I have never liked Samuel Beckett’s work.
I’ve read just about everything Beckett ever wrote, even his poetry and his unused gags for Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy (and yes, I know it’s a put-on). But the experience of ploughing through Beckett’s tortuous prose syntax or sitting idly in a chair while enduring some misbegotten director’s attempt to force Krapp’s Last Tape to be a stage version of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock I would never call a pleasant one.
There is in Beckett’s work a stringent reductionism and a repetitive tone of despair that borders on a kind of nihilism that I finally reject outright. Nevertheless, I understand the importance of such propositions. I know that one finally has to grapple with every single proposition Beckett raises in his work. They are the substance that infuses all of modern life, certainly since World War II, and one can hardly be a thinking human being without disposing of them in some way. I know that Beckett’s voice is genuine. And I know that he is a consummate artist.
In that sense, whether or not I “like” the work is utterly irrelevant. As Harold Clurman put it, “I like pretty girls and I do not particularly ‘like’ Samuel Beckett’s work; yet I do not rush to a show which boasts a cast of pretty girls and I hope never to miss a Beckett play.” I feel the same. I don’t care whether or not I particularly “like” a production. What I do care about is that the producers understand their own work thoroughly enough not to misrepresent its ideas.
This is why devised works based on Beckett often appear to me as vulgar. It’s hard enough to do Beckett’s own words a firm justice; how much harder to take from them the ideas and style and apply to a fresh new work without sounding ridiculous.
If there is any kind of “message” in Beckett’s work (I don’t think there is) it is that human beings must find some way to deal with their primary isolation from each other and from the universe itself. It is the flipside of Dostoevsky’s fear that in the absence of God everything is possible, including the most horrible things of Hell itself. In Beckett’s godless universe that possibility itself reduces characters to inaction. The fear of the horribly possible prevents escape into the possibly not horrible.
It’s a harsh message and difficult to accept, much less to bear the weight of.
That weight is the central image of UMO’s production of Fail Better: UMO Moves Beckett, a devised piece stemming from various Beckett tropes with a little slice of The Unnamable from Beckett himself that opens and closes this inspired recreation of that fearful world.
The piece opens with a narrator, placed above the floor on a scaffold, reading from Beckett’s novel. There is only one light at this point but the darkness below gradually illuminates as the narrator fades back into darkness. In the narrator’s stead is a symmetrical arrangement of one pair of actors on either side of a massive see-saw, with a long continuous rope that hangs from a pulley on the left and a pulley on the right with the remainder of its loop laying lazily upon the floor below the see-saw. Behind the rope and see-saw is another rostrum with a sparse wire frame that invokes either an obelisk or a chapel, in which sits the narrator’s stand-in (the lovely Maria Glanz) who serves as a kind of narrator within the narrator’s mind, navigating the distinction (indistinction?) between “our” words (i.e., the characters’ own words, their “wills”) and “his” words (those of the narrator above who “causes” things to happen).
Within this simple yet precise physical structure, UMO explore possible relationships between the characters, aiming for physical as well as psychic balance. It is not only an excellent visual analogy for the motion of the piece itself, but also an opportunity for the ensemble to show off their impressive physical skills, not only with their usual eclectic mix of Philippe Gaulier-style clown/mime work but also with nouveau cirque aerials. It’s a treat to watch Janet McAlpin take to the air, still as graceful as ever, and to behold David Godsey’s extraordinary flexibility and resilience. They are joined by three other fantastic performers, guest artist Terry Crane who is himself outstanding on the ropes, Lyam White who is beginning to master his physical art as much as his verbal, and the aforementioned Maria Glanz who holds down the madness by doing less rather than more.
Given those elements, this would be a fine production regardless. What makes this production outstanding is the ensemble’s commitment to darkness and their further commitment to find the light wherever they can. This is literal in the sense of the overall visual design of the play which is very dark indeed and forces the performers regularly into darkness, but figurative also in the sense that the ensemble have probed every line of their imagined text for wit, humor, parody, and outright burlesque. That quality rarely appears in any production of Beckett’s own work or anything “inspired” by him. It is a cliché, after all, that his work is cruel, dour and humorless. UMO Ensemble work against this stereotype to trace the je ne sais quoi of Beckett back to his love of Laurel and Hardy slapstick and music hall absurdity.
What’s more notable to me is that with all the darkness of the production both figurative and literal, director Elizabeth Klob has encouraged her cast to linger on moments that are thoughtful and lyrical. In Beckett’s work desire always leads to frustration because it cannot be realized; love leads to frustration because it cannot be contained. This comes off in many productions as desperation, but here there is a deep tenderness that suffuses the despair. At certain moments the tone becomes wistful, warm, sensitive without ever sounding trite. Those moments are fleeting but that is the point: such things are temporary. They do however add a truthfulness to the normally somber proceedings. These are not human beings ready to lay down and die chanting woe is me. They are, in their own way, fighting to establish some sort of truth, some sort of meaning, some sort of permanence. That they are doomed not to achieve it makes those emotions all the more powerful.
Is it “likable”? Perhaps on Facebook. Myself I don’t care. It is truthful, thoughtful and it holds real power to touch the intellect and the emotions simultaneously. One would have to look very hard in the annals of Beckett productions in Seattle to find something on the level of this non-Beckett Beckett. UMO have set out to move, and I believe they have.