ease. O’Brien spends much of his time on stage just sitting and listening, transfixed by this voice from 30 years past –and the sad look on his face speaks volumes.

Splinter Group’s second night of Beckett plays, collected under the title “Night’s Caul,” consists of three shorter plays–Ohio Impromptu, Rough for Theatre #1, and Catastrophe–plus a series of short prose monologues culled from Beckett’s fiction. None of these pieces has the emotional impact of Krapp’s Last Tape, nor, I’m sure, are they meant to. Rather, they are enigmatic little pieces, not unlike the koans Zen monks ponder, meant to tickle, irritate, and prod us out of our dogmatic slumber. Even the shortest pieces in the show contain bits of dialogue and dark philosophy that stick in the brain long after the show has ended. “‘Bun’ is such a sad word, is it not?” a character muses in a fragment from Beckett’s early fiction. “And ‘man’ isn’t much better, is it?” In a bit of conversation in Rough for Theatre #1 reminiscent of Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, one character asks another: “Why didn’t you let yourself die?” The other gloomily replies: “Never unhappy enough.”

Of the three short plays, Ohio Impromptu, first produced in 1981, is the most strongly reminiscent of Beckett’s attempts in the 60s to create an actorless theater. Two actors–Gunderson and O’Brien–sit with their backs to the audience, creating a stage picture even more static than the one in Play. The action consists of little more than one actor reading aloud from a book, while the other listens and periodically taps a cane whenever she wants a sentence repeated. Ohio Impromptu could be performed as a radio play with little loss of effect.

In marked contrast is the last and most recent work on the bill, Catastrophe. Written in the early 80s and dedicated to Vaclav Havel, who at the time had been placed under house arrest by Czechoslovakia’s communist government, Catastrophe features an actor standing passively onstage, saying nothing as a director and his assistant manipulate his body, changing the position of his arms and even removing some of his clothing at one point. Though the piece is clearly meant as a metaphor for the abusive relationship between a totalitarian ruler and his subjects, it’s also an ironic comment on Beckett’s own obsession with manipulating his actors. As if, near the end of his life, Beckett came to realize that one could no more dispense with actors in theater than one could publish books without type.