New York

Samuel Beckett

Exit Art

Samuel Beckett’s rigorous attention to the staging of his own plays engendered a kind of orthodoxy where their production is concerned that has only recently begun to give way in the face of new approaches to his work. Not surprisingly, this reevaluation of Beckett’s oeuvre has been fueled by his own forays into media that fall outside traditional literary genres.

Many artists of the last 20 years have moved from performance to other artistic media that draw attention to the body’s presence or absence in various ways. In a sense Beckett’s video production is as much about performance as about words. In the television version of Not I, 1977, which he directed along with Anthony Page, the words are often incomprehensible. Instead, language bursts forth from the mouth of Billie Whitelaw. Her rapidly opening and closing mouth causes light to flicker from the monitor onto the faces of the spectators, as if from an antique movie projector. Other television plays such as Quad, 1980, are completely silent.

The version of What Where, 1983, entitled Was Wo, 1986, that Samuel Beckett directed for German television was equally extraordinary. The voyeurism implicit in the curiosity of one character about the torture of someone who is only referred to points to the viewer’s implicit voyeurism. Beckett’s direction takes full advantage of the medium: characters are made to enter or exit by fading their bodiless heads into and out of a black background.

As in the work of contemporary artists such as Dan Graham and Julia Scher, Beckett’s work draws attention to the institutional status of the media he employs. Frequently achieved by foregrounding the conventions of the medium, his work becomes a “countermonument” to its own formalism. In Film, 1965, a tape in which the actor Buster Keaton is pursued by the camera as he tries to avoid one or another visual referent, the only spoken word is “Shhhh.” Keaton’s vocal exclamation and physical gestures foreground the institutional status of sound and camera movement as elements of a kind of cinematic architecture.

Richard C. Ledes