Chapter 24. ON STAGE
Reaching the auditorium, jumping from the side of the stage, the dress rehearsal is about to start.
‘Ah, Sam,’ says Peter, surprised by my appearance.
People are relaxed, standing around, as everything is ready: nothing to do but wait. Bodies hanging there in suspended outline. Having been propelled down the stairs by my agitated state I now find myself suspended with them. This is not unlike the state I was in upstairs but I’m now less cut off from the anger I feel about the play. It is so lacking in its essential energy, so laboured and earnest and not right, tight-arsed like someone walking around trying to hold a fart but failing to stem the bad smell. For all the apparent ease, the air is stale: Bedlam’s bedroom late at night. The mood between the key players is fetid with constipated emotion, nothing flowing. I can feel the danger of getting caught up in the contaminated atmosphere and have an urge to run away out into the street.
I step back. The scene seems calm enough but everyone’s hit a low point: George on stage in his costume, the director and designer sitting quietly in the stalls, the technicians hanging around. No more preparing, everything laid out ready for the off. People hope they’re prepared enough.
Nevertheless, sitting looking at the magnificent stage with the small group of people placed in and around it, it would be hard for a casual observer to see anything other than an absorbing picture. No bright lights disturb the blackness of the set. The working lights leave it flat and sparse, making George a shadowy figure, hard to read. He gets up and potters around aimlessly, stretching a little and pulling at his clothes. He then pushes himself this way and that, gently. His movements are precise, stretching his muscles and skin. He scratches his head and taps his foot noiselessly on the floor. The stage manager walks onto the stage and past him, and he smiles at her. The movement is slow and in my mind it is slower. The flat working lights allow me to see the figure standing up in the flies above. He is also poised, only moving slightly, as if adjusting his balance or adjusting a cleat as a gesture of readiness. The movement is not enough to test the cleat’s safety but it lets the body have an outlet for a mood that is hidden and waiting; waiting there to be forced out into the open if it is to be known at all.
The work that has gone into it! Peter and Virginia are sitting a little way off from me. He is reading – the script? Doubtful. She looks quietly straight ahead. He asks her something and she readily replies. She is contained. She knows she can be relied upon to be steady. She has done all she can to enhance the play and the performances with her designs and costumes, and her attention to everyone and every detail. She must be feeling some of my disappointment with the man’s performance. There’s no outward sign of the stalemate between the two men sitting except some marked distance from each other. Their eyes never meet. Since arriving at the theatre, the very place where things can be seen to take a final shape, despair has set in. I can’t see this final rehearsal pulling them out of it. They are so mistuned to the play. Who could have predicted it? They’re both trying to hide the shame of disappointment. I have never seen the play have this deadening effect on a whole company before. They are doubtless blaming each other for their own disaffections. They would clearly like to shit on each other. It would be dangerous to come between them, like putting your head down a toilet. For a moment I see the two figures lit in such a way as to pick out their big heads and make them stand out from the others around them. Then the unspoken stand-off is clearer. Neither is going to give way because they have no idea what to do. The other people here, minor characters in the scene are affected by it, laid low by their unhappy disaffection, infected by the drab conflict. Nothing they can do either.
Jesse appears on the stage, a moment of light relief and comedy. It’s obvious from her faltering gait that she has no purpose there. She comes on and goes off, pretending to have some last minute work to do. She looks at George as if she’s sizing him up – for a fitting. At this stage? I see Virginia is alerted to her. What is she doing? Looking for that boyfriend of hers, drawn towards him, drawn by a terrible heat – the pull of the promise of hotheaded rapture. She is wearing a long pinkish dress, not bright, but a slip of bright jewelled silky cotton topped with her hennaed hair. Her high espadrilles make her teeter a little (she and Janet both have this balancing act in common). Her posture and purpose are unsteady. She moves off the stage, ungainly but bravely trying to look, against the odds, that she is meant to be there. She is a flash of painted colour – one of a colourist’s masterstrokes, like Matisse’s goldfishes, but more pinky red and less graceful. She has the potential to be a Modigliani figure, an etiolated femininity, but she blows it, her possible elegance clumsily undermined by her distorted purpose. She has slightly bad posture. She hurries off stage left and I sense her standing in the wings, looking up at the flies above. She and her man are undone by the undeniable, sexual urge that is such a messy business and cause of so much humiliation and pain. The play could do with some of this energy, the unsightly distortion brought about by libidinal energies.
