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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Outer Mongolia

Beckett fact no. 84.

10 Beckett stages

1) The Peacock, Dublin. Junior relation to the Abbey and scene of Beckett’s performance, for two nights only, in Le Kid. ‘The Infanta might have cantered /like a shopwalker /through the Dämmerung /but she was not in training’, he helpfully explained in ‘The Possessed’, in reply to an unfavourable review.
2) The Abbey, Dublin. Murphy requests in his will that his ashes be flushed down an Abbey ‘necessary house’ ‘if possible during the performance of a piece, the whole to be executed without ceremony or show of grief.’
3) The Gate, Dublin. When Mary Manning (the Caleken Frica of Dream and More Pricks Than Kicks) asked for Beckett’s help with a production of her play Youth’s the Season, Beckett offered a character named Ego Smith whose philosophy of life might have interested Eleutheria’s Doctor Piouk: ‘My conception of the universe is a huge head with pus-exuding scabs – entirely revolting.’ When this failed to get past Edwards and MacLiammoir, Beckett proposed an offstage character who would spend the play noisily flushing a toilet. Not for the first time then, Beckett’s contribution to Irish theatre looked like going down the tubes. Mary Manning was the mother of American poets Fanny and Susan Howe, and brother of Beckett’s childhood friend John Manning, who accompanied Beckett on swims at the Forty Foot (as described in Company). Many years ago now I picked up John Manning’s copy of Endgame for a song in Greene’s Bookshop, Dublin, just opposite Beckett’s father’s offices, in whose garret Beckett had written More Pricks Than Kicks. Still on the Gate, early drafts of Krapp’s Last Tape indicate that he lives in North Great George’s Street, just round the corner from the Gate.

4) The Arènes de Lutèce. This Roman arena has yet to stage a Beckett performance, to the best of my knowledge, but is the subject of an early French poem in which Beckett describes a doppelganger-style experience. Gabriel de Montillet, mentioned in passing, was a geologist. On my most recent walk around the area I found a plaque to Jean Paulhan, who lived nearby.

le socle du savant Gabriel de Mortillet

5) The New Arts Theatre, London. Home, briefly, to the first London production of Godot, subject to the Ego Smith-like scatological preoccupations of the Lord Chamberpot/Chamberlain, one of whose petitioners complained that ‘One of the many themes running through the play is the desire of two old tramps continually to relieve themselves. Such a dramatisation of lavatory necessities is offensive and against all sense of British decency.’ The production transferred to the Criterion Theatre after 31 performances. You may remember Peter Bull, who played Pozzo, from such Stanley Kubrick movies as Dr Strangelove, in which he played Dmitri, the Soviet ambassador.
6) The Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. Handy for palm trees, but less so for Beckett productions, to judge from Godot’s disastrous first American run there, featuring Bert Lahr (of Cowardly Lion fame) as Estragon, whose belief that he was ‘top banana’ (rather than radish) in the production led to constant attempts to upstage Vladimir.
7) Pike Theatre, Dublin. Site of the first Irish production of Godot in Ireland in 1955, with director Alan Simpson changing the play’s first line to ‘Nothing doing’, much to Beckett’s annoyance.
8) San Quentin. Site of a 1957 production of Godot which had a life-changing effect on future Beckett actor and collaborator Rick Cluchey. If Cluchey had gone to prison twelve years later he could have caught Johnny Cash’s famed San Quentin gig and been inspired to pursue a lifetime devotion to black pants and shooting men in Reno just to watch them die, instead.
9) The Youth Theatre, Sarajevo, scene of Susan Sontag’s 1993 production of Godot. Amazingly, Sontag decided to dispense with the play’s second act, for the equally amazing reason that ‘Perhaps I felt that the despair of Act I was enough for the Sarajevo audience, and that I wanted to spare them a second time when Godot does not arrive. Maybe I wanted to propose, subliminally, that Act II might be different.’ I remember a cartoon from the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodjenje at the time, showing a man with a noose around his neck walking despairingly through a wood all of whose trees had been reduced to stumps. Which suggests Sontag may have underestimated her audience somewhat. One of the Bosnian Serb leaders on the hill, by the way, Nikola Kolevic, was a English Literature academic and Shakespeare specialist.
10) Outer Mongolia. One of the great things about Godot is that the frustration of endless waiting is a universal theme, one we can all relate to, blah blah blah… except that’s not quite true. Sarah Jane Scaife has directed the play in Outer Mongolia in 2002 to an audience of nomads (lots of guitar-playing Touaregs, I hope) whose reaction to a play about sitting around doing nothing all the time and waiting for something that never happens was… yes, so what? What are you getting at here? ‘Their cultural and spiritual influences were Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism. They had grown up as nomads and waiting was simply a part of life’s journey. They did not seem to get the master-slave relationship and did not understand the West’s preoccupation with angst and personal space. They were used to living closely together.’ What emerged from the production, rather, was a concentration on how sound, form and silence combine to create meaning.

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