As demonstrated in Matthieu’s Protin’s article in this special issue, a French tradition of performing Beckett can be traced back to the first production of En Attendant Godot staged at the Théâtre de Babylone in 1953. For Protin, this tradition has to do with the ‘persistance rétinienne’ of Roger Blin’s Godot, and with a literal reading of Beckett’s stage directions.1 In addition, it might be argued that there has been a specifically French perception of Beckett as a sinister playwright. As Marc Paquien notes, also in this special issue, ‘c’est devenu une tradition en France: Beckett doit être sinistre’.2 For Paquien, this is evident in Blin’s 1961 production of Oh les beaux jours, which he describes as a ‘messe sordide’, with Madeleine Renaud in the title role being ‘à contre-emploi avec la pièce et ce que dit le texte de Beckett’.3 There has thus been a relative lack of inventiveness in mainstream theatre productions of the longer plays from Beckett’s earlier work in France, with directors tending to follow in Blin’s footsteps.
Concurrently, Beckett has become a ‘global’ artist and his work ‘is branded and consumed around the world’.4 In ‘Global Beckett’, Rónán McDonald highlights the possible detrimental effects of globalization, which is likely to ‘domesticat[e] a writer who challenges our most deeply seated ideologies and values’,5 but notes that Beckett’s international scope leaves room for new aesthetic practices and experimentation. This article means to open up the discussion to directors who, thanks in no small part to their international renown, have been able to challenge the French tradition of producing Beckett. More specifically, I will discuss two recent productions of Endgame, by American director Robert Wilson (Berlin, winter 2016–17), and Cuban activist and performer Tania Bruguera (Porto, Brussels, Hamburg, Paris, April–October 2017).
A comparative study of both productions might seem somewhat surprising as there is, on first impression, little in common between Wilson and Bruguera: one is a world-renowned avant-garde visual artist and director born in Texas in 1941, while the other is a comparatively less well-known and younger (born in 1968) female Cuban activist. Their respective relationships with theatre are also very different – Endgame is Bruguera’s first production of a play ever, while Wilson has directed close to 200 productions since he began his career in the mid-1960s, including two works by Beckett. He staged Oh les beaux jours in 2008 and has been touring the world in Krapp’s Last Tape since 2009, performing the part of Krapp himself. What is more, their respective productions of Endgame are aesthetically different. While Wilson’s is technologically flamboyant, and inspired by silent movies and musicals, Bruguera mixes conceptual installation art with theatre.
Yet there is one major commonality. Both are experimental artists who are more interested in creating powerful images than staging texts. As a result, their hybrid, intermedial pieces challenge the standardized, ‘received productions’6 of Endgame, as they abide more by the rules of contemporary performance art rather than by those of theatre. Theirs is a hybrid or ‘liminal’7 art that mixes many different forms. The premise of this paper is to investigate how these refreshed visions of Beckett provide a counter-model to productions, such as Blin’s, which are aligned with the Beckettian ethos of lessness, and offer new ways, for European audiences, of experiencing the Beckettian canon. What becomes of Beckett’s drama when it is produced in transnational contexts by avant-garde artists is thus a question which this article seeks to answer.
Tania Bruguera: An artivist’s Endgame
Tania Bruguera is a Cuban visual artist, performer and activist. She defines herself as an ‘artivist’ – a contraction of ‘artist and activist’ – who believes art can change the world.8 She has founded a political party for migrants, and petitioned the Pope to give the world’s migrants Vatican citizenship. Her pieces challenge power by revaluating the language of protest and political discomfort. This politicization of art originates in Bruguera’s personal and cultural history: she says that, being Cuban, she feels the only thing she can do is ‘be a political artist’.9
Bruguera’s Endgame was produced and performed in English by American actors and toured European festivals in 2017. It was presented at the Boca Bienal in Lisbon, the Brussels Kunstenfestivaldesarts, the Hamburg Internationales Sommerfestival, and the Paris Festival d’Automne. This performance is thus a European co-production involving Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and France. If Endgame was Bruguera’s first work as a theatre director, her interest in the play is not new. In 2006, she created an installation entitled Endgame Study # in which she placed a speaker and microphone on two balconies in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago’.10 The gallery space was left empty except for a quote from the play: ‘I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying’.11 In this piece, which questions authority, communication, and propaganda, the audience was given an active role to play as political subjects.
