Stage Animal / Absurd person singular
Samuel Beckett's genius is not in question, but doubts about his one-man play 'Krapp's Last Tape' persist - even with a winning performance by Doron Tavori.
In the late 1970s, the Israel Festival hosted Berlin's Schiller Theater in a performance of "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett, which the writer himself directed. I was a relatively new theater critic at Haaretz then, and in the short review I filed over the phone I said, "'Waiting for Godot' is one of the most important plays of the second half of the 20th century." The next day, the paper's editor phoned me: "Are you sure it's one of the most important plays?" he asked skeptically, from the dais of his authority. I don't know where I mustered the confidence from but unhesitatingly I answered, "Yes." To this day I think it is one of the most important and finest plays of the whole 20th century, if not the most important and finest.
As everyone knows, Beckett was not a one-work playwright. He wrote novels, and after "Godot" (first performed in 1953 ) there were productions in London and Paris of "Endgame" and "Krapp's Last Tape," which is now being staged by the Itim Theater Ensemble and the Cameri Theater. However, unlike "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame," which are masterpieces of theater, in "Krapp" the main thing is not the plot, production, director or designer, but the actor. In this staging, Krapp is Doron Tavori, and that is basically all there is to it.
But before I get to Tavori's special achievement in this part, let me say a few words about "Krapp's Last Tape," which is just 10 pages in the volume of Beckett's short plays. It is a monologue by a 69-year-old man who lives with a voice recorder, records his memories, and listens to recordings of himself made 30 years previously. This short play, which takes usually about 75 minutes to perform, highlights one of the main qualities of Beckett's work, whereby "less is more." For the viewer, as for the actor, there is very little material here to "understand" or "summarize." There is a flow of words, images, hints and, primarily, details.
The printed text opens with detailed stage directions (a desk with its drawers facing the audience ) and clear instructions for the actor: he must take an envelope out of his pocket and then put it back; take out a bunch of keys, choose one, and get up and open a drawer; remove a tape from it, put the tape back, search the drawer; find a banana, caress it, peel it, toss the peel on the floor, put the banana in his mouth and leave it protruding, and so on. All this before the play - that is, the text - even starts.
Doron Tavori rivets the audience in these moments. Every movement is precise and holds the viewer's attention. The way he caresses the banana is almost erotic. Afterward, when he goes through the boxes holding the recordings (he is looking for the third tape in the fifth box ), the little tap he gives each box he places on the table is a masterful touch. This long section causes the viewer to be intensely focused on the smallest details of what is happening onstage.
Specifically because of this, even before the play develops I got stuck on one detail: Krapp talks about spools of tape recordings. The word "spool" is repeated again and again. Tavori's lips linger over the word "spool." The play was written and first performed in 1958, and Krapp listens to spools he recorded 30 years earlier. For viewers born after the 1980s, let me clarify: once speech and music were recorded on magnetic tape that rolled over a tape head from one spool to another. But in this play (arrangement and directing: Rina Yerushalmi; set and costumes: Yehudit Aharon ), the spool that Tavori is looking for is a cassette, and he plays this recording for himself. And that is basically the whole play - the process of replaying an old tape cassette and a new recording using a cassette player.
Call me a nitpicking idiot, but to me it's significant, and not just because the tape cassette was only developed in 1963 - and it too is now something that belongs to the past, because everyone records and plays music on MP3 players. I also realize that as far as the production goes, it is easier to use a tape cassette player than a reel-to-reel player, which requires dealing with spools and tapes that may get tangled during the play, but it's impossible to stage a play that is entirely focused on details and "fake" this particular detail. It's not "Krapp's Last Cassette." It's his last "Tape" and it belongs to the world of spools.
Moreover, in this production Krapp loses his composure at the end (an addition to the play that absolutely does not appear in the original text ) with a pile of rolled-up tapes tangled around his hands, and these are wide tapes of spools (a quarter-inch, I believe ), and not of cassettes (an eighth of an inch ) which can also get tangled, but this is rarer.
Beckett was very demanding of his performers and refused to allow any changes or deviations from his stage directions. It is fitting to respect such an ascetic artist who is so certain of what he writes, even if I'm not at all convinced he was right. The '70s German production of "Godot" which Beckett directed was faithful to the text (although he did shorten it quite a bit ), but was of lesser quality than the production directed by Ilan Ronen at the Haifa Theater in 1985. There, Godot and Didi were Palestinian construction workers (played by Yussuf Abu-Warda and Makram Khuri ) who spoke colloquial Arabic to each other, on an unfinished building site, and not under a tree. Ilan Toren was Pozzo, dressed like a building contractor, speaking Hebrew; and Tavori played Lucky, mumbling his weird monologue in literary Arabic. Had Beckett known the details of the production, it is doubtful he would have approved it.
The production by Yerushalmi and Tavori is initially totally faithful to the printed text (except for the cassette I mentioned above ), but soon takes liberties. In the written text Krapp leaves the stage several times, and we hear the sound of a bottle being uncorked. Here, though, we see him going to a bar on the side of the stage, pouring himself a shot and drinking. And at the end of the play, Tavori holds a bunch of tangled tapes from spools - not from cassettes - as a kind of protest about the whole situation. I'm not sure this in any way clarifies the situation of this man, who is trying to understand what he was and what he is today, and what remains of him - on the tapes and off - and whether there is any point to all this.
As a whole, this play clearly belongs to what Martin Esslin defined as "theater of the absurd," both in the sense that what occurs on stage is very different from what we are used to seeing in real life - or in its imitation on stage - and in the sense that the human experience reflected is one of randomness and lack of meaning, i.e., absurd.
As a rule, I would say that in order for an actor to emerge from this kind of text safely, it should be presented almost as a given, and the seemingly absurd experience should be turned into almost a routine one. This play is misleading because its preoccupation with the details obligates the actor to act as if every detail is loaded with cosmic-existential meaning. It is Tavori's ability to focus the viewer's attention on the detail that actually makes the whole event alienating, as if it was a sterile ritual of the actor, as good as he may be.
I have seen "Krapp's Last Tape" several times, performed by noted actors. To the same extent that I'm convinced that "Waiting for Godot" is an exemplary work, I'm not convinced of the value of "Krapp" - even if this play is an important component of Beckett's work. It is certainly enticing, a challenge and a trap for an actor at the height of his career, at the height of a long and distinguished career and on the verge of the long inevitable decline.
When the play was first performed in London, at the Royal Court in 1958, Kenneth Tynan - who was a fan of "Godot" - wrote a parody review of the play. The review took the form of a dialogue of sorts between a theater critic called Seck and his assistant, named Slamm. The critic is trying to write a review of the play - just like Krapp is trying to document himself - and tosses out draft after draft. The review ends with the assistant asking, "Is that all the review he's getting?"
Seck: That's all the play he's written.
Slamm: But a genius. Could you do as much?
Seck: Not as much. But as little."
In other words, every time I saw "Krapp's Last Tape" I was amazed by the actors' abilities. And each time I said to myself (quietly, so no one would hear ) that I certainly believe that Beckett is a genius, but I can't manage to be won over by this play.
This time was no exception. Still, I can't help but marvel over Tavori's very focused performance, in which every twitch of the finger turns into some event laden with meaning. As previously mentioned, this has an upside, but also a rather dreary downside. In the stage directions, Krapp is described by Beckett as "very nearsighted (but unspectacled )." A few days have passed since the play ended and I'm still haunted by Tavori's eyes, gaping, peering off into the infinite distance, seeing that they do not see. It's etched in me more than the text and the tape.