The playwright's insecurity and ambivalence about his new work lay naked on the page as he wrote to his friends. "I don't know what to think of it," he confessed in one letter. In another he admitted, "I'm waiting to see [it] put on ... to know more or less if I can carry on in that direction, or whether I've gone off the rails completely." To a third confidant he acknowledged he was "full of panic and doubt" before a fourth learned, "I'm over, as sure as if they were on the way to measure me for the box."
Sooner or later, of course, all artists have their moments of doubt. The moments above, however, belonged to Samuel Beckett. They took place over the months leading up to the French premiere of his play Fin De Partie. English-speaking audiences know the work as Endgame, one of the Nobel laureate's most important and influential plays, a work Brooks Atkinson described in his 1957 New York Times review as "preparing us for oblivion."
This week, Dublin's Gate Theatre presents Beckett's Endgame and a one-man stage adaptation of his comic novel, Watt, in rotating repertory in UNC's intimate, recently restored Historic Playmakers Theatre on East Cameron Avenue. (Watt runs Wednesday and Friday evenings; Endgame plays Thursday and Saturday.)
By fortunate coincidence, the tour dates follow last month's publication of The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941–1956, the second volume of Beckett's collected correspondence just published by Cambridge University Press. But if these letters provide new insights for theater scholars everywhere, regional theater students are doubly fortunate. The project's founding editor, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, lives in Chapel Hill. Wednesday night, UNC professor Karen O'Brien hosts a public conversation with her prior to that evening's performance of Watt. The discussion is free and takes place in Gerrard Hall at 6:30 p.m.
After meeting the playwright in 1976, Fehsenfeld observed and recorded Beckett's theatrical direction of his own work over subsequent years and monitored landmark productions by the San Quentin Drama Workshop. In 1985, Beckett asked her to edit his collected letters.
We spoke with Fehsenfeld Friday, Oct. 28, at her home in Chapel Hill. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: In your 1988 book Beckett in the Theatre, we see an artist trying to realize a very precise vision and soundscape of his works. He asks that a certain phrase in Endgame be spoken exactly the same way every time, down to the same musical pitch. But theater is not xerography: No company ever presents an identical copy of the same show twice. I imagine it must have been a very, very frustrating medium for him.
MARTHA DOW FEHSENFELD: I think you're right. I think in a sense he was always at war with the theater because he knew it was an impossible reality he was wrestling with. He was faced with the impossible every time. Part of him was a problem solver; he loved having a problem to solve. The theater was a problem. He tried to solve it. He didn't always succeed at all. But he was in there, trying. That was his nature.
I heard this over and over as I talked with technicians for Beckett in the Theatre: "He would sit with us and ask us, 'How would we do this?' He asked us what our ideas were, and that was new for technicians. He asked them to be partners with him, and they loved him for it.
You have these two contrasting energies: precision on one hand, life on the other. For he was absolutely aware of humanity. I think it was evident in his direction. There's that line in Waiting for Godot, "He's all humanity." Beckett was all humanity; he never got away from that.
What was it like to be in the room when he was directing? How would you describe him as he tried to solve these problems?
Various states of agony. [Laughs] You could see from his inaudible facial expressions. Beckett didn't want to offend, period. He was the gentleman. But his agony was threefold. There's the agony where the word or the gesture is wrong; he encased in that problem. Second, he adores an actor like Billie Whitelaw; he doesn't want to make her feel that it isn't as he wants it, so he's hiding from that. And third, he doesn't want to throw her off what she's doing because that's interfering with an artist, and he doesn't want to interfere with another creation.
And yet, in places he teaches precise gestures, walks and postures and gives actors certain line readings as if they were musical phrases.
It's very hard to get under that skin; he's trading one impossible for another, in a way.
In a production of Happy Days, he would crawl up the [dirt] mound, as Winnie [a character who spends the production trapped there]. I saw him do it. Maybe it was just to get the feeling of what it was like. Getting inside: I think that's what he was trying to do.
You monitored productions of the San Quentin Drama Workshop on his behalf. Why do you think he was so moved by prisoners, first in Germany, then in America, performing his work?
A man in a cage always appealed to Beckett, and with some reason. A part of Sam thought he was always a man in a cage. He identified with others that were likewise.