Sunday, February 26, 2006

Amazing recollections of Samuel Beckett

at the Guardian. Here, for instance, is the actress Billie Whitelaw ("In Not I (1973) she was covered in a hood, shrouded in black and placed high up in a chair on a podium. It was a very demanding role and on one occasion she collapsed"):

Sam and I used to work in the afternoon at my home. We used to go back and say [the play] together all the time. I'll tell you what, in my emotional memory, happened when I collapsed at rehearsal. It was nothing to do with Sam, nothing to do with Not I; it was to do with sensory deprivation. If you are blindfolded and have a hood over your face, you hyperventilate, you suffer from sensory deprivation. And I hung on and hung on until I couldn't any longer. I just went to pieces because I was convinced I was like an astronaut tumbling out into space. That's when I fell down; I couldn't go on. They lifted me down and, I think Jocelyn [Herbert, the designer] or Robbie [Hendry, the stage manager] or somebody, got me a brandy and milk, and I remember Sam walked down the central aisle of the Royal Court saying, 'Oh Billie, what have I done to you, what have I done to you?' And I drank the brandy and milk and said, 'OK, that's another barrier cracked. Back up in there, but can we have a little slit in there and a little blue light so that I know I'm here, because I can see that?' So the reason for the breakdown had nothing to do with the play or the rehearsal, it had to do with the pure technicality of being blindfolded, hooded, speaking at great speed and hyperventilating.

Three things:

1. Something like that once happened to me when I was acting (only less dramatic of course), it was a two-person play written by my friend David Gammons and loosely based on Jeffrey Dahmer's story with cross-gender casting. Tanya Selvaratnam played the killer, I played the victim; in an ideal world, we would have switched off on alternate nights, but in the actual world we had only a couple weeks for rehearsals and the killer had the lion's share of the lines and Tanya has an uncannily good memory (of the read-it-over-twice-even-if-it's-thirty-pages-long-and-she-can-say-the-lines type) whereas I have a normal one and am lazy about memorizing, so it was obvious we would do it that way. I spent most of the first half tied to a chair with my mouth duct-taped shut, and on the opening night I really had a scary fit of hyperventilation (I have never experienced such a thing before or since, normally I am ridiculously sturdy), I was afraid I was having a stroke or something (the intense heat and lights, the claustrophobic over-populated underground theater space--yes, it was the Kronauer Space in Adams House, if you happen to know it)--and when the duct tape came off, I could barely speak, my facial muscles were temporarily paralyzed. Very scary; but very effective on stage, I am told, and even at the time I was aware that it was playing well.

2. I saw the altogether amazing Marian Seldes as Mouth in Not I and was blown away by it, it was my very favorite part of the superb Beckett/Albee show a few years ago. The thing you don't think of when you read it on the page: that you will get to see so much of the dental work of the performer. Seriously, though, the glinting metal and the voice and the bit of mouth that you can see through the hole in the curtain: completely mesmerizing. That night was on my short list of best theater experiences ever. Aside from everything else, there's a fun moment in Albee's Counting the Ways, which was performed as the second half of the evening, where the performers step forward and speak out of character and off the top of their heads. Marian Seldes modestly introduced herself and spoke for a minute or so, then handed over to Brian Murray, who gloweringly tore into an audience member whose cellphone had unfortunately rung at a particularly exposed moment at the end of Murray's performance of A Piece of Monologue (another one of the Beckett shorts in the first half). Then he got a demonic grin on his face--it was the day of the California recall election--and said, "And I've got two other words for you." We all waited somewhat in terror--he really had seemed very angry with the cellphone guy, who was no doubt cowering in his seat (he had audibly exclaimed "Shit!" when it started going off). "GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER!" And the play resumed. (Addendum: I think Marian Seldes is the best actress in New York; and Kate Valk is the other best actress in New York. I would like to see the two of them perform together.)

3. I am promising myself a good long Beckett-reading session in the not-too-distant future. I've been thinking of him a lot recently, especially his fiction but also his plays (I saw a wonderfully funny and moving production of Endgame last year at the Irish Rep, I think that remains my favorite). Maybe not this calendar year, I've got too much other stuff lined up, but next. Promise.

1 comment:

  1. I would quote passages at length here to give my opinion a little authentic, verifiable meat, but I'm too lazy, so let me just say this: during one of my Williamsburg bookstore rummages I came across a copy of In The Beauty of The Lillies. I had read it as a youngster, probably 14 my first time through, and much of the book with it strong emphasis on history and Americana didn't grab my attention then. I wanted style, action, plot, verbal virtuosity, vocabulary all over the place, and insanely lush overdone ornate descriptions like I had experienced with Updike before. But as a 21 year-old reading it now, I am completely blown away by it. The descriptions of the culture of movie theatre going in America as a central theme, over the centuries, passsed down as tradition from family to family, the celluloid mythologies and... god I can't even describe it well. Words like sorcery, effulgent flicking of light, entracing, mesmerizing, effusing, garish, gory, pratfalling, the wild west, tramps, harlots, libertines, sultry sexy by the beach seductions by cigarette smoking standoffish independent-minded dames, widowed, legacied and fortuned and not giving a bit of their self-ownership but somehow coaxed into girlishness, iciness melted away by the right guy, the right slick swindling guy, the bungling of chaplin, his mustache, the verbal abuse, the chasing by cops of fugivites or robbers or al capone like mafia miscreants, the constant tumbles and misfortunes and mishaps that were shamelessly shown to almost groundling like collections of working-class audience howlers and screamers, gutter-mouthed, pop-corn throwing, jeering, beer bleching, catcalling, and all manner of raucousness and uncouthness. Updike takes you to wildness of that, the sweaty anticipations, the rabble mushed together with the snooty high-tops, all unnerved and heebeegee'ed to be surrounded by rubes and rustics, lifting the soles their shiny shoes from sticky floors in disgust at the site of sugary residues, cringing at the vulgarity all around them but still just as rapturously enthralled by the stuff on the screen. The movie theatre as also vehicle of vicarity into the nightmarishness of life, transformed, abstracted, burlesqued and therefore banished for people who suffered daily wrangles with wives, boycots and stand offs and unionized troublemaking with the overtowering factories, the life the life the life!!!!

    Updike just does it to perfection.

    How can a person even read anything else, or write anything themselves when the moment you pick up a book of his it's like.... goddamn... he's fucking awesome. I bloody suck compared to this.

    Even Amis has this kind of awed, reverencing, I am not worthy to even utter another adjective relationship with the late Saul Bellow. He said in reading any of his books, even if he had been writing up a storm and making progress and feeling damn good and assured of his craft, the moment he picked up a book by Bellow, any of them, he became totally demoralized, almost wanted to hurl his typewriter out the window and become a librarian from the sheer horror of reading such knockout prose. Mailer has a similar piece of advice: when you're writing, the worst thing to do is read a good book. Avoid it. It will crush your confidence and make you feel like a literary peasant in the presence of royalty.

    Bah, too much out of me!!!