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In 1988, Samuel Beckett forbade any of his plays from being performed in the Netherlands because one theater company wanted to stage “Waiting for Godot” with a female cast. (“Women don’t have prostates,” he said.) The Beckett Foundation is notorious for opposing all alterations to the author’s original work to this day. And yet English professor and Beckett scholar Robert Scanlan managed to obtain permission for unusual changes to three of Beckett’s plays, which he first directed in 2006 as “Beckett at 100” and which are now showing at the New College Theatre. But though the plays are adapted from their original format and a contemporary score has been added, they draw on a deep tradition of Beckett performance and scholarship.
The three short plays included in the show are not widely known and had never been performed on stage before Scanlan’s 2006 exhuming in New York. But as lead actor Alvin Epstein says, “Though they may be smaller in size, that does not make them minor.” Epstein would know: he has a long history of acting in Beckett’s plays, starting with the role of Lucky in the first American production of “Waiting for Godot.” Epstein’s experience is an important asset for the production. “He is a living national treasure—this is a real designation in Japan. If we had that here, he’d be that,” Scanlan says.
Acting in Beckett’s plays is sometimes likened to torture, and Epstein concedes that it is highly challenging. According to Epstein, the shorter pieces even tend to be more mysterious than the larger ones, which are more accessible to an audience viewing them for the first time. “Bob [Scanlan] knows these pieces very intimately and was able in a certain sense to decode them for us...The audience absorbs the moment because we are doing it with understanding,” Epstein says.
The audience’s comprehension of these pieces is something that remains very important to Scanlan, who provides a succinct exegesis before each play while attempting to preserve his audience’s freedom of interpretation. “I have to interpret the pieces to perform them, but this interpretation is not meant to be reductive,” he says.
New elements were also added to the production. “For Beckett’s 100th anniversary, everyone was doing revivals, but I wanted to do something more alive...I liked the idea of a world premiere,” says Scanlan. The three works have never been performed on the stage: two are radio plays and one a television piece, each adapted for the theater and modified to include an original score.
Despite the Beckett estate’s reputation for opposing all changes to the playwright’s works, Scanlan obtained unique permission to “jump genres” as well as to engage Martin Pearlman, locally renowned music director of Boston Baroque, as a composer. “They trust Bob, as they have worked so much with him,” Pearlman says.
Though the two radio plays already featured music, Scanlan always thought it didn’t quite fit. For a director whose greatest concern with Beckett is achieving “formal perfection,” Scanlan says that finding the right scores is just as important as finding the right cast. More than mere background melody, music plays an important role—even becoming a sort of character—in the first of the three pieces.
“For me, music is a novelty with Beckett,” Epstein says. Needless to say, it is for the audience as well. All members of the production stress the fact that Beckett is still alive and kicking—in terms of artistic innovation.
Scanlan’s 92 year-old mother, who saw the initial run of “Waiting for Godot” capture the Parisian stage 50 years ago, will be in attendace as Beckett’s work attempts to do the same at Harvard. “It’s a fantastic time to be here,” Scanlan says. “Our new President has made an unprecedented pledge to the Arts. I think we have to continue projects like this.”
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