Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett’s beautiful, elegiac one-act-play from 1958, is set in an archive of some kind, where a 69 year-old man, Krapp, listens to one of many audio recordings of his 39-year-old self talking about life and love. He gets mad, he gets sad, and finally, he resigns himself to his fate. It is a good play, but an old one, dating from the last moment, perhaps, when ageing, heterosexual men could be absolutely certain that the world was interested in the wistful trajectory of their own sexual nostalgia.
Thankfully, Robert Wilson is uniquely ill-suited to play the title character. Although he apparently turns 75 in October, there is nothing wistful or nostalgic about the titan auteur, whose Krapp – which concluded a brief run presented by Peak Performances at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, New Jersey, in late March – displayed all the exuberance and energy of someone much younger and distinctly un-decrepit. Wilson did not so much play the part of Krapp as dance it, infusing it with a mesmerizing, spry discipline every bit the equal, at the level of precision and execution, of his revolutionary contributions to production design.
There were long stretches of this production during which the audience felt little but the overwhelming exhilaration of Wilson’s concentration. When he held one of his signature tableaux, illuminated by one of the greatest lighting designs I have ever seen, by A.J. Weissbard, one felt as though the contested border between image and narrative had somehow been placed onstage, right in front of our eyes. When frozen, he is Robert Wilson, live visual artist par excellence, and then, moving, he is once again the rightful heir to the avant-performance tradition of Eugene Ionesco and Beckett himself, a lineage he is careful to claim in the programme notes.
And what was most refreshing about this production is that although it was presented as an homage to Beckett, it was even more distinctly Wilson, who honoured and betrayed the master in the same show. (He honours him by betraying him, really.) Only Nixon could go to China, as the saying goes, and only Wilson could break the notoriously authoritarian grip of the Beckett estate on the holy writ. As a performer, Wilson’s manic choreography would be much more traditionally effective as Winnie in Happy Days (1961), but as a theatre-maker, the distance between his project and Beckett’s falls into sharpest relief with a character like Krapp.
Wilson seems to acknowledge as much in the programme notes. ‘When I direct a work,’ he writes, ‘I create a structure in time. Finally, when all the visual elements are in place, I have created a frame for the performers to fill.’ Producing Beckett complicates this method, however, because ‘Here, for the most part, the structure is given, and I must find my freedom within Beckett’s structure. He tells you what the set looks like, what the movements are, etc. Everything is written down.’ By highlighting the formalism of Beckett’s text – and the austere requirements of his stage directions – Wilson set us up to encounter a kind of orthodoxy, only to be shocked when this Krapp was so very different from the withered, angry old man we expect. Beckett always relied more on actors and their craft than his famous contempt for performers would indicate, Wilson avers, and can prove it by rigorously obeying the letter of his law while nevertheless performing a different play entirely.
Only Nixon could go to China, as the saying goes, and only Wilson could break the notoriously authoritarian grip of the Beckett estate on the holy writ.
While Beckett’s Krapp is primarily interested in the content of his own memories and the sound of his own voice – Beckett wrote the play for the Irish actor Patrick Magee after hearing him read his own From an Abandoned Work (1954–55) and extracts from Molloy (1955) on the radio – Wilson’s Krapp was delighted that there is a technology that is his equal in its capacity for repetition. As written, Krapp’s Last Tape is fundamentally a play about the technology of memory, about how recording devices can prop up the natural kind but also undermine it, and how this allows us to encounter our younger selves in a unique way. Everyone who manages to survive has always gotten old, but only recently have we been able to qualify what that process entails, for richer and for poorer. Better to imagine that we were fools then to listen to a recording and remove all doubt, we might say.
It is significant that Beckett orients Krapp around audio recording technology rather than the visual kind. There is something fundamentally anti-theatrical about this choice, in the sense that theatricality is linked to visuality (the word ‘theatre’ comes from the Greek theatron, place of seeing, and theatrai, meaning ‘to behold’), even as it is extremely dramatic (from the Greek dran, ‘to act’). But then this tension, between the visual and the dramatic, is what links Wilson and Beckett’s respective bodies of work. Both Beckett and Wilson are extremely visual thinkers, but only Wilson might be what is called a visual artist. Both men are distinctly anti-dramatic, in the sense of opposing or breaking down inherited understandings of plot, character, and action. With his interpretation of Krapp, Wilson took something of victory lap, showing how much farther he has pushed that project than his predecessor.