Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does Bob Brustein think Samuel Beckett was a racist?

Sigh. The A.R.T. is doing Endgame again, which means we have to revisit one of the most ridiculous episodes in its history, its botch of the play back in 1984. For those of you too young - or too wisely concerned with other things - to recall, Beckett (at left) tried to put the kibosh on a misconceived version of his script by JoAnne Akalaitis, avant artiste and former paramour of Philip Glass. Akalaitis pasted her usual dim downtown appliqué onto Endgame - she dopily literalized its sense of apocalypse by setting it in a bombed-out subway station (she even wanted an "overture" by her ex), and she cast African-American actors in two of its four roles.

Once Beckett got word of this, he objected, and almost shut the show down (it's too bad he failed; it proved to be bombastic and, well, stupid). But his reasoning allowed an opening for the A.R.T. to cast a kind of shadow on his reputation.

First, some background. Beckett always disapproved of productions of his plays that "mixed" the races (or the genders in ways not specifically described), because he felt that power relations between the races and genders were not a part of the artistic material he was trying to present, and so he wanted to leave them out entirely, as he felt they would inevitably draw attention in performance from his central concerns. He was happy, however, to see all-black productions of his plays - or all-female productions of single-sex scripts like Waiting for Godot. I suppose it's easy for Cambridge types to pooh-pooh Beckett's worries on this score - like Stephen Colbert, they probably "can't tell" when someone's black. But since Beckett's death, mixed-race productions of his plays have appeared elsewhere - and unsurprisingly have been largely interpreted as meditations on race and colonialism. So it's hard not to feel that Beckett's critics weren't - and aren't - being a little naïve. True, Endgame doesn't lend itself to blunt parallels with the civil rights struggle. But then again, isn't the very air of downtown hipness that Akalaitis was reaching for in her production itself a distraction from Beckett's vision?

Of course all this was lost on the Boston Globe back then, and it hasn't learned much in the meantime, to judge from a recent article by one Megan Tench bemoaning the fact that this time around, the Beckett estate has wrangled a promise from the A.R.T. not to change a single word or stage direction in their new production of Endgame. (Egad - a production of the play as the author intended! Could this be a first at the A.R.T.?) In the article, Tench dwells on the earlier controversy at length, but without any real insight. And she quotes Robert Brustein, then Artistic Director of the A.R.T., in the following manner:

"I was really astonished," says former ART artistic director Robert Brustein in a recent phone interview. "Beckett was a playwright who we revered. We were shocked. We had black actors in the cast playing the parts of Ham and Nagg, and we were most upset about his objection to that."

Now perhaps Brustein then continued: "Of course we knew that he was not a racist, and that his concern was essentially born of his passion for the formal means of his work, which he had devoted his life to paring to their essence." Perhaps he said that, and Megan Tench left it out.

Or perhaps he never said it.

But he should have said it. Because not saying it leaves hanging the sense that Beckett was somehow some sort of racist, consciously or unconsciously - a slur that the Globe article hardly avoids by one weak mention of "the issue of miscegenation."

And on top of all the things I've always found wrong with the A.R.T., I'd really rather not add the calumny, "And they dissed the greatest playwright of the twentieth century."

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