Finding the hope in the one-woman plays of Samuel Beckett.
The Samuel Beckett estate is notoriously strict about granting performance licenses to productions that don’t adhere to the playwright’s original stage directions. These rigid stipulations, coupled with the seeming absurdity of Beckett’s texts, call upon an actor to wholly become a vessel for the playwright’s vision. Irish actress Lisa Dwan seems well on her way to becoming just that kind of legendary interpreter of Beckett. Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review of Dwan’s one-woman hour-long trilogy recently performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, called her “an instrument of Beckett, in that way saints and martyrs are said to be instruments of God.”
Dwan’s journey with Beckett began in 2005 when she first performed his breathless monologue Not I. In 2012, the German theater director Walter Asmus—Beckett’s longtime friend and collaborator—suggested Dwan perform Not I together with two other pieces—Footfalls and Rockaby—as a trilogy, something that had never been done before. All three plays revolve around the agony and hysterical ecstasy of experiencing the passage of time and force the actor into a meticulous, sometimes painful, physical regime in order to practice and perform these works accurately and evocatively.
I was curious as to what drew Lisa to this trilogy and Beckett in general, so I caught up with her by phone on a rainy Saturday afternoon while she rested in her hotel room prior to the evening’s performance at BAM.
Elianna Kan Why Beckett? Why such determination to perform these pieces? Where did that come from?
Lisa Dwan Sigh ... Suffice it to say, I’ll give you a call in an hour. (laughter) In my view, he’s still one of the most exciting writers of the 20th century and the greatest innovator in theater in the 20th century. His bravery with language is exceptional. I think he gets closer writing a sort of truth about—I hate this phrase—the human condition, our frailty, our humanity. And to an actor, he offers the most expansive landscape you could ever imagine. As an actress, as a woman, this is boundary-less, he offers us so much and he wants everything. These three short plays give me an opportunity to play a continent of voices, to travel over time—from womb to tomb.
EK What do you mean, "particularly as an actress, as a woman"—do you feel that’s a different experience, performing Beckett than that of an actor, a man?
LD I grew up with the notion thinking I was like a lad, like my brother. It’s been a series of shocking revelations to realize that women are put in a particularly tough spot. We’re written that way, we’re talked about that way, we’re objectified that way—and we place ourselves in these boxes. And Beckett throws all that out.
EK In what way?
LD These creatures are slices of life. We are a fragment of the whole. We’re boundary-less. And that’s an utter privilege; it’s been a very shocking and pleasing revelation for me to think that I could put everything that I am in my own imagination and to be given this artistic vehicle to express myself in. It’s very hard to go back to a “telly” job and these bite-sized boxes that we’re given and we seem to remain in for so long. I think Beckett wrote his deepest truths in his female roles. He wrote his primary truths and hid them in his female characters, which means that we get these multi-dimensional, expansive roles as a result.
EK What do you think he writes into the female roles that isn't written into the male roles? Or do you think it’s precisely that those roles are vehicles for women in a way that they aren’t for men?
LD In his later writing he really went back to a lot of his primary pain, the sort of domestic story. The mother features heavily, and his feelings of being ostracized and alone—I think he goes back to that. You look at something like Not I—he said he knew that woman. Not her per se, but they walk the roads of Ireland. But there’s a lot of his self in there too, and never more than in Footfalls, my god.
I think truth is truth and I think even if it’s your own personal landscape it resonates with all of us. So even though he’s using his own story, he’s getting to the core of something incredibly real which becomes very universal.
EK Absolutely. You mention a bit how this affects your ability to go back to more prosaic or limited theatrical roles. What does it do to you as an individual, as a human in the world when you are this continent of voices on the stage, what is it like to then go back into everyday life? What happens to your own voice?
LD It’s a very positive experience, I have to say. I find I am stretched intellectually, emotionally. I think I spot bullshit quicker now. I think Beckett has taught me, along with other things—probably getting older helps too—what truth sounds like. It has a timbre. You do sit in theaters and say, Oh my god, that’s overwritten. Beckett’s not trying to sell us anything. He’s not standing over us with his hand over his heart. He’s not giving a sermon. He doesn’t have an agenda for us. As a result, that landscape is so inviting. We can bring our own stuff to it. And working in this kind of world I feel that I can stretch out to my outer limits. Then you realize how arbitrary and how pathetic the little frightened, bite-sized chunks we take out of life everyday just to cope are and how phrases like, “This is not how we do things here”—all that kind of crap is just utterly ridiculous. The world is in a complete state of flux. Ebola is galloping through Africa and beyond. We’ve got Syria, Iraq, ISIS, Ukraine. Don’t try and cope with your fear by putting it in some palatable little box. Let’s all just get a little bit real together. I think Beckett gives me courage in that way.
EK Courage, not despair.
EK By reducing it to something more essential or making us aware of what is essential and human?
