May 7, 2009

Shaw on Beckett

Not that Shaw, of course, but Time Out's reliably prickly Helen Shaw, with a piece knocking grumpy old Sam down a few pegs--four, to be exact, that being the number of things she "hates" about Beckett. The point about his estate's deadening grip on the style of all productions until 2059 (!) is extremely well-taken, and I embrace her bottom line:
I hate how his enshrinement as a saint of the theater has distanced his work from us. He wrote in Worstward Ho: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." And yet this poet of failure is treated as infallible, his minor works (not to be confused with lovely miniatures like Not I) murdered by overpraise. At the end of his novel Watt, he made a note: "No symbols where none intended." We have to treat him with the same lightness that he reserved for death, betrayal, emotional impotence and that old favorite, existential despair. Don't go to him on your knees, making him your god; in Beckett's world, gods have a tendency not to show up. Instead, meet him cheerfully on the road with this bit of Buddhist wisdom: Some things are far too serious to be taken seriously.

Tell it.


George Hunka said...

If only any of it were accurate. Within recent memory productions in both New York (the stage adaptation of the video play Eh Joe) and Australia don't really provide evidence of the estate's "deadening grip" (let alone Beckett's, who wholeheartedly approved of Mabou Mines' productions of "The Lost Ones" and "Company" and even wrote a piece for that troupe's David Warrilow). Certainly in his own productions Beckett didn't treat the pre-existing text as final. It's a shame that directors and others may have to wait until 2059 to crap as they like all over it, but I get the feeling (no seer I) that the work will still stand best as Beckett envisioned it.

Beckett was no saint of anything and not infallible (even if his less successful work still has much to recommend it), but he was a profoundly serious provocateur ("lightness," eh?), a genius if not a saint of the theatre, and what his work demands of the audience and those who produce it are beyond most of what passes for serious theatre these days. Ms. Shaw is entitled to her opinion, but her last few sentences remind me of what a character in William Gaddis's novel JR said of attempts to make Mozart more "accessible": "[we try to] humanize him because even if we can't um, if we can't rise to his level no at least we can, we can drag him down to ours ..."

George Hunka said...

For what it's worth, by the way, there's quite a bit of Beckett's early and late work that I don't much care for. Dream of Fair to Middling Women and Eleutheria are nearly unreadable, especially the first; a few of the Stories and Texts for Nothing remain impenetrable (as do some of the later prose works), and his final poem, "What Is the Word," is a curiosity at best. On the other hand, the late plays themselves are remarkable (except for Breath, which, as I've said, is a minor work not without its interest), and The Unnamable and Company are extraordinary. Maybe Ms. Shaw could provide some examples of what she does and doesn't like of this less familiar work.