Gate Theatre

International Theatre Festival at the Blackstone Theatre

Recently I’ve noticed something strange and troubling about theater audiences: they don’t seem to know how to take a serious play anymore. It seems that unless the play is preachy or nod-off-in-your-seat boring, or the actors do a lot of shouting, emoting, rolling around the stage, and generally evoking the great rock-and-roll spirit of Steppenwolf in its prime, audiences tend to assume that what they’re watching is a comedy.

Last fall I attended a stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, and the audience snorted and guffawed its way through Marty’s most pathetic speeches. Earlier that year I’d heard an audience giggle during the most depressing speeches in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. Recently, several of the more serious moments in a flawed production of Strindberg’s Intoxication were marred by tittering audience members.

We Americans have never been very good at acknowledging the darker tones of human existence; death, poverty, cruelty, racism, chronic bad luck are all “too depressing” to discuss in public. Still I’d always assumed, perhaps unfairly, that these odd snickering audiences were only a non-Equity and community-theater phenomenon. Until I saw the way the International Theatre Festival audience greeted Gate Theatre’s productions of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. You would have thought Samuel Beckett was the Irish Neil Simon the way some members of the audience howled during Krapp’s Last Tape. And they laughed even louder during Waiting for Godot.

The laughter during Waiting for Godot was less disconcerting, in part because it is a very funny play, filled with witty music-hall repartee, and in part because it’s clear from the first moments of this production that director Walter D. Asmus, though emphasizing the humor in Beckett’s tragicomedy, is not attempting to deny or sugarcoat Beckett’s dark vision.

Neither Barry McGovern (as Vladimir) nor Johnny Murphy (as Estragon) seems inclined to indulge in the sort of depressive underacting American actors fall into when they “do” Beckett. But as might be expected from a pair of Irish actors, McGovern and Murphy are quite adept at the Celtic gift for expressing the most pessimistic ideas in the most pleasing manner. A gift that in moderation guarantees big laughs, even for Beckett’s lesser bits, and opens the audience up to Beckett’s deeper meanings. “You should have been a poet.” “I was.” (Gestures toward his rags.) “Isn’t that obvious?”

Of course Louis le Brocquy’s simple set, with its tree shaped like a cross and its single stone evoking the rock rolled away from Christ’s tomb, makes Beckett’s religious message perfectly clear, perhaps too clear. Yet I don’t think we would have been half as ready to catch the double and triple meanings in Beckett’s dialogue if this production didn’t lead us to expect a joke every 20 seconds or so. And I don’t think the cruel comic business Beckett invented for that bully of a secondary character Pozzo and his unfortunate slave Lucky would have been half as entertaining if the ground hadn’t been prepared by McGovern and Murphy’s comedy team. After all, most of the vicious slapstick humor in the Lucky and Pozzo scenes is no more sophisticated than a typical Three Stooges short (and about twice as mean spirited).

As I overheard more than a few relieved audience members comment on the way out, this yuck-it-up production is a painless way to be introduced to Beckett. However, by overemphasizing the play’s humor, Asmus has subverted its darkness. If we don’t feel even a shiver of fear and trembling when we hear Beckett’s words, have we really heard them?

Which brings me to Krapp’s Last Tape. By design a less comical play than Waiting for Godot, it inspired the sort of laughter among certain members of the audience most comedians would sacrifice their firstborn for. There were times during the performance when literally everything David Kelly did as Krapp–open a drawer, peel a banana, take out a spool of tape, thread his reel-to-reel tape recorder–provoked the kind of loud, from-the-gut, infectious laughter heard most often on sitcom laugh tracks. A response that seemed to baffle Kelly and adversely affected his timing.

And who could blame him? Krapp’s Last Tape is at best a very black comedy about an old man near death who, listening to a taped journal entry he made when he was 39, realizes the futility of ambition and the vanity of life. To snicker your way through this play is to miss the point; it’s like chuckling at your father’s funeral–or your own.

As in Waiting for Godot, Beckett includes plenty of shtick that would not be out of place in vaudeville or a silent-movie comedy. Krapp’s shoes squeak whenever he moves. In a moment Mack Sennett would have savored, he even slips on a banana peel. But Beckett includes these comic moments not to make his work palatable to an audience fearful of peering into the void, but rather to rip off the last shred of Krapp’s dignity and so reveal to all willing to see both what a sad nothing he is and what pathetic nobodies we all are.

By the end of a great production of this play–such as the Splinter Group performance last spring–one can’t help but feel overwhelmed with fear and pity for Krapp, and for ourselves. At the end of the Gate Theatre production I felt pity only for David Kelly. How lonely it must be to perform a play you’ve performed hundreds of times before–Kelly originated the role in the 1959 Irish premiere of the play–and hear laughter where you know in your heart there should be silence.