Eh Joe

Samuel Beckett wanted his plays produced strictly according to very few, but very specific, stage directions. He was so adamant about this that he occasionally used legal measures to make sure his word went. Nevertheless, there may be alternative ways to mount his minimalist plays and still achieve the results he had in mind.

The person, however, who deconstructs and/or reconstructs Beckett–one of the two or three truly great 20th-century dramatists–does so at his or her own peril. And in that light, actor/director Cradeaux Alexander has imperiled himself. It was Alexander’s notion to adapt Beckett’s only television play, Eh Joe–a one-hour piece shown July 4, 1966, on the BBC–for the stage and, in the process, to re-think it drastically.

Beckett–who pared his scripts down to almost nothing to make his statement about the human condition–wrote Eh Joe for two actors: a man seen by the audience and a woman only heard. The man listens and reacts while the woman reminds him of the wasteful life he’s led and, in particular, recalls a dalliance that ended, it seems, with a second woman’s suicide.

What Beckett had in mind, of course, was that the audience would watch a man spiral from complacence to distress while listening as his late ex-wife wears him down. (Or perhaps that insistently reminiscing voice is merely his conscience playing ventriloquist?) It’s a double-edged device, in which a character who’s seen but not heard, and a character who’s heard but not seen, experience the anguish of vacant lives.

Alexander imagines it another way. Taking the text, in which the title phrase “Eh Joe” evolves from the confidential to the accusatory, he’s split the woman’s speech between and among three actresses and one actor–himself. In Alexander’s view, the audience stands in for Joe. Not a good idea for one reason: The audience isn’t Joe, and hasn’t his tainted past and guilty conscience. An actor assigned the role would convey a man with just that baggage. Through him the audience might feel implicated insofar as they recognize that his failings may be similar to their own. Without him present, however, audience members are merely on-lookers or eavesdroppers. They are let off the hook.

Furthermore, Alexander and the actresses, who execute synchronized movements and sometimes lift teacups or brandish poles with skulls at one end,

give the impression of belonging to an eccentric ladies’ acting ensemble. While Beckett has written a monologue with ample opportunity for an actress to express an array of subtle emotions, Alexander et al play three notes: sarcastic, gossipy, and emasculating. Alexander’s appearance also unnecessarily complicates Beckett’s intentions, especially when he lifts his crinoline to expose his genitals and later strips entirely. That Alexander has the face and body of a Greek youth, and that his three supporting players–Marianna Romalis, Pia Franco, and Anne McKay–are all quite comely, doesn’t vitiate matters much, since arbitrary displays of confused sexuality are not what Beckett had in mind–consciously or, one ventures to say, unconsciously.

It’s a director’s prerogative to quarrel with Becket’s austerity, of course. But if he does, the best plan of action might be to eschew the master’s works altogether. It seems contrary to take Beckett and turn him into operatic ritual, as Alexander does when he dons a two-foot high headdress that looks like a rose trellis, or when he plays ’70s disco music. Also, if unison movement is the goal, then anything short of that, which is the case here, comes off as mere carelessness.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is buried at Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery. His is a fittingly simple grave. Right now, he may very well be spinning in it.

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Eh Joe

Closed: August 13, 2000