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.