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Back catalogue: Samuel Beckett

'A relevant and cinematic environment': filming Beckett's plays by Aleks Sierz

Summary: The 2001 Beckett on Film project - the filming of all nineteen of Samuel Beckett’s plays by Channel 4, RTÉ and the Irish Film Board - was a unique event, and raises questions about the aesthetics of adapting work from stage to film, the role of the director and the power of the literary estate. Using an unpublished collection of interviews with key contributors to the project, this article examines the origins of the project and assesses its cultural politics (such as the part played by Channel 4 and the Beckett Estate) and its aesthetic results (in, for example, Anthony Minghella’s film version of Play).


'Distilling, cutting, cutting, cutting', Samuel Beckett on adapting What Where for German television


'Nothing happens all the time'
How do you advertize modernist minimalism in a teeming postmodern media environment? Instinctively, the publicists of the 2001 Beckett on Film project - the filming of all nineteen of Samuel Beckett’s plays by Channel 4, RTÉ and the Irish Film Board - chose to stress the familiar notion of celebrity. Listen to this:

'Beckett on Film is a unique project. For the first time, all 19 plays by Samuel Beckett, the novelist and playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, have been filmed. Lasting 11 hours in total, the films include full-length dramas such as Waiting for Godot as well as short pieces such as Breath [...] They bring together some of the world’s most distinguished directors - Anthony Minghella, Neil Jordan, Atom Egoyan, Karel Reisz, Patricia Rozema, Richard Eyre and David Mamet - and talented actors - the late John Gielgud, playwright Harold Pinter, Jeremy Irons, John Hurt, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliet Stephenson and Julianne Moore.' (Channel 4 press release)

The list of celebrity names batters the reader into submission.

Of course, the nineteen are not quite the complete Beckett either. There is one play missing from this project - Eleutheria. And, clearly, its absence indicates some of the tensions behind the project, between the legal power of the Beckett Estate and the creative freedom of the project’s film directors. This was not the first time that Beckett’s work was filmed, but it was the first time that all the plays have been reinterpreted in filmic terms in one project. But does Beckett on Film live up to the hype that preceded it? And what are its aesthetic implications? What is lost and what is gained when a stage play is transferred to film? To answer such questions, this article uses quotations from a collection of interviews with the project’s directors, actors and producers, which were originally recorded for a Channel 4 documentary about Beckett’s work. The documentary was never completed. (1)

It was not the only unfinished part of the project. For audiences, at least in Britain, the Beckett on Film experience has some of the characteristics of a Beckettian joke. Just as Waiting for Godot was once described as a play in which nothing happens, twice, so it seems appropriate that the project should be undertaken by Channel 4, the television channel responsible for Big Brother, a show in which 'nothing happens all the time' (Corless, 26). More frustrating is the fact that in Britain the season didn’t happen at all. It is true that in the middle of 2001, six films - that is, Catastrophe, Rockaby, Play, Waiting for Godot, Not I and Breath - were screened on mainstream television. But Channel 4 failed to screen all the films together as a season - in a block over a two-to-three-week period as was done in Ireland in March-April 2001. After hailing the project as a unique record of the work of a twentieth-century genius, Channel 4 belatedly realized that despite the hype, (2) Beckett’s work is not a ratings grabber, and the project was quietly dropped.

Nor did this cultural cowardice pass entirely unnoticed. ‘Rabbit’, who posted a message on the Beckett on Film website forum, wrote: 'I think an opportunity was missed to show them all together in one go. So far they have been excellent but losing interest and momentum surely loses viewers - doesn’t it?' (6 September 2001). Subsequently, Channel 4’s plan to screen four more films over Easter 2002 was scuppered when the Queen Mother died on 30 March, and Krapp’s Last Tape - scheduled for that evening - was not broadcast. The plays have been screened on the 4Learning schedule as off-peak educational programming, and the Barbican cinema in London screened all of them on 13-20 September 2001; they are also available as video cassettes and in 2001 the FilmFour cable channel announced its intention to screen every one, one day. As regards Channel 4, the tension between the widely perceived ‘difficulty’ of Beckett’s work and his fame as a cultural icon was resolved by abdicating responsibility to the needs of the market. So much for public service broadcasting. (3)

