"Peephole Art" is a project collecting three pieces Beckett wrote or adapted especially for television. The project began in 1985, when John Reilly and Barney Rosset (founder of Grove Press) decided to produce a documentary on Beckett for American television. As part of this project, three new productions were commissioned: a TV adaptation of Not I, a new production of Quad I & II, and a TV adaptation of What Where. Although Beckett declined to be filmed as part of the project, Reilly met with him in Paris five times from 1987 to 1989, where the two collaborated on the productions before the author's death.
The resulting "Beckett Project" includes an hour-long documentary, Waiting for Beckett, and a half-hour long program containing the three productions, Peephole Art. (The name comes from Beckett's notion of television as a "peephole," because it "allows the viewer to see what was never meant to be seen.") Available through Global Village, the Beckett Project comes on two VHS tapes and includes a 30-page booklet of resource material. Since Global Village allows you to also purchase the tapes separately, they will be reviewed as two distinct entries.
Peephole Art is narrated by Beckettian actor Chris O'Neill, a dandelion-maned Irishman with a peculiar tilt to his head. This is, he warns in a curiously solemn tone, not the Beckett most people are used to: no clowning tramps here, but some rather avant-garde pieces of cinema. After this vaguely ominous introduction and a few words about "the Great Man," we are plunged into the first work, Not I.
Originally written for the stage in 1972, Not I is one of Beckett's most mesmerizing and disturbing pieces. A woman's mouth is isolated on the stage, locked in place with the rest of her face and body shrouded in darkness. She is identified only as "Mouth." Through a torrential stream of monologue, we discover that the woman nearing seventy years of age, possibly even dying has remained silent most of her life, since being thrust prematurely into the world from her mother's loveless womb. Her sudden flood of language is a manifestation of the "buzzing" in her head, an almost involuntary act, an autobiographical stream of babelogue with the "half the vowels wrong." Significantly, she refuses to adopt the first-person pronoun, insisting on referring to the subject of her story as "she." In the stage play, Mouth's frantic confession is witnessed by the silent Auditor, a shrouded figure who grows increasingly less patient with the her "vehement refusal to relinquish the third person." The end comes suddenly, the curtain reducing Mouth's ongoing monologue to an unintelligible muttering finally put to rest by the house lights.
While this is all generally unsettling in a familiar Beckettian sort of way, what really gives Not I its power to disturb is the unforgettable image of Mouth. Seen up-close for an extended period of time, we become hyper-aware of every little movement: the gnashing of teeth, the rolling and flapping of the tongue, the ebb and flow of saliva, the fleshy gymnastics of the lips. With her body negated and her whole being restricted to this single orifice, Mouth becomes invested with an almost hallucinatory sense of intensity, even carnality; her flickering movements the living synecdoche for an absent body. Indeed, given her first angry words a bitter and self-pitying account of her birth it is impossible not to conflate the isolated mouth with a vagina, a relationship much explored in Beckett criticism. But the eerie superimpositions do not stop there, for the longer we watch (and listen to) Mouth talk, laugh, and scream, the more we perceive other bodily elements as well, from the opening of the eye to the clenching of the fist. Like ghostly overtones to live music, these almost subliminal transformations arise from the interplay of material and instrument, and in Not I Beckett achieves a remarkable collusion of speech and form. Mouth is intimately connected to the words spewing forth: her very contours and motions subordinated to the demands of articulation, she provides a physical embodiment of language itself. To fall silent to shut, to close up would seem a kind of suicide, further underlining that Beckettian compulsion to break the silence with a constant stream of language, despite the futility of communicating anything meaningful.
And yet, "suicide" may be too biased a word; perhaps like Auditor, it's best not to sympathize too deeply with Mouth. After all, between prenatal bliss and the quietus of death, there is the silence of inward reflection, and it is this stillness that is overwhelmed by her near-hysterical monologue. Like many of Beckett's characters, Mouth's need to talk, keep talking defers the moment of self-identification, the awareness of "I" that denotes accountability among the ruins of a fallen world.
Realizing that the impact of Mouth was more powerful at close range, Beckett adapted his play for film in 1977, dropping the part of Auditor altogether. In this, the first American production for television, the mouth belongs to actress Margo Lee Sherman, her surrounding facial features blacked out with greasepaint. Filmed in black and white, her mouth fills the entire television screen, its position fixed throughout the entire monologue. Although the reflections of light on the greasepaint distract from the illusion of isolation, seeing the larger-than-life mouth is still a powerful dramatic image, and Sherman plays on this skillfully, exaggerating her movements just enough for visceral effect. Like a broken heart finally called to pump blood, she circulates her testimonial in gathering spasms, the giddy rush of oxygen a mounting intoxication that soon tips over into a desperate momentum. Her vehement refusals to relinquish third person come as shocking interludes, and the simpering quiver she brings to her lips before screaming "No! ... She!" evokes a range of emotions in the viewer that flash from pity to disgust we fully understand why the original Auditor eventually abandoned his gestures of compassion. Unlike Julianne Moore's more steely, bitter delivery in the "Beckett on Film" Project, Sherman's Mouth pours forth the anguish of a woman trapped just beyond the reach of our sympathy.
