Advertisement

Krapp's Last Tape

Robert Wilson's exuberant portrayal of Samuel Beckett's weary anti-hero, Krapp

Krapps 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. 

Robert Wilson in Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, 2012. Photograph: Brian Morrison

Robert Wilson in Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, 2012. Photograph: Brian Morrison

Robert Wilson in Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, 2012. Photograph: Brian Morrison

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, Krapps 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.

Stephen Squibb lives in New York, USA, and is editor at e-flux journal

Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018