Three Beckett Ghost Plays: Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu, Rockaby

Other Only Windows | Pure Life Theatre  |  Jan. 28-29, 10 p.m. & Jan. 3, 3 p.m., $10

Should you venture out in the dead of a cold January night, in search of ghosts?

For if you do this weekend, you will surely find them.

And what you learn from them, you will have to live with.

And that life may be very, very long.

Director Dennis Corcoran, a newcomer to regional theater who moved to Wake Forest from St. Louis just before the start of the pandemic, refers to the later brief one-acts of Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett as “ghost plays.” Xerxes Mehta, a well-known director of Beckett, coined the term while attempting to describe what he called “their spectral quality.”

Beckett’s characters are clearly haunted in works like Rockaby, Footfalls, and Ohio Impromptu, which Corcoran directs this weekend in the first production by his new company, Other Only Windows, at Raleigh’s Pure Life Theatre.

His characters find themselves unwillingly accompanied by entities elusive and amorphous, yet undeniable in their presence. The dry, disembodied voices that we overhear—sometimes their own, sometimes those of a parent or a onetime love whose cold comfort reaches beyond the grave—can evoke a past that fundamentally circumscribes the present and precludes the future.

In these darkened rooms, Beckett shows us, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “fear in a handful of dust.”

“What we see ‘appears to come swimming out of blackness,’” Corcoran says, citing Mehta, “‘near yet far, floating yet fixed, and obsessively present in the manner of visions and nightmares.’”

When Corcoran took a master class with the famous Viewpoints director Anne Bogart, she reduced theater history to three main innovations. The Greeks, she said, spoke only to the gods, and never to the audience or one another. In Ibsen, she noted, people conversed about everyday things with each other.

“With Beckett, they speak only to the void,” Corcoran recalls. “She didn’t define the void, but I feel that it and Beckett’s ghostliness are synonymous.”

The Irish playwright’s works are rarely produced in our region. The scarce handful of words in his enigmatic, minimal scripts require major excavation, dramaturgy, and imagination to flesh out.

“They’re more sculpture or music as opposed to theater,” Corcoran says.“When Edward Albee directed Ohio Impromptu in Houston, he was asked, ‘How do you know if a Beckett production is a success?’ He said, ‘You stand in the back of the house with your eyes closed, and you listen to the balance of silence and sound. If a feeling starts to come up your spine from deep within you, that’s a good production.’”

If Beckett’s words are intimidating, his estate, which strictly controls the licensing of his works, can be even more so. It insists that productions follow the playwright’s notoriously specific stage directions to the letter.

In Footfalls, for example, the actor will take 9 steps—not 8, not 10—across a narrow strip of stage.

And she will start off on her right foot.

“I feel I have a very good relationship with the estate,” Corcoran observes. In the past, the licensees have let Corcoran translate Rockaby into Gaelic. “I try very hard to honor what I believe his intent was, with atmosphere and a spiritual sense.”

“The fact is, you can’t do Beckett under every set of conditions,” Corcoran says. “You need silence and you need darkness. Then you need to help each person allow themselves to open themselves to something that is actually unlike theater.”

For the ghosts in Beckett’s plays, Corcoran notes, are ultimately ourselves, stripped all the way down: “Not adorned with the trappings of life or friends or jobs or position or power—any of that outwardness, that otherliness.”

“We’re finally in the presence of who we are, in our deepest selves.”

And that presence, bereft of external context, can be unnerving.

“When we suddenly feel moved to tears, a sudden rush of joy, a sense of belonging or alienation—these senses are not cognitive,” Corcoran says. “It can be triggered by things we’ve experienced, but it’s precognitive; it begins and finds its life somewhere in the gut. You could call it heart, or soul. Something arises within us; it is the truest of the truths of ourselves, without judgments, without pretensions, without anything else.”

“It’s there when we feel fright,” the director concludes. But the existential dread so easily provoked by a present-day pandemic, on a planet with unchecked global warming, can challenge us to confront something intrinsic, ineffable, and uncanny within ourselves.

“It’s not a reasoned something, it’s much deeper, and it does not admit well of explanation,” he says. But if we can face our ghosts, we can befriend, exorcise, and possibly even liberate not only them—but maybe ourselves, too.

Three Beckett Ghost Plays also kicks off LNTR, a new local series of adult-themed, late-night shows at Pure Life Theatre. Corcoran’s troupe will produce the second in the series, the 2011 Iranian human rights play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, starting February 11. Series performances run at 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday nights, with Sunday matinees at three.

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