'You can’t be serious'
The Beckett on Film project was 'the brainchild of Michael Colgan' (Beckett on Film website), artistic director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin, and its origins lie in theatre. In 1991, Colgan produced the Beckett Festival, staging all nineteen of Beckett’s plays during a three-week period. The same festival, more or less, was staged at the Lincoln Center in New York in 1996; and in September 2000 the plays were staged for the third time at the Barbican in London, together with extensive poetry and prose readings: 'the biggest ever celebration of the life and work of any writer of our times' (Beckett on Film website). Originally, however, when Colgan first approached Beckett in the 1980s, it was for permission only to stage Waiting for Godot. 'Then, after I’d done Waiting for Godot,' he says. 'I wanted to do another Beckett play and then another. But I could not decide whether to do Happy Days, or Endgame or another one. I think I mentioned Endgame, but then I also said I wanted to do them all.' Beckett’s response was characteristic. 'He said: "You can’t be serious." So that wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either' (Personal collection).

In 1998, Colgan teamed up with Alan Moloney - the executive producer of television series such as Ballykissangel - to form Blue Angel Films, a company set up to produce the Beckett on Film project. The project began with an eye on the future. As Moloney says, 'Michael [Colgan] thought it would be a good idea to record the plays for posterity. I had a sense that film directors should be attracted to it' (Beckett on Film website). Colgan says: 'I think Beckett is the Shakespeare of the twentieth century, and I wanted to have one complete set of his plays that was going to be as faithful as possible.' Also, 'this work deserves the greatest talent you can get. Not just theatrical talent, but film talent too.' He also sees the project as a pre-emptive strike:

'The reason for wanting them to be filmed is that I suppose there is an understanding that in twenty years’ time they are going to be filmed. And I think that when those films are going to be made they are going to be less faithful to the work, and I can see a time when there will be a great deal of films inspired by Beckett’s work.' (Personal collection)

What he means, presumably, is that the project had to be in the hands of an old guard, people who’d known Beckett and who could be trusted to make a faithful record of his work.
Colgan and Moloney started meeting people and discussing the project 'halfway through 1999' (Beckett on Film website). Things soon snowballed, with directors coming up with their own suggestions for actors and ideas for other directors. And it was the big names that set the pace. Moloney says: 'It gained momentum after Neil Jordan agreed to participate, and the concept gained kudos and then people were saying: "I’d love to do any of them."', meaning that they wanted to participate regardless of which film they worked on (Beckett on Film website). For example, Anthony Minghella, director of the Oscar-winning The English Patient, says: “I read about it [the project] in a newspaper on a flight and immediately called my agent when I reached the airport” (qtd. in Corless). He had the cultural muscle to assemble one of the project’s best casts: Alan Rickman, Juliet Stephenson and Kristen Scott Thomas. (Rickman and Stephenson had appeared in his Truly, Madly Deeply and Scott Thomas in The English Patient.) The producers even persuaded the celebrity artist Damien Hirst to create the set for Breath. The kudos factor kept costs down - many of the big names agreed to work for nominal fees. The total cost of the whole project was only about £5 million, which shows how cultural kudos can sometimes mitigate some of the economic imperatives of the film industry.

'How do you do that on film?'
At the core of the project was a simple decision. Moloney says: 'We wanted to create a cinematic feel, rather than just filmed plays' (Beckett on Film website). In fact, this is the central aspect of the project which distinguishes it from the filmed records of previous Beckett productions. Instead of 'filmed plays', it was decided to make specially cinematic versions of them. Beckett himself had wrestled with this crossover between media in, for example, the German television adaptation of What Where (McMullen, 4). The aesthetic advantages are clear: video recordings of live performances usually only illustrate all that is lost in the transfer from one medium to another. A live event is defined by the experience of being there: in the deepest sense it is experiential, and video recordings only manage to suggest that liveness from the sidelines, where it looks rough, inert, distant, artificial, awkward - lost in translation. The results of filming live events are often perceived as profoundly disappointing. By contrast, an individual’s shared memory of the event captures something of the unique relationship between stage and audience. As Jeremy Irons, who stars in the project’s Ohio Impromptu, says: 'In theatre, what can’t be transferred onto film is the fact that it’s happening then, the fact that you’re sitting with an audience who are seeing that performance and only at that time, that night' (Personal collection).

