“The door is imperceptibly ajar,” reads a stage direction in a Samuel Beckett play. In a famous anecdote, a director labored over this stage direction, painstakingly experimenting with degrees of ajarness, hoping to honor the playwright’s meaning to the letter. Beckett himself, watching in disgust, strode onto the stage and slammed the door shut.
“But,” protested the director, “it says ajar.”
Beckett turned on him and snarled, “It also says imperceptibly.”
You might not expect a writer so invested in the poetics of ambiguity to be such a jealous guardian of his work’s meanings. Yet Beckett tried to stop a 1984 production of Endgame that changed the play’s abstract setting to a New York subway station after a nuclear war. Even after Beckett’s death in 1989, his estate halted a European tour of Footfalls in 1994, because it departed from the text of the play.
No such problems beset the current production of Endgame by Deep Dish Theater at Chapel Hill’s University Mall. Director Paul Frellick’s mounting of the play is for the most part a polished, meticulous realization of Beckett’s script, attuned to both the comic and the tragic dimensions of Beckett’s work. Typically, productions that play up the comedy slight the tragedy, as in the recent New York revival of Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin and Robin Williams. It is a measure of the current production’s success that it conveys much of the vaudeville absurdism, and some of the wistful, mordant lyricism, of Beckett’s vision.
“We’re not starting to mean?” queries Hamm, with dread, halfway through the play. Freedom from meaning is the only liberty Beckett’s characters can hope for, so it’s not surprising that they continually seek half-hearted refuge in nonsense. In Endgame, Hamm, a blind man, sits in a wheelchair in the middle of an empty room, tended to sporadically by Clov, a clownish servant with whom Hamm, by turns sardonically and pathetically, engages in battles of will. Flanking the stage are two ash bins in which languish Nagg and Nell, an old man and an old woman, Hamm’s father and mother. From time to time, these two bestir themselves in their garbage cans, listlessly, to lament. The play shows an hour or so of the daily routine of this abject quartet. But that is not really what the play is about. To paraphrase Beckett’s famous remark on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: It is not about something; it is that thing.
Beckett’s work uses spare means to evoke a sense of exhaustion that somehow fails to absent suffering. Everything is used up or stripped away, or just gone, yet Beckett’s characters, in their mournful inertia, note from time to time the oddity that, even in this decimated state, they’re still condemned to feeling. It is Beckett’s variation on the old existentialist claim that being precedes essence: emotion exceeds act. Even when there’s nothing left to feel about, feeling itself endures, overflowing the empty spaces without filling them, and causing pain because it has no object.
The set of Endgame is a bare room with two tiny windows, like eyes, and in the course of the play, you feel that you are not inside a dramatic situation, but inside of someone’s head, exploring the abstract coordinates of a mind in torment. The torment is relieved from time to time by the cracking of a joke, but the laughter is soon swallowed up by emptiness. The action is random, a series of stark variations on the theme of nothingness. As in Waiting for Godot, the characters pass the time by trying to think up things to do, and they’re pleased when they hit on something even when it’s the same thing they always do. But these characters are not waiting any more. The structure of Endgame has none of the anxiety built into Godot–only the despair, and a more piercing sense, because there’s nothing left to wait for, of that despair’s absurdity.
Needless to say, Endgame presents very particular problems in performance. While the Deep Dish production can’t be called especially original, it has one guiding idea: to do the play well. As director, Frellick works with what’s most accessible in the play, its weirdly austere gallows-humor, both demure and self-dramatizing. As performers, the players trust the language, and get the supple rhythms of the colloquies, the equipoise of the litanies, the entropy of the monologues. They know what Beckett knew–that nonsense can only work, artistically, if it makes precise formal sense–and there is an almost geometrical feeling for language in this performance. The language of Endgame is no ordinary language. It’s fraught with the pain of going on talking after you’ve recognized that every word is a cliché. In Beckett, words are stripped of meanings or given new meanings, even as their status as cliché is acknowledged, and often we don’t even know, literally, what the words refer to. But they always refer to one another, and this exacting, insular self-reference is basic to the play’s comedy and its poetry.
The cast of this production achieves a near-perfect balance of playing with and against one another, with the language as foil. The characters in Endgame are mired in their separate vessels, and the humor and the pathos of the piece derive from the interplay between their narcissistic self-enclosure and their pitiful efforts at communication. As Hamm, Tom Marriott renders a beautifully modulated comic performance, suggesting at once bombast and self-doubt, surety and befuddlement. Jean Spearman Becker, as Nell, gives perhaps the most purely Beckettian performance here: understated, sad, wry, enlivened by barely suggested tones, but strangely earthy, shifting from nostalgia to sorrow with a mere tilt of her head. (I’d love to see her play Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days.) Playing Nagg, Alan Criswell has the wonderful idea of inflecting his fruity, orotund diction with suggestions of accents–Irish, Italian, East-European–that never quite resolve into a recognizable accent, richly evoking the ambiguously pan-European atmosphere of late Beckett.
Jay O’Berski, as Clov, is at something of a disadvantage, because it’s clear that the director has relied on his characterization to guarantee the performance’s accessibility. Clov is usually played much more somberly than here, though it’s not necessarily a bad idea to play him broadly, as O’Berski does. After all, the slapstick comedy of silent movies directly influenced Beckett’s work. But O’Berski’s playing to the crowd is closer to Jim Carrey than to Buster Keaton. When the stage directions call for Clov to hum, O’Berski bursts into a rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” After Clov shoots a flea in his trousers with bug spray, O’Berski does a hammy impression of Clint Eastwood. This mugging not only undermines the play’s austerity, it introduces specific cultural references that work against the abstraction necessary to the play’s mood. (On a related note, it’s a mistake to use blue plastic suburban-bourgeois recycling bins for Nagg and Nell, instead of generic trash cans.) Still, like all the players, O’Berski admirably manages the quick shifts in emotional register the play demands, and his final monologue, perhaps because it’s the most restrained moment of his performance, is affecting.
Many critics see the apocalyptic edge of Endgame as a reaction to the social condition of post-World War II Europe. If so, it is one of the few documents that managed to frame these crises without the direct reference to their source that could have trivialized them. Such reticence can seem noble; like many of the great modernists, Beckett hoped to resist the degradation of commodity culture by forging an autonomous art of abstraction. His characters want to stop making sense because they think that’s the only way to get free of culture itself, and though Beckett rarely represented contemporary culture directly, all of his plays reflect his disgust with it. Even if this sense of the degradation of culture was his primary subject, he tried to find ways of addressing it without ever entering it.
To get to this fine production of Endgame, you must enter University Mall, and wend your way through that bland labyrinth. For all his despair, Beckett wrote at a time when it still seemed, perhaps, theoretically possible to hope that some human experience would remain outside of commodification. Our culture of The Mall produces commodities as glorious plenitude, and thrives on the twin American myths of unlimited growth and endless production. How bitter might have been Beckett’s despair, one wonders, if the best he could have hoped was that some of the cells in the vast hive of the mall, in a world where cells and malls proliferate, might still house some product of value? In one of these cells, for a time, is Beckett’s great, unyielding parable of life’s emptiness. See it.