It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: “It Looks Like (Pause) A Small Controversy. Bad Luck to It!”

Dave Sikula, king of controversy.

I ended our last meeting with a question from the estimable Eric L. of Oregon:

“How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett’s objection and legal action against Akalaitis’s production of ‘Endgame?’”

I’m glad Eric asked me the question, since I’d forgotten that particular incident.

Musing it over (thinking isn’t good enough, of course), I have a few thoughts and observations.

In 1984, Ms. Akalaitis was hired to direct a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” for the American Repertory Theater in Boston. In spite of Mr. Beckett’s well-known insistence on his plays being done exactly as he had written them, Ms. Akalaitis determined that the play not only needed to be moved from its creator’s stark setting (“Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins”) to what the New York Times described as “an abandoned subway station, layered with trash as well as a derelict train,” she also added an overture and underscoring by minimalist composer Philip Glass (coincidentally, her ex-husband) that was, to quote the Times again, “peripheral but supportive, a fierce scraping, like the sound – to extend the underground imagery – of a subway car careening off the track at high speed.” Hardly the post-apocalyptic wasteland Beckett describes.

 ART's "Endgame."

ART’s “Endgame.”

It’s unclear from my research whether Mr. Beckett was asked in advance if the changes were permissible or learned about them by reading ART’s publicity — the Times, in the review linked to above, summarizes the production as “Nuclear Metaphor ENDGAME,” so the cat may have been out of the garbage can well in advance – but, regardless, when he found out what Ms. Akalaitis intended to do, Mr. Beckett hit the metaphorical can lid and filed suit to stop the production. A settlement was ultimately reached, and a statement from the playwright was inserted into the program:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this:

As the author intended.

As the author intended.

Beckett also objected to black actors being cast in two of the play’s four roles, which caused Robert Brustein, the then-artistic director of ART to bemoan the playwright’s apparent racism:

I was really astonished. Beckett was a playwright who we revered. We were shocked. We had black actors in the cast playing the parts of Ham and Nagg, and we were most upset about his objection to that.

Was Beckett a racist? Who knows? Given Beckett’s boycotting of apartheid-era South Africa and his concern for human rights, the charges are doubtful. Critic Thomas Garvey of the Hub Review defends him, noting:

Beckett always disapproved of productions of his plays that “mixed” the races (or the genders in ways not specifically described), because he felt that power relations between the races and genders were not a part of the artistic material he was trying to present, and so he wanted to leave them out entirely, as he felt they would inevitably draw attention in performance from his central concerns. He was happy, however, to see all-black productions of his plays – or all-female productions of single-sex scripts like “Waiting for Godot.”

"Waiting for Godot" in New Orleans -- heaven only  knows what Beckett would have made of this one.

“Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans — heaven only
knows what Beckett would have made of this one.

(At this point, I’ll just note the cross-gender casting in Alchemist’s “Oleanna.”)

It should also be noted that Mr. Garvey didn’t have much use for Ms. Akalaitis’s production, saying that she’d “pasted her usual dim downtown appliqué onto ‘Endgame’ – she dopily literalized its sense of apocalypse by setting it in a bombed-out subway station … it proved to be bombastic and, well, stupid).”

Now, with all of this in mind, two things occur to me – but, since I’m 600+ words into this – and am beginning to enjoy my reputation for taking forever to get to the damn point – I’m going to deal with them next time.

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