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The audacity of WATT

“If we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lie down.” This is a clearly unamused Samuel Beckett, protesting to his American publisher Barney Rosset that his play Act Without Words absolutely must not be filmed. In another missive to Rosset, referring to his radio play All That Fall, Beckett sounds even more unequivocal: “I am absolutely opposed to any form of adaptation with a view to its conversion into ‘theatre’…to ‘act’ it is to kill it.”

This is certainly one way to underline the audacity of Barry McGovern’s solo-performance distillation of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, coming to the stage this weekend as part of Gate Theater Dublin’s visit to Ann Arbor. In its original form, Watt, Beckett’s spare, hilarious, and bizarre black comedy—written during World War II but deemed unpublishable until 1953—is a 250-page narrative puzzle with its own idiosyncratic internal rhythm and strength of purpose. The novel even ends, cheekily, with the statement “No symbols where none intended,” as if to ward off any independent-minded future interpretations.

So yes, Beckett preached genre purity, even if he didn’t always practice it. (He gave grudging permission for others to adapt his work, and occasionally even supervised such adaptations.) But, in his book Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text, critic Steven Connor notes a “principle of transferability” at work in Beckett’s prose, especially in his later years, after he had begun writing medium-specific works for television and radio:

The close attention to details of space and position in the related texts…as well as the theatrical language often used in these works, often suggests a doubling of medium, as though the texts included within themselves the possibility of their staging in some other theatrical form.

Anyone who has seen Beckett performed knows this to be demonstrably true. The chilly nakedness of his prose, his elemental plotting, and an aesthetic that suggests the abolishment of space and time, have always lent themselves to imaginative interpretation. A 2008 Gate Theater staging of Eh Joe, which Beckett originally wrote for television, stranded a silent Liam Neeson alone onstage, listening to a woman’s recorded voice, while a big screen behind him displayed an increasingly magnified live video image of his face. Director Atom Egoyan, the celebrated filmmaker, conceived of the idea when realizing that Neeson’s role is “the longest reaction shot than an actor can imagine.”

If, per Watt, “to elicit something from nothing requires a certain skill,” then eliciting something from something else requires, at the very least, a kind of reckless ambition. If adapting from the page to the stage, this eliciting might compel an attendance to the visuality of the text. For Raymond Federman, the French-American writer and academic who made his career at the University of Buffalo—and died in 2009—Beckett was less a writer than “a great painter…who painted tableaux (or tableaus) with words.” In his 2000 lecture “The Imagery Museum of Samuel Beckett,” he encouraged readers to look at Beckett’s books “like tourists look at paintings on the walls of a museum or exhibit.” Federman finds Watt to be “full of such absurd surrealistic pictures,” and discovers within the novel a description of a quite literal painting, hanging on the wall in Erskine’s room, that Federman suggests as “Beckett’s best explanation of his own work.” Watt, who knows nothing about painting and nothing about physics, narrows down his own understanding of the painting’s content—to say nothing of its potential symbolism—to the following possibilities:

“a circle and its centre in search of each other,

or a circle and its centre in search of a centre and a circle respectively,

or a circle and its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively,

or a circle and its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively,

or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and its circle respectively,

or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and a circle respectively,

or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively

or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively…”

We might as well go home and lie down.

Samuel Beckett’s FILM

Editor’s Note: Gate Theatre Dublin will perform Samuel Beckett’s Watt and Endgame on October 27-29. Below, Akiva Gottlieb takes a closer look at Film, a film by Samuel Beckett.

Samuel Beckett’s Film.
The closing credits try to tell us that Film is “by Samuel Beckett,” but to make such a statement is to beg a series of questions. Did he direct it? No. Did he hold the camera? Well, no. Does he star? No, Buster Keaton does. So did Beckett write it? Let’s say yes, while keeping in mind that this twenty-minute silent film has no dialogue, only one audible “shhhh!”

Even if this provocative, entrancing experimental cinema curiosity (directed by Alan Schneider) didn’t bear Beckett’s imprimatur, it would be accused of bearing all the unmistakable hallmarks of his influence. It’s as moody and darkly elemental as Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape, but specifically developed for a medium outside Beckett’s comfort zone. An old man in a frayed coat rushes along nervously in a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic urban landscape—it’s a patch of Lower Manhattan in the summer of 1964, if you can believe it—evading the glare of passersby, animals, and most importantly, the camera itself. He holes up in a spare, unwelcoming room, covering his mirrors, removing a wall portrait, tearing family photographs in half, and shrinking from anything that even resembles an eye. He tries to get his dog and cat to leave the room, but they keep coming back in: this is the extent of Film’s physical comedy. Fifteen minutes into the film, the camera has still not shown us his face. “The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide,” Schneider said of the film. “Then, in the end, one wins.” I’ll let you find out which one.

The perversity of Beckett’s conceit is obvious. Buster Keaton’s impassive, haunted Great Stone Face is his comic calling card—of course the camera hungers for a glimpse. (Boris Kaufman, the cinematographer, also shot On the Waterfront and Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite. He was also the younger brother of Dziga Vertov.) Moreover, the fact that Keaton was decades past his silent-era prime, already suffering from the terminal illness that would take his life in 1966, lends the proceedings a morbid curiosity. The star-figure can be excused for wanting to escape our perception, but nevertheless, we need to know: What does an aged Buster Keaton look like?

Keaton seems the movie’s very reason for existence—and Beckett, a fan, had even offered him the role of Lucky in Godot’s American premiere a few years earlier—but Charlie Chaplin was apparently Beckett’s first choice for the role. When Barney Rosset, Beckett’s publisher, sent that aging star the screenplay (such as it was), he received only a secretary’s indifferent response: “Mr. Chaplin doesn’t read scripts.” As the story goes, Alan Schneider went to track down their second choice, and found the despondent, weary Keaton in the middle of an imaginary poker game with high-rolling (but invisible) companions. At the end of a career now largely given over to guest appearances and cameos, the 68-year-old Keaton said yes on the spot.

Remarkably enough, Beckett was present for the filming of his screenplay, marking the only time the author set foot in America. Canadian playwright Sherry MacDonald recently wrote an entire play, The Stone Face, about the interactions between Keaton and Beckett while making Film, and a short 1964 New Yorker piece by Jane Kramer, collected in The Fun of It: Stories From the Talk of the Town, neatly captures the existential implausibility of the historical moment. Beckett is last glimpsed “on the scaffolding, peering shyly and profoundly, and even a little inscrutably, down.” After a two-week visit, which took him to a Shea Stadium double-header, a weekend in the Hamptons, but never outside New York, he returned to France and never came back. Film was Beckett’s first film, and his only film.