Lost in Translation

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It’s been more than a week already since I saw it, but I’m still mulling over how to respond to Steppenwolf’s current production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  It’s gotten some of the best reviews of plays currently onstage in the city, which is always so heartening for me as a Steppenwolf subscriber and a member of the theater’s Auxiliary Council.  It is a near-flawless production – Frank Galati’s masterful direction brings out the comedy and the echoes of family dynamics in this Theater of the Absurd classic about a man who can’t stand, his servant who can’t sit down, and his parents, who may or may not be imagined presences, who live in trash cans, all seemingly the last people in a world surrounded by endless water (all played in pitch-perfect fashion by Ensemble members William Petersen, Ian Barford, and Martha Lavey and Francis Guinan, respectively).  It is a near-flawless production, if you get Beckett.  But in 2010 Chicago, how many people, who are not theater critics, theater practitioners, and theater and literature majors of some form at some point in their lives, can actually say that they get Beckett? 

I went to see Endgame with several people of my same demographic, who are smart, theater-savvy, and culturally-immersed.  Two of them left in the middle of the intermissionless, seventy-minute play, while the rest bolted the theater faster than Michael Phelps off a starting block once the play ended.  To be honest, I think some of it is the production; because of the requirements of the Beckett estate, the play has to be staged in the way Beckett wrote it without any deviation, so a theater can’t do any contemporary updating that is fairly acceptable for Shakespeare’s plays, for example (Beckett famously sued American Repertory Theatre in 1984 for letting Joanne Akalaitis stage Endgame in a post-nuclear war subway station with music by Philip Glass).  But I think most of it is the possibility that Beckett’s writing, highly obtuse and impenetrable, deeply personal, non-linear, Cold War-infused, very tedious, does not speak to 21st century audience members.  With the world we live in and the volume and density of information we process on a daily basis, an environment that is quite different from Beckett’s 1957 world when Endgame was written, I think we are drawn to plays that challenge us intellectually, yes, but which also talk to us directly and resonantly, instead of being obscured in multiple clues and vague references and textual undertones; which address global concerns instead of just a playwright’s own personal ones; which drive for action instead of inaction.  I think it’s ok to say you don’t get Beckett, and you’re not going to be less smart or less of an insightful thinker, or possess less of a sophisticated theatrical palette for saying so.


5 Responses to “Lost in Translation”

  1. ruth marie Says:

    WORD. i went to endgame and thought, yes, this is done exactly how it was supposed to be done. but ah…i would never sign up for it again.

  2. Esther Says:

    I saw Waiting for Godot on Broadway last year and I just didn’t “get it.” I couldn’t figure out why it’s been considered such a landmark of 20th century drama. I’d never thought about it in the terms you described but your explanation make perfect sense. Perhaps Beckett was simply writing for a different world, a different set of theatergoers.

  3. Francis Says:

    Hi Ruth and Esther. Thanks for the comments. Part of me also thinks that Beckett’s works may be better appreciated when they are read as literature and one can spend time mulling over and parsing through the text. When they’re performed, they’re just exhaustingly tedious and inscrutable.

  4. Joe Says:

    What does “getting it” mean? Some people don’t think they “get” Shakespeare, so they avoid his plays. Sometimes “getting it” means going with the flow. Can’t we just flow with the humor, pathos, and hopelessness of a post-apocalyptic, absurdist world? I think the cubists ran into the same issues.

  5. francis Says:

    Hi Joe. For me, “getting it” means that the playwright is able to successfull engage me viscerally, through storytelling, characterization, and burn, and intellectually, through ideas and clear messaging. “Getting it” is important for me as an audience goer. It’s my own personal philosophy. I need to be hooked into the world the playwright created. Beckett doesn’t do any of those things for me. In that sense, there were no humor or pathos, for me, in what Beckett created in “Endgame”; just opaqueness.

    So from where I sit, I’d rather save my theater money for Albee, or Brecht, or Kristofer Diaz, or, yes, Shakespeare. I don’t disagree that there will be people who will “go with the flow”, as you say. More power to them.

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