steppenwolf. Chicago. Directed by Frank Galati. With Ian Burford, Francis Guinan, Martha Lavey, and William Petersen
Visiting Chicago, I had the good luck to be able to see this production of Beckett’s Endgame. The only departure from Beckett’s very specific stage directions that I could see was that the red face called for in Beckett’s script for the character of Hamm was ignored, in favor of an ordinary white complexion. Otherwise, this was a production that the quarrelsome Samuel Beckett estate could not possibly quarrel with. It is perhaps in the nature of the script that it gets a slow start. The daily tedium visited upon these four characters constitutes a bit of a danger for production values, since it is important to keep the pace going even while the idea of keeping anything going has a large quantum of futility to it. What I believe counteracts this danger is the sheer human interest generated by the predicament that Beckett is staging and, especially, by a certain element of humor that rather quickly creeps in and engages characters and audience alike.
There is a kind of coda effect here, with respect to Beckett’s previous play, Waiting for Godot. In that previous play, nothing happens — twice. In this present play, as Hamm puts it, “Something is taking its course.” We do not need two acts this time to make the point. And, whereas nothing happened in the previous play, something does happen in this one. What takes its course is, it seems, the relationship between Hamm and Clov. Clov has been trying to leave for some time; at the end of this attempt, it would appear that he succeeds. At least, he enters in the last scene dressed to travel: hat, coat, suitcase. When Hamm calls to him, he hears but does not respond; and the lights go out. Did he leave? Do we see him in a permanently transitional state, neither staying nor going? Here’s where the coda occurs: just as in the ending moment of Godot, as Gogo and Didi say, “Let’s go.” “Yes, let’s go.” and the stage direction adds, “(They do not move.)”, so in this play, Clov makes as if to go, and yet he does not move.
This stasis is what Beckett is unequaled at writing about, and it seems that this condition of terminal ennui is what for him epitomizes the human condition. Steppenwolf, under the direction of Frank Galati, captures all of this, and does so by means of fine, nuanced, yet starkly differentiated performances by Ian Barford as Clov and William Petersen as Hamm, aided by similar contrasts achieved by Francis Guinan as Nagg and Martha Lavey as Nell. The stark grey walls and tiny high windows of the set are the perfect enclosure for all this. A truly fine production, beautifully, poetically spoken, in the best sense of “poetically.” That is, it is not ordinary language, but carefully chiseled out of stone. An old definition of poetry that I picked up as an undergraduate seems relevant here: “The best words in the best order.” One might add, in the case of Beckett, “The best words and the minimal number of them, in the best order.”
Poetic in that sense, despite the ostensible prose of the dialogue on the page. Spoken, not as if one were reading Tennyson (“Come into the garden, Maud, the black bat night has flown,” and so on), but “Finished. Nearly finished. It must be nearly finished. Grain after grain, and then one day, the impossible heap.” Not-Tennyson; not-Whitman; not-Pinter, for that matter, either. Authentic Beckett.
This is so good, and the Chicago audience so appreciative of steppenwolf, apparently, that they can run this play for nine or ten weeks, from April 1 to June 6. Extraordinary. They say Chicago is becoming the theater capital of the USA. On the basis of productions and production runs like this one, I would say that sounds right.