There are other reasons for making new film versions. Colgan says: 'There are some things that film can give you that you can’t get on stage.' He argues that: 'You can get the content of the piece better. I think that Anthony Minghella in Play has contextualized why the characters are in urns. Damien O’Donnell and Charles Sturridge, when they filmed What Where and Ohio Impromptu, also found the medium a plus. Beckett wanted the actors to look as alike as possible. By using matching shots and by using all this new technology, you can have the same actors playing two parts. (4) [...] The other thing you can get on film is you can get close-ups of the face, so if you want somebody to look terrified, or if you want to go straight to, say, John Hurt’s face, in Krapp’s Last Tape, you can’t do that if you are in Row F of a theatre. The same goes for Rosaleen Linehan in the last moments of Happy Days, when Willy is crawling up to her. I think that’s absolutely tragic. So there are some definite pluses.' (Personal collection)

But Colgan, as a man of the theatre, is also conscious of what is lost in filming. For example, the sense of time that elapses during the interval between two acts: 'On the stage, at the end of act 1 of Happy Days, people can go out and have a cup of coffee. When they come back, Winnie is up to her neck. Then you know that time has passed. But how do you do that on film? The same applies to Waiting for Godot. There is a gap between act 1 and 2 when time has passed. So such conventions - the blackout is another example - which we accept in theatre, don’t work on film. In Waiting for Godot, the moments of waiting can last longer in theatre than on film.' (Personal collection)

Audience attention span in the cinema is less tolerant of time standing still than it is in theatre.

Finally, there’s the question of ‘access’. As Moloney says, 'Everybody knows Beckett’s name, so why don’t they know his work? Therefore, more films means greater accessibility' (personal collection). In contrast to this politically correct point, Colgan makes a more precise distinction: 'I think that the wonderful thing that film can do is to reach a different audience, not necessarily a wider one but a different one' (Personal collection). When the programmers at Channel 4 realized this, they shunted the project to the sidelines.

'The estate has been supportive'
But what about the attitude of the Samuel Beckett Estate? Since Beckett’s death in 1989, his nephew and executor Edward Beckett has worked hard to make sure that Beckett’s wishes about staging his work have been respected. It is significant that the producers of the Beckett on Film project were surprized that they got his permission, although it was conditional. Colgan says, 'We worked out a bible to give the directors. No cuts, no gender-bending, and if Beckett says "beach" there should be a beach. We didn’t want adaptations or "inspired by" stuff. That’s why we sought out writer-directors.' Crucially, the project was 'director-led' (Beckett on Film website [5]). Colgan also says that: 'We stuck to Beckett’s stage directions rigidly but what was permitted was to establish a relevant and cinematic environment' (qtd. in Corless). Even so, there were some tense moments. According to John Richmond, the project’s commissioning editor at Channel 4, Minghella’s version of Play drew a 'sharp intake of breath' when it was first shown to the Estate (qtd. in Corless). Other examples, such as the permission given to Richard Eyre to begin Rockaby with a shot through a window showing Penelope Wilton’s W in her rocking chair, illustrate the estate’s flexibility.

In general, the impression is that the estate was taking a leap in the dark. Moloney says: 'The Beckett Estate has been extremely good to us in giving us the rights. But obviously, there is a literacy that is associated with making a film that is different to the literacy associated with presenting a play on stage. And the processing of that has taken time to work out. In the making of a film, you need to do certain things. You need to contextualize things, and create an environment that - in its purest form - Beckett’s writing doesn’t require. And the estate has been supportive in that. It has made that leap.' (Personal collection)

In the event, the estate passed all the films, and they are word-perfect in terms of dialogue. Where they depart from the letter (especially of the stage directions), if not the spirit, of Beckett’s intentions is in the way they are filmed.

