Within 18 hours last week, I saw Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (at the Apollo Theater in London, pictured left) and Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" (at the Duchess Theater, pictured below). The plays are quite different. "All My Sons" has a relatively big cast and is about family and ideals. "Krapp's Last Tape" is a one-man show about alienation and mortality.
Nonetheless, the comparison is illuminating. The aim of both plays is to affirm for each audience member his or her connectedness with the rest of humanity. "They were all my sons," the father, Joe Keller, says of the twenty-one pilots who died because of faulty parts that he shipped to the military in "All My Sons." "Let me in," Krapp says to a lover, whose half-moon slit eyes open all the way. Miller roots moral responsibility in our common humanity; Beckett finds solace from the inevitability of death.
Despite this similarity, the plays' methodologies could not diverge more radically. Miller works very, very hard to manipulate the audience in "All My Sons." The plot is painfully contrived and teeters on the brink of melodrama. The extreme compression of time and events forces the characters into hairpin emotional flip-flops that are tiresome and eventually strain credibility. Moreover, Miller is hectoringly didactic. Chris, the son in "All My Sons," resists his father's autocratic worldview, but Miller is just as autocratic with the audience: you will learn this, you will feel this, he intones in the play's subtext.
Beckett, on the other hand, endows "Krapp's Last Tape" with no plot, simply a scenario: Krapp, on this 69th birthday, listens to a tape he made on his 39th birthday, and then tries to make a tape to mark his 69th year. Krapp makes no decisions in the play, unless you count his decision to abandon any attempt to finish his 69th birthday tape and return, instead, to listening to the tape he'd made 30 years earlier. The play happens in real time: the audience peeks in on Krapp for 50 minutes of his life. Rather than didactic, Beckett is poetic: the play conjures a mood of terrible sorrow about being shut out from life, and holding oneself clenched and aloof from life.
All theater, of course, is contrived. The brilliance of the medium is the way the contrivance falls away, and the illusion takes over, allowing the audience a very intense experience of vicarious living - both for its pleasure and edification.
Miller doesn't trust the audience to be edified, and so he freights his play until the contrivance is too heavy, and suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. While I wouldn't hazard that Beckett trusts the audience more than Miller, he's more confident: the contrivance of "Krapp's Last Tape" utterly dissolves in the illusion of spying on Krapp's life. The result is testament to Beckett's genius: the light touch elicits a shattering effect.
(Image from "All My Sons" cast from The Telegraph; image of Michael Gambon in "Krapp's Last Tape" from The Guardian)