Saturday, November 17, 2007

Words and Muzak

Those hoping for a reprise (at least in quality) of Robert Scanlan's previous productions of Beckett were no doubt as deeply disappointed as I was in "Beckett at 100," which closes this evening at Harvard's New College Theatre. The sudden slide might have been predictable, however: two of the pieces in question, the radio plays Words and Music and Cascando, rely on the cooperative efforts of - yes - words and music, a synthesis which may be almost impossible to achieve (indeed the last piece, . . . but the clouds . . ., in which the music serves more as soundtrack, was by far the best). For Beckett hasn't devised a dynamic here like that of an opera or a musical: instead he demands a uniquely dramatic role for music, in which it operates not as "support" or as "atmosphere" but as character.

And this requirement is precisely what the distinguished composer Martin Pearlman, who was commissioned to produce an original score, has ignored. Pearlman has composed a kind of "Beckett Suite" for the evening - appealing and sometimes intriguing, if a little light for Beckett accompaniment, and complete with a prelude and interlude (conceits which are just about as un-Beckettian as you can get); but he hasn't gotten it into his head that the music should respond to Beckett's dialogue as an actor might (in Words, the music even has a name - Bob!). This is slightly incredible, because Words and Music is full of stage directions intended for the music - which here pretty much go out the window (Pearlman even winks at the opening command that the orchestra "tune up").

This essentially means one cast member is missing from the plays - only frankly, sometimes I wished that two were missing: Mickey Solis, a recent ART Institute grad, is smart and sexy, but far too superficial a presence to put over Beckett; thus he yammered and stammered through both Words and Cascando, and smoothed back his pretty hair so many times you began to wonder if he hadn't realized he was completely at sea. It may not have helped that he was playing against Beckett aficionado Alvin Epstein, who sent off just the right vibrations from the start (and who produced a memorably appropriate vocal for the character "Croak"), but who seemed to hold himself back, mandarin-like, until the final play (perhaps he took the superficial disinterest of his lines in Cascando as the end-all and be-all of his characterization).

Scanlan himself, I think, was aware of the problems - hence he gave a half-hour lecture prior to the performance, in which he explained the action of each play in detail. Admittedly, the texts were probably over the heads of most of the Harvard undergrads in attendance - still, the low-key pedantry rankled, and turned the evening into something of a theatrical demonstration rather than an actual evening of theatre. Scanlan had an excuse for the talk - the Beckett estate had demanded, as these are radio plays and a television play, that the evening be recorded for broadcast, rather than simply performed (a neat formal quibble of the kind academics love to chew on); still, these explanations could have been handled in ten minutes, not thirty. And while I have little sympathy with Beckett's estate trying, essentially, to keep these works from the stage, I have to point out that Scanlan did play rather fast and loose with the master in other ways: the imagery of . . . but the clouds . . ., for instance, varied in important ways, I felt, from what is described on the page. But then why shouldn't Scanlan have done his own thing? Everybody else was.


  1. Thought Scanlan was by far the bigger offender in this production. The pre-show talk was deadening (and not in a good Beckettian way) and all of the fake stage business ("On Air" sign, musicians 'casually' assembling, Croak's entrance, pin spots in the first two pieces, camera downstage center in the third, etc.) showed fear of the de-theatricalization he claimed to be striving for. Music, by comparison was at least honest. Still, very happy to see see staged production of That Which Must Not Be Staged. "Words and Music" moved me.

  2. I don't really understand your statement that "the music, by comparison, was at least honest." The various "meta" indications that irritated you were perhaps fatuous in that time-honored ART way, but they weren't dishonest. And Scanlan wasn't striving for "de-theatricalization" except in a double-edged way, a la Magritte's Ceci n’est pas une pipe (which he tiresomely mentioned more than once). Of course my view of the evening was colored by Scanlan's past successes - but in those cases he was also clearly more in control of the finished product. I don't think he could control Pearlman - but then Beckett himself didn't bother to control his musical collaborators, so somehow I doubt even the author's own productions of "Words and Music" fulfilled the work's potential on the page. What Beckett seems to be aiming for in the text is perhaps something like an approximation of incidental music in film. And whatever one thought of Pearlman's music - and it was certainly intelligent and highly crafted, as I pointed out - it did not operate as incidental music.