'A cinematic language'
The basic aesthetic question is, in Moloney’s words, 'What is gained and what is lost by filming all of Beckett’s plays?' (Beckett on Film website). Looking at the project as a whole, the plays that work best as films are those which come up with cinematographic solutions, or filmic equivalents, to Beckett’s theatrical devices. Where the director has merely done a film version of the play, it is much less successful than when they have tried to experiment visually. In other words, the ‘big four’ - Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days - seem disappointingly inert, while the shorter plays - Play, Ohio Impromptu, Rockaby and even Not I - feel much more fresh and exciting. Just as Beckett’s plays 'draw attention to their own status as performances (McMullan qtd. in Pattie, 170), so the best film versions draw attention to their own status as cinema.

In Play, for example, Minghella has created a film that is innovative in form while at the same time being a filmic equivalent to Beckett’s staging. Instead of a shifting spotlight which moves from character to character, Minghella uses the camera itself - which cuts five hundred times in sixteen minutes - to swerve from one character to another. Another filmic possibility is to use technology to do what is literally impossible on stage. In Ohio Impromptu, director Charles Sturridge uses Jeremy Irons to play both the Listener and Reader. As he says, 'I was able to use a cinematic language but in a restrained way' (personal collection). Nor does this exhaust the uses of the filmic devices. Director John Crowley, who directs Come and Go, says:

'I wanted to get at the emotional centre of the piece and project it in cinematic terms, which means returning to the basics. I’ve photographed it to look like an old Victorian coloured photograph. So when each character leaves, instead of walking into darkness, she dissolves into darkness like an old photograph fading. I wanted to find a cinematic convention that would be analogous to Beckett’s stage directions.' (Personal collection)

Sometimes a visual metaphor was added. Damien O’Donnell, director of Bafta-award winner East Is East, directed Beckett’s What Where, and says: 'There is no set in the original play, but I argued that the whole play is about power, and the abuse of power, and how information is power, so we used the library as a metaphor for somebody who has control of all the power and all the information' (personal collection). In other words, he invented an ‘analogous’ visual symbol which the stage play doesn’t usually need. O’Donnell also goes further:

'Filming What Where has improved it somewhat from the stage version: because filming it allows you to have close-ups of the performers and you can see the fear on people’s faces, which on stage you can’t really get. You have to get a sense of that from the word and the movements of the actors, but if you can replace that with a close-up of a terrified man, that I think gives it a different edge and a different quality.' (Personal collection)

Similarly, Karel Reisz (who directed Act Without Words I) says that 'the raw emotion translates well on to film particularly through the use of close-up' (personal collection).
Charles Garrad, who directed That Time, had to find a visual correlative for the fact that the play on stage has three voices coming from different directions, which impossible to do on film. 'What I did was take the three voices as three different points of view', he says, so you see different sides of the actor’s head. The voice is continuous but the camera positions change:

'Niall Buggy, the actor, performed all the voices beforehand. He recorded them in blocks, with different intonations, and we edited them together. Then he performed to playback, reacting to the voices as they came back at him. Though his face was fundamentally static, he was responding emotionally. It was very important to maintain a continuous performance. If we had faked it, cut it together like a pop video, it wouldn’t have been such a convincing performance.' (Personal collection)

Of course, in his own work for cinema and television, Beckett used the camera’s ability to capture and replay movement. As Moloney says, 'Beckett was fascinated by film and by the notion of recording' (Beckett on Film website). Atom Egoyan, who directs Krapp’s Last Tape, says:

'This is a play in which you have an old man listening to a recording he made many years ago of himself commenting on a recording he made in his twenties. So you have these three generations within one life that are interacting with each other [...] Filming the play adds another layer. We are making a recording of a play about a man recording his life. I wanted to integrate all that into the language of the film. To do this, we used very long takes, during which you become aware of time, and not using a lot of cutting. At one point, there’s even a shot in which the camera is rolling along following him listening to the recording, and then he stops, and then its rewound and the camera moves back, and although this sounds very obvious I think it’s an example of how the camera can become a character as well. The camera doesn’t just record the performance, it participates in it.' (Personal collection)

Examples such as these also raise questions about the role of the director.

