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The incredible disappearing play

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Samuel Beckett makes Arthur Miller look like an amateur.

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)

Making the audience work

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Throughout time, authors have found ways of challenging their audience, as if the egotism of authorship had caused writers to feel that the price paid for their books was insufficient to earn the entertainment gleaned from their pages.  

Laurence Sterne, for example, intersperses the text of Tristram Shandy with blank pages.  Samuel Beckett's Watt drags on interminably with redundant sentences.  Most people die without getting through all (or even any) of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Time Past.

But no author, I believe, has ever posed a greater challenge to the reader than René Descartes.  I do not refer to his extremely long sentences with extended use of subordinate clauses.  I am talking about his demand, in Discourse 5 of Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences, that readers do the following prior to perusing his description of the circulation of blood:

I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading [further], to have cut open in front of them the heart of some large animal which has lungs, because it is, in all of them, similar enough to that of man, and to be shown its two ventricles or cavities.
(p. 66.)

The only other creator, in my awareness, who requires his audience to sacrifice animals in conjunction with the partaking of his words is God.

Then again, the man who wrote, "I have hardly ever encountered any critic of my opinions who did not seem either less exacting or less equitable than myself," has never, to my knowledge, been accused of modesty.   

(Image of dissected cow heart from University of Utah site)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Beckett, Samuel category.

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