Senior citizens pop up unpredictably from the metal trash cans they call home. A dying king barks orders from his wheelchair in center stage. Nothing, gloriously, happens.
Together, these events comprise the majority of the action in Samuel Beckett’s
Yale students routinely call “Endgame” their favorite — or least favorite — play read in intro theater studies classes, English professor Harold Bloom called it the necessary final work of the Western canon, and most readers call it baffling, gloomy, or very, very funny.
And after spring break, it goes up in three distinct Yale productions.
It’s an odd situation, since it’s been over three years since any Beckett play was produced by undergraduates at Yale, and much longer since three versions of the same play were rehearsing simultaneously within just a few blocks of one another.
“Yes, it is weird, and especially when the play is ‘Endgame,'” said Ethan Guillen ’02, one director of one version of the play.
Guillen explained that his favorite line from “Endgame” captures the enigmatic essence of the play: “Why this game every day?” He said he was surprised that such a challenging and bleak work was chosen by three separate Yale-affiliated directors this term.
But Nigel Alderman, who teaches contemporary British literature at Yale, said he is not surprised that “Endgame,” which first appeared in French in 1957, has attracted constant re-evaluation in both criticism and performance.
“Beckettian drama is concerned with the ways in which rituals and habits briefly spin a web of existence above the void,” he said.
Besides, he added, Beckett is perfect for student productions because “the small intimate cramped spaces, the lack of air conditioning, the decrepit and broken chairs, can create an intense atmosphere that is perfect for a Beckett play.”
But others, even Beckett fans, were less than enthused by the prospect of a triple dose of existential angst.
“I’m tired of [proposed] productions of ‘Endgame,'” Josh Drimmer ’03 said. “Everyone thinks there are only a handful of scripts to put up, and ‘Endgame’ is one of them.”
A long-time reader of Beckett and of existential philosophy, Guillen said he wondered if the events of Sept. 11 had partially inspired Michael Lew ’02 and the Yale Cabaret to offer their respective productions of “Endgame” this year.
“‘Endgame’ has a real post-apocalyptic feel to it; it always seems like the world is turned upside down and made surreal in this play,” he said.
Producer Michael Robinson’s ’03 original plan, he said, had been to set the play at ground zero, or alternatively, inside an airplane that was about to crash.
And in case catching all three shows isn’t enough of a challenge for Yale’s loyal Beckett-heads, Guillen’s and Robinson’s production is going by the name Fin de Partie and will be performed entirely in the original French.
“I guess I’m not really concerned about the audience,” Guillen said. He said he prefers to focus on his actors’ comfort before worrying about how a broader audience will respond to a French play at Yale.
And who will this audience consist of?
“It’s probably small in number, dresses in black, listens to early Cure, and reads Camus,” Alderman said.
Although Beckett is considered an Irish hero and a master of the variety of English’s words and the strangeness in its syntax, after World War II he wrote virtually all of his plays in French before translating them into English himself.
“[Beckett] said that he could ‘write without style in French,’ which I think means he believed he could come closer to writing a language without connotation and literary echo,” Alderman said.
By thus distancing himself from echoes of Shakespeare, whose “Hamlet” and “King Lear” inform “Endgame” from beginning to end, and from Joyce, with whose work Beckett was obsessed, Alderman believed Beckett “could represent alienation, impotence, diminishment, nothingness more accurately.”
But for a Yale audience, is the accurate representation of “nothingness” more important than being able to understand what the actors are saying?
“It might be kind of interesting, just because Beckett was so French in some ways, and because he translated it himself,” said theater studies major Colette Robert ’03, who said she sees at least three plays each weekend at Yale.
But although Robert said she plans to see both English productions of “Endgame,” she said that Fin de Partie would probably not make her must-see list.
“I lost most of my French after high school,” she said.
The play will, in fact, carry electronic super-titles in English.
“They will be just like the super-titles at an opera, except our actors will interact will the super-titles at certain moments in the play,” Robinson said.
Robinson added that, despite some people’s nervousness about approaching Beckett in French, “Endgame” is actually enhanced when it is performed in French before an English-speaking audience.
“Here’s Beckett, an Irishman in exile in Paris who finds French more a mother tongue than English,” he explained. “You’ll have non-French people in a French but also non-French play, speaking French before an American audience. The foreignness is part of the appeal.”
Guillen agreed that the French version lends the play the associations he likes best in Beckett.
“When people think of existentialism, they think of French writers like Camus and Sartre. Beckett is part of the same tradition and he treats the same themes, such as looking for meaning in a meaningless world.”