Thursday, 26 March 2009

Controlling the stage...

Prospect magazine has just published an interesting article about Samuel Beckett, and the various wranglings that have ensued since Calder first published Beckett's prose in the 1950s. That Mr Calder has been one of the most important British publishers of avant-garde literature over the last 60 years is well-known: he has published works by Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and - almost - Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita - see the article in The Bookseller, I Am Legend for a little background.

The article takes issue with the apparently vice-like grip of the Beckett estate on the ways in which Beckett's plays may be performed. I find it hard to argue with the Colin Murphy that it's perhaps a bad thing that theatre rights should extend to the point of being able to stop a play being shown if it deviates too much from the text; apart from putting off first-timers to Beckett (which a poor but faithful production will do anyway), what other disadvantages are there to allowing a director full reign over his plays? Such conservatism simply seems ill-fitting to radical works like Beckett's. Now if it was Nabokov, it would be a different matter... and even he relaxed considerably to allow Kubrick the freedom he needed to make a successful film of Lolita.

All works are open to various degrees of interpretation, and if a director decides on something ludicrous (such as setting Endgame on the moon) then his or her production will be judged accordingly by the theatre-goers. We've all seen or heard of tepid productions of Shakespeare variously done in drag or decked out in conveniently affordable military gear; rattled off in thirty seconds or stretched out for three or four hours; done 'topically' to deal with animal rights, hermaphroditism and/or globilization... but these don't seem to be a reflection on the Bard's work, rather on the directors'. The essence of a great work lies in its being so open to interpretation, otherwise the critics would lay down their pens after the last word has been said and simply go to bed.


  1. "and even he relaxed considerably to allow Kubrick the freedom he needed to make a successful film of Lolita."

    "Successful" under what terms? It is an appalling film and betrays the novel.

    I think Beckett would rather his plays disappear than be vehicles for "interpretation" by people more interested in "success". Beckett himself said he was interested only in failure.

    BTW, I like the oxymoronic appearance of "interesting" in the same line as "Prospect Magazine"! "Tepid" and "liberal" are the words I think of.

  2. Couldn't agree more. After all, if the same craziness ruled in the 16th century, we wouldn't have seen some of the Bard's plays - Giraldi Cinthio, for instance, might have objected to Shakespeare's interpretation of "Un Capitano Moro".


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