Samuel Beckett is the type of dramatist that people love or hate. Some see his theatre as an elitist, alienating joke, while others view it as truth unveiled in minimalist simplicity.
Here in Ireland there have been a huge number of events–on television, in the cinema, on the radio, in the theatres, and in exhibitions–this month to celebrate the centenary of Beckett’s birth. I’ve been dipping in and out of James Knowlson’s incredibly detailed biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, which is very good.
Last week Atom Egoyan, the Canadian film director, came to Galway to discuss his work in an afternoon lecture, and then introduce his version of Krapp’s Last Tape in the cinema (the film was created, originally, for the magnificent collection Beckett On Film).
Atom is an enjoyable speaker. He is amenable, intelligent and very approachable; a persona one doesn’t expect considering the somewhat dark and pessimistic tone of many of his films. He encourages the audience to interrogate his films, and responds with considered, and often humourous, comments.
Watching a Beckett film is often an uncomfortable experience. When you walk into a theatre to watch a play you are agreeing to a particular event that requires a shift in expectation. It’s not the same when you enter a cinema. You have to shift your headspace quite a bit to sit through a film adaptation of a Beckett play. The medium does not always like Beckett’s spare, austere style, with silences, repeated actions, and stilted speech.
Of the films I watched last night in the local cinema, the one that stood out was Anthony Minghella‘s version of Play. It adds a whole new dimension to the play, with its graveyard of people entombed in massive urns, the whispering, and of course the fast and often jarring cuts between the speakers, with close-ups on their face, eyes or mouth.
The man and two women rattle off their accusations, pains and hurts, and when it is repeated what was a fragmented mess solidifies into a story of betrayal and desire. It is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, with excellent performances and a striking set. I like to think that Beckett would have appreciated Minghella’s interpretation of his stage play.
Yet, even as I gushed about the play a friend of mine had a vehement reaction against it. He could find nothing about it he liked.
I’ve always loved Beckett from the moment I was introduced to him in College, so I’ve witnessed this reaction before. His work does not appeal to everyone. Yet, there must be something there if it provokes such polar reactions. People are not ambivalent about his work; they are passionate in their like and dislike.
I don’t claim to understand Beckett. All I know is that his work speaks to a part of me, perhaps the part that is driven crazy by our insane world. Gibbering and rocking from side-to-side in the back of my mind, it nods in recognition at his images and taps its foot to the rhythms of his words.
In the end, “Words are all we have.” Beckett’s language contains an illogical truth that plays hide-and-seek with rational thought. This frustrates people. Especially when they want to understand his work.
That is not the point. His work is a foolish jape, and a cruel joke, and an illuminating parable. It is all these things at once. His work is a conundrum. I could not disagree with those who hate his writing, but I’ll wholeheartedly support those who embrace it.
I’m delighted that his stories are loose in the world.