The urge to act arises. I have had my cue. It has nothing directly to do with the impish Jesse. I would have made it without her. There are still a few moments. I need the time, just a few seconds to gather myself again. I thought I had long ago gotten past the milestone of lethargy and procrastination, but at this juncture I still have it within me. Jesse’s flash of colour is gone, the tense scene returns. My characters are still in place, too self-absorbed to be ruffled by the moment’s disturbance. I look at the picture so far created: the dark interior, the still single figure, the others all separate and distant. There is an air of loss and separation. The men are forlorn and angry, the women patient and loyal. The flats and the entrances and exits to the stage and auditorium suggest others waiting and watching in the wings. The main characters at the moment are the director and the Actor King who have nothing to do with my character. I need to get him back into the space, right into the centre, its heart. I have to take back what is mine and not let them destroy it with their resistance. Am I in danger of destroying the play? I don’t think so. Would it crush George? I need to rescue him as he is in an ignominious position. My man Krapp needs to be rescued from shame. He is not shame. He is the opposite. He is a walking living shadow. I can see him so clearly. He’s in my body contours and I can project him onto the stage like a lantern image or a hologram. I need to flesh him out, and my mind and body work at the speed of light as the mask of Krapp takes hold. The urge gets strong enough for me to see clearly what I am going to do. I do not hesitate. If I allow for any distraction, think about it in any other way, I might miss my best chance.
I find myself on the stage wishing George a good day, asking him how he is, and would he mind if I just demonstrate something to him about the play. I said that after the last run through I had thought it was not quite what I had in mind, and could I show them what I did have in mind? I don’t give him time to answer. He is a little taken aback I can see, and I hear a rustling in the stalls. But my resolve is strong and I stand there as if what is going to happen is the most natural thing in the world – the only thing to happen – the only thing to expect. It was always going to occur. I am taking my raincoat and suit jacket off. ‘ This is more what I had in mind,’ I find myself repeating.
I ask George if I can borrow his waistcoat. I will need the pockets. He takes it off slowly and hands it to me. I ask him to take a seat in the auditorium for a moment and he looks as if he may step down. I put the waistcoat on. It fits over my white shirt, which is far too clean, but OK for a rehearsal. I walk around the stage and I am older, unsteady on my feet, short sighted, hard of hearing. I know my voice is cracked with a distinct intonation. I am slipping into something, a small but a substantial part of myself. It is almost another skin but mine all the same. It is a relief to sit at the desk and check that all the props are where I left them. I start to fumble in my pocket. George takes the hint and hands me an envelope, a fob watch and a bunch of keys. He stands back, way back to the side of the stage. Jane is beside me. I tell her to start the rehearsal. She seems not to understand but obeys me and goes off to start the cues. The curtains are drawn. George is now on the other side of the curtain. The working lights dim and the room light above me is off. I’m surrounded by darkness.
