As Gare St. Lazare Ireland brings The Beckett Trilogy—an evening of Samuel Beckett's novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—to the White Light Festival, we look at how interpreting the author's prose for the stage can shine a new light not only on his deeply thoughtful work, but also on the grand Irish tradition of storytelling.
Samuel Beckett was wary of stage adaptations of his prose work, noting to his publisher Barney Rosset that "we should keep our genres more or less distinct." He worked in an array of different media: not only prose and theater, but also poetry, film, television, and radio. His aversion to mixing "genres" is rooted in the fact that he wrote very specifically for each medium, exploiting their particular characteristics and conventions, usually reduced to their most essential qualities.
For example, his one film script, Film, shot in New York in 1964 and directed by Alan Schneider, focuses on the workings of the film camera, on the activities of seeing and being seen, and features an aging Buster Keaton, an actor closely associated with the golden age of silent cinema. Beckett's stage plays largely dispense with set and action, concentrating on the words and sometimes minimal actions (like opening or closing the eyes) of the actor, the essential agent in performance.
His prose, in turn, hones the conventions of narrative or storytelling, such as how the tale is being told or from whose point of view. How Beckett's work communicates to its audience or reader is inextricable from the medium for which it was written. So why is his prose, in particular, often adapted for performance?
Theater directors, companies, and actors across the decades have recognized the dramatic potential of Beckett's prose texts. Beckett himself even worked with Irish actor Jack MacGowran in the 1960s on his acclaimed one-man show From Beginning to End, which included excerpts from the prose. Gare St. Lazare Ireland has specialized in these kinds of performances for over two decades, and their work offers a fascinating opportunity to reflect on the implications of staging Beckett's prose.
The trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable demonstrates Beckett's radical questioning of the conventions of fictional narrative. The narrator is unreliable: in Molloy, the title character tries to explain how he came to be in his mother's room, but he contradicts himself and questions what he is saying. The second part seems to switch narrative style and point of view in order to tell the story of Jacques Moran, who has been ordered by a mysterious Youdi to track Molloy down. In the end, we are not quite sure what the relationship is between the two parts of the novel, or between Molloy and Moran.
As readers, we are very unsure of the status of the stories we are being told. Moreover, as one reads the Trilogy from Molloy to The Unnamable, the narrative increasingly dispenses with conventions of space, time, and identity: The stories become increasingly fragmented and we retreat further and further into the consciousness of the narrator as he sheds possible selves like skins, until he is "in words and made of words" and "possessed of nothing but my voice." The text of The Unnamable is like an endless, breathless monologue. What are we left with? With the narrators' need for words, for stories, for us to listen to them. So perhaps there is a profound connection here with the act of performance that invites transposition to the stage.
"It is less about what we can do to Beckett's work than what Beckett's work can do to us."
Many of Beckett's late stage plays also reduce the live event of theater to a body on stage, or a recorded voice telling its story to another or to itself, or, in the case of his 1972 short dramatic monologue Not I, just a disembodied Mouth spewing words into the void, witnessed by a silent Auditor. In Beckett's fiction and theater, the stories and locations evoked by words keep collapsing back into the act or effort of speaking, trying to tell how it was.
However, the conditions of live theater are material: Even when the presence of the speaking subject in Beckett's stage drama is reduced to a Mouth, or a recorded intake and outtake of breath as a summary of human existence in Breath, the embodied audience inhabits the specific, shared space and time of performance.
When staging prose texts, decisions have to be made about the environment in which the dramatization will take place: what will be embodied or rendered visible and present on stage? The live actor constitutes a corporeal anchor onstage, whereas the ontological insecurity of Beckett's fictional narrators can produce unlimited identities, locations, and corporealities, such as those of the narrator of The Unnamable, whose shapeshifting includes Mahood, a limbless trunk wedged in an urn, and Worm. Moreover, fiction (like radio) can give the sense of sharing the intimate inner consciousness of the narrator or characters, of being inside the head, rather than watching or hearing the character speak.
So of course something is changed when a work mutates from one medium to another. But in the hands of meticulous and highly experienced artists like Gare St. Lazare Ireland, what emerges is a different mode of encountering the prose text, where some textual features of the prose may recede but others become heightened through oral delivery. The vivid sense of a speaking voice and a direct address to the reader/audience is the starting point for their performances of Beckett's prose. Director Judy Hegarty Lovett speaks of the "inherent orality" of the prose that first drew her and actor Conor Lovett to stage Molloy.
"Beckett's work is richly complex," says Judy. "It might appear sometimes bleak, sometimes slapstick, it can be tragic and ironic, filled with satire, and equally with a profound investigation of our philosophical foundations. Beckett surprises you with the breadth of his interest, the depth of emotion he accesses, and the mastery of his craft. If we can get the audience on board as we navigate the depths of his incredible mind and his skillful use of language, that's where the real shared experience happens. Conor has the skill as an actor to serve Beckett and to know that it is less about what we can do to Beckett's work than what Beckett's work can do to us."
Part of the oral quality of Beckett's prose is the sense that the narrator is making up the text as he goes along, and Gare St. Lazare Ireland focuses on reproducing this sense of improvisation and immediacy in the staging of the prose, even though it is thoroughly rehearsed.
"There is an invitation to the audience to be an active part of the event just as Beckett made demands on his readers, as though he was in conversation with them," emphasizes Conor. This engages the audience in a very active way. They are not passive witnesses, the performer needs their collusion." When asked how presenting the prose as an actor differs from performing the plays, Conor reflects, "Onstage in these monologues there is a sense of communicating directly with the audience that is rarely found in plays, though I believe playwrights like Will Eno and Tim Crouch are now exploring how an audience can be more involved."
Staging Beckett's prose heightens the act of his storytelling, offering live audiences a more immediate encounter than is possible in the metatheatrical and abstracted space of his plays (which open up other, different reflections on what it means to be a spectator or auditor). In Gare St. Lazare Ireland's productions, Lovett holds us in his spell until the last word, like a contemporary incarnation of the ancient Irish seanachie, or storyteller. These interpretations make Beckett's novels eminently accessible, emphasizing that his address to the reader/audience—the need to tell and be listened to—are at the heart of these texts.
Anna McMullan is Professor of Theater in the Department of Film, Theater, and Television at the University of Reading. She has published several books on Beckett, including Theatre on Trial: The Later Drama of Samuel Beckett (1993) and Performing Embodiment in Samuel Beckett's Drama (2010). She led a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council project, Staging Beckett, which is available online at www.reading.ac.uk/staging-beckett.