Interview of Author and Scholar Lois Oppeneim by John Wisniewski
JW: What attracts you to the writings of Samuel Beckett, Lois?
Dr. Lois Oppenheim: You could not have asked an easier or a more difficult question. Beckett’s extraordinary shaping of the unshapeable, articulating of the ineffable, and dealing with the most fundamental matters of human existence in a simultaneously serious and humorous way draw me again and again to his work. That’s the easy answer. The difficulty of answering your question arises because one cannot think in terms of the kinds of plot, characters, dialogue, and so on that normally appeal to one or another reader of a particular writer, for they don’t exist as such in Beckett, however banal that is to say. I have long had a passion for the works of the French nouveaux romanciers (“new novelists”), Beckett of course among them, though there were a few in the first generation of that literary “school” (that was but wasn’t one) whose work I never really liked to read, however thrilled I was to have read it once I had done so. I liked very much to think about it after the fact, to write about it as well, but not so much to actually read it. Beckett, however, is a writer I continually take great pleasure in reading (or seeing on the stage) in part because his words are exceedingly imagistic. His writing has been called “painterly,” and for good reason. Interestingly, those of us in the Beckett community of academics, so to speak, who write a great deal on Beckett, often say there is nothing more to write, nothing more to be said about his work, and then, like any true Beckettian ‘voice’ (not to say character), we all continue ‘going on saying’… and saying. For every time one reads Beckett, more or different meanings emerge and, not only can one never say it all, when writing of Beckett one simply can never say enough… There’s also this: One can come at Beckett’s work from such a variety of vantage points. Few writers I can think of inspire so many critical perspectives at once.
“We are all born mad. Some remain so.” – Samuel Beckett
JW: What are some difficulties encountered when directing Beckett’s works?
Dr. Lois Oppenheim: The primary difficulty in directing Beckett’s work, which I have not personally done but about which I have thought and written a lot, is determining one’s role as director. The director is an artist in his or her own right. Yet Beckett’s stage directions are more explicit than those of any other playwright I could name. How much liberty and what kinds of liberties might one take in directing his work? That is the perennial difficulty faced by any director of Beckett. I tend to be ultra conservative on this issue (whereas I am anything but, generally speaking) and believe Beckett’s instructions are to be followed to the letter. In addition to directorial fidelity to his stage directions, there is fidelity to his vision, which does not include female actors performing “Waiting for Godot,” for instance, or seeing a woman, as opposed to only a mouth, in “Not I,” or the replacing of the recorded voice in “Rockaby” with onstage speech. Relocating “Endgame” to a subway tunnel, as was famously done by the American Repertory Theater, is not a director’s right, in my opinion. So how does a director of Beckett reveal his or her own self as an artist? That is the first difficulty.
I suppose a second lies in the casting. Beckett’s characters are anything but characters; that is why they are most often simply referred to as “voices.” The acting required is of a different nature than an actor will encounter in playing “roles” in the more traditional sense of the term. It is of the utmost importance that the director cast a Beckett play very well. A third difficulty resides in knowing just how to reduce “color” from the actor’s instinctual inclination to do more of what he or she does on the stage. Beckett, in directing his own work, asked his muse Billie Whitelaw for less “color.” There are many such difficulties, but if I were to name just one more, I would say keeping the script in mind over and above any other productions one has seen of the play being directed. This of course is the same for the directing of any playwright’s work, but all the more so, it seems to me, with regard to Beckett, for his plays reveal such a distinct sensibility that one remembers all too easily, for better or for worse, what other directors’ productions look like. The blank slate approach to Beckett’s work will really produce the best result.
“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
JW: Could you tell us about editing Dear Mr. Beckett with Astrid Myers Rosset?
Dr. Lois Oppenheim: The full title of the book, just out, is: “Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters From The Publisher.” Before he died in 2012, Barney Rosset asked that I publish his letters to Samuel Beckett. He said he didn’t want them in a scholarly edition with lots of footnotes and so on. I was writing another book at the time and didn’t think much about it until a couple of years later when Astrid (Barney’s by-then widow) contacted me to say she had an interested publisher and asked that I come to a meeting with her and Glenn Young of Opus Books (and previously founder and publisher of Applause Books). Ideas flew wildly at that meeting and the notion of a book of Barney’s letters to Beckett morphed into a book containing those letters plus unpublished interviews with Barney and with a great many others who knew both Barney and Beckett well, photos and other images to which only Astrid had access, original contracts between Barney’s Grove Press and Beckett, and more. In two hours I had become the editor of this compendium, been given all Barney’s files (including fascinating material from his earliest years, even before he went into publishing), and Astrid had become curator of the book-to-be. The project started out for me as a fun endeavor, a kind of break from academic writing, but the deeper I dug into Barney’s files and the collections he had given to Columbia and Syracuse Universities, the more serious it all became and I was hooked on an archeological expedition. I unearthed documents that would seemingly be of interest to many and Young, realizing the significance of the material and wanting to ensure the legacy of Barney Rosset, was gracious in allowing for a constantly expanding size of the projected volume. I must say, however, that the pleasure of working with this material (finding and editing it) and learning so much about Barney himself as well as the evolution of his very meaningful relationship with Samuel Beckett was greatly enhanced by the joy of working closely with Astrid. She’s an extraordinary woman! Collaborations pose risks to friendships, but this one couldn’t have been easier or more exhilarating. Astrid is smart, vivacious, generous, and a person of enormous integrity and equanimity. The many hours spent pouring over material together, making decisions about what to include and where to put it, were all intellectually stimulating and fun thanks to her. Edward Beckett, Sam’s nephew and the executor of his estate, has written the foreword and Paul Auster the preface for a book that chronicles a professional and personal relationship between two men who revolutionized the world of literature.
“Birth was the death of him.” – Samuel Beckett
JW: Are there any current trends that you like in theatre, Lois? Any particular directors or productions that interest you?
Dr. Lois Oppenheim: I really don’t consider myself a specialist of the theater. Every time I say that to a colleague, the response is a chuckle of disbelief. Yes, I have written extensively on the theater, but Beckett’s theater primarily. Yes, I edited a book on directing, but again that was on directing Beckett’s plays, and I have conducted public interviews with directors, but mostly about directing Beckett. That is not to say I don’t love the theater; I do! But I don’t consider myself highly informed outside of the Beckett arena. That said, the work of Edward Albee I find absolutely brilliant and run to see every production I can. Mr. Albee was also a very gracious interviewee when I conversed with him at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, a fascinating participant in a round-table I moderated at the Philoctetes Center, and at other such personal encounters as well. (Those events can be viewed online and the NYPSI interview has been published in “Psychoanalysis and the Artistic Endeavor: Conversations with Literary and Visual Artists.”) