Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Wilde Spirit that Speaks the Language of the Theatre’,
in The Irish Times (2 Oct. 2010), Weekend - “Culture Shock ” [column], p.7.

[ Source: Irish Times, online; accessed 9.10.2010. ]

Ten years ago, for his Beckett on Film series, Michael Colgan, the artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin, created a combination that now seems extraordinarily resonant.

He had David Mamet directing Harold Pinter in Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe. It was a unique line-up of three of the stellar figures in the constellation of 20th-century theatre. And as Colgan points out in a programme note for his BPM – Beckett Pinter Mamet – mini-festival at the Gate, the grouping is not accidental. Pinter always sent his new scripts to Beckett for criticism or approval, while Mamet generally sent his to Pinter. There are few chains of influence in contemporary literature that are so clear and strong.

What, though, underlies these connections? Do they amount to more than the operation of a particularly exclusive mutual-admiration society? This is a question that becomes particularly stark if you see the first offering in BPM, Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s highly entertaining production of Mamet’s Boston Marriage. On the surface, it is very hard to link Mamet’s pastiche of 19th-century drawing-room melodrama with Beckett’s post-apocalyptic Endgame or Pinter’s savagely uproarious assault on contemporary values in Celebration, both of which feature in the BPM season.

The link is both odd and Irish. It is striking that both Boston Marriage and Celebration have very good jokes about Irishness. Mamet has his high-class courtesan Anna regularly rail at her “Irish” maid (she’s actually Scottish) about the causes of the Famine: “You died through a criminal lack of concern for the nitrogen content of the soil.” Pinter’s Waiter expostulates on the “Irish Mafia in Hollywood”: “There was a very close connection between some of the famous Irish film stars and some of the famous Irish gangsters in Chicago. Al Capone and Victor Mature, for example. They were both Irish.”

These jokes might be taken as humorous nods in Beckett’s direction. But they also acknowledge the Irish ancestor they all share: Oscar Wilde.

One of the useful things about putting Boston Marriage alongside Celebration, Endgame and Barry McGovern’s stage version of Beckett’s novel Watt is that it brings out the degree to which Wilde’s work anticipates the theatrical revolution that Beckett fomented in the 1950s. In The Importance of Being Earnest, he achieved something deceptively profound.

Just as the avant-garde painters of his time were seeking to create works that were pure surface, Wilde managed a complete theatrical shallowness. He made a play in which there are no motives, no inner lives, no direct connections between the world of the stage and the larger reality beyond.

He also chimed – coincidentally, of course – with the idea that the father of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, was developing at the time. De Saussure called it “the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign”, the notion that words have no necessary connection to the things they signify. Apart from being a very good laugh, Wilde’s play is also a demonstration of the arbitrariness of naming: the “importance” of being called Earnest is purely capricious. In his inimitable way, Wilde was unleashing the terrifying idea (taken up again by Beckett) that language tells us far less than it pretends.

This idea was lost for the first half of 20th-century theatre. The dominant influence was that of Constantin Stanislavski and his insistence that the offstage life of theatrical characters was “real”. An actor playing a maid in a Chekhov play had to know where the maid was born, whether she wet the bed, how she did at school and when she had her first kiss. Every character had a narrative, and that narrative was rooted in an objective reality that could be fully imagined by the actor. Members of the audience would be given a performance that had the same dense texture of subtexts as their own lives.

Beckett is the anti-Stanislavski. Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot do not have a backstory. Their “lives” are purely those of the stage. Like humanity in the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, they exist only so long as they are being perceived. If we were not there to watch them, they would not be there at all. Instead of narrative, there is pattern and repetition. Instead of a pretence that the words we hear from the actors are tokens of reality, the writer (and his characters) revel in the fact that they are arbitrary and therefore free. Free, that is, of the tyranny of a single meaning.

“We’re not,” Hamm worries in Endgame, “beginning to ... to ... mean something?”
“Mean something!” replies Clov. “Ah, that’s a good one.”

Without stable narratives there can be no “characters”. In Celebration, Suki tells her partner, Russell: “The thing is, you haven’t really got any character at all, have you?”

This is true of everyone in all of these plays. They make themselves up as they go along – through language. Instead of being a way of describing reality, language becomes a way of inventing and sustaining it. If these figures stop talking, they disappear.

“What is there to keep me here?” asks Clov in Endgame.
“The dialogue,” answers Hamm.

What Beckett taught Pinter and Mamet is the poignancy of this absolute need for a language that is utterly inadequate to those needs. In Endgame, Hamm attacks Clov for using the word “yesterday”: “What does that mean? Yesterday?” Clov’s answer is full of both frustration and yearning: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.”

Silence is not an option: there would be no play otherwise. And there are no “other” words, or at least none that would be any less arbitrary, any more securely rooted in reality. What’s left is the words we have been given. If this seems a bleak conclusion, it also opens theatre up to the things that make Beckett, Pinter and Mamet so oddly entertaining: the brilliant deadpan humour, the pleasurable pointlessness of the exercise, the collective awareness that we are all taking part in a ritual that has no purpose beyond itself.

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