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Shakespeare and Beckett Revisited: A Phenomenology of Theater Marguerite Tassi Comparisons of William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett have been popular among academic critics over the past few decades. In the locus classicus of such comparisons, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Polish critic Jan Kott memorably argued that Shakespeare's King Lear bore a deep thematic resemblance to Beckett's dark absurdist dramas.1 Beckett's universe of the grotesque , of incomprehensible punishment and painful endurance, offered Kott the vision he needed to reinvent Shakespeare for Eastern European audiences who had undergone the atrocities of world war, concentration camps, fascism, and widespread oppression . Kott's Shakespeare, like Beckett, unflinchingly exposed the "absurd mechanism" at work in the universe and penetrated to "the thing itself," as Lear called man stripped to the bareness of his existence; through the ethos of Beckett's dramaturgy, Kott offered critics and directors a stark modernist approach to Shakespeare 's histories and tragedies that rejected both nineteenth-century romanticized interpretations and realist-historical stagings. If the ultimate test of a theater critic's vision lies in its embodiment in a successful production, then Kott has seen the theatrical viability of his ideas proven beyond a doubt. Impressed with Kott's famous essay, "King Lear or Endgame," Peter Brook produced King Lear as a philosophically absurd, ponderous piece of theater that robbed the play's world of Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar's redemptive virtues—goodness, kindness, generous service, and love.2 As Charles Marowitz, Brook's assistant director, commented in his "Lear Log," the production was "not so much Shakespeare in the style of Beckett as it [was] Beckett in the style of Shakespeare, for Brook believes that the cue for Beckett's bleakness was given by the merciless King Lear."2 There were no consolations and no catharsis to be had in Brook's theater; many of those who saw his Stratford production in 1962 248 Marguerite Tassi249 found themselves alienated, as in a Brechtian drama, "strangely unmoved," yet compelled to watch, as Robert Speaight claimed in his review.4 Speaight chastised the Stratford directorate for its "flirt with a fashionable and fugitive existentialism."5 Kott had emphasized not only a similar philosophy underlying Beckett's Endgame and Shakespeare's Lear but also a continuity in phenomenal expressions of this philosophy through the actors' bodies, their use of stage space, and their ability to provoke particular perceptions and emotional responses in the watching audience . He reflected a phenomenological awareness of how the material condition of bodies and objects can take on a "selfgiven " quality that strikes spectators viscerally rather than intellectually . Similarly, Brook reflected the decomposing world of Lear in phenomenal terms by creating a set made of geometric sheets of rusting, corroding metal, which became the thunder sheets for the storm, and rough-hewn wooden furniture. In the screen version of Lear produced by Lord Birkett and directed by Brook, frozen tundra covered a vast, forbidding landscape; the characters seemed to be the last wretched inhabitants of this world. The leather costumes and knights' cloaks for both stage and screen actors gave the appearance of having weathered many years. Lear's cape and coat in particular had been blackened and creased to give this effect.6 The lighting for the Stratford stage cast the play in a permanent, unnaturally bright light, which calls to mind the blazing light of Beckett's Happy Days. Brook clearly emphasized the phenomenal qualities of performance and place that evoked an unrelievedly bleak, threatening atmosphere in which men and women have lost their bearings. But in its phenomenal emphasis on moral and physical decay, Brook's production lacked a balance to be found in the playscript itself—that is, a Shakespearean equipoise struck between loss and gain, waste and value. Kott and Brook neglected the positive values offered in the play in favor of the lurking absurdism, the grotesqueness, and the disintegrating forces of civilization, which frankly interest twentieth -century playgoers who have been stunned by the world-wide brutalities of this century and mesmerized by the profound truths of Beckett's pained vision of life as an interminable waiting to be endured and a crouching towards death. Brook's famous production was...


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pp. 248-276
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