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Are You Beckett Enough?

Explore the Impact Samuel Beckett’s Work Has Had on Theatre, Artists, and Audiences

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L-R: Michael Rudko (obscured) and Dianne Wiest in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Center Theatre Group has a celebrated history of bringing playwright Samuel Beckett’s works to our stages over the last three decades, including a festival in 1990 that featured Play, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Happy Days. Upon that offering of the now legendary artist’s plays, Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson wrote, “Beckett’s plays came to us from across the Atlantic at a time when America’s regional theatre system was a good idea waiting to happen, and they have breathed life into every generation of playwright since. Today these plays are profound, funny, and more pertinent than ever.”

Happy Days returns to the Taper May 15 – June 30, 2019 in a Yale Repertory Theatre production with actress Dianne Wiest in the leading role. Wiest has referred to the role of Winnie in Happy Days as “the Hamlet for actresses.” Such regard for Beckett’s creations is shared by many actors, who wear their moments speaking the playwright’s words as a badge of honor. After all, Beckett is still recognized as “a towering figure in drama and fiction who altered the course of contemporary theatre” (The New York Times).

For those less familiar with Beckett as an artist or his many plays, it may help to better understand his place in theatrical history and the specific genre of writing he has come to define in this modern era. When Beckett died in 1989, The New York Times spent much of its obituary detailing the profound impact he had on theatre:

Beckett’s plays became the cornerstone of 20th-century theatre beginning with Waiting for Godot, which was first produced in 1953…

Before Beckett there was a naturalistic tradition. After him, scores of playwrights were encouraged to experiment with the underlying meaning of their work as well as with an absurdist style. As the Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote: "After Godot, plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalized, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy.”…

In 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for a body of work that 'has transformed the destitution of man into his exaltation.'

Beckett’s style of writing and approach to the human condition has often proved an enthralling challenge for both audiences and the actors taking up his roles. During a previous engagement of Happy Days at Theatre for a New Audience in New York, dramaturg Catherine Sheehy wrote:

The thing about working on any Beckett play is that the further in you get, the more astonished and humbled you become in the face of what Samuel Beckett knew—what he knew and what he could so vividly summon in language that becomes, against all odds and instinct, increasingly evocative as he pares it down and—as he termed it—'vaguens' it. The frisson of confusion that can overwhelm you when you first dip your toes into the Beckettian stream led by many of the artists who worked on his plays during his lifetime to ask him what it all meant. Often his answer would be a modest though truthful, ''tis of no consequence.'

Because I have been asked not infrequently (though most often by people who can’t imagine that there’s an adaptation of the famous sitcom of the same name), 'What is Happy Days about?' I’ve developed two stock answers. 1) The triumph of temperament over topography. And 2) 'Scenes from the Universal Marriage,' because, while Happy Days is specifically about a relationship between a man and a woman, no artist has ever known so completely how to render a twosome: Didi & Gogo, Pozzo & Lucky, Hamm & Clov, Nagg & Nell, Winnie & Willie. The tug and pull of the smallest unit of human interaction fascinated Beckett.

Beckett’s style of writing, often described as avant-garde, reaches to express something beyond 'traditional' storytelling, as dramaturg James Leverett wrote in our program for 50/60 Vision, the 1990 Taper festival that presented a mix of Beckett’s works, including Happy Days:

In Act I of Beckett’s Happy Days, a vivacious middle-aged woman goes about her daily routine buried up to her waist in sand. In Act II, the routine is repeated, but she is buried up to her neck. What kind of theatre is that in which the little that happens does so inexplicably, irrationally, and practically without motion? Our expectations are ambushed by surprise, maybe even by the kind of angry frustration that sends us storming up the aisle. If we brave it out, however, and allow the image to unfold before us, the daily routine of our own lives may begin to seem strange and to yield up richer meanings, and questions…

Whatever meaningful and adventurous theatre may address in the years to come, be it the body politic or the individual soul, a century of experience shows that it is what we call the avant-garde theatre that speaks most directly about what it means to be human here and now. This is never an easily deciphered theatre or one with ready answers or pleasant assurances. Most likely, it is the hardest to digest, even the hardest to find on whatever street map you are using. The trip is worth it, though, whether it is to discover the next avant-garde or to investigate one that has passed. Either way, you’re sure to be moving ahead.

Many of today’s leading artists took those trips through Beckett’s creative visions, leading to their own points of inspiration. As the Irish Times asked, “What was it about Samuel Beckett? In addition to writing fiction and plays that continue to absorb audiences and tease the imagination, the Nobel Laureate attracted collaborators in life and continues to extend his influence today.”

As Wiest recently told the Los Angeles Times of playing Winnie at the Taper, “I just want to do Beckett’s Happy Days over and over again…I don’t want to do anything else, because nothing else comes near it.”

Curious to learn more about Beckett? Beyond seeing Happy Days at the Taper, dive into his intriguing life with our blog post Will the Real Samuel Beckett Please Stand Up and get a primer on his style of playwriting in PBS’s episode of Crash Course, “Beckett, Ionesco, and the Theatre of the Absurd.”

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