Bruguera has been working on the adaptation of Endgame since 1998.12 In 2004, discussing the possible production of Endgame, she said she would ‘transform the theatre play into a sonic performatic installation’.13 She envisioned a hybrid performance, mixing theatre and installation art. She explained that she was going ‘to focus on the audience’s experience, which is not in the directions of the play’ while remaining, paradoxically, ‘very strict and completely respectful to the text and the staging’.14 To achieve this, Bruguera focused on Beckett’s opening stage directions:
Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn.
Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture.
Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins.
Centre, in an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet, H
Motionless by the door, his eyes fixed on H
amm, C lov. Very red face.15
She built a huge 10 metre-high circular scaffolding structure, creating a cylinder-like theatre space evocative of The Lost Ones. The inside of the scaffolding was covered with a white sheet creating a kind of clinical chamber where the lighting was stark throughout the performance. The characters wore white clothing, and Hamm was lying in his chair, not sitting, and the chair itself was a mix of a wheelchair, a hospital bed, and a coffin.
As for the audience, they could only see the play through openings in the fabric wall. There was room for 82 spectators, who were all asked to choose, prior to the start of the performance, from which of the three tiers of the scaffolding they wished to watch the play. The faces of the audience members became part of the setting as they saw not only the actors down on the circular floor playing their parts and interacting, but also the other people’s faces in front of them and around them reacting to the performance. With this scenic apparatus, Bruguera wished to ‘put herself in the audience’s minds’16 while integrating them in the scenography itself, in keeping with one of the specifics of installation art which is that it provides the audience with an ‘experiential or immersive kind of spectatorship’.17
This apparatus, as one critic noted, was an echo of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s 1968 performance-installation entitled Divisor, which was originally performed in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Over a hundred participants were united under an immense white fabric out of which only their heads protruded. The fabric symbolized the participants’ common humanity, and the struggle between individualism and the collective. With Bruguera’s installation-theatre though, the effect was slightly different. The asylum-like, clinical quality of the space suggested a feeling of entrapment. The scenic apparatus and scaffolding meant that the spectators’ bodies were hidden and yet their own corporality and physicality were brought into focus. Very quickly indeed, the spectators felt the awkwardness of the position, as they had to push their head through the fabric to see what was taking place beneath, and sometimes hunch their backs if the hole was not quite high enough. The spectator was made to feel self-conscious, even a bit ridiculous, vulnerable, and very uncomfortable. As the performance wore on, the discomfort of this crooked standing position became an issue, and the spectator could feel his or her body become restless, numb and painful at times as the story unfolded. It seems as though Bruguera wanted to make the audience experience the physical unease and impairment of the four characters of Endgame and/or the physical weariness of the ‘vanquished’ evoked in The Lost Ones. Audience members could not forget, because of the discomfort of the position, that they have a body, and are a body. Thus what might be at stake in this piece is the body, be it the body of the actor – one could see the bare chest, and lean tattooed arms and shoulders of Jess Barbagallo playing the part of Clov – the somewhat aching body of the spectator and the body politic represented by the audience as a whole.
In her performance art in general, Bruguera keeps questioning power and the relationship of individuals to authority. This is also true with her production of Endgame. Bruguera believes Beckett’s play mirrors the way in which most people behave when faced with authority and power.18 ‘This version [of Endgame] is a portrait of power and the complexity of dependency’,19 she says. Thus, by making the audience part of the show, Bruguera makes individual members aware of the part they play, indirectly, in the power-struggle between Hamm and Clov, which is taking place in the pit, and also, more generally, outside the theatre. ‘Why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?’20 Clov asks, and this becomes the question that the audience is meant to ponder:
It’s a story of how one person can intervene in someone else’s mind. Maybe I see the piece as a revenge against totalitarian dictators – the person who is in power only has power as long as the person serving decides to serve. The domestic ambience of the piece becomes a metaphor for how easily we are trapped in these dynamics.21
But Bruguera’s production is not just a commentary on totalitarianism. Bruguera also believes that in modern capitalistic societies, people are made to believe that they cannot change anything: ‘We have been trained to think power is disconnected from our sphere of influence’,22 she says.
