It’s tempting to view the early Samuel Beckett novels that inspired Gare St. Lazare Ireland’s Beckett Trilogy as baby pictures, mere precursors to the plays that would shake the bedrock of Western drama from the mid-twentieth century on. Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) do precede the 1953 Paris premiere of the epochal Waiting for Godot, but the existential and linguistic concerns that would leaven Beckett’s plays were already firing at full force in his unofficial prose triptych. Beckett spent his career paring dramatic storytelling down to its simplest forms, but his work for the stage was always, unmistakably, theatrical. As the quixotic three-hour Beckett Trilogy at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival makes thrillingly clear, though, the theatre was in Beckett’s blood even before he was writing for it. He was as much a creature of the playhouse as his countryman, friend, and mentor James Joyce was a maestro of the novel.
Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable were written simultaneously with Godot from 1947 to 1950, during a period of intense artistic turbulence and financial difficulty for Beckett. A heady mix of philosophy, psychology, myth, memory, Jungian archetypes, and Freudian themes, the novels trip through what Beckett biographer James Knowlson calls “questions, hesitations, negations, and confusions.” Perhaps as a result of Beckett’s sobering experiences working for the French Resistance in World War II, the darkly funny books are not as preening as his pre-war writing, but they are certainly more fragmented and frightened—narrated by unreliable men broken in body and spirit, yet perpetually hopeful in the face of a crushingly indifferent cosmos. Dadaist Tristan Tzara was a big fan, as were many Parisian critics, though the novels initially only enjoyed tepid sales.
On the surface, the novels’ stream of consciousness seems ill-suited to the stage, but actor Conor Lovett and director Judy Hegarty Lovett have performed a minor dramaturgical miracle in making the material fit for purpose. Long-time Beckett interpreter-scholars, the married couple have stuck to Beckett’s original language while homing in on the most interesting storytelling fragments. Each act, developed separately over a number of years, corresponds directly to a book in the loose trilogy. If there is a dramatic arc, it mirrors that of the novels, from fleshly concerns in Molloy to disjunct subjective states in The Unnamable. Simon Bennison’s lighting traces this journey: ringing Lovett softly in Molloy, pressing down on him from directly overhead in Malone Dies, and throwing his monstrous shadow on the curtain behind him from a single, stark footlight in The Unnamable. It’s a straightforward, literal descent into darkness.
As in many late Beckett plays, there is no set. Lovett provides more than enough spectacle as a tramp that could have wandered in from a different stage while waiting for Godot. In a long gray shell jacket, navy overcoat, black trousers, and scuffed brown oxfords, Lovett is a cross between Gabriel Byrne and Woody Allen—stoic and self-deprecating, tying himself up in knots of existential anguish then just as easily shrugging them off with good-natured resignation.
If anything, Lovett’s tramp is almost too composed. His physical precision works against the decrepitude that is everywhere in the material—he calls his testicles “decaying circus clowns” and his body “impotent,” and predicts that he “shall die tepid, without enthusiasm.” The disconnect between performer and material collapses the imaginative possibilities of the books by placing the fantasy at odds with the very non-decrepit human body in front of us, denying the audience the presence of characters like Mahood, a limbless torso wedged in a jar in The Unnamable. Of course, Mahood may or may not even be real, so the staging doesn’t so much reduce the books’ whimsical force as open it up to new avenues of interpretation.
The chief pleasure of the Trilogy is savoring Beckett’s linguistic alchemy. Sometimes it’s specific words: “uniparous,” “confabulation,” “fatuous colloquy.” Sometimes it’s profound axioms garbed in monosyllables: “The most you can hope is to be a little less in the end the creature that you were in the beginning.” “Can it be that we are not free?” “I have no voice and must speak.” “How great has been my debt to sticks.” Beckett’s famous closing tercet is surprisingly moving for a work ostensibly about the unbridgeable divide between mind and body and the collapse of human will in the face of certain death, and provides as tidy a summary of Beckett’s life’s work as any:
You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.
The words are poignant on the page, but in the mouth of a fine actor on a bare stage they approach the sublime. Not bad for baby pictures.