Two of Boston's theatre veterans are working on Beckett's Happy Days for the Gloucester Stage Company. Yesterday's Globe had a publicity piece talking just a little about the demands of the role of Winnie, played by Nancy Carroll.
Winnie spends the play immobilized and buried in dirt, spouting the intricate poetry of Beckettian dialogue. I have always thought Beckett is hard to approach for most actors because it involves an inversion of not only dramatic structure and principles which we rely on as actors, but also an inversion of our principles of being. The lies that we tell ourselves to continue our progression through life are laid bare in Beckett.
Director Scott Edmiston explains:
"There are some playwrights, some plays, some roles that change you," Edmiston said, "change who you are as a person and change your talent and your sense of yourself as a creative artist. I really feel when all is said and done Nancy will be an even greater actress because of the challenge."
It can change you physically as well. Beckett actor Billie Whitelaw diagnosed many physical problems, including a spinal problem, as symptoms of the contortions her body was forced to endure while playing many of Beckett's most famously restrictive characters.
Whitelaw had advantages that other actors do not have, she worked closely with Beckett on productions. However, it would be wrong to label this a "collaboration" in the feel-good sense we normally associate with theatre. A collaboration, (or is covenant a good word,) is exactly what it is, but I have never been persuaded that it anything but the purest form of submission on the part of an actor:
"My talents, My Voice, My Body, For Your Vision."
The actor should neither seek nothing ,nor expect nothing, that they have been conditioned, (in their pre-Beckett experiences,) to expect in return.
Terry Teachout had posted a quote from Frank Langella a few weeks ago about the actor being a vessel for the playwright. (This is very nuanced dramatic theology which has been coopted and distorted, some would say, by David Mamet's instructions to speak lines plainly and flatly and the audience will be served.)
When we enter Beckett, we enter new territory. We are converting from a faith religion, or a covenant religion, to a submissive religion. We are no longer in a put-your-hand-in-my-hand country. We heave our talents up to the creator and leave our will, our beings, as empty vessels, to use Langella's terminology.
If all literature is basically a war against time, then Beckett has created infrastructure well-suited for the specific battlefield on which drama engages mortality.
Shakespeare may have approached this problem through negative capability in his poetry and characters, but Beckett extends this to the actors themselves by direct annihilation of interpretation through regular means.
Edward Albee in his latest collection of essays talks about how reading plays is probably the purest form tin which to receive the drama, because the staging can never live up to the author's vision. Beckett, rather than succumb to this challenge, rose up to face it on straight. In his language and concept he requires either submission or failure.