The reason behind the circular scaffolding now becomes apparent – indeed it is strongly reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in Surveiller et punir (1975). The Panopticon is an ideal institutional building allowing custodians to observe all inmates without being seen by them. Its design consists of a circular structure that inspired many prisons around the world, amongst which Cuba’s now abandoned Presidio Modelo. In Surveiller et punir, Foucault suggests that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like hospitals or factories resemble, to some extent, Bentham’s Panopticon. In this representation of modern disciplinary power, domination is imposed by the consciousness of permanent visibility. Bruguera’s apparatus concretizes and actualizes the mechanism of power as analysed by Foucault, which he sees as ‘une distribution concertée des corps, des surfaces, des lumières, des regards’23 and which he defines as ‘un appareillage dont les mécanismes internes produisent le rapport dans lequel les individus sont pris’.24 By reproducing this Panopticon in her scenic apparatus, Bruguera plays with the idea that the Panopticon makes the imposition of power more efficient and, ironically, more democratic. As Foucault explains, ‘un individu quelconque, presque pris au hasard, peut faire fonctionner la machine: à défaut de directeur, sa famille, son entourage, ses amis, ses visiteurs, ses domestiques, même’.25
In the Panopticon, the individual is both subject and object, victim and victimizer, just like Hamm and Clov, who keep competing for power throughout the play, and just like the audience, who are inside and outside the performance at the same time. Foucault writes:
Celui qui est soumis à un champ de visibilité, et qui le sait, reprend à son compte les contraintes du pouvoir; il les fait jouer sponanémament sur lui-même; il inscrit en soi le rapport de pouvoir dans lequel il joue simultanément les deux rôles; il devient le principe de son propre assujetissement.26
According to Roger Blin, this reversal of the relationship of power is central to the play:
Au début du spectacle Hamm a l’autorité, il règne absolument sur Clov son domestique, peut-être aussi son fils ou l’enfant qu’il a adopté dans un autre temps. A un moment il y a un tournant, les rôles sont inverses et c’est Clov qui décide du sort de Hamm. Cette bascule, même si elle n’existe que dans l’ordre du jeu (est) un jeu d’échange de supériorité et d’infériorité entre Hamm et Clov […] c’est l’inversion des pouvoirs qui constitue ce que, tout de même, on peut appeler drame.27
Similarly, Bruguera insists on the idea of reversal and inversion in her mise en scène. The parts of Nagg and Nell, the aged and impotent parents, are played by children, and their voices are recorded voices. What is more, through the scenic apparatus she develops the tensions between verticality and circularity, interior and exterior, enclosure and infinity. Seeing is at stake in theatre – the theatron is where the audience of a Greek tragedy sat to view the performance28 – and, its reverse, that of being unseen or being unable to see, is reflected in the scenography, as the audience can see and take part in the show, while the characters/actors in the pit are like Hamm, blind and unaware of the people watching them. This again is in keeping with the essence of the Panopticon which is described by Foucault as ‘une machine à dissocier le couple voir-être vu: dans l’anneau préiphérique, on est totalement vu, sans jamais voir; dans la tour centrale, on voit tout, sans être jamais vu’.29 Thus Bruguera devised a form of participatory theatre where the audience members partake in the setting while not intervening in the plot proper, where they are apparently invisible to the inmates, but conspicuously visible to other audience members, whom she places in an uneasy symbolic and physical position.
