Sunday, April 17, 2011

Beckett's Directing on Paper

Samuel Beckett was a man who cared about his writing. He was adamant that not a line be changed, not a stage direction be ignored, not a prop added that he hadn't specified in the script.

I have the impression from reading about his problems with interpretive productions that he did not expect the widespread success of his plays. He denied permission to a number of productions because he believed that their staging undermined or moved to far away from his intent as the author, the creator, of the play (Infamously, he denied permission for an all female cast of Godot because it would add a huge layer of meaning that he had never intended.)

You can see his attitude towards this constant battle in how he wrote his plays. The stage directions become tightly choreographed and timed to the second. He makes copious notes on lighting, staging and how the characters move (For example: 'Footfalls' has a pacing diagram, 'What Where' a lighting diagram, 'That Time' has tightly timed pauses and silences).

Examples are in order! Not in terms of content, but in terms of presentation.

In the style of 'Waiting for Godot'


                                                   ACT ONE
                                     An office. A desk. Morning.

LAWYER, sitting at desk sorting papers. He strightens them. Reaches for a pen, knocks them askew. Restraightens them, knocking the pen away. He stands, collects pen. Sees audience.

LAWYER: Ah, good morning. [He returns to desk, straightens tie, picks up top sheet of paper.] I'll cut straight to the chase. Miss Voirrey Clucas Irving had no heirs. [He coughs politely.] So sorry. None.


In the style of 'That Time', 'Ohio Impromptu' and others. I exaggerate a lot with this: nothing Beckett does is frivolous. Not like these directions.


Stage is dark. Lights fade up over 3 seconds to LAWYER standing behind desk set centre of the stage. He wears gray suit. His hair is black, slicked back over skull. His eyes sunken. His hands rest on the desk on either side of paper.

He does not move from behind the desk.

LAWYER stares unblinking at audience. Silence 10 seconds.

LAWYER claps his hands. Smiles. Lays his hands back on table.

LAWYER: Good morning. Though Voirrey may disagree were she here. No. In the matter of Voirrey
          Clucas Irving, deceased,there are no heirs. No descendants.

Pause 3 seconds. The light intensifies on the LAWYER's face and fades on the rest of the stage over 10 seconds.
LAWYER: I'm sorry. None. Were you close?


With Beckett's plays the script is, quite literally, the blueprint for executing Beckett's vision. The director is not an interpreter but an engineer following the plan. Their job to keep the production within the limits set out for them, with very little room for deviation.

It can make the plays hard going to read and it must take a certain level of professional control to direct and act in them. But that would be the exciting challenge to Beckett's later plays, to force yourself not to deviate, to submit to the author's vision and control. You are, by following Beckett's directions exactly, only one step removed from Beckett himself. You could allow yourself the fantasy that you would be doing what Beckett would be doing if he were directing his own play.
(which isn't exactly true, Beckett tinkered with his plays as he directed finding new ways to do his old things. But that is the privilege of being the author: you can change your own script.)


  1. Of course, the question I then have is this: is the copy I have of the Complete Dramatic Works, a copy of the definitive, according to Beckett, texts?

    And where is there leeway? Just watched Harold Pinter, Rebecaa Pidgen and John Gielgud in the David Mamet directed Catastrophe, which differs slightly from the text I had in front of me. What would Beckett think? Would he lament the slight differences? Had he in fact written them? Who in the end is the final arbiter?

    Well, aside from the estate if Samuel Beckett...

  2. Another stray thought about complete textual fidelity, and one totally relevant to me in other areas of life: sometimes one needs to relax and unclench.

    And name mispelling apologies: Rebecca Pidgeon.