Around the time of the centennial of Samuel Beckett's birth a couple of years ago, The Onion ran an article about the discovery of a lost play by the modernist writer. According to the satirical newspaper, scholars in Paris heralded the find as "one of the most ambitious works by the Nobel Prize–winning author of Waiting for Godot" and "a natural progression from his earlier works." The manuscript in question consisted of 23 blank pieces of paper arranged in a small pile.
As the author of such famously abstract dramas as Play, featuring a chorus of three heads sticking out of massive urns; Not I, a soliloquy for a faceless, floating mouth; and Breath, a 25-second work completely devoid of characters, Beckett's reputation as the theater's premier spokesman for the intangible remains intact. Even his major plays boasting roles for whole actors (as opposed to their disembodied anatomical parts) such as Godot and Krapp's Last Tape obstinately resist interpretation. Beckett may never have actually written a play consisting of 23 blank pages, but the idea may very well have crossed his mind.
It's hard to believe that Beckett's works, populated as they are with characters seemingly constructed from undigested leftovers and long-forgotten lint rather than warm flesh and blood, should speak so powerfully about the human condition. Yet as abstract as his dramas appear to be on the surface, they manage — when artfully staged — to embody the essence of what it means to be alive. Peter Hall's luminous 1997 production of Godot starring Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard at London's Old Vic, for instance, achieved this vision. Hall's staging featured the play's trademark barebones set design of a skeletal tree standing on an otherwise barren stage. But the play's main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, came across as down-to-earth, sympathetic beings rather than conduits for some existential concept.
It is this human quality that Rob Melrose, the artistic director of San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater Company, foregrounds in his new production of Beckett's sepulchral 1957 masterpiece, Endgame. This is no small achievement when you consider that the play is, like pretty much all of Beckett's dramatic works, surreal and largely plotless. Taking place in a dilapidated room, it mostly revolves around the bickering relationship between a dyspeptic, blind, wheelchair-bound old man and a younger man with a limp who behaves like his indentured servant. The older man's legless parents rear their gnarled trunks at various points during the course of the action from two trashcans positioned next to each other onstage. Less a play in the traditional sense of the word than a terse set of parentheses containing the instructions "breathe in, breathe out and breathe out again," Endgame comes about as close to theatricalizing a death rattle as it's possible to get. Drawing upon Bertolt Brecht's edict that the artist's job is to either make the familiar strange or the strange familiar, Melrose's masterful mise-en-scène succeeds in its aim to accomplish the latter of these twin propositions. But while Melrose's intensely humanized, quasinaturalistic staging allows us to connect in a visceral way with Beckett's obscure world, the heightened proximity comes at a price.
The sense of familiarity starts with Fred Kinney's descriptive set, a facsimile of a rundown room in a San Francisco Victorian. The details give the locale away, from the big rectangular sash windows to the wooden door casings with their concentric-circle-shaped moldings. Like the characters in the play, the set is also "on its last legs." The space is strewn with trash, the ceiling is a bird's nest of broken wooden slats, and the windows are so thickly caked with grime that it's difficult to make out the ramshackle shutters falling off their hinges just beyond the filthy, ragged curtains. Yet thanks to the unmistakably local flavor of the set design, we instantly know that this Endgame isn't taking place in some bunker in Abu Ghraib (as was the case with director André Gregory's high-profile 9/11–inspired production a few years ago). We feel that it's unfolding right in our front rooms — or at least in some post-earthquake version of our front rooms.
Our sense of connection to this production also stems from its focus on mining the relationships between the people onstage as much as the philosophical ideas encoded in Beckett's text. As the aging couple Nagg and Nell, Paul Gerrior and Maureen Coyne find an engrossing way to tackle two of Beckett's most esoteric characters. Though the two are condemned to spend the rest of their days in miserable circumstances, Beckett gives them kind words for one another and fond remembrances of the past. Gerrior and Coyne give their absurd situation a conversational quality, popping up and down from their bins and nattering away like two old neighbors enjoying a jaw session over a garden fence.
The relationship between David Sinaiko's bossy Hamm and Avery Monsen's servile Clov similarly draws us in. Monsen's Clov is the most affecting of all the characters in this Endgame. Dressed in a black leather vest, grubby white T-shirt, jeans, and black boots, he could be any modern twentysomething wandering around the Mission or the Haight. Monsen imbues his character with a deep sense of unhappiness and physical pain. He looks like he might burst into tears at any second, and yet there's a quiet sense of humor and purpose about his stuttering, deliberate movements. David Sinaiko's Hamm, meanwhile, makes us understand the push and pull of his bond with Clov. In equal parts railing tyrant and cartoonish uncle, he is both hard to love and hard to hate.
The characters' relationship crystallizes in one memorable instant in the middle of the play when Clov reaches over the arm of Hamm's chair and touches the old man's shoulder. "Will it not soon be the end?" Clov asks. This moment is remarkable: Beckett is a stickler for stage directions and he repeatedly denies his characters the right to touch. But more importantly, in a world where physical contact no longer exists (Nagg and Nell can't kiss because their bins are too far apart, and Clov repeatedly refuses to touch Hamm when asked) this tiny gesture carries overwhelming significance. It blows a hole in the inhuman wall of the play.
Yet the inhumanity of Endgame is what gives the work its power. One of Beckett's most brilliant heirs, the Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh, leverages this dispassionate quality to great effect in his 1996 play The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Like Endgame but with female characters, Beauty Queen takes place in a claustrophobic room and focuses on the relationship between Mag, a manipulative, demanding old lady, and Maureen, the daughter forced to take care of her. But while Clov leaves at the end of Beckett's play, Maureen is compelled to take more sadistic measures in McDonagh's. Meanwhile, we have become so involved in the relationship between Mag and Maureen that the ending provides a perfect shock to the system. What was familiar territory now seems frighteningly strange.
Conversely, Melrose's attempt to make the strange familiar through focusing on relationships and playing for empathy ultimately sabotages Beckett's play. We need to feel as alienated from the characters as they are from each other in order to allow Beckett's death rattle to shudder through our bones. Our heightened sense of familiarity with the characters and their situation makes them too easy to read. A little distance, a dose of cold abstraction is what's needed here. There may, upon closer examination, be certain advantages to thinking of a Beckett play as 23 blank pieces of paper arranged in a small pile.