Robert Wilson’s music-hall/musical Endspiel
While Bruguera reads Beckett’s Endgame in a political light, Bob Wilson seems to depoliticize the text. Wilson is a polymath – an architect, dancer, designer, painter, installation artist, writer, performer, actor – and is known for the hybrid nature of his stage productions. He does not believe in the primacy of the word in theatre, but creates a type of ‘total theatre’.30 This sits uncomfortably with some of Beckett’s own pronouncements on the conflation of arts. For instance, in a letter to Georges Duthuit in 1951, he wrote: ‘je ne crois pas à la collaboration des arts, je veux un théâtre réduit à ses propres moyens, parole et jeu, sans peinture, sans musique, sans agréments’.31 To the musicologist and composer Edouard Coester he later wrote:
Je suis opposé à toute musique de scène […] Ce serait là pour moi un pénible contresens. […] Vous parlez en musicien, moi en écrivain, je crains que les deux positions ne soient inconciliables. Je suis trop sensible à la musique et sait [sic] trop bien ce qu’elle fait aux textes pour pouvoir consentir à y exposer le mien.32
When viewing Wilson’s production, the questions of how these two approaches to art are to be reconciled and how Wilson’s aesthetics renew Beckett’s are paramount.
Wilson’s Endspiel stems from his collaboration of twenty years with the Berliner Ensemble. So far, it has only been performed in Germany and Switzerland in an abridged German version. Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s Endspiel, like previously his productions of Happy days and Krapp’s Last Tape, are in keeping with the codes of his visual theatre: faces are covered in heavy white make-up functioning like masks; movements are very slow and precisely choreographed; the setting is striking with its dramatic lighting changes, constant use of sound effects, and background sounds. There is very loud music at the beginning of the play and at the end, with loudspeakers bellowing the words ‘it’s finished, nearly finished’ in English. Music is heard throughout most of the performance, transforming it at times into a musical or rock concert. The performance is technologically complex – a curtain of slats lowers like a lattice in front of the scene, and a neon strip moves up and down following the rhythm of the music. Behind it, Hamm sometimes utters his lines in an unintelligible way. There is a video projection of icebergs and of seas or oceans onto a gauze curtain, and a succession of several visual tableaus. Wilson’s show might thus seem quite ‘un-Beckettian’, being very much at odds with his oft-quoted note relative to That Time: ‘To the objection visual component too small, out of all proportion with aural, answer: make it smaller on the principle that less is more’.33
Yet, in De la page au plateau, Beckett metteur en scène de son premier théâtre (2015), Protin suggests that Beckett’s theatre is actually close to visual kinds of theatre and specifically to ‘théâtre du dispositif [qui] valorise les enjeux visuels et plastiques de la scène’.34 And, as S.E. Gontarski has noted, in the 1960s Beckett’s theatre did become closer to performance art, as the visual and the aural became prominent.35 Moreover, Beckett was well aware of the scenic and spectacular dimension of his dramas. Concerning Endgame, for instance, in a letter to Alan Schneider, he wrote: ‘Actually illogical that H and C, living in confinement, should have red faces. Scenically it serves to stress the couples and keep them apart’.36 According to Protin:
ici l’illogisme du maquillage d’un point de vue référentiel, évoquant la congestion ou la chaleur, est compensé par la logique scénique mise en jeu qui permet de construire les couples de la pièce Hamm et Clov et Nagg et Nell (dont les visages sont très pâles), dans une opposition chromatique.37
Protin further notes that Beckett’s scenic experience led him to change the appearance of the props mentioned in the text, to make them look unusual and defamiliarized, as was the case in Oh les beaux jours:
Quand seule l’ombrelle était, dans les didascalies, décrite selon le principe de contraste et de disproportion, ‘en dégage le manche d’une longueur inattendue’, la représentation étend cette logique à la plupart des objets:
Ombrelle: manche exagérément long […]
Brosse à dents: long manche jaune […]
Miroir: long manche en argent […].38
So when Wilson emphasizes certain aspects of the scenery or the props, imparting them, as a result, with a surreal, dream-like quality, he is actually working in the wake of Beckett. In Wilson’s Endspiel, the huge clock contrasting with a miniature ladder and the mammoth rat have Carrollian undertones. Every element of the setting is stylized, like the heads of Nagg and Nell, which emerge from holes in the stage rather than from actual trashcans, reminding us, in fact, of Winnie in Happy Days and of the surrealistic sources of the play – be they the final shot of the Chien andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí presenting two characters buried in sand up to their elbows in a desert under a glaring sun, or the 1938 portrait of Frances Day by Angus McBean, where the actress is buried in moon-like surrealist ground.39 In Wilson also the familiar is theatricalized and made strange or unusual, as light creates space and drama, movements are slowed down, and props are outrageously oversized or undersized.
