Play on words, Beckett-style, or: Is language possible?

November 13, 2011

Watt’ at Annenberg: Barry McGovern performs Beckett

BY: Robert Zaller for Broad St. Review

Virtually everything Samuel Beckett wrote, in whatever form, is dramatic, but reducing the richness of a novel like Watt to the demands of an hour-long monologue necessarily involves tradeoffs. Nevertheless, Barry McGovern is an exceptional actor for whom Beckett comes as naturally as his own brogue, and the result is like standing under a rare and wonderful waterfall for an hour.

Watt. Adapted and performed by Barry McGovern from a novel by Samuel Beckett. Dublin Gate Theater production November 9-12, 2011 at Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. (215) 898-3900 or

Every sentence has a grammatical subject, stated or implied, and an ontological one as well: a speaker from whom it issues or to whom it may be imputed. So, at any rate, we like to think.

But the speaker-as-subject— in other words, the self responsible for its statements— has taken a particular beating over the past century from psychology, philosophy and linguistics. The result is that we have texts, but not necessarily authors.

As Michel Foucault put the problem suggestively in The Archaeology of Knowledge, “The subject of the statement should not be regarded as identical with the author of the formulation— either in substance or function.” The starting point of a written or spoken sentence, Foucault observed, is “a particular, vacant place that may in fact be filled by different individuals.”

Well, yes: Samuel Beckett, precisely. Before the word, the engendering silence, the space from which all speech emerges.

The ancient Hebrews filled this unimaginable void with the Word of God, the Greeks with the Logos. But with the withdrawal of God or Kosmos, the source of speech becomes problematic, for surely the poor dust of humanity cannot account for a phenomenon so staggering.

We can stutter at best, and what we have to say is mostly inconsequential if not absurd— nonsense syllables strung out like fish on a line. In Beckett, we get long, seemingly pointless lists, or, single words worried to death, like the repetition of “spool” by the protagonist of Krapp’s Last Tape, who masticates it until it loses all shape and meaning and remains simply as a pulp in his mouth.

Unpublished for a decade

In short, language in Beckett doesn’t fill (annihilate) the void or issue (escape) from it, but cohabits with it. Language therefore tastes, in the most intimate sense, of absurdity.

Beckett was sensitive to the condition of language from the beginning, but the book that first genuinely engages it as a subject— the subject— of his art, is the novel Watt, written in France between 1941 and 1945, rejected by puzzled publishers for nearly a decade, and issued only in 1953, when the unexpected success of Waiting for Godot made Beckett an author one could make a commercial bet on.

Watt does contain incidents but of course no plot; that is to say, things happen, but for no particular reason. There may be a reason why the tramp Watt is silently received into the house of Mr. Knott (What, Not, a typical Beckett pun), fed and housed for a time, and then as silently ejected, but none is provided; nor does Watt himself seek any. A tramp never questions the terms of hospitality— or, as it may simply be, confinement.

As Foucault suggests, whether spoken acts present themselves as monologues without a speaker or are broken up into discrete voicings, the result is the same: textuality. In Barry McGovern’s dramatization of Watt, presented as part of the Gate Theatre’s brief Philadelphia run, a single performer— McGovern himself— carries all the “voices” of the text, including that of the implicit narrator, in the simplest of all styles: that of the story-teller.

In fact, any mature text of Beckett’s lends itself more or less well to dramatic treatment, not so much because Beckett was so instinctive a man of the theater as because his work erases the distinction between genres such as “novel” and “play,” and reduces itself at last, in both the simplest and most complex meanings of the term, to a play on words.

Lurching compass needle

Watt is a reader-resistant text, with its long lists and its characters who consist merely of habits and compulsions. Beckett gives a meticulous account of Watt’s peculiar stride, which consists of lurching to the side like a compass needle being drawn askew, and then laboriously righting itself. McGovern illustrates this phenomenon as he describes it— something the reader of course can only do in his imagination. The result seems that of an off-kilter automaton, or someone afflicted with severe motor problems.

At the same time, though, it seems like the motion of a man determined both to circle and cover ground at the same time— a lurching sideways, a lurching forward, and back again. It’s grotesque, but at the same time it seems to indicate something essential about Watt, not to say all of Beckett’s figures: a ferocious will that drives itself to no ultimate purpose.

McGovern’s one-hour redaction of the text ends with Watt, now again on the road, buying a railroad ticket to the point farthest from where he is. What’s he going toward, and what’s he fleeing from? Both impulses seem equally strong, if there is really any difference between them.

When McGovern’s performance can add a physical dimension to nuanced textual recitation, it comes strongly alive. These moments are, perforce, relatively few.

Butler and tramp

His costume, which vaguely suggests a butler with a topcoat, is likewise generic. Watt is the precursor of Beckett’s famous tramps, Didi and Gogo, but a tramp’s outfit (or even simply a shabby one) won’t quite do for a mise-en-scène in which the performer must suggest, if rarely embody, several different characters.

Of course, that is the limitation of McGovern’s adaptation. Watt is not a play but, in McGovern’s hands, a dramatic text delivered as a direct address to the audience. Nor can the richness or quirkiness of the novel be communicated, even though all the words are Beckett’s own.

With these caveats, however, McGovern’s text possesses virtues of its own— for, as I’ve suggested, Beckett is always worth listening to as well as reading, and his work almost demands to be voiced. (Beckett dealt with this problem later in his career by writing plays without dialogue, although even his stage directions sing.)

McGovern, a veteran performer, possesses a supple Irish tongue, and with one or two slips he showed an impressive and nuanced command of his text.

Samuel Beckett was both a magician and a metaphysician of language. Hearing an hour of him is like standing under a rare and wonderful waterfall. At the same time, it leaves the listener at what I take to be the starting-point of Beckett’s work: how language is possible at all.