Quad I & II
Next up are Quad I & II, the only works on the tape first written specifically for television. Quad I, "a piece for four players, light, and percussion," is a strange, geometric "ballet" enacted upon a white square and set to music. One by one, figures in differently colored robes emerge onto the square and walk rapidly in an interlocking pattern, each one skirting the very center of the square as if it exerted a repulsive force. Never allowed to actually meet, always thrust from the center, the hooded figures eventually whirl away and vanish. In Quad II, the pattern is essentially repeated, but now all the players are dressed in white, the pace is slower, and the only sound is the shuffling of their feet. Both Quads are engaging and interesting to watch, setting the poetry of motion against the unresolved tension at the center of the square.
Having never seen any versions of Quad before, I can't imagine they vary to any great degree, except perhaps regarding the music. (Although unlike the stage directions specify, the percussionists are not "in frame" in this version of Quad I.) In Peephole Art, Quad I is definitely the superior of the pair. Not only is it more colorful and energetic by design, but O'Neill needlessly talks over the beginning of Quad II, which ends abruptly, cut off before its conclusion. There's also the music of Quad I each player is scored with a percussion instrument, and as they make their various permutations, the atonal music gathers and fades in pleasing, insectile agitations.
Finally we come to the highlight of the tape, What Where. Written in 1983, Beckett's last work for the stage is one of his most enigmatic, and involves four characters "as alike as possible," Bam, Bom, Bim, and Bem. Bam, who seems to be in charge, has an additional manifestation in the Voice of Bam (V), an omnipresent force that directs the proceedings from a "small megaphone at head level."
After preparing the stage through a wordless rehearsal, a quadrille of identical figures entering and leaving, V calls Bam to the stage and sets events in motion. Bam, who will remain onstage until the last moments of the play, greets Bom, and asks him for the results of his interrogation of an unnamed subject. The answer is not good although Bom gave him "the works" until he wept, screamed, begged for mercy, and finally "passed out," Bom was unable to make his subject "say it." Bam accuses him of lying, and V summons Bim. After asking Bim "Are you free?", Bam orders him to give Bom "the works" until he confesses that his subject said "it," and "what." After a season passes, Bim reports back to Bam, but he's had the same results though Bom wept, screamed, and begged for mercy, he passed out without "saying it" or saying "where." Ever mistrustful, Bam also accuses Bim of lying. V summons Bem, and the process goes through yet another iteration, with Bem torturing Bim to reveal what Bom was hiding from Bam. After another season passes, Bem returns with the same negative results. Now the only one left, Bam is forced to give Bem "the works" himself. Bam leads Bem off the stage, returning alone after another season has passed, his head bowed in obvious defeat. Satisfied, the Voice remarks, "Make sense what may" and switches off.
A work as elusive in meaning as it is curiously intriguing, What Where has been seen as everything from straight political satire to an allegory on humanity's fruitless quest for understanding. Even Beckett struggled with the meaning of What Where, once remarking, "I don't know what it means. Don't ask me what it means, it's an object." As with most self-generated puzzles, the work held his attention for quite a while, and he spend several years revising it through three different languages and two separate versions for the stage and screen. In 1985 he adapted a version for German television, and in 1987 he worked with S. E. Gontarski and John Reilly to refine that production for American television, as seen in Peephole Art.
With Not I, the camera focused on Mouth and dispensed with the Auditor altogether. In What Where, the entire piece has been successfully re-imagined, taking advantage of film's ability to employ special effects and non-physical spaces. The Voice of Bam is no longer an inert megaphone: now it is an eerily distorted face, hovering in the upper left corner of a dark screen like a living, concave mask. His voice is sepulchral and chilling, yet conveys a sad, lonely quality as well. Bam, Bom, Bim, and Bem appear as detached faces along the bottom of the screen, floating in the black void and illuminated in stark white contrast. The dialogue is delivered in brisk, metallic monotones, emphasizing the sameness of the characters and the repetitiveness of the seasonal interrogations. There is something genuinely creepy about this production of What Where, like an existential episode of Star Trek beamed in from some Stalinist space station. Although it couldn't be more different than Damien O'Donnell's version from the "Beckett on Film" project, it is just as effective -- What Where is a work that supports many interpretations, and this one is not easily forgotten.
The tape comes with a booklet called The Beckett Project, thirty photocopied pages held together by report-binding. The booklet includes an introduction to the project, notes on the documentary and the three Peephole productions, a chronology of Beckett's life, brief notes on all his published works, a comprehensive bibliography, and three supplementary essays: "Beckett's Work in the Mechanical Media" by Enoch Brater, "Samuel Beckett's Impact on the Arts" by S. E. Gontarski, and "Samuel Beckett's Portraits of Women: The Function of Gender in the Novels and Plays" by Linda Ben-Zvi. While the booklet is both welcome and informative, more specific notes on the pieces actually at hand would have been more helpful the essays barely touch on the works collected on the Peephole Art tape. Still, it's a nice little bonus, despite the low-tech, no-frills presentation, and the "Works of Samuel Beckett" annotations are particularly useful.
Peephole Art: Beckett for Television
Global Village, 1994, VHS, $45.00
Peephole Art & Waiting for Beckett
(Combination deal: the two videos complemented by a study guide, written by Beckett scholars, that provides detailed background information on the life and works of Samuel Beckett.)
Global Village, 1994, VHS, $99.95
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