TURNING POINT / Something happened: Kevin Jackson on a night in which theatre seemed to make sense, thanks to Beckett's Endgame
Thursday 12 May 1994
The Gulag option has often seemed the most attractive to me, though it's a tricky one to enforce without a rubber-truncheoned KGB goon squad conveniently to hand. Yet even I am forced to acknowledge that there are certain works of art which may be characterised by their peculiar and overwhelming appeal to the adolescent mind but which are not necessarily diminished on that account. (To be sure, there are plenty of others which must be horribly diminished on that account: the paintings of Salvador Dali, the fiction of Hermann Hesse, and let's leave the old vinyl collection out of this, shall we?)
Hamlet is a case in point, as are the novels of Dostoyevsky, the poetry of T S Eliot and (maybe) the films of Cocteau and Godard, all of which I duly scarfed down in my mid- to late teens. But the one cultural encounter which really burns in my memory without simultaneously making my cheeks burn with shame is the evening I saw a production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame at the Young Vic in 1971. (Recollected ticket price: 30p. Or was it two groats?)
This was not, strictly speaking, my first visit to the theatre. That had happened a few weeks earlier, when a French master had dragged a bunch of Sixth Formers to the Roundhouse to see Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789, performed by Le Theatre du Soleil - a justly celebrated production that a real theatre buff might well have chosen to write about for this series, but a case of pearls cast before cochons where we were concerned. Endgame, though, was the first play I had gone to see voluntarily and alone, devoting a large slice of my income to the venture.
I did not feel cheated. Beckett writes somewhere or other about 'the power of the text to claw', and I came out of that auditorium with claw marks across my post-pubescent psyche that have yet to fade. In the space of, what?, 90-odd minutes, Beckett's text and the quartet of actors who played Hamm the crippled tyrant, Clov the servant and Nagg and Nell the shankless parents encased in downstage dustbins (names forgotten, but if you happen to chance across this, dear Sirs and Madam, my belated thanks) seemed to haul me through just about every emotion I had previously experienced and one or two that were quite novel.
Among the predictable gifts of the evening: humour (in the forms of slapstick, mild and bitter sarcasm, puns both groaning and subtle, surreal inconsequence, and the joke about the world and the trousers), misery, nostalgia, lyricism, brutality, self-pity, brief flashes of love, fiery swathes of hatred, claustrophobia, despair and the profoundly gratifying sense - all the more gratifying for anyone in proud possession of a black-spined Penguin by Nietzsche - of having stared at the void and felt the void staring back.
But perhaps the most powerful sentiment was the one I'd least expected: a strange kind of anxiety - not the trademark angst induced by reading Camus and co, but a kind of pleasurable alarm. This was doubtless augmented by a vague awareness that the loopier stage companies of the time (Julian Beck's Living Theatre, for example) were rumoured to be in the habit of rushing into the audience, tearing clothes off, sicking up and suchlike. One German experimentalist - Handke? - was even supposed to have released dangerous snakes into the auditorium.
What really rattled me that evening, however, was something that - hundreds of nights of numb-buttocked theatrical tedium notwithstanding - is surely of the essence of live drama, and which Beckett's genius grasped just as he later seized the essence of radio (in All That Fall), television (in Ghost Trio) and film (in Film). Reading Endgame was one thing, and a very fine thing too; to watch Endgame was to be in distressingly close physical proximity to adults whose bodies were occupied by creatures from another mind. Perhaps every theatrical virgin senses this excitement bordering on fear. And perhaps some fortunate people continue to experience it every time the curtain rises. True, most of your mind is well aware that a play is just an odd sort of game, and Beckett rubs it in throughout Endgame by having his characters gripe about the ghastliness of the play they're in.
But the superstitious peasant who grovels around beneath your fancier brain centres sniffs something closer to demonic possession about play-acting. At any rate, I scented something of that occult force in Endgame, and it sent me off in eager pursuit of more. The early Seventies weren't a bad time for the hunt, and I can now bore the defenceless with reminiscences about the first runs of, oh, Trevor Griffiths's The Party and Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and Edward Bond's Bingo and Peter Barnes's The Bewitched and Peter Shaffer's Equus, not to mention Samuel Beckett's Not I.
Sometimes I caught what in those days would have been called the buzz, more often I didn't. And now that I have lost my youth, my bloom, my ideals (the teeth are still in place), I've more or less ceased to expect it of the theatre, even when there's a Beckett playing. But I don't think that this therefore provides me with a cue to join in the rowdy new terrace chorus about theatre being a redundant art form. I'm sure that somewhere, some teenage avant-gardist has just had his or her brain sliced open by the finale of Millennium Approaches, and that excitement counts for much more than my burned-out indifference.
And while I no longer think that the slack-jawed cretins who snicker knowingly when the talk turns to plays about dustbins should be flayed alive (long-term imprisonment is quite adequate, provided the regime is harsh), or even that Endgame is his masterwork, Beckett's work still seems to me the greatest writerly achievement of the late century I've so far been lucky enough to encounter. As a teenager, I suppose I expected Beckett to instruct me in cosmic wisdom and the meaning(lessness) of life. In my decrepitude, and after his death, I find him talking calmly, terrifyingly and beautifully about the things he was always talking about: families, love, rage, mortality and the power of language to offer consolation, never adequate. Old stager, you remain.
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