I just got back in from an amazing thing. Through a fluke, I was lucky enough to get two very cheap last-minute tickets to see something I was actually fretting about missing (cheapest seatc £25, in the normal run of things). It was this: Michael Gambon in his limited run of Samuel Beckett's wonderful short play Krapp's Last Tape , transferred from the Gate in Dublin to the plushly intimate Duchess Theatre just off the Strand in London.
I've been thinking a lot about Beckett for the past year or two. I was dying to write it all up into some huge dazzling article, collected all the materials, and never wrote it. How very Beckettian of me. But now this.
There was the publication (by CUP) of Beckett's Letters, 1929-1940 - a doorstop of a book, the first of four volumes, printed on heavy, shiny, old-fashioned paper and the detailed, daily, minutely animated opposite of what we might expect of the man whose art became so spare, so pared down, so "devoured by huge black pauses” – which Beckett wrote in 1936-7 of the "sound surface" of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. (Quoted from Gabriel Josipovici in the TLS).
There was last year's special Beckett issue of Fulcrum magazine - another doorstop of a thing, produced annually by Katia Kapovich and Philiip Nikolaev - in which Nikolaev makes an impassioned case for Beckett as a major twentieth century poet: "To discover Beckett's true lyric worth, we must begin to read the poems with new eyes," he writes.
Hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference - the concluding yawn of poststructuralism. What does it matter who is speaking? Beckett asks his question de profundis, but Foucault answers it ex cathedra, as if it were a question of "theory."
Consider his pennywhistlings (mirlitonnades), late brief poems that are so spare, so extremely minimalist, so bare of ostentation that they themselves appear at first blush to invite the notion of their own slightness. It has been too easy to overlook the fact that these miniature gems are like nothing else in our poetic tradition. They are uniquely, self-effacingly Beckettian, his refined "lessness" in action.
There was the Faber reissue of Beckett's works, in shiny new editions with new introductions and exciting new typographical covers (in beautifully readable print - some of us mind about this!). I was reading Worstward Ho last summer, the work the famous quote comes from: "Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It has stayed with me since: so interior that it just goes straight in and lodges.
The words too whosesoever. What room for worse! How almost true they sometimes ring! How wanting in inanity! Say the night is young and take heart. Or better worse say still a watch of night alas to come. A rest of last watch to come. And take heart.
There was that massive revival of Waiting for Godot, with Ian McKellan and Simon Callow, which came in for a certain amount of criticism - in fact, split the critics (and my friends) down the middle as if with a knife. Too knockabout - or else just perfect. Depending what you thought. I was gutted to miss it, which is one reason I was virtually in tears of joy at my desk yesterday when I got these tickets.
So, the performance. Michael Gambon was born for this role and is now 69 I think - same age as Krapp. He's amazingly physical, surprisingly so considering Krapp's defining feature is his decrepitude - so instead of the pauses and "broods" of the stage directions on the page, you get lots of nervous action, the sense of a man imprisoned in his animal body.
The whole thing is so spare that everything added or changes shows: the table is centre stage! It's a big old cumbersome Victorian-style desk, with hideous beading around the edges; Gambon, instead of sitting still or pacing, hobbles nervously round the edge, running a fingernail along this beading. The tapes are loose on the table, painfully patted into straight lines along the edge by Gambon's Krapp; in Beckett's performances, apparently he used to use tin boxes instead of the specified cardboard ones, so that when Krapp sweeps them to the floor they land with a resounding crash & clatter. Here, at one stage Krapp weeps. He has wonderful mobile arms and what look like double-jointed shoulders; the hands wrap around his head almost to his face. When he disappears to the back and the cork goes pop, you also hear quite stagey pouring and burbling and guzzling; I didn't feel I needed that. I wanted the silence and suspense...
The whole beginning section, before there's any speech, lasts about 15 minutes. There's extra business with the banana. Predictable, sadly...! (Ha!) But "Free-ranging" (as Gambon, quoted in London's Evening Standard says) - and surprising, given the rigour with which the Beckett estate famously polices productions of his work. Instead of being an overstatement of the bleakly implicit, or just puerile, the whole thing, including the banana gag, works.
It's hard to describe a performance of this play: the dark around the table is just what you expect to see, a velvety cocoon - and a devouring huge black pause. Krapp sits under his harsh light, with his (antiquarian, for a 21st century audience) reel-to-reel recorder. The voice in the tape is fruity, ponderous, trying hard to be much more posh than Krapp's present self, in a wonderful in-and-out Irish accent, and the incidents described by that voice might indeed come out of Les Grand Meaulnes. (The play premiered in 1958; the voice would have been recording in 1928; hey presto!) Gambon's voice is of course beautiful. Which Krapp is more real? They are the same.
It's just very, very beautiful - and funny, and bleak, and true. Every word is an event. It operates on the very deep symbolic or archetypal, collective-unconscious level, of course - but there's also the quotidian level, where Krapp reminds us of people we've known. It's simply one way life can turn out, painfully.
You'd never get that put on nowadays, they'd be too scared. Life can't turn out like that with so many self-help books and relationship counsellors around! We aren't surrounded by darkness, we're surrounded by chain stores, pop music and mobile phone waves! In political or economic terms, Krapp has no identity. And this is precisely why we NEED Beckett now. Because he goes past, through, around the trinkets and straight to the heart of us. The central word in Krapp, the one word that sits at the top of a page, before which there is hesitation, the Word that was in the beginning, is - What did he say? "The only thing that matters is the tears and the laughter." Someyhing like that. It IS his moment, because we've forgotten how to do it for ourselves.
Krapp's Last Tape premiered at the Royal Court, the same theatre where two years earlier John Osborne's Look Back in Anger had also debuted. But where it might be said that we may have followed Osborne's road down to our current cul de sac of topicality, "issue plays" and "relevance" (yes, it might), Beckett's is the universal, unchanging Sphinx stare of the human. It's a trinket-free zone.