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The Game at Hand

by Martha Lavey and Frank Galati

MARTHA LAVEY: Frank, you have been reading and teaching and studying and acting in Beckett for a long time. FRANK GALATI: In fact, when I was a freshman at Western Illinois University in ’61 or ’62, the first university theatre production I was in was Waiting for Godot. I played Vladimir. So my relationship with this world and this writer go back to the beginning of my own experiences in the theatre as an actor and as a director. M: Did it ring your bell right away? F: It did. I never questioned or had any trouble with the material. I don’t remember any high minded conversations in that early encounter with Waiting for Godot about how absurd this is or how unrealistic or how abstract. Lots of the complaints about Beckett I don’t recall ever having registered. I always received the world and believed it. It was always complete and whole as a work of art, accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. I think the experience of being in the play as such a young guy was formative for me: its rhythms, the mystery of its exchanges, the dialogue, the routines. Those aspects of Waiting for Godot become distilled and tightened in Endgame. M: If your first production of Beckett was in ’61, that’s much nearer to the play’s birth. The first production of Endgame was at the Royal Court in 1957. What was the cultural moment happening in the world that was relevant to Beckett? Why were these plays an expression of it? F: Even though my experience with the play was 15 to 20 years after the end of World War II — I, as a beginning college student, could still feel the after burn, the heat of the war. When I saw in high school the images of the Holocaust, they were almost freshly released — or that’s the way it felt. My Uncle Charlie was in the invasion on D-Day and in Europe at the climax of World War II. I had a sense that the zeitgeist was still full of the dust and debris of the carnage of World War II and even World War I. It is very hard to explain the shadow that still hung over the world, even on the threshold of the ‘60s. The turbulence, the madness, the chaos, the pain, the anguish, the palpable evil unleashed in the world is part of what made the birth of theatre of the absurd feel strangely right. M: How would you define theater of the absurd? F: Martin Esslin coined the phrase. And I’m not sure that Beckett hasn’t transcended it. I think this sense of the absurd, of the world broken apart, dismantled of the rational thought charged through the first half of the 20th century. In my own adventure of years of teaching the 20th century and putting Beckett in context, I would always go back with my students to the turn of the century, the almost cataclysmic shift in — let’s just say, the musical language of western culture — where, for example, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 experimented with tonalities that were so off the charts of understood harmony that audiences went mad. There were riots in the theatre, people screaming and beating each other, advocates and dissidents. It all had something to do with the impact of Freud and the first popular understanding of the ideas of the unconscious and the subconscious. M: Wikipedia’s definition is interesting because it says “In chess, the endgame refers to the stage of the game where there are a few pieces left on the board. Endgames often revolve around attempts to promote a pawn by advancing it to a unique rank. The king, which has to be protected in the middle game owing to the threat of checkmate, becomes a strong piece in the endgame and can be brought to the center of the board and be useful for attacking.” F: Beckett has said that nothing is more frustrating than observing a game of chess being played by two incompetents who really don’t know how to play the game. Beckett accuses Hamm of being a bad player in his biography, and I wonder if that is somehow related to the comic vein in the play. There is a tremendous flip of opposites at work in the disabled king: the king who rules with magnificence and pomposity, and who is just completely without subjects. M: It is interesting that you say Beckett called them bad players because they are also the king and pawn on the chessboard. F: Yes, I just flashed on Caliban’s (from The Tempest), vicious attack on Prospero when he says “I am all the subjects that you have. You have no subject except me.” Hamm’s loftiness is part of the comedy in my opinion. One of his very first utterances in the play is “can there be misery loftier than mine?” M: Toward the end of the play we feel the endgame: will the pawn take the king? F: Yes. Just as I said in that first speech, Hamm asks, “Who has suffered more than me, my mother, my father?” But then instead of saying brother or lover, he says dog. And the resonance of the word in terms of Clov is obvious: master/slave, hammer/nail. What Beckett likes is that the hammer and nail is the equation of Hamm’s relationship with all three of the other characters. Because Nell is nail, Nagg is nail, and Clov is nail in the poly-lingual world that Beckett lived in. He was fluent in ten or eleven languages. M: The characters merge the act of the theatre with storytelling. But is anybody watching them? F: This is a very, very important and probing question in terms of Beckett’s aesthetic — it is something he rehearses in lots of different ways and he vacillates back and forth (from play to play). One of the most dazzling self referential moments in Endgame happens when Clov, who is trying to create a little order, picks up the telescope— he turns it on the auditorium, and he says, “I see a multitude in transports of joy.” That’s what I call a magnifier. Now, an interesting feature of this exploration of Beckett’s aesthetic is that he was nervous about these self-referential moments. And in the production notebooks he cuts out every reference to the audience. M: Really. And that’s the version that we’re using in performance. F: That’s correct — so that little exchange that I just paraphrased “I see a multitude in transports of joy,” he elides from the script. M: This idea of being watched is fundamental to the theatrical transaction as you are describing it — the fiction that the people on stage maintain of not being watched. Where is the god Beckett is imagining? Isn’t there a psychological — some would say spiritual — necessity of a god that is a watcher? F: Absolutely. In fact, this chain of being that we are referring to finally ends with the deity and the hope of the deity. “Let us pray to God” Hamm says. And then, at the end the sequence, after they’re all fervently praying, Hamm says “Bastard. He doesn’t exist.” But the hope, the aspiration, the need to be watched by God. In the aftermath of something as horrible as the earthquake in Haiti, you have to think, “Is God watching?” Or maybe He really is watching or She is watching, and maybe the explosion of the Earth is God’s rage at the world for not paying attention to the poverty and the misery of the people of Haiti. M: What are any sort of final things that you want to say about this play to an audience? How should they listen and watch it? F: With open arms. Not afraid of the dark. As Beckett says — and he believes is the most important line in the play Endgame — when Nell says: “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” To receive the comedy of the isolated souls — where we are in our own privacy, in our own sorrow, and where in spite of that darkness and in spite of that pain, a laugh bubbles up. I think a great work of art asks us to step into it and accept its wisdom, its vision of truth. It is obtained in the way we are disarmed by laughter, and when we are disarmed by laughter that disability that discombobulates us allows the piercing truth to teach as well as to please. M: I think that is beautiful Frank. And I think it’s also important to be open to feeling that kind of solitude, that darkness — to go into the theatre and be comfortable that you know enough. That if you let this play’s language and characters live, then you will actually understand. F: Oh completely. There is nothing out of reach in this play. It is so personal. That is one of the things about Beckett’s work that is so enduring. It doesn’t unpack a battlefield of history. It doesn’t reflect political combat or fashion. It is not rhetorical, it doesn’t argue for anything. It isn’t conservative or liberal; it doesn’t deposit or take any kind of point of view in terms of issues. It’s about us, it’s about our own lives and no human being who really lives in the world is without self examination. Going to the theatre is one opportunity we have to really think about ourselves — not about the other that is up there on the stage, but about ourselves, and it’s not hard to do. We are all facing the final catastrophe, however you want to put it. Whether it is liberation into some paradisiacal ether, or whether the lid closes. We’re all facing it, and we can face it with good humor and vitality, and we can go on. That is what Beckett trumpets, going on.