Saturday, March 01, 2008

There is something to the fizzle itself

Marina Walker has a fascinating piece in the Times Literary Supplement about Samuel Beckett ("Babble with Beckett"; link via Light Reading). She begins by discussing Beckett's decision to write in French rather than English, which "illuminates his particular music and his turn towards silence". He "was finding his way out of fine words", wanted to write "without style". Yet he would have his simple characters utter rare and bizarre words, sending readers to dictionaries:
Beckett also sends his characters to the dictionary: in Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp himself bundles a huge tome on to the stage to look up the word "viduity", another unfamiliar usage and one that allows Krapp to linger and savour it, turning the syllables round his tongue, assaying their precise weight and the associations that arise, and then finding, with a surprise that perhaps takes us into Beckett's own when he found this for the first time: "Also of an animal, especially a bird . . . the vidua or weaver-bird . . . . Black plumage of the male . . . . The vidua-bird!". Krapp recognizes himself, names himself by another name and so edges towards becoming that little bit more present to himself. Making a detour through French, Beckett was refreshing language itself, including his native Irish English, and effectively sharpening its sensory powers of precise naming.
As it happens, last Saturday we attended a performance of Krapp's Last Tape, at nearby Johns Hopkins University. Krapp was portrayed by John Astin, a Visiting Professor of theatre (and probably best known for his role as Gomez in the tv show "The Addams Family"). Krapp is an old man, alone. He spends part of the time listening to tapes he recorded at an earlier age. He was alone then too. We learn of paths not taken. There are, perhaps, regrets, though at the same time, he wouldn't undo what he's done, so he says. In the discussion after the play, one audience member in particular seemed fixated on the idea that Beckett didn't seem capable of "happiness". But there's happiness and then there's happiness. Krapp is alone, but he is alive. He has his pleasures. He delights in the word "viduity", as Warner points out, but earlier he lingers on the word "spool"--theatrically savoring, to himself, the sound of "ooool"--and he enjoys his bananas, taking pleasure in their shape, color, smell. As Warner puts it:
For not everything is fizzling out, and wind is not mere wind, at least not quite, or otherwise we would not feel the tragicomic involvement that Beckett inspires. There is something to the fizzle itself.

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