The curtain rises. The lights come up. I put the envelope in my pocket, look at the watch – it is time- I take out my keys. I squint at the keys on the ring and choose the key that I want. I am excited as I move around to the front of the desk and unlock the drawer. I peer and feel inside the drawer until I find a tape. It’s not the one I want so I put it back and lock the drawer. In anticipation I unlock the second drawer, feeling inside I find a large banana. I can feel its yellowness. It is so smooth yet acid yellow to the touch. I am surprised at how erotic it feels, an extension of my body. Its contour is both in my mind and in my hand, like holding my own penis. I lock the drawer and take my prize to the edge of the stage. I stroke the banana, peel it and drop the skin at my feet. The banana placed in my mouth is a drug, soothing and mild, its pale yellow flesh like slightly sweet milk. I could stay there poised forever, but I break my mood by biting into it. I pace to and fro reminding myself that I should be meditatively eating a banana. I speak the instructions inside my head, lovingly repeating them to myself. The times I have read those instructions! The times actors have also read them and followed them, knowing the score. I will not let them down. Another part of my attention keeps an inner eye on the dropped banana skin. I am able to slip upon it, and to ski while waiting to facilitate my large faux fall. I enjoy saving myself. I have avoided ignominy and death. I look down at the conquered skin and push it over the edge of the stage. Triumphant I keep pacing and relishing my banana, eat it all up.
I repeat this whole sequence again, drawer, banana, stroking, eating, pacing, but this time I do not fall, I simply throw the skin into the pit. I have only eaten half of the second banana, which I hold sensually in my mouth. It is cool and organic in this dark colourless place. I am holding a mute, sensual, piece of flesh. But I must get on, so it is placed in my pocket.
Speeded up by my bold actions and adrenalin I rush to the back of the stage, disappearing through the door in the flat. I am amazed by my energy. The stage manager Jane is waiting for me, wide eyed in the dark. She listens with me to the sound cues, the popping of the corks. We breathe staring at each other, her eyes exceptionally wide. Jane hands me the prop ledger and I burst back onto the stage, blasted with light.
The ledger is a nice weight and I put it down respectfully on the desk. I feel the smear of banana on my face. Rubbing my mouth and wiping my hands on George’s coat, I feel an unexpected joy. I am safely back inside myself – and beside myself with pleasure. The glee moves into an exaggerated rubbing of hands. I open the ledger and start to look for the reference I need, the box and the tape number. Long remembered words spill out of me as I search for the imaginary record.
Oh, the joy of the words. The joy of searching for the old recording, my younger self: I know exactly the one I am looking for. The tapes have their own personalities, own selves. Putting my hand on the tape, I want to feel gold. I find it. ‘ Spooool.’ And load it into the machine, my hands rubbing again. I look down at the notes made for this recording and read them out to myself, pouring over the words, letting them stir images in my mind. Feelings and images start to surface. My happiness slowly recedes but not my relish for the past. Key words stand out and demand a link with the present. Some references mystify me, including ‘Farewell,’ turning the page, ‘to love…’ My heart stops.
I put the ledger down and am now gripped as I move forward to turn on the tape, the cue for sound. Jane does not let me down. The sound fills the theatre. It is George’s voice that I hear on the tape. It is not my own but I accept it as the voice of a much younger self, my character at the age of thirty-nine. Sitting on the stage at sixty-nine I am the same age as Krapp. I am Krapp. The words of the play roll out of the machine. They are not part of me, not memory, but a former self. Momentarily I see my small audience: an electric current between us. I am plugged in. I hear, ‘Thirty-nine today’
I am started by the volume and clarity, disturbed by the voice that is I but not me. I move to settle down to listen to the tape, which plays on. In doing so I knock over one of the boxes. Rage sweeps through me. To hell with the other recordings, I’ll have none of them. I switch the tape off and sweep another of the boxes and the ledger onto the ground. This makes me feel powerful, my drives humming. I switch back on and hear a voice at my peak. As I listen, busy with myself, I am taken with the volume of my younger voice as it projects out into the darkness. I hear I’ve spent my birthday drinking wine alone in a public house. Now I am back home and glad to be back in my own rags.
