By Suzana Berger, Assistant Director for Endgame
“After Godot, plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalized, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy.” – Ruby Cohn, Samuel Beckett’s friend and author of numerous books about his work
Beckett’s legacy is not only Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and his other fascinating, puzzling plays, but opening the door for theatremakers to imagine stage worlds that defy naturalistic expression. The style he created out of a struggle to understand and represent life after the horrors of World War II has given us theatrical conventions that have continued to influence other artists’ explorations for over 50 years.
Beckett’s British contemporary, Harold Pinter, said he admired Beckett’s style, “so much that something of its texture may appear in my own.” That texture is noticeable in the clipped rhythms of speech and silence in gripping Pinter plays like The Birthday Party and The Homecoming. These plays also share Beckett’s structural technique of building characters’ actions around someone or something that is very palpably absent.
Tom Stoppard also has some Beckettian fun in his Hamlet-inspired comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (produced at the Arden in 2003, featuring Endgame’s Scott Greer in one of the title roles). Stoppard opens the play with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “in a place without any visible character,” tossing coins and carrying on a cyclical, philosophical, though always active conversation that echoes Waiting for Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir. Stoppard draws on Beckett’s structural innovation to spin his story about two lost souls trying to understand the forces that determine their actions.
In the 1960s, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee became some of the first American writers to draw on Beckett’s avant-garde style. Shepard’s characters struggle with suburbanization, family breakdown, and mechanization within barren stage landscapes, cyclical time, and plots that resist easy description in plays like Cowboy Mouth and Buried Child. Albee has been a steadfast fan and supporter of Beckett, repeatedly praising his work and even directing productions of his plays. In regards to his own writing, Albee was greatly influenced by Beckett. “From him, I’ve learned economy, precision and specificity. [In my work] I embraced his notion that we must stay fully alive knowing perfectly well that we are not going to stay alive forever. And we can stay alive with far less than we think we need to. Consciousness is all.”
Although David Mamet’s characters live in extremely realistic settings, he builds on Beckett’s musical dialogue full of repetitions and terse phrases that could be interpreted as either straightforward or laden with meaning to give fire-breathing life to Lakeboat’s rough and tumble steamboat crew, Glengarry Glen Ross’ crooked real estate agents, and Speed-the-Plow’s slick Hollywood producers.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ signature style of repetition and revision or “rep and rev,” which pervades plot and dialogue in many of her plays, certainly has echoes of Beckett. Her thought-provoking content, often dealing with the omissions of African American experiences from history and exploding the stereotypes that surround them, flows naturally from this form. She is intrigued by what Beckett and his mentor James Joyce, “could get away with,” and places her adventurous writing in, “that tradition of doing whatever you
want and saying, ‘Here it is!’”
Each of these writers’ creations is unique, different from each other’s and from Beckett’s in significant ways. Yet his particular brand of theatricality so permeates the air theatre artists breathe that they have all used it to fuel their theatrical tangles with the questions of their times. We have the excitement of experiencing Beckett’s stagecraft for ourselves, as well as seeing how today’s young writers will draw on their theatrical heritage to interrogate this moment in history and help us to understand it.