Samuel Beckett’s Theatre in America: The Legacy of Alan Schneider as Beckett’s American Director. Natka Bianchini. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; Pp. 204.
To discuss the production history of Samuel Beckett’s work in the US is inevitably to begin with Alan Schneider. Schneider directed the American premiere of all twelve of Beckett’s major works, from the Miami opening of Waiting for Godot in 1956 to Catastrophe and What Where in New York in 1983; five of these (Happy Days, Not I, Ohio Impromptu, Rockaby, and What Where) were world premieres. He also directed the aptly titled Film, whose collaboration occasioned Beckett’s only visit to the US. In Samuel Beckett’s Theatre in America, Natka Bianchini examines the growing relationship between Beckett and Schneider, and charts the development of Beckett’s American productions.
Bianchini’s introductory chapter makes two crucial points. First, Beckett scholarship, even of his work for the theatre, has concentrated rightly or wrongly on dramatic texts rather than on theatrical productions; this book seeks to balance those scales at least a little. Secondly, for production histories to be any more than cursory, we need more than production reviews. Luckily, both Beckett and Schneider were avid letter-writers, and Bianchini benefited enormously from “Schneider’s inveterate saving of his notebooks, letters, and theatrical ephemera” (8). Indeed, the geographical distance between the two men contributed to more detailed and thoughtful correspondence between them than would have occurred had they been able to communicate more freely and informally.
It should come as no surprise that the period from 1956-71, described by Bianchini as one of “resistance to and uncertainty about Beckett’s work” (14), and encompassing the American premieres of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Happy Days, should receive three of the five numbered chapters and nearly half of the book’s total text.
The first post-introductory chapter draws its title from one of the most misguided promotional campaigns in theatre history: producer Michael Myerberg’s attempt to capitalize on the star quality of Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell by hyping Waiting for Godot as “The Laugh Sensation of Two Continents.” The out-of-town opening at the Coconut Grove in Miami appropriately receives more attention here than does any other collaboration between Beckett and Schneider, despite its failure in virtually every sense of that term. It was the first time the two had worked together, and it was clear that Schneider had attempted to stage the play Beckett wrote, while Lahr saw the play as a star vehicle, and Myerberg was more interested in placating his star than in supporting the authority of his director.
The subsequent two chapters, more traditionally titled “Finding a Home Off-Broadway” and “A Series of Firsts,” trace simultaneously the growing if perhaps grudging acceptance by the New York establishment of Beckett as a writer of stature and the burgeoning professional relationship between Beckett and Schneider. Perhaps of particular significance is the 1958 letter from Beckett to Schneider about a change in the “business” of Endgame. Although Schneider had convinced designer David Hays to simplify the set and resisted the producers’ attempts to “gag it up” (50), he did, in the final tableau, burden Clov with skis, a climbing rope, a backpack, and an oar—none of which appear in Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett, hearing of the change, wrote “I’m told Clov carries skis…I think I understand your idea, but I feel this is wrong, stylistically…Load him down with as much as you like with shabby banal things…but not skis” (51). One wonders if even such an apparently insignificant departure would have been tolerated in another director. Unfortunately, no correspondence remains from the next few months, so whether Schneider apologized for the change, or whether he removed the skis for the end of the run, is unknown.
The next two chapters, “New York and Beyond” and “American Zenith,” discuss both revivals of earlier works and the premieres of Beckett’s later plays, including four world premieres. Beckett was now firmly established to the point of having February 16, 1984 declared “Samuel Beckett Day” in Manhattan in ceremonies attended by not only New York’s mayor Ed Koch but both New York US Senators, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse M. D’Amato. By this time, Beckett’s plays were more likely to be produced off-Broadway or outside New York altogether in the burgeoning regional theatre scene, at academic conferences, and on university campuses.
The book concludes with an excellent if brief assessment of Schneider’s legacy. Wondering why Schneider is not more highlighted in lists of significant American directors, Bianchini muses that perhaps he was devalued for “slavishly following an author’s text without contributing his own artistic vision” (148). She points out, aptly, that “regardless of the level of detail in Beckett’s stage directions, there is still work to be done in mediating the text” (150). Bianchini ultimately argues that Schneider as a Beckett director should be viewed precisely the way that Billie Whitelaw is perceived as a Beckett actor, as an example of how “interpretation of the author’s text can be both visionary, and, simultaneously, truthful to the author’s intent” (149).
One could certainly find fault with some details of this book: a couple of grammatical errors made it into print, some points are merely repeated without expansion, the index could be more comprehensive, and a chronology would be useful. Bianchini sides with Schneider in all disputes except those with Beckett himself, and she accuses those who discount or argue with Schneider of “bias” (7) or even “duplicity” (24). But these are quibbles. This book is a readable, often fascinating work that relies on a host of source material never before brought together: the notes and bibliography total more than a quarter of the book’s length. Samuel Beckett’s Theatre in America will be of enormous assistance to those who wish to better understand either of its central characters, or the American theatre especially in the period from 1956-71, or indeed the relationship between playwright and director in the theatrical process.
Stephen F. Austin State University