The light in the room is hung in the centre where it creates a pool of light. This makes me feel less lonely. It makes me happy that I can go in and out of the light. It is a great comfort that I can exist on either side. I know the devil is beside me in the darkness yet I am nevertheless otherwise content with myself because I realise that I have managed to look at the devil in the dark and live to tell the tale. There are grains of crystal in my life that are unique, nothing can reduce or destroy them. I have separated the light from the dark so they can exist together. Old Nick is here with me, aware of what is going on. Reason needs to separate body and mind, death and life. Allowing both to exist is a transgression. I was punished for this for a long time, as Krapp has been punished. Krapp still has a desire to mingle light and dark to promote the union of the gross body and undeniable spirit. The bringing together of black and white is still in him, and here with me now. The essential self keeps in with the light, only if it keeps close to the darkness. This essential light is there even though I am a dirty old man befuddled by drink; my poetry still intact, but much harsher, sardonic, simpler.
The play is being acted by me but I am no longer aware that I am a player. The play is playing me and I am not even conscious of what I am doing or saying. The action streams out through me from a well inside. Yet moments stand out and I can watch myself.
I barely recognize myself in Krapp’s pompous even tone, his assured narrative pace.
My thirty-nine year old self is distracting himself by randomly thinking out loud on the tape of old Mrs McGlome, who would always sing songs of her girlhood at this hour. Could I? Could he sing? He asks myself. No, (forcefully) I never sing, he says. I know later that I will have to contradict him and break into a hymn. My feelings for him as I listen intently are mixed. I am drawn to him. I admire him, yet I find him repulsive, unlikeable.
When did I have this notion, to record myself, year after year on my birthday? Little did I realise how extraordinary these recordings would become as the years stretched between them. The connection between my different selves is tenuous and contradictory.
I listen to George’s talk about a tape made years earlier when we were in our twenties. He, the young Krapp, is glad to wish the old misery of first loves away. Remembering a moment of the pure beauty of Bianca’s eyes he is wretched, there is no way he can feel part of her or close to her and he has to give her up. He says he is glad to do it but you can feel the false bravado. I am shaken. And the memory of a saddened girl in a railway station in a shabby green coat. Heartbreaking misery. Quite right! In my twenties he, I, am giving up on this hopeless pursuit of happiness. And I had lost our beloved father. It is so long ago but the pain still cuts through. I am scoured when faced with my old selves. They burn, branding me.
Listening to the aspirations and resolutions of our twenties, George and I have a chance to laugh out loud together. I am particularly amused by his determination to drink less. Would I really have liked to have been the kind of man who did not drink to numb the pain? I don’t think so. What, and miss out on that brand of spirited exuberance helping the loosening of the brain? Anyway the anti-hero’s soul is made of iron spirit, not diluted with coppery soft drink. If I am to be able to endure reality I must, for God’s sake, have a proper drink!
The youngest of us, thinking of his Opus Magnus, calls out for the care of God as he evokes Providence. Unexpected that. I, Krapp who is sitting on the stage, breaks into a hymn.‘Now the day is over. Night is drawing nigh…’
The earlier revelations are matched now with new, almost identical grooves, different overlays, a receding mirror, but every image a variant, unique, its own revelatory time. The images recede through time and mutate into the future.
Krapp is ever evolving. He does not want to relive past experiences, or satisfy earlier desires. He has taken on the constancy of change, and weathered catastrophe and disruption. He knows his equilibrium can be punctured at any minute by catastrophic panic, hence the need for drink. He still has no choice but to move from anticipation to disappointment, on and on. I had to make George suffer, as endurance of failure is a precondition of this play.
I have to switch off. I look at my watch and get up to go backstage. Jane, bless her, is waiting. I need a breather. Each ten seconds we hear the sound (recorded) of the pop of corks. She hands me a glass of water and I take a short draft. I am coughing as I come back in. I sit down and listen with an assured train of concentration that allows for varied levels of thought. I realise now why I had taken out the purple drinker’s nose from the original drawings of Krapp. It was too obvious, as is that damned hymn.
I’m still in the player’s zone and am back with the tape booming around me. A mother’s death: the image of a black crow in widow’s dress. The pain of widowhood borne too long. It too is heartbreaking. I love my own words. They do not belong to me and yet they are mine. I switch off and reach for the dictionary. Uncertain in my mind about whether the word viduity has been used in the past. A widow is in a state of grace; a place of pure pain and loss which is the true condition. It is so stark, clear bright, that knowledge of loneliness, belonging to me and to Virginia who I know is now watching me (I hope with some enjoyment). We all long to be gone when we are in such pain.