LD By sitting with our humanity in all its frailty and vulnerability.
EK Let’s move specifically to language. I’m always struck by the musicality of Beckett’s language and there was something in seeing these plays—maybe it was hearing a woman’s voice—that reminded me of Joyce, and specifically of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Something in the music, something in the repetition, the lyricism struck me like never before in Beckett. I wonder if you have that experience with these words and if there are particular phrases or words that are like melodies in your head that you enjoy or detest uttering. Does that make sense?
LD I think Beckett writes music. When I first received the text back in 2005, I saw a sheet of music: the three dots interrupting each phrase and sometimes reduced to two dots is like a crotchet versus a quaver, akin to musical notation. When you look at the very early draft of Footfalls he’s actually written a bar of music. I am led by that, I approach this work like a dancer. It’s always my starting point with this text.
You talked about Joyce’s influence and yes, I think he was a big inspiration to Beckett early on. He followed Joyce to Paris and was his assistant. I then think that maybe the legacy of Joyce was like an albatross that he had to get away from. When you look back on early Beckett—you know they just published "Echo’s Bones," which was one of the short stories that was rejected from More Pricks Than Kicks—it’s so Joycean in the folklore, and the trickiness, and the jocularity, and the irreverence, and the boyishness. Over time he kind of grew into the writer he became who was all about paring away and distilling art as reduction. He reduced and reduced and reduced. I suppose the landscape I work in is the late Beckett, and I find that so potent. You know, at times I think Joyce is quite pretentious. He doesn’t want his audience to understand everything. I love Joyce but I find it impenetrable. Beckett wrote for the crowd, those who are expelled to the outskirts of society, those who have fallen through the cracks. Beckett went to the real universal core.
I’m performing in Hong Kong and I’d rather not use simultaneous translation because I feel that music just gets people in the core. I performed Not I for my nieces, who are seven and twelve, and they totally got it. Something’s communicated if you’re committed and earnest with the sound that this poetry produces in the actor.
EK So when you do perform internationally are there subtitles? How do you navigate that? Or is there no translation at all?
LD Ideally not. I don’t see the need for it.
EK In that sense, too, you’re going back to your dance background. It’s about movement, about language that is universal, and that doesn’t need a translation.
Tell me a bit more about how your dance background has aided you and how it directed you to, in some ways, Beckett and performing these particular texts.
LD As I said, I approach the text like a dancer, so I find the internal rhythm and the overall arc in the poetry first and I feel that throughout my body. I approach it in a physical, emotional way. I don’t try and understand the text intellectually.
EK Your initial reaction was an emotional one and not an intellectual one when you first received this text?
LD Yeah. I read it and I trundled along through the text according to the rhythm that I saw and felt. I adored the poetry. I started to see scenes from home, I heard the nuns, I heard the streets, the scorn, and the acerbic parochial asides. I heard the gossip, I heard humor and I piled all that in together. I didn’t want to play it as just one single narrative, I wanted it all to be layered and on top of one another, a cesspit of terror in her mind.
EK Are there particular lines or words in the text or lyrics that ground you emotionally when you come back and perform these every time, and the more and more you perform, are there cornerstones, places that you’ve particularly latched onto personally?
LD Well, I use my own landscape. So they’re all my phantoms, they’re all my ghosts. Like with all phantoms, you can’t control them, really. You know the bell goes in Footfalls and you summon them because you need them to resonate but you don’t quite know what’s going to happen and I suppose that’s the joy and the terror and the beauty of theater. You can’t control it.
EK The more you perform it, the more you repeat it, does it progressively lose its truth for you?
LD No. And it certainly doesn’t get any easier. (laughter)
EK You’re about to go on an international tour. How many performances are ahead of you?
LD Oh. It looks like I’m going to be tied up until about June at the moment.
EK But it’ll be interesting how it translates into different national contexts, I’m sure.
LD You know it’s really different everywhere I play it. I performed it in Belfast a few months ago and people responded very differently there. Footfalls killed people in Belfast, it really resonated there, while Not I seems to be resonating really strongly in New York. I noticed in London people were really devastated by Rockaby. So different audiences respond to the work differently, which is really interesting to see. What I find fascinating everywhere though, particularly here, is how young the audiences are.
Young people are not coming to Beckett with this kind of nostalgia for the ’70s but with this renewed and urgent appetite for this work. To think that he’s still such an innovator and people are still finding it shocking twenty-five years after his death. I wonder what writers working now will have the same impact twenty-five years after their death.
EK Are there other playwrights who have resonated with you that way, in terms of finding truth and cutting through the bullshit?
