Staging Himself, or Beckett's Late Style in the Theatre

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Author: S. E. Gontarski
Editor: Timothy J. Sisler
Date: 2004
From: Drama Criticism(Vol. 22)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,177 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Gontarski appraises Beckett's reworking of his earlier plays and the changes they have undergone, paying particular attention to Play.]

In the early 1960s the nature of Samuel Beckett's writing for the theatre changed profoundly as he increased his direct advisory role in productions of his work and as he finally began to take full charge of directing his own plays. The experiences of staging himself had a double effect, altering his writing of new plays and, as important, but almost wholly ignored in current criticism, offering Beckett the opportunity to rethink, re-write, and finally re-create previously published work. That revisionist impulse--characteristic of Beckett's creative process at least as early as the rewriting of Dream of Fair to Middling Women into several of the stories of More Pricks than Kicks--broke through the restrictions of publication with Play in 1964. In the now-famous letter to George Devine of 9 March 1964, Beckett not only adjusted the da capo ending of Play but essentially redefined the dramatic conflict of the work:

The last rehearsals with Serreau [notes Beckett] have led us to a view of the da capo which I think you should know about. According to the text it is rigorously identical with the first statement. We now think it would be dramatically more effective to have it express a slight weakening, both of question and of response, by means of less and perhaps slower light and correspondingly less volume and speed of voice.1

Such post publication revision suggests that the work as originally conceived and published was unfinished or incomplete and so as Beckett began officially to take charge of staging his own plays, first in 1967 with the Schiller Theatre production of Endspiel and continuing strongly (despite constant pledges to the contrary) until the 1986 re-write of his stage play What Where for German television, he took those opportunities to complete the creative process. If, as I will argue shortly, what we tend to call Beckett's late style begins with Play, then finally all of Beckett's theatre works are "late plays," written in the "late style," written, that is, after Play--even Play itself. That Beckett was recreating his dramatic corpus, re-inventing himself as a dramatist, rewriting history in effect during this early 1960s period is a perspective of singular critical significance, and yet the critical implications of Beckett's rewriting himself, for both the rewritten works and the corresponding new plays, have been, astonishingly, largely ignored in Beckett studies.2

When En attendant Godot opened at the Théâtre Babylone in Paris on 5 January 1953, the French dramatist and critic Jean Anouilh proclaimed it, "A music-hall sketch of Pascal's Pensées as played by the Fraterlini clowns." That combination of ontological enigma and vaudeville highjinks would become the hallmark of Beckett's assault first on Naturalism and then on high Modernism itself. But in the early 1960s Beckett's theatre moved away from literary and music hall influences, away from a textually-based or literary...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058175