This theatre of sound and images takes up some of the conventions of music-hall comedy and circus art, all of which also influenced Beckett. In this respect Wilson’s piece offers a kind of continuation of the possibilities opened up by the text. When Wilson adapts Krapp’s Last Tape or Endspiel, his highly stylized and sophisticated scenography responds nearly word for word to the dramaturgical syntax envisioned by Artaud for his ‘théâtre de la cruauté’:
Les mots parlent peu à l’esprit ; l’étendue et les objets parlent; les images nouvelles parlent même faites avec des mots. Mais l’espace tonnant d’images, gorgé de sons, parle aussi, si l’on sait de temps en temps ménager des étendues suffisantes d’espaces meublées de silence et d’immobilité.40
Artaud insisted on the primacy of image, but also on the performative body over language, ideas coming from vaudeville and the silent movie industry. In Beckett and Cinema (2017), Anthony Paraskeva places Beckett in the lineage of Meyerhold and silent cinema: ‘For Meyerhold, the power of Chaplin’s universal appeal lay in an antinaturalistic style of gesture which reduced dialogue to an ancillary function’,41 a remark which can be easily extended to Wilson. For Meyerhold, as for the American artist, words ‘are only embellishments on the design of movement’ as ‘the essence of human relationships is determined by gestures, poses, glances and silences’.42
Many details of Wilson’s Endspiel, but also of his Krapp, remind us of Charlie Chaplin43 and Buster Keaton: faces are white and expressionless like Keaton’s, the actor who plays the part of Clov waddles in clown shoes like Chaplin. He keeps hitting his head on the doorframe and his moves are constantly underlined by sound effect. The acting is histrionic throughout, in keeping with Beckett’s own grotesque characterization of Hamm as a ‘ham actor’, as actors stress the grotesque nature of the situation of the characters and the artificiality of the medium. One incentive for taking up Beckett was, for Wilson, the detrimental lack of humour and slapstick comedy he noticed in recent productions of Beckett plays which, he says, had become ‘burdened with being something heavy’.44 He, on the other hand, chose to enhance the burlesque quality of the text, and thus put forward the liberating power of laughter, beyond textual meaning. The comedy of the play is indeed enhanced, especially the Nagg and Nell episode which is hilarious, with Nagg forgetting his lines and Nell desperately trying to help him remember them.
What is more, the influence of Chaplin and Keaton means that Wilson was also very focused on the rhythm of the text, especially attentive to its repetitions and motifs, but also to its contrasts and contrapuntal structure. For him, Keaton or Chaplin were ‘dancers’, whose ‘thinking [was] in the body’. ‘Their work is nothing but dance. It repeats itself again and again and is very focused on timing’,45 he says. As for Beckett, he complained that directors did not ‘have any sense of form in movement. The kind of form one finds in music, for instance where themes keep recurring’.46 Wilson, on the contrary, is receptive to the musical breaks demanded by Beckett in Blin’s production of Fin de partie:
Beckett exigeait, de Jean Martin et de moi, que nous donnions certains passages du texte comme un instrument joue des notes de musique, reproduisant fidèlement la même note. […] Beckett voulait, lorsque dans le texte nous devions jouer successivement la colère et le rire, qu’il y ait un passage brusque dans notre voix de l’une à l’autre de ces intentions.47
In 1977 Beckett complained that ‘[Fin de partie] will never be the way I hear it. It’s a cantata for two voices’.48 The two voices are those of Hamm and Clov whose masochistic relationship translates into a ‘war’ that is ‘the nucleus of the play’. ‘[T]here must be maximum aggression between them from the first exchange of words onwards’,49 Beckett told Ernst Schroeder during the Schiller rehearsals. This war, he further commented, is ‘ignited, smothered and ignited’, which explains the contrapuntal structure of the play.50 This contrapuntal structure is transferred from the linguistic plane unto the scenographic in Wilson’s mise en scène. The emotion in Clov’s last monologue (‘I say to myself – sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that […] when I fall I’ll weep for happiness’),51 which is very audible, contrary to Hamm’s monologues, comes out much stronger in this context.
