Julie Campbell (Convenor)
Mouth on Fire perform A Piece of Monologue

Samuel Beckett Working Group
7-9 September 2012
University of Southampton

This year’s Samuel Beckett Working Group, held at the University of Southampton, comprised an international group with 17 presenters and 5 auditors. The way that the Working Group is set up helps to make it a really worthwhile experience. The papers, which are works in progress, are sent to all participants in advance, giving everyone a chance to read them carefully, make notes and prepare questions and comments. Each presenter has forty-five minutes and spends a short while introducing their subject, highlighting areas that they would like the debate to focus on.

In the first panel Cathal Quinn (Artistic Director of Mouth on Fire Theatre Company, Ireland) presented a stimulating paper, ‘Product Placement in Beckett’s Plays’, which was concerned with the brand names Beckett included in some of his plays and his prose works. He questioned the reason for their presence, as they introduce very specific items from the real world into texts that otherwise tend to studiously avoid direct references to identifiable times and places. This was followed by Melissa Nolan (Co-Founder of Mouth on Fire Theatre Company, Ireland), whose paper concerned ‘Beckett in Performance.’ This was a fascinating exploration of the actor’s body in relation to theatrical space in performances of Beckett’s work. Nolan discussed her own wide experience of performing Beckett: May in Footfalls, Mouth in Not I, Stenographer in Rough for Radio II, the Assistant in Catastrophe, Vi in Come and Go, W1 in Play and the woman in Rockaby. Next was Kumiko Kiuchi (Konan Women’s University, Japan) whose paper ‘What is “that” in That Time/Cette fois?’ focused on the complex relationship between text and performance in That Time and its cross-generic status. Her analysis focused on the use of the second-person pronoun and the context-dependent adjectives and adverbs, and demonstrated the ways in which the text destabilizes the relationship between the ‘Listener’ and the voices heard.

In the second panel Irit Degani-Raz (Tel Aviv University, Israel) summarized her paper, ‘“Language as Calculus” in Beckett’s Writing: A New Perspective on Beckett’s Conception of Language’. She used an explanatory framework borrowed from logical semantics called ‘Possible Worlds’ to elucidate the elaborate strategies Beckett used to escape the ‘trap’ of language, and change the representational relationships between language and reality. Yoshiko Takebe (Shujitsu University, Japan) then presented her paper, ‘Formal Experimentation: Silence and Mime in Act Without Words and Rockaby’. She examined the creative use of silence and mime by considering their effectiveness when the plays have been translated and presented on stage in the form of Japanese theatrical traditions, Kyogen and Noh. In an absorbing and interesting presentation she explained the stylized patterns of acting of the two traditions, and discussed specific Japanese versions of Beckett’s plays. Mariko Hori Tanaka’s (Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, Japan) paper, ‘Beckett’s Struggle with his Traumatic Memories’, explored traumas in Beckett’s life that have appeared as fragmented episodes in his work, such as the Forty Foot diving incident when he was a child which features in a nightmare experienced by Victor Krap in Eleuthéria. This introduced some fascinating and complex issues, which motivated an interesting group discussion.

On Friday evening there was a Workshop led by Cathal Quinn, with the help of Melissa Nolan, P. J. Brady and Marcus Lamb (Mouth on Fire actors). Quinn guided the delegates through a number of performance techniques applicable to Beckett’s work, such as standing very still and staring with ‘famished eyes’, how to read Beckett scripts out loud and so become alert to the importance of the pauses, and, in pairs, delegates practised rocking to the rhythm of the voice in Rockaby.

Saturday began with Jonathan Bignell (University of Reading, UK), who introduced his paper, ‘Authorship and Adaptation: Beckett’s Theatre Plays on Television’ by comparing adaptations of Beckett’s work with those of other playwrights televised during the same period, such as George Bernard Shaw, and showed how in many ways the adaptations of Beckett’s work were out of sync with contemporary production practices and how the adaptations moved away from theatrical staging into flat compositions that work against three-dimensionality. Elena Dotsenko (Ural State Pedagogical University, Russia) then presented her paper, ‘Aleksey Balabanov’s film Happy Days as a St Petersburg text’. She explained how, at the time of making the film, Balabanov had little knowledge of Beckett’s work, as there were only a few translations available in Russian and so the film references only a small number of Beckett pieces. The film is set in St Petersburg and Dotsenko explored the ways in which this mysterious city created a fitting atmosphere for Beckett’s work. Arka Chattopadhyay’s (Jadavpur University, India) paper, ‘The Rings made Open: Samuel Beckett’s Come and Go and its Cinematic Reconstruction in Ashish Avikunthak’s Endnote’, discussed Avikunthak’s film as a deconstruction followed by a reconstruction of Come and Go. Of particular interest was the way in which the final ringing gesture of the hands is disrupted in the film as Aditi’s (Ru) right and Kuheli’s (Flo) left hands are left unconnected.

