I'll Go On: Theater Review
Three Samuel Beckett books are woven into this successful staging of the Irish icon's particular brand of comic bleakness.
“Nothing is more real than nothing.” One might take some accurate measure of the changes in society and culture over the last half century by gauging popular attitudes to the work of Samuel Beckett. Once warily regarded as abstruse and difficult, audiences now access his austere nihilism almost comfortably. Indeed, Beckett’s sense of comedy can be discerned now to pervade the current hip club scene, where extended deadpan affectations of ironic pointlessness elicit knowingly conspiratorial laughs. In contrast, Beckett remains a paragon of formal concentration. Would he have appreciated that so near in the future the public could derive such great comforting reassurance – yea a bracing pleasure – in the shared sense of meaninglessness? It no longer seems particularly “absurd.”
His trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable), written before the plays in the late 1940s, has always been aptly considered more forbidding. They boast the Master’s unmistakable voice, which when reading can be possible to fathom while remaining intractably hard to hear, a challenge remedied by this 1985 cut-and-paste adaptation by nonpareil interpreter Barry McGovern (recently a hit in the acclaimed Mark Taper production of Waiting for Godot) and Gerry Dukes for Dublin’s storied The Gate Theatre. They seem to elicit an innate theatricality from Beckett’s prose, and when condensed find an acute vision of lively eloquence that dances in the ear. It makes a perfect entertainment, and for all the pastiche, an honest night of theater, not merely of solo recitation.
Comprised of four blessedly brief monologues, with a welcome intermission providing one of the most appropriate cues for drinking imaginable. Inventively, it begins in front of the curtain with Molloy imprecating the viewers with their immediate existential quandary: “Well, well, so there’s an audience, it’s a public show … you take your seat and wait for it to begin, it takes time … you can’t leave, you’re afraid to leave, it might be worse elsewhere, you make the best of it, you try and be reasonable, you came too early.”
The curtain parts to reveal Molloy in his mother’s room, delineated by fluorescent tubes like a Dan Flavin sculpture fashioned into a Tinkertoy. (Irish painter Robert Ballagh made his theatrical design debut with this set, ultimately leading his career to Riverdance.) The physically and emotionally crippled speaker relates his scabrous picaresque misadventures with scathing misanthropy and misogyny, always returning the theme of his detested yet needed “Ma” (“I’m looking for my mother to kill her. I should have thought of that a bit earlier, before being born.”) Echoing his creator, Molloy revels in invective (“I like this colourful language, these bold metaphors and apostrophes”) and self-disgust (referring to testicles as “decaying circus clowns”). When he launches into an extended discourse on his obsessive-compulsive reorganizations of the order in which he sucks on 16 stones, it feels like a mirror held up to one’s own life, that mirror in which one reacts to their own image with the shock and amazement of “Who is that person?”
Yet Molloy is positively animated by life compared with the after-intermission Malone, lying upon a flat morgue stone: “I shall be soon be quite dead at last in spite of all … I shall not watch myself die, that would spoil everything. Have I watched myself live? Then why rejoice now? ... I am satisfied, there, I have enough …” Bleak, to be sure, yet not depressing. Malone has quite the considerable sense of humor. Not the same to be said of the final speaker, now literally Unnameable – who, furiously spitting out his “spew,” inveighs against the very imperative of existence itself, culminating in the famously quoted (and frequently misconstrued) repeated variations of “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Do not mistake this for an affirmation, nor even acceptance or resignation. McGovern sagely and profoundly expresses it irrefutably as not a jot more or less than a statement of fact.
McGovern has been performing this piece nigh onto 30 years, yet in his fulminating glory he seems utterly fresh, like an improvising musician who never plays a tune the same way twice. Even when he has to reach for a word, it becomes part of the effect. I had thought no one could possibly displace the unforgettable Jack MacGowran in these texts, so let it be that McGovern is incomparable.
Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (through Feb. 9)
Cast: Barry McGovern
Director: Colm O Briain
Writer: Samuel Beckett, texts selected from the novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable by Gerry Dukes and McGovern
Designer: Robert Ballagh
Lighting Designer: James McConnell
A Center Theatre Group presentation of The Gate Theatre Production