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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Beckett’s Silence

At a dinner party over the holidays, we got to talking about Samuel Beckett through the ebb and flow of conversation. I mentioned that people can surf to websites and download the text of many of Beckett’s plays, including “Waiting for Godot,” “Krapp’s Last Tape,” and “Endgame.” A dinner mate brought around the comment that Beckett’s plays were not meant to be read, but performed. I couldn’t agree more, yet actor’s must first read the play before they can perform a part. Likewise, director’s must gain an insight of a play—ideally to what the author had in mind while writing it—so they can stage the drama to its greatest affect.

I read Waiting for Godot before I saw it performed at London’s Old Vic Theater in 1997, with Ben Kingsley as Estragon. I wanted to “get a handle on it,” as I thought at the time. My reading was quick, as I remember. This wasn’t a mistake, per se, but it did show me something about the difference between reading a Beckett play (perhaps any play) and seeing it performed. I had little knowledge of Samuel Beckett beyond survey courses at college, or what I would pick up in the bookstore while browsing the stacks. Then came the stage performance at The Old Vic.

The silence that stretched between one spoken line and the next astonished me. It wasn’t the silence itself, actually, but what was happening during these periods between Estragon and Vladimir’s dialogue. I saw reflection—on what was said, what was meant by what was said, or what could be meant by what was said; I saw where a piece of dialogue had taken a character into his present condition, and nowhere else. I saw expressive countenance, the enlightened eyes or frown-in-flummox. I saw the dramatic gesture, an act with meaning all of itself. I saw the ponderable and the imponderable between Estragon and Vladimir. Silence says so much, Beckett was telling us.

In an interview with Kingsley and Alan Howard (Vladimir) near the end of rehearsals for the Old Vic performances, of which I’ve only today been able to read thanks to web archives, Kingsley and Howard had this to say:

Ben Kingsley: We’ve done such a lot of talking during rehearsals. There comes a time when things have to be allowed to settle. Where our brains ought to be now is veering towards silence.

Alan Howard: We’ve had to dig and delve. It’s the nature of the beast. Godot is made up of millions of fragments and connections.
[ . . . ]
Howard: I think it would be very difficult for actors to do this play unless there was a natural aptitude for each other . . .

Kingsley:  . . . to be in on the same joke.

Howard: It can’t be arranged or structured. There’s such an astonishing musicality in the text and rhythms of speaking, intonation and connection, quite apart from what is being said. [Becket] uses simple language, which becomes more and more involved. A simple line can carry great complexity with the way it is timed, intoned. The way in which it rubs up against the line before and the line after it. It is a piece of material constantly moving, with 10,000 interweaving strands.

Kingsley: It eats you up. You go home in a take-away bag.

Howard: It’s very, very exacting.

In 1985 Samuel Beckett directed his three most famous plays—Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Endgame—for film productions, grouped under the title “Beckett Directs Beckett.” I’ve read several accounts of Beckett’s directorial involvement, including that, during rehearsals, he made many textual changes to the “acting text” of the plays. At one point in the rehearsals for Endgame, Beckett stopped the actor, Rick Cluchey, and asked him to wait a few beats of silence between one word and the next. The silence, Beckett told him, would be all important for the audience to understand.

Who but the author has the last word on interpretation? Some would argue that answer. Especially when you take into context the fact that Beckett made changes to his originally published text for those 1985 performances. We’re talking as much as 30 years between publication (and first performance) and these new productions. What had Beckett seen? Did that come from hindsight, or just a practiced (practical?) sense to squeeze the most out of the language for better effect? No one knows for sure. Beckett didn’t enlighten anyone, although the change to his plays will undoubtedly contribute to an answer, as insufficient as that may be for some people.

What is clear, I think, is that Beckett never lost his sense of the absurdity of life—or life’s absurdities: take either for what they say. And in Beckett’s vision, there was silence.

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