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  • American Playwrights on Beckett
  • Jonathan Kalb (bio)

The following remarks by American playwrights on the subject of Samuel Beckett were gathered during January and February, 2006, in the course of researching a New York Times article on Beckett's influence, published on March 26, 2006, in anticipation of Beckett's centenary on April 13. Most of the writers quoted here are prominent enough not to need lengthy introductions, but I have appended lists of their major works at the end. For me, the chief surprise of these exchanges was that nearly every playwright I contacted—even those whose work suggested little obvious affinity with Beckett—had thought about him a great deal and had much of value to say. Their comments deserved preservation beyond the brief excerpts that could be quoted in the Times.

The playwrights were initially contacted via e-mail and asked to respond to the following questions. Some chose to answer in recorded interviews, others by e-mail or fax. (1) What is Beckett's importance to you? (What do you feel you learned from him?); (2) What can an aspiring young playwright learn from Beckett today? (What part should he play in a playwriting curriculum?); (3) Is Beckett's value as a model for playwrights possibly limited by time or place? (Does the disparity matter, for instance, between Beckett's stripped-down aesthetic, born of postwar desolation—his "art of impoverishment"—and expectations of plenty in the media age?)

Christopher Durang

My play The Actor's Nightmare has semi-nightmare, semi-parody versions of Noel Coward, then Shakespeare, then Beckett. My Beckett is a hodge-podge of three plays, Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days. I included the "character in the garbage pail" image from Endgame, which I found both hilarious and somehow evocative of how life can seem sometimes.

Why did your reaction to Beckett take the form of parody?

It came from the setup of that play, which is that somebody shows up and has never been to rehearsal and is suddenly told he has to go on in a play. This person is told [End Page 1] that he's the understudy but he's not even an actor. He's an accountant. In the dream the accountant-actor has to guess at what the possible lines might be, and of course it's very hard to guess the witticisms of Noel Coward, but he does his best to guess what the lines might be, and guess at the plot too. Then when the Shakespeare part starts, it's very hard to guess at the Shakespearean language, and that becomes the joke. And when I got to that point, I truthfully just thought, what other author or style could I put this guy in that would be very hard to guess at? And that's what made me think of Beckett. It was about the contrast.

My other use of Beckett, in the title of Laughing Wild, was more personal and was not parody. It came from my having had a very strong reaction to Happy Days, which I read in my freshman year at college. This was 1967, and the play Happy Days was assigned by my teacher at Harvard, William Alfred, who was a wonderful teacher and very good at reading aloud from plays. He did a very good reading of Winnie; he very much got Winnie's vulnerability, reading her chattering away and saying, "are you there, Willie?" with a little shake in his Irish voice. At some point she sadly says, "One loses one's classics"—a line I quote in Baby with the Bathwater. But when she says, "What is that wonderful line . . . something something laughing wild amid severest woe," I just found that juxtaposition very funny: "wonderful line" and "something something." "Laughing wild amid severest woe" struck me as this powerful, powerful line, and when I was writing the woman's monologue in what grew to be called Laughing Wild, my character quotes it. But she says, "What's that line in Beckett?"

Was he an actual impetus to start writing plays for you?

No, I don't think so. It was more seeing musical comedy, and the...


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