Yes, the confusion of my ideas on the subject of death was such that I sometimes wondered, believe me or not, if it wasn’t a state of being even worse than life. –- Samuel Beckett, “Molloy”
Fragments. Texts by Samuel Beckett (Rough for Theatre 1, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Come and Go, and Neither). Directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. Arts Emerson presents the Theatre Des Bouffes Du Nord staging at the Paramount Mainstage, through April 3.
By Bill Marx
That impish “believe me or not” provides a clue to at least one of the impulses that drives Samuel Beckett’s lyrical stage pieces, particularly the short playlets that make up the powerful evening (required viewing for admirers of Beckett) entitled Fragments. The scripts dramatize (comically and/or tragically) the relative merits of life and death, at times sardonically questioning if oblivion supplies a sufficiently comforting state of grace. Yes, life is miserable, solipsistic, and mechanical, but might it turn out that living is a less painful condition than dying? It is a matter of belief—lingering amid (or despite) the confusion remains the only option for characters in various conditions of dissolution, nothingness nipping at their heels.
Of course, Beckett’s genius as a writer is to generate a sometimes contemplative, sometimes slapstick poetry out of this uncertainty over the compensatory value of our ultimate end. What directors Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne bring to their vision of the plays is a beautifully modulated theatricality and rich humanity that gives life a fighting chance, though they wisely eschew easy sentimentality. The sense of isolation, created by lighting that isolates and shrouds Beckett’s figures, suggests that the promise of eternal night remains both frightening and enticingly “dark and deep.”
Yes, the human can be amusing, as in the baggy pants recreation of the killing daily grind in Act Without Words II, or heartbreaking, as in the lulling, deathbed drama of Rockaby. Productions of Rough for Theatre I, which features a troubled encounter between a blind man and a guy in a wheelchair, usually turn the pair’s awkward attempt to forge a friendship in some sort of nether world into a cruel farce. Here the match-up is cantankerous, lively, and even touching until the ending. Beckett has one of the characters simply wrench a pole from the other’s grasp; in this production, the gesture raises the possibility of assault.
Fragments is filled with surprising squibs of self-destruction and hostility, wit and nostalgia, acceptance and rebellion. The production’s trio of accomplished performers supply the demanding physical and vocal dynamics with ease; my major reservation is that Yoshi Oïda’s accent makes it difficult to make out his words, particularly in Rough for Theater I. His clowning is agile in Act Without Words II, his short-tempered frustration shading nicely into fervent prayers for deliverance from the life cycle. Carmichael’s vocal nuances are silky and supple; she even overcame a ringing cell phone the night I attended to present a remarkably poignant Rockaby. She also comes up with a tart Neither, a Beckett libretto that I have not seen before. Bruce Myers shifts his ground effortlessly, moving from commanding to craven with a flick of his torso or alternation in his tone of voice.
Brook and Estienne take no liberties with the words in the texts, though changes in the staging have been made for the sake of dramatic flair. Rough for Theatre I calls for a wheelchair, but here it is a cloth-covered platform on wheels. Rockaby is written as a duet between a live performer (who is supposed to look “prematurely old”) and a recorded voice—but Carmichael’s agile vocal gear shifting more than compensates for ditching the recording. Come and Go gives us Myers and Oïda in drag, joining Carmichael on a bench, three aging women gossiping about the ravages of time. I have never seen this piece done with such an infectious sense of fun—it is usually an exercise in the funereal.
The popular caricature of Beckett is that his work is dessicated and off-putting, experimental and difficult. (“I speak of an art … weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.”) The exhilaration of Fragments suggests that, on the one hand, Beckett’s modernism seems old-fashioned now, given its self-conscious, syllable-by-syllable dialogue, as well its dedication to the complex resonances of the human voice and face, its resolute focus on the rhythmic, metaphoric, and metaphysical power of the pause, which forces us to concentrate on each sound and breath because they generate lived moments on stage.
Yet the playwright’s painstaking art asks that the audience take pains as well, which makes it radical. Today, too much theater embraces the noisy and obvious, reveling in the delusive, futuristic spell cast by the visceral and the visual, which spoon feed the audience what it supposedly needs to know or feel. We are not encouraged to work very hard or draw on our imaginations—the primal fear is that, if challenged, we will change the channel or our allegiances in an increasingly competitive entertainment market place. Theater-as-event doesn’t offer a strong alternative to the reign of a media-crazed cultural machinery apparently bent on helping to dissipate meaning and value from human existence.
The difference is between theater that respects theatergoers as thinking human beings or placates them as consumers representative of demographic niches. Once, Beckett was seen (and derided) as an absurd rhapsodist of emptiness, but as theater increasingly hollows itself out, he’s looking more like a poet of abundance.