In the next panel Fernando De Toro (University of Manitoba, Canada) examined ‘Beckett and Modernity’. He spent time clearly situating his own reading position with respect to Beckett texts. His interest, he explained, is framed by a larger investigation that is strongly focused on the end of modernity and how Beckett can be placed within this closure. A very lively discussion followed his summary, with a wide range of views put forward. Arthur Rose’s (University of Leeds, UK) paper, ‘A Creamy Work: Beckett and Schiller in ’37, ’61 and ’65,’ stimulated the group into a fascinating discussion about ‘creaminess’. An entry in Beckett’s German Diaries following his reading of Maria Stuart and seeing a performance at the Schauspielhaus describes the play as ‘[a]ltogether a very creamy work’ (8/01/1937). The group came up with some very good ideas, and the discussion was extremely interesting and Rose’s comments very thought-provoking. Llewellyn Brown’s (independent scholar, France) paper, ‘Voice and Technology’, explored Beckett’s use of technology and the ways in which the various media allowed him to give even greater force to creations based on a subject’s relation to language. He aligned the Beckettian figure experiencing verbal hallucinations with the spectator/auditor, as the voice, in both cases, is objectivized. On Saturday evening the group watched the performances of Beckett works by Mouth on Fire.

The penultimate panel on Sunday morning was particularly stimulating and thought-provoking. Carla Taban (University of Toronto, Canada) presented her paper ‘Beckett and/in Contemporary Art: Joseph Kosuth’s series of installations-exhibitions Samuel Beckett, in play (2010-2011)’, She showed us images from the installations, and explained how they succeeded in casting new light on dimensions of Beckett’s oeuvre that are fundamental to it and could otherwise remain unnoticed. For example, Taban spoke of how one of the quotations at the Milan installation, ‘Emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness, wait, the light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes’ from Imagination Dead Imagine, created an ‘echoing’ effect, ‘because its rather inconspicuous (reader? narrator? character?) address—‘wait’—both anticipates and directly connects to the over-quoted ‘Wait!’s from Waiting for Godot. Taban’s expertise made the presentation and the discussion that followed a really valuable experience, and the group learned a great deal about Beckett’s relevance to Kosuth, and vice versa. Katharina Knüppel (Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany) was next, introducing her paper ‘Samuel Beckett’s Legacies: The Influence of Beckett’s Intermedia experiments on the Contemporary Arts’. She pointed to the way so much of Beckett’s work is characterized by a transmedia tendency towards visualization. She discussed transpositions and transformation of his work by others, in installation and video work. It was a detailed, informative and intelligent presentation that stimulated a lively and thoughtful debate. Adam Winstanley (University of York, UK), used a series of slides to introduce his paper, ‘“A whispered disfazione”: The Presence of Leonardo de Vinci in Samuel Beckett’s Three Dialogues’. The quotations on the slides were illuminating, showing clearly that the artistic debate that was taking place in France in the early 1940s had a strong influence on Beckett’s Three Dialogues, especially in relation to specific work by Jean de Boschère and Maurice Blanchot. It was thoroughly convincing, very well researched and presented.

In the final panel Catherine Laws (University of York, UK) introduced her paper ‘Music in Beckett’s Nacht und Träume: Vocality and Imagination’. Laws’s discussions of Beckett and music are always such a pleasure to read or listen to. She has real expertise and yet is also very aware of how to present her ideas to those outside the cognoscenti, making it accessible and relevant. Her paper focused on the way Schubert’s music is used in Nacht und Träume: the humming and the singing that has no perceptible source. This was a detailed and thoroughly researched piece of work, communicating fascinating insights into Beckett’s use of Schubert in this specific play. The final paper was Matthias Korn’s (University of Potsdam, Germany), ‘“Birth was the death of him”: Samuel Beckett’s Quadrat I + II as a Dance of Death.’ Korn’s research focused on Quadrat I + II, and he took us through a range of robed figures that can be related to the figures in the play: Dante illustrated by Botticelli, Blake and Dore among others; fifteenth- and sixteenth-century images of Dances of Death; and also John Donne’s statue in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. It was well-researched and stimulated a very interesting debate. The group closed with a discussion of the Beckett performances by the Mouth on Fire Theatre Company the night before. It was an excellent weekend, with impressive papers that stimulated some very useful and lively discussions.

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

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Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer and photographer who specialises in twentieth-century and contemporary culture. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals.

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