'Mostly about directors'
At the centre of the project was an uneasy tension between the director as ‘anonymous’ and as ‘intrusive’, a tension which perhaps lies at the root of the more successful adaptations. Moloney says: 'What I wanted to do from the start was to make of this a cinematic event. And that makes it mostly about directors. Ultimately, the personality a director brings to a film makes the difference. I think that the philosophy of bringing personalities to interpret or to translate that work was at the heart of what I wanted to do. It is interesting to watch all the films because thematically they consistently follow the same lines, but the personalities of the directors make each film different.' (Personal collection)

Clearly, the directors have had to confront 'the question of directorial fidelity', negotiating the tension between 'the nonspecific spatial and temporal structure of Beckett’s plays' and 'the remarkable exactitude of his stage directions' (Oppenhiem, 2). Aware of the injunctions, and conscious of the power of the estate, the project’s directors in the end fell back on the 'ultimate determination' of merit - their own taste (Oppenhiem, 3). If Minghella’s version of Play is a paradigm of the project’s success, it is firstly a result of his ability to cast the film - casting is, as Alan Schnieder says, 'More than half the director’s battle' (qtd. in Oppenheim, 3). Minghella’s judgement on a number of small points - such as having, contrary to the stage direction 'touching one another', urns which do not touch, and amplifying the stage direction’s 'hiccup' into a loud belch (Beckett, 307, 308) - illustrate his personal input. But it is the precision of his actors’ diction mixed with the background landscape of Dante-esque urns that makes this version of Beckett’s vision so powerful. With the rapid, flickering effect of the swooping camera, his Play is 'a triumphant demonstration of film’s distinctive strengths' (O’Donoghue). In the act of adapting Beckett for a different medium, Minghella discovers, if not exactly new truths, certainly new reverberations. His Play emphasizes the nightmare of the characters’ condition, making it seem more intensely unsettled and frenetic.

In the less successful Waiting for Godot, director Lindsay Hogg chooses a lucid approach, underlining the sense of tragedy in the second half and reminding the 'televisually literate' of Bottom and Father Ted, but losing much of the work’s 'power to mystify and to infuriate' (O’Donoghue). Other issues are raised by Not I, which is familiar from the filmed version of Billie Whitelaw’s performance. The savage, almost vaginal, mouth which vibrates in Whitelaw’s version has become, in Neil Jordan’s new adaptation, the sensuous but rather doll-like lips of American star Julianne Moore, her lipstick sweetness filmed from several angles. What seemed like a full-on modernist provocation has been turned into a postmodernist wink at advertising and an example, rather than a critique, of the superficiality of constructed beauty. On the other hand, another of the successful adaptations once again plays to the strengths of the filmic medium. Enda Hughes’s sepia version of Act Without Words II is a good example of maintaining 'Beckett’s formal discipline and the way in which that discipline both interrogates the conventions of the medium and reproduces mechanisms of entrapment' (McMullan, 5). It also alludes to Beckett’s own Film.

Members of the public joined the debate about aesthetic success. On the Channel 4 website forum, Jon C. wrote: 'To be frank, I was disappointed with Catastrophe. The Protagonist (Gielgud’s character) should be constantly in shot, as he would be on stage ... it is he who is being dehumanized, in this production I felt the emphasis was far more on the Director [character] (Pinter)' (29 September 2001). So even if 'the unveiling of Gielgud’s ageing limbs, soon to be dead, is a desperately moving sequence' (O’Donoghue), the film feels slack, unfocused, concentrating on Pinter’s D instead of Gielgud’s P. Compared to the other films, director David Mamet’s version feels unsatisfying.

The participants in the Beckett on Film project were also aware of its drawbacks. While director Damien O’Donnell justifies the project by saying: 'If people learn something different about his work from seeing it on film, than from seeing it on stage, then it is worth doing', John Hurt, who plays Krapp, says, 'What would be dangerous would be to think that the films were definitive, in the same sense that no stage production could be definitive. They are each a document that are made at a particular period of time' (Personal collection).