There is a wait outside her window, wanting her, my mother the widow, to die and to see the blind drawn down. As I wait for her death there is a comic encounter with a buxom nanny and a huge pram. She is voluptuous and emits sexual signals but threatens to call the police when I venture to talk to her. Sexual comedy dances beneath death’s window. But her black eyes, ‘like chrysolite,’ are the heralds of death.
And the reference to the black ball: I was playing with a white dog, throwing the black ball, it was in my hand, as the death blind was pulled down. Something fuses in the synapses. I gave the ball away to the animal but the ball in my hand is forever scorched into the palm, the gesture of sacrificing sense to spirit.
This year of the death of our mother was a spiritual one of storm and vision. The vision is a terrifying one but it contains fire and granite and exposes something unshatterable in the self. At thirty-nine I am describing how I propose to bring together darkness and light, and I cannot bear him being so vocal and explicit and pompous about his aesthetic illumination. I am disgusted and shut off the tape and wind it forward. I can’t bear it, curse at his verbosity and turn him off and wind on again.
I find I had accidentally moved from intellectual revelation to the encounter with another lover, the moment of impossible longing lying together in a small boat. We had silently agreed we could not be together and yet clung together lying in the punt. She is so wanted but so alien and so feared. The need to enter her, to know her body and soul feels so completely impossible. I listen for what seems endless time to the minute descriptions of our last time together, to each completely other, separate, alone. But I am really struck with the vision of her breasts.
The images in the play astound and move me. They are my life, my character’s life, all life. I pause the tape at my cue. I switch off the tape and brood over what I have heard. I go through my character’s rituals. The banana is soft as I take it out of my pocket. The envelope is there as well as my watch. The envelope contains the thoughts for the new tape. I put the objects back in my pocket.
Back offstage I am faced with Jane and more stage sounds, this time the clinking of the bottle and glass. I am unsteady as I go back onstage – rocked by my own revelations. I’m ready to go through with the recording. I fumble in the drawers and take out a new reel and place the tape in the machine. I switch on. I talk again to myself. I switch off. I then talk again and realise that I am switched off so I switch on. I laugh inwardly at the tragic-comedy, the merry-go-round.
The bitterness about the long wait for publication breaks through, so do the images of other lost loves and the whorehouse. I’m now maudlin and telling myself to go to bed. Images of Christmas and Sunday mornings in Ireland! ‘Ah, that old misery.’
It’s definitely getting near the end. I wrench out the new tape and throw it away; put on the old one, and repeat the passage in the punt. Here I end this reel. I sit motionless, deeply moved. And the tape whirrs on in the silence.
My small audience is silent, reverent. Then the group is rushing up towards me, smiling and hesitant all at once. George looks unreadable. He may have been able to see something. I hope so. Virginia says nothing but looks at me with great love and fondness. It is important to love this part of us, the shame, the humiliation, the loathing, the shadow. Only then can we live. It feels as though I have been on the stage for only a few minutes, but all the same, a very long time. A sportsman completely caught up in my game, I have been in a different space and time, my own small realm.
I am done, nothing more to do now and nothing more to add. The others must start again. They are already beginning to reset the stage. George has thanked me, cursorily I think, no real hint of warmth and he has gone off to his dressing room. At the end of a rehearsal period, coming in to the theatre, all the cast have a dressing room, the director has his office. I have nowhere to go. I think of going back upstairs, but no. My time is finished here. There’s nothing more to do, only to take my leave. I gather up my clothes, put them on and head outside. Only then do I remember the second play, ‘Not I,’and realise that I have to stay. So I turn back to the wardrobe.
An extract from Mora Grey’s book “Beckett’s Last Act”
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