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Beckett, the Spiritual MatchmakerBehind the Summer 2001 Mating of Albee and Pinter
By Elyse Sommer
ç The writers on the double bill for Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage (July 25-Aug. 5). are Edward Albee, an American, and Harold Pinter, an Englishman. The plays on the menu both premiered in 1959, The Zoo Story representing Albee's first theatrical outing and The Dumb Waiter, Pinter's third.
The spiritual matchmaker for this Albee-Pinter union is the man in whose footsteps both walk, as do most of the playwrights who made their reputations during the past century. That "matchmaker " is an Irishman, the late Samuel Beckett. Were this a trio of short plays instead of a duet, surely Beckett's Waiting For Godot would be the perfect lead-in to underscore to the numerous connections and references. Like Godot, the Albee and Pinter plays revolve around two characters whose often hilariously funny conversations and behavior hint at mysterious forces and surface realism and coexist with expressionistic, metaphorically pungent drama.
Both Albee and Pinter, have achieved sufficient stature so that even when the evening conists of just a single short work audiences will come undeterred by the fact that they'll spend less time in the theater than traveling back and forth. Most commonly though these shorter plays are done as double features but usually as an all Albee or an all Pinter evening. The Zoo Story, for example, is most commonly matched up with The American Dream (the two plays are also published in a single volume) and occasionally with The Sand Box. However, for the the American premiere at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village it was partnered with a Beckett play, Krapp's Last Tape.
The Dumb Waiter, while to my knowledge never on the same program with a Beckett play, is generally considered to lean so heavily on Waiting for Godot that absurdist theater aficionados love tallying up examples of Pinter's killers-in waiting, Gus and Ben, tipping their hats to Beckett's tramps, Vladimir and Estragon -- the simpleton and the sophisticate, the trouble one has putting on his shoes, the never to arrive man who seems to control their destinies. As some critics have observed, Pinter seemed also to be a man in waiting -- wating for Beckett to feed him his lines.
Struck by Edward Albee's essay "Why Read Plays?" in the all story magazine Zoetrope's special one-act play issue, in which he made a case for experiencing a play as literature as well as performance, I recently re-read the two plays that are coming to WTF under Joe Mantello's direction, as well as Beckett's Waiting for Godot. These readings further pinpointed the connection between Beckett and his distinguished disciples: All three plays have what might be dubbed High RQs. (Readability Quotients). They read extremely well and vividly evoke appearance and body language. To prove my point, herewith opening dialogues of each:
The Dumbwaiter sets the scene as a basement room on a fall evening. The room is occupied by two professional killers who wait for instructions as to who they should kill. The instructions are to arrive via a dumbwaiter and what the audience suspects before the men do is that one of them is supposed to kill the other. The two characters are sharply contrasted --- the simpleton Cockney, Gus and the more sophisticated, dapper Ben.
BEN. Kaw! (He picks up the paper) What about this? Listen to this! (He refers to the paper) A man of eighty-seven wanted to cross the road. But there was a lot of traffic, see? He couldn't see how he was going to squeeze through. So he crawled under a lorry.
GUS. He what?
BEN. He crawled under a lorry. A stationary lorry.
BEN. The lorry started and ran over him.
GUS. Go on!
BEN. That's what it says here.
GUS. Get away. BEN. It's enough to make you want to puke,isn't it? GUS. Who advised him to do a thing like that?
BEN. A man of eighty-seven crawling under a lorry!
GUS. It's unbelievable.
BEN. It's down here in black and white.
The Zoo Story has a brighter, more cheerful setting, a bench in Central Park on a sunny afternoon in 1959. The two characters are again very different -- Peter, is a proper, quiet forty-ish married man who's reading a book. His bench is literally invaded by the overly friendly, talkative somewhat younger Jerry who is the provocateur who turns a casual amusing interchange into an ending as dark as The Dumb Waiter.
JERRY: I've been to the zoo. [PETER doesn't notice.] I said, I've been to the zoo. MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!
PETER: Hm? . . . What? . . . I'm sorry, were you talking to me?
JERRY: I went to the zoo, and then I walked until I came here. Have I been walking north?
PETER: [puzzled] North? Why . . I . . . I think so. Let me see.
JERRY: [pointing past the audience] Is that Fifth avenue?
PETER: Why ya; yes, it is.
JERRY: And what is that cross street there; that one, to the right?
PETER: That? Oh, that's Seventy-fourth Street.
JERRY: And the zoo is around Sixty-fifth Street; so, I've been walking north.
PETER: [anxious to get back to his reading] Yes; it would seem so.
JERRY: Good old north.
PETER: [lightly, by reflex] Ha, ha.
JERRY: [after a slight pause] But not due north.
PETER: I ... well, no, not due north; but, we ... call it north. It's northerly.
JERRY: [watches as PETER, anxious to dismiss him, prepares his pipe] Well, boy you're not going to get lung cancer, are you?
PETER: [looks up, a little annoyed, then smiles] No, sir. Not from this.
JERRY: No, sir. What you'll probably get is cancer of the mouth, and then you'll have to wear one of those things Freud wore after they took one whole side of his jaw away, What do they call those things ?
PETER: [uncomfortable] A prosthesis?
JERRY: The very thing! A prosthesis. You're an educated man, aren't you ? Are you a doctor ?
PETER: Oh, no; no. I read about it somewhere: Time magazine, I think. [He turns to his book.]
JERRY: Well, Time magazine isn't for blockheads.
PETER: No, I suppose not.
Waiting For Godot The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their days reliving their past trying to make sense of their existence, and even contemplate suicide as a form of escape. They are absurdist figures who remain detached from the audience, and their vaudeville mannerisms create a comic effect even when contemplating such serious matters as hanging themselves. VLADIMIR: What do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting.
ESTRAGON: What about hanging ourselves?
VLADIMIR: Hmm. It'd give us an erection.
ESTRAGON: (highly excited). An erection!
What follows is a discussion of who should hang themselves first. Vladimir suggests Estragon go first since he is lighter and therefore won't break the bough and leave the other one alone and alive. The conversation continues:
ESTRAGON: (with effort). Gogo light- bough not break- Gogo dead. Didi heavy- bough break- Didi alone. Whereas-
VLADIMIR: I hadn't thought of that.
ESTRAGON: If it hangs you it'll hang anything.
VLADIMIR: But am I heavier than you?
ESTRAGON: So you tell me. I don't know. There's an even chance. Or nearly.
VLADIMIR: Well? What do we do?
ESTRAGON: Don't let's do anything. It's safer.
VLADIMIR: Let's wait and see what he says.
ESTRAGON: Good idea.
Reviews of Albee plays:
A Delicate Balance/
The Play About the Baby
Reviews of Pinter plays:
Ashes to Ashes
Betrayal(NY). . . at Shakespeare & Co., Berkshires
Celebration and The Room
Remembrance of Things Past (adaptation)
The July 16-29 Pinter Festival featuring A Kind of Alaska, One for the Road, The Homecoming, Landscape, Monologue, The Room, Celebration, Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes, productions from the Gate, Almeida, and Royal Court Theatres (Part of Our Summer 2001 Lincoln Center coverage-- pending)
To Read the plays discussed:
The American Dream and The Zoo Story
Complete Works of Harold Pinter -: The Birthday Party, the Room, the Dumb Waiter, a Slight Ache, a Night Out
Waiting For Godot