'Distilling, cutting, cutting, cutting'
The Beckett on Film project illustrates the aesthetic problems of filming Beckett’s work. It raises controversial issues about authorial intention and freedom of interpretation. These stem from a contradiction between a faithful rendering of Beckett’s ideas and the auteurship of the individual directors, and a further contradiction between legal rights and aesthetic needs, between the strictness with which the Beckett Estate polices his work and the necessary freedom that creativity demands. As long as the Estate retains Beckett’s posthumous right to have the words of his work unaltered, film versions will have to struggle to adapt what are essentially stage plays. The irony, of course, is that Beckett understood full well that you can’t simply film a stage play without altering it. In the German television version of What Where, his attitude was to adapt the work by 'Distilling, cutting, cutting, cutting' (Gussow, 50). At the moment, this is the one thing that directors of his work are not allowed to do.

At the profoundest level, the contradiction between the transience of theatre and permanence of film means that any filming of Beckett’s work loses precisely those elements that are so effective in theatre. For example, an interpretation of Beckett’s plays that focuses - as Hwa Soon Kim recently has - on them as 'a dialogue between the characters’ sense of hope, their compulsive need to act, and their wish for extinction' (Pattie, 196) works well for theatre since the theatrical experience remains solely in the memory, which is itself susceptible to hope, compulsion and extinction. On the other hand, film differs because it can only repeat exactly the same unchanging images of these emotions, losing the range of the theatrical experience. At the same time, film’s ability to repeat the experience of watching a drama in the here and now, at the spectator’s command, makes it a powerful medium. So if there is a rough and ready balance between what is lost and what is gained in translating the work from stage to screen, the best results of Beckett on Film are those which reinterpret the plays in essentially filmic terms, and manage to tease out new meanings or resonances, while the less successful films merely reiterate or repeat the already familiar. A new ‘cinematic environment’ for Beckett’s plays becomes ‘relevant’ only when it adds to what we know.

1. My own collection of transcripts (done in February 2001) from a series of rough-cut interviews, conducted mainly during the summer of 2000, for the aborted Channel 4 documentary. Highly edited transcripts of some of these interviews appear on the Channel 4 website, June 2001. See also Sierz, 2001.

2. Of numerous articles printed in advance of broadcast, a typical example is Anon, 'Worth the Wait?', Guardian (25 June 2001), 16-17.

3. When Beckett on Film was named TV Drama of the Year in the 2002 South Bank Show awards, Colgan described Channel 4’s reluctance to transmit all nineteen plays as 'completely ridiculous'.

4. Jeremy Irons plays both parts in Ohio Impromptu and Gary Lewis plays Bem, Bim and Bom in What Where.

5. This is an edited version of an interview that originally appeared in the New York Times (11 June 2000). For a brief account of the Estate’s attitude, see Heather Neill, 'Cinema of the Absurd', Sunday Telegraph (24 June 2001), 5.

Works Cited
Note: 'Personal collection' refers to my own collection of transcripts (see note 1 above).

Beckett, Samuel, Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber 1986).

Channel 4, Beckett on Film website, (June 2001).

Channel 4, 'Beckett on Film press release' (June 2001).

Corless, Kieron, 'Acts of Godot', Time Out (20-27 June 2001), 26.

Gussow, Mel, Conversations with (and About) Beckett (London: Nick Hern, 2000).

McMullen, Anna, 'Mutating Aesthetics: The Beckett on Film Project', in Beckett Circle, ed. Tom Consineau, vol 25, no 1 (Spring 2002), 4-5.

O’Donoghue, Bernard, 'Something Happens Six Times', TLS (13 July 2001), 20.

Oppenheim, Lois, Directing Beckett (Ann Arbour: U of Michigan P, 1997).

Pattie, David, The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett (London: Routledge, 2000).

Sierz, Aleks, Beckett on Film (London: Channel 4, 2001).

Plus: for more on censorship...


© An earlier version of this article appeared as ‘“A relevant and cinematographic environment”: filming Beckett’s plays’, Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 13, special issue on ‘Three Dialogues revisited’, 2003: pp 137-149

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