Saturday, August 9, 2008

Krapp's First Tape

Since "Memories" by the Signature Stage uses Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, I went back to look at the play and its history. I discovered that I might well have seen the first U.S. production of it.

Beckett wrote it for Patrick Magee to perform in London, along with his Endgame, in 1958. Shortly after that, the Provincetown Playhouse mounted it, together with Edward Albee's Zoo Story. I saw this bill in New York in the summer of 1965, where it had been running for a long time (or so Edward Albee told me when I asked him in the 90s who I might have seen in Zoo Story in 1965. He said the production went through a number of actors over years.) So I'm guessing that basically it was the same production.

These plays were the first with professional actors I remember ever seeing. It was between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I'd seen college productions that year, as well as a university production of Oedipus when I was in high school. My first Broadway experience was Camelot, which I saw on my first trip to New York while in high school, for the journalism conference at Columbia University. But that's a musical, and it was Broadway--not like the intimacy of a small theatre doing cutting edge plays.

I remember first of all being shocked by adult actors playing adults on stage. Not shocked as in surprised, at least in rational terms; nor shocked as in horrified or offended, though it did freak me out. Until that time I'd seen mostly students playing older characters. Actors of the same age as the characters they were playing made these plays so much more real, and with Zoo Story especially, that reality did keep me on the edge of my seat--a bit threatened even, by the sense of impending violence, of anything could happen.

I don't know who I saw in either play--it's one of the play programs I wish I still had, because they might have been actors I'd know now. My memory of Krapp's Last Tape is especially hazy. In fact, my clearest visual memory of the play is not from this production, but one which I saw back in college a year or two later. It was done by a student I knew, and who everybody knew as a little odd but intriguing. On our campus, the Studio Theatre was the place for newer plays and experiments, and during my years, there were several students who put on one play--maybe they wrote it, and/or acted in it, or just mounted it--that said something they wanted to say. Some did nothing else in theatre but that one play.

Maybe it was because this student felt Krapp's Last Tape said something he wanted to say, that it impressed me that way. But he did present an effective stage picture--I can still see him, with makeup accentuating his mad scientist features, his long arms reaching for tapes on the long table in front of him.

That the play is a monologue by an older man, looking back at his life--chiefly his failures--is not at all strange for a college student to do. We thought a lot about our fates. Maybe it was the era (Bomb, Vietnam, assassinations, etc.) or maybe it was being suddenly in touch with a much bigger world (in time and space) in college, yet our college being small and isolated, and most of us not from well-connected families in big and powerful places.

Anyway, there was a different sort of reality for us in the plays that we did, and that our fellow students did. It was part of our conversation with each other, our exploration of the future as well as the past.

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