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  • Giving Sam a Second Life:Beckett's Plays in the Age of Convergent Media
  • Sean McCarthy

In 1984 JoAnne Akalaitis directed a production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among her many directorial choices, Akalaitis set the play in a derelict subway tunnel with charred subway cars and included music by Philip Glass. Although it was not the first time that a director of one of Beckett's plays had taken liberties with the text, a very public debate developed around the Akalaitas production. Grove Press, Beckett's publishers, took legal action against the ART; the issue was settled out of court through the agreement of an insert into the program, part of which was written by Beckett himself:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.

(qtd. in Kalb 79)

This surprisingly stern rebuke by the usually mild-mannered Beckett and the attendant legal tussle made the ART's production of Endgame famous. The incident sparked a vigorous debate in both the popular and academic presses about the issue of authorial control in general and Beckett's zealous guardianship over the production of his plays in particular.

In 2008 a quick search on the World Wide Web finds thousands of links to Web sites and multimedia content relating to Beckett. These include biographical sites that contain abundant information about this prolific playwright, novelist, poet, and critic. Many sites are home to reproduced Beckett texts not sanctioned by the Beckett estate or his publishers, unofficial archival footage of famous productions of the stage, television, and radio plays, and engaging (if often bizarre) interpretations of many Beckett texts in a variety of media. Much of this work is by anonymous people unrelated [End Page 102] to the "Beckett industry," those publishers, scholars, biographers, theater companies, media corporations, and artists who contribute to the vast and growing body of art and scholarship inspired by Beckett's life and work. In fact, the number of amateur productions of Beckett on the Web suggests that audiences have left their darkened auditorium seats to produce their own Beckett plays, oblivious, perhaps, to the controversy and legal wranglings such productions would have caused only two decades ago. The coexistence of these Beckett performances online contributes to what I call Beckett "in the wild": performances of Beckett's works that almost always diverge from what he prescribed and which, by being freely available on the Internet, seem to have broken loose of any professional or legal legitimacy. What has happened to the life of Beckett's texts between the notorious Endgame production in 1984 and a simple Web search in 2008?

Beckett's works continue to be popular and resonate with audiences. But the major difference between now and twenty-four years ago lies in the rapid development and popularity of online technologies. Using Beckett as a case study, this essay explores how current media practice is changing texts generally ascribed to traditional literary or theatrical genres. Beckett is an apposite choice in this regard, partly because his innovative use of technology and the apparently simple staging of his plays have made him a popular choice for online broadcast. The curious life of Beckett online includes not only a wealth of important archival material, but also a fascinating range of experimental performances of his plays—many of them amateur, and presumably lacking the imprimatur of the Beckett estate. Throughout, I turn to Henry Jenkins's theory of convergence to help contextualize this exploration of Beckett in the complex media culture of 2008. Ultimately, I look ahead to possible directions in the future of Beckett online, suggesting that virtual environments such as Second Life offer productive possibilities to engage with Beckett's texts in the twenty-first century.

Before the advent of the Internet, a clear split existed between those who produced media and those who consumed it. Now, thanks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-7303
Print ISSN
0040-4691
Pages
pp. 102-117
Launched on MUSE
2009-02-15
Open Access
No
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