Thus it seems that Wilson’s aesthetics is apt to respond to the ‘poetry’ Beckett wanted to ‘bring into drama’, a quote actually reproduced in the programme sold at the Berliner Ensemble.52 Having just written Endgame, the playwright was aware of its hermetic quality and its lack of accessibility: ‘Have at last written another, one act […] Rather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than “Godot”’.53 Beckett believed his new play called for an emotional response from the audience, rather than an intellectual one. This lack of interest in meaning can also be traced back to the lineage between Beckett and Kleist: ‘Beckett s’intéresse aux écrits de Kleist en partie parce que la marionnette y est envisagée comme immunisée contre les tentations de la réflexion: insensible aux réactions de la foule, elle est surtout, au sens propre, hermétique au texte’.54 In the wake of Kleist, Wilson’s bodies become sculptures as the director slows down movements and stresses their mechanical quality. Wilson foregrounds non-verbal elements, so that the receptive process acts first and foremost on the intuition and unconscious of the audience, beyond textual meaning. As a result, for Frédéric Maurin, the Wilsonian show calls for a reversal of perspective as it appeals to the spectator’s imagination rather than to their intellect. Wilson believes the task of theatre is ‘to ask questions’ and create open-ended pieces,55 not unlike Beckett himself who was ‘not very worried about whether (he could) be followed’ and who wrote in ‘Les Deux besoins’ that the task of the artist has to do with questions: ‘l’artiste se met à la question, se met en question, se résout en questions’.56
Both Bruguera’s Endgame and Wilson’s Endspiel reflect a post-dramatic emancipation from text in their enhancing of performance or installation art over text-based theatre. In their productions, Beckett’s text is not what is most important. In Bruguera’s production, the lines are delivered at breakneck speed, and are of secondary importance compared to the physicality of watching and to the scenic apparatus. In Wilson’s, the text is challenged by the semiotic overwhelming presence of light, sound, movement, and music. Wilson and Bruguera abolish established artistic categories, obliging viewers to cross boundaries: with its visual and aural dimension, Wilson’s Endspiel calls upon unexercised dimensions of the imagination, stressing the liberating power of Beckett’s humour. Concerning Bruguera’s installation-theatre, as the spectator becomes a viewer and a voyeur, the performance prompts their reflection on the world beyond the theatre, thanks to a nerve-racking experience centring on the body. Her work strives to make spectators ‘emancipated’ participants, in line with Jacques Rancière’s definition of emancipation: ‘L’émancipation […] commence […] quand on remet en question l’opposition entre regarder et agir, quand on comprend que […] regarder est aussi une action qui confirme ou transforme cette distribution des positions’.57
Far from equating ‘global’ with ‘all-purpose’ productions, the two directors refresh Beckettian aesthetics and displace standardized stagings of Beckett. Both offer actualizations of Beckett’s second longer drama, actualizations made possible by the very dissemination of meaning in Beckett’s texts for theatre. Beckett was not interested in explaining his texts, but in leaving them open for the reader/spectator to do their own interpretative work and also to enjoy them beyond their textual meaning(s). In France, innovations in matters of staging Beckett have been long in coming. However, these two productions, co-produced by European venues and festivals, point the way to new possibilities for calibrating Beckett for contemporary performance.