Samuel Beckett is the premier absurdist playwright of the twentieth century, a â€œclassicâ€ so to speak. But as the decades pass, his work is performed less often in Manhattan. New York Theatre Workshop is presently staging what they have titled Beckett Shorts, consisting of Act Without Words I & II, Rough for Theatre I, and Eh Joe. And we should all be so glad that they are.
The production is a small jewel: precise direction by Joanne Akalaitis; original, atonal music by Philip Glass; effectively simple stage design by architect Alexander Brodsky; and brilliant acting by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bill Camp. In seventy minutes we run the gamut from the irrational to the painfully perverse. Beckettâ€™s usual themesâ€”the repetitive routine of our lives along with their diminishing rewards, our extreme limitations, but also our refusal to give upâ€”are here condensed into riveting theater. The first two plays are, as described in the titles, â€œwithout words.â€ So what is mimed before us by the fluid Baryshikov (above), joined in the second play by the excellent David Neumann, are the movements of a man lost in a mysterious universe, where objects appear and disappear, sounds occur, and hostile forces are exerted, while the human participants do their best to carry on.
The scene is wonderfully barren, the floor covered with sand or grit of some anonymous sort. It is a spare world, one where life has been reduced to the most basic elements: arrival, desire, sleep, eating/teeth brushing, dressing/undressing, departure. The simple daily tasks are laid out before us as the process of being alive. But to what end? In Act Without Words II, a mechanical device (which moves onstage ominously from the wings) awakens each man, separatelyâ€”so that one is always asleepâ€”with a kind of crude pushing, as if instead of alarm clocks we had torture machines paining us into consciousness each day.
For Beckett, to be conscious is generally to suffer. One is also mostly alone. Only in the third play, Rough for Theatre I, is there dialogue between two characters. In the last play, Eh Joe, a woman (Karen Kandel) seems to be disparaging old Joe (Baryshnikov), while he sits in his bathrobe on a bed alone. She is in some alternate space, above or beyond, running a monologue of cutting mockery: â€œAnyone love you now, Joe? Anyone living sorry for you now? That slut that comes on Saturday, you pay her, donâ€™t you?â€ It is as if she is speaking words he might hear in his head. There is a camera that follows his face so that we can see video images of it on the back wall. Mostly he just sits stolidly on the messy bed (and Baryshnikov even looks a little like Beckett in this production, with his wispy hair, gaunt face, and glasses) but occasionally he moves as if stung. It is that awful tape we sometimes run in our heads in the middle of the night when we canâ€™t sleep, that one that makes all of oneâ€™s life meaningless. Beckett is spot on with the cruelty of our own inner voice or that of our sadistic companion.
Cruelty is a way of feeling alive in Rough for Theatre, in which a blind man (Baryshnikov) and a cripple (Camp) meet randomly out of doors. What ensues is the pleasure the larger, bulkier, somewhat pretentious cripple takes in baiting the slender, more soulful blind man. First the man in the wheelchair interrogates the other, whom he names â€œBillyâ€ after his son. Camp has a way of spitting out the name Billy that makes it both sinister and mocking. â€œHave you your wits about you, Billy, have you still some of your wits about you?â€ The blind man later replies to the repeated query of what has befallen him, in a fury, â€œI was always as I am, crouched in the dark, scratching an old jangle to the four winds.â€ He accepts his fate, while his companion refuses to: â€œWe had our women, hadnâ€™t we? You yours to lead you by the hand and I mine to get me out of the chair in the evening and back into it again in the morning and to push me as far as the corner when I went out of my mind.â€ He wants to know why â€œBillyâ€ doesnâ€™t just let himself die. And the response is pure Beckett: he is unhappy, certainly, but â€œnot unhappy enough.â€
Some might wonder why an audience member would seek such painful on-stage dissections. It is their brutal brilliance that attracts, and their truthfulness. Like a Lucien Freud drawing or painting, or Picassoâ€™s Guernica. We are shocked, but we know that we need to see such renderings of human existence. Americans, of course, are famous for their love of the smiley face and â€œhave a nice dayâ€ mentality. But Beckett is an Irishman who lived most of his life in France. He wrote these plays after surviving World War II in Nazi-occupied France, living underground and on the run. Best known for his searing Waiting for Godot, Beckett wrote poetry, plays, and fictionâ€”all characterized by a dark pessimism blended with a very black sense of humor. He is characterized as an â€œabsurdist,â€ and absurdity may be the easiest way to comprehend his art. Absurdity is premised on a universe that makes no sense, in which communication is doomed to failure, where life, of course, is filled with suffering, and followed by death, and yet one goes on playing oneâ€™s little games and hoping that tomorrow might bring something new. Though it never does. Beckett enriches this vision with his wonderful feeling for language. When his characters talk, they really talk, long jags of expression, where speaking seems as necessary as breathing. And sometimes they are incredibly funny. Nasty, yes, but really funny.
These four short plays sum up a bleak vision. But it is so cunningly presented that, as with a bitter food one loves, one goes on eating. New York Theatre Workshop is to be congratulated for its cutting edge work. We need serious professional theatre in New York City, and they are presently providing just that, in earlier seasons with the works of Caryl Churchill and Ibsen, and recently their production of Moliereâ€™s The Misanthrope. â€“ Victoria Sullivan
Beckett Shorts plays through January 20, 2008. New York Theatre Workshop is located at 79 East 4th Street. Box Office: 212-490-5475.
Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.