LD Arthur Miller. He was really working with something. Certain periods of Sam Shepard’s life—A Lie of the Mind. I think it might be quite difficult for a lot of writers. I notice how even Beckett has become an albatross for other writers in the same way Joyce was for him. I notice writers I admire greatly like Will Eno or Enda Walsh described as Beckettian, and that must be deeply frustrating for them. For them to take on that influence but then surpass it and find something new, something groundbreaking. I mean Beckett really managed to achieve that. He pushed the boundaries of theater in a way that I think was definitely the most impactful in the twentieth century.
EK What are your feelings about Pinter?
LD I like Pinter. I love his work and I know he was a very close friend of Beckett’s and Beckett was a big influencer. He’s not Beckett though.
EK He shows our animalism, I think, in a way that Beckett shows frailty more than animalism. I get the sense at least, that Pinter revels in showing us how ugly we can be, whereas Beckett is one of us and wants to share something with us. I don’t know.
LD I think that’s beautifully put, actually. You don’t see the sweat over—that’s why I’m saying Beckett’s not standing over us here.
I find myself turning an awful lot to the Greeks at the moment. I always loved classics but now I think that’s what I’m turning to the most. But all the new translations—by new I mean going back to the ’40s—they paint the women as utterly hysterical. Take Antigone, for example. You go back to the original Sophocles and that’s not there at all. You’ve got this utterly measured and brilliant argument. The myth of the hysterical woman. We’re only allowed a couple of years if we’re in the hands of most male writers. I like the work that Phyllida Lloyd is doing in London at the moment which is taking all of Shakespeare’s characters and placing females in the roles. I think we need to start writing like that.
EK Or, going back to the Greeks, finding more nuance in these more traditional roles.
LD I think what we’re lacking, and what Beckett offered us in the twentieth century, is something entirely new. These albatrosses are great and we can learn from them, making slight improvements, but we’re only taking baby-steps forward. I think it would be nice to see more leaps than little steps.
EK I’m actually often surprised that Shakespeare is performed so often here but we don’t see as many revivals of the Greek tragedies. I think as far as universality and archetypes the Greeks offer us just as much if not more in some ways.
LD Absolutely. There are three Greeks plays in London at the moment: Electra, Medea, and Antigone by Anne Carson. I’m quite interested to see how that pans out, you know a woman reviving that in a new translation. Hopefully she’ll avoid the female misogyny. It would be really nice to see Antigone being portrayed as a balanced, rational woman with a solid argument. I always found it deeply persuasive, to be honest. I think Antigone is why I became an actor.
EK Really? Tell me more about that.
LD Well I read it and it really spoke to me. There was a moment when a penny dropped and I thought, Oh, I can do this. I can throw all my angst and feelings of isolation and being misunderstood, feelings of anger, and righteousness, and adolescence, into something. I can get it to work. And what followed didn’t turn out quite as planned because I heard, “No, you’re a woman and you will be given this role and you will look this way and you will stand like this,” and I just found it shocking. I just wanted to be with the lads.
EK Do you think after Beckett you will try one of the Greek plays?
LD We’ll see. We’ll see. I’ve still got tonight and tomorrow night to do. (laughter) I also have to sleep.
EK When I was re-reading Beckett, I stumbled across this line in his writings about Proust that’s just devastating “Memory and Habit are attributes of the Time cancer.” How do you find hope in something like that?
LD Woah. Goodness. Well if it wasn’t so frighteningly true, I’d say that was grim and pessimistic and depressing but, as usual, he hits the nail on the head. Trevor Nunn did say on Charlie Rose the other night in this interview I did that—you might need to just have a look at it yourself because I can’t paraphrase it verbatim—“Beckett makes optimism seem sentimental.”
I think I’m starting to really feel that. I find that I’m really warmed when I hear the audience weeping during Rockaby. I feel less alone. I feel less alone when I’m fertilizing some of the themes that Beckett brings up each night. It gives me great comfort and strength.
EK Maybe there’s bravery in not choosing optimism?
LD I always felt very excluded. I think I’m a natural pessimist. I think I find positivity sometimes slightly embarrassing but also very difficult to manufacture on a daily basis. I find it more truthful to really call a spade a spade and then I can move on from there. I find that a very strengthening position to start my day from, I guess. I’m waffling now.
EK We’re not comfortable with pessimism, at least not in the US.
LD And you make caricatures out of your pessimists—from Bukowski to Lou Reed to Leonard Cohen. That helps people take bite-sized chunks and put them into little palatable boxes that we can digest and cope with and Beckett continually blasts that open. Yet he was a very courageous writer and I think it takes a certain amount of bravery to perform the works but also to understand them.
We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die alone, and there’s a lot of pain and suffering and confusion in between. And a lot of humor. (laughter)
EK Maybe it’s all a bit easier if we can take ourselves a little less seriously.
LD Well, let’s hope.
Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby were performed by Lisa Dwan in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The performances will tour London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Perth, Australia in 2015.
Elianna Kan is Senior Editor of The American Reader and has conducted artist interviews for The Reader, The Paris Review, and BOMB.