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The Brilliance of Beckett

By Declan O'Kelly, Assistant Editor
October / November 2008

On Wednesday, July 23, as part of Lincoln Center Festival’s stunning Gate|Beckett series, an audience of some 75 Samuel Beckett devotees gathered in Lincoln Center’s Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse to listen to Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan, actor Barry McGovern (I’ll Go On), and John Collins, Founder and Director of New York’s Elevator Repair Service (Gatz and The Sound and the Fury) in conversation with music critic, editor, and dance critic John Rockwell. In addition to talking about the works of Samuel Beckett, the men discussed their experiences with adapting his novels and novellas for the stage. Excerpts from that discussion follow.

On making changes to a writer’s work:

Michael Colgan: Barry and I got to know Beckett and he was very precise.  If an artist wants his canvas to be four feet off the ground on a grey background it’s arrogance not to do it the way the author wants it. But then, when I made the films of all the Beckett plays, some of the religious fans said they should not be done as films, just as plays.

Barry Mc Govern: Beckett was a great experimenter.  He was always tinkering with his plays. Krapp’s Last Tape was made into an opera with his blessings.  There is a lot of nonsense talked about Beckett and crossing genres.

Question from John Rockwell: You’ve done all of the official stage plays by Beckett.  Now you are doing material not meant for the stage. Why?

Michael Colgan: Lust for Beckett is the answer. When I took over the Gate in 1983 I wrote to Barry and we talked about Barry doing something at the Gate. There were one-man shows in the 1970s and 1980s by actors but they would take pieces out of context.   We decided not to take the pieces out of context.  So Barry decided to do the adaptation with Gerry Dukes.

Barry Mc Govern: We were reading the canon of Beckett deciding what to do. I said, “Why not go with these three great novels?  There’s a load of something we could mine.”  Gerry Dukes and I worked on the text over a number of months. We came up with the formula. Three months to the day we came up with the final script.

Question from John Rockwell: There is a ton of humor in I’ll Go On.  Did you stress the humor?

Barry Mc Govern: We wanted to find a balance. The essential story is the search for identity and the search for self.  He is seeking release and peace but he can only find these by speaking words. The play is a meditation on what it means to be alive in the world.

Question from John Rockwell: Do you have any other Beckett projects in view?

Barry McGovern: We will do a tour of Waiting for Godot in the 32 counties in Ireland in September and October this year.  But I have done more Shakespeare and Yeats than Beckett. I see myself as a working actor, not as a ‘Beckett’ actor.

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