Clamoring for Samuel Beckett's Bleak Krapp at BAM 

KrappsBAM-mag.jpg
Krapp's Last Tape
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Michael Colgan

A gala theater event at BAM is a peculiar event when occasioned by a play by Samuel Beckett. Between the foyer and the outside world, the change in demographic pressure is enough to make your ears pop: the median age ratchets up by 20 years and the air fizzes with privilege. Over here, someone expounds on Tarkovsky. Elsewhere, it's O'Keefe. The bonhomie and glad rags on display, the free bar and (What is this?) palatable wine, create a sense of disconnect that opens like a chasm at the sight of that blonde from The Real Housewives of New York. These people, with their perfectly justified self-assurance, convinced as they are of the value of constant self-improvement, are here to see, of all things, a play by Beckett. John Hurt will soon stride the stage as the eponymous Krapp in this one-man play and will flush all the humanist, cultured convictions of this audience down the toilet. Then he will get a standing ovation. It's strange. Why aren't they screaming?

Krapp, a boozy failed writer, takes his desk to sit before any number of successful real writers in the orchestra. In his sixty-ninth year, he listens to his recorded diaries, stored not as mp3s, if it can be believed, but on cumbersome spools of magnetic tape. It is a ritual he has observed for decades. We hear the thirty-nine-year-old version speak from the past to mock the aspirations expressed on tape by his younger self, ambitions still haunting the old man. The middle-aged Krapp pities his younger incarnation for boasting that he is glad to be rid of his youth. But the older man hears the same vain claim from the thirty-nine-year-old: "The best years are gone... But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now." The magnum opus remains unwritten. Life's struggles are circular, the self is a prison. Krapp continues to disown his past while doomed to relive it, and there is no suggestion he could do anything else.

Hurt's features are perfect for the role, his face so deeply lined that half of it is in perpetual darkness. He looks like an anorexic Auden, and his voice leaves one fearing for the last generation of grand mellifluous thespians. When he, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Christopher Plummer are gone, who will there be to shake our diaphragms with rolled Rs, perfect enunciation and the vocal timbre of a cello?

In 55 minutes, the play is over. Hurt stares uncomprehending into the enclosing darkness. Life is nothing more than despair. The audience roars with approval.

Beckett denounces nearly all of what we hold onto for comfort: our faults are insuperable; our goals empty; there is only stasis and then only death. Given this morbidity, why do people, and especially these happy few at BAM, like him so much? Right or wrong, don't we tend to think of literature and art as edifying? (If they are neither edifying nor fun, what is the point?) The dissonance between the praise Beckett receives and the popular assumptions about art is as great as that between the well-to-do gaggle in the foyer and the play they came to see. There has surely been a misunderstanding. The genius presents a gaping void, and the people in the stalls fill it with a human presence, else they wouldn't be here. Neither party is at fault, and a peculiar conclusion suggests itself: Beckett's success proves him wrong.

A vision of such bleakness as Beckett's, like perfect contentment, is a state impossible to maintain. The audience, at some point, ceases to listen and starts to invent, else no one could stand to watch these plays. Beckett fails again. Fails better.

(Photo: Richard Termine)

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