Magazine article American Theatre

Stardust Melancholy: Does the Filming of Samuel Beckett's Complete Works Compromise His Theatrical Legacy?

Magazine article American Theatre

Stardust Melancholy: Does the Filming of Samuel Beckett's Complete Works Compromise His Theatrical Legacy?

Article excerpt

Thirteen years after his death and 50 years after the premiere of Waiting for Godot--a play that made boredom (of a sort) respectable in the theatre--Samuel Beckett is still something of an incalculable quantity. Among professors, aficionados and major arts institutions, his stature could hardly be more secure. He is the indispensable playwright of the 20th century, standing perfectly, edgily, on the cusp of the print and media ages, the modern and the postmodern, the esoteric and the familiar.

At the same time, certain basic questions about this author's appeal and accessibility refuse to go away. His Nobel Prize and the ever-growing mountain of criticism about him aside, who is Beckett really for? Is he, as his partisans have always argued, a dramatist who can please a wide general public if only audiences would drop their conventional expectations and steer clear of intellectual "analogymongering" (Beckett's word)? Or is he necessarily more rarefied than that, a sort of magical Maeterlinckian "blue bird" that instantly turns pink and mundane upon contact with the adulterated air of the entertainment industry, with its incessant trend- and fashion-mongering? Obviously, Beckett has millions of devoted admirers, but do directors and producers serve his legacy when they reach out to the benighted masses and compromise with them to try to win him millions more?

No undertaking in recent memory has pressed these questions more than Michael Colgan and Alan Maloney's "Beckett on Film" project, one of the most ambitious investments to date of talent and cultural resources on Beckett's behalf.

Colgan conceived "Beckett on Film" as a media-friendly extension of the acclaimed Beckett Theatre Festival that he produced in 1991 as artistic director of Dublin's Gate Theatre and that visited Lincoln Center in 1996. In a June 2000 New York Times interview, he described himself as driven by "missionary zeal" to connect Beckett with a new, wider audience, a generation brought up on electronic media, by producing new film productions of 19 of Beckett's 20 stage plays (excluding the never-produced Eleutheria), many with internationally famous actors and directors such as David Mamet, Harold Pinter, John Gielgud, Jeremy Irons and Julianne Moore.

The resulting films, released last winter in Ireland and the United Kingdom, have now arrived in the United States as videos. Seven of the shorter ones were broadcast by PBS in September, in a "Stage on Screen" program hosted by Irons, and on New Year's Day PBS will follow up with a broadcast of Michael Lindsay-Hogg's film version of Waiting for Godot, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the play's world premiere at Theatre de Babylone in Paris. PBS currently has no plans to broadcast any more of them. Americans who wish to see the remaining 11 works must purchase the whole project on DVD for $149 from Ambrose Video.

"Beckett on Film" is no cynical effort to stoke the starmaker machinery with a novel, sexily inscrutable fuel; it is clearly a product of loving and intelligent devotion that is often remarkably successful at subordinating star egos to the needs of Beckett's art. There is another side to the project, though--particularly pronounced in its American broadcast form, featuring reductive wraparound commentary by Irons ("Beckett created chilling images of human entrapment"; "Beckett broke nearly every rule of drama")--that illustrates the cost of spreading the good word of Beckett via mass-marketing tools in the media age.

Beckett is no stranger to publicity frenzies. When Bert Lahr tussled over who was "top banana" in a Miami Godot (ridiculously billed as "the laugh sensation of two continents") or when Steve Martin and Robin Williams carved out time from Hollywood careers to appear as Didi and Gogo at Lincoln Center, Beckett's drama and its intended performance context were more or less intact. Adapting the works to another medium and using celebrity clout to pry open doors of mass-media popularity and "Masterpiece Theatre" respectability--doors that Beckett never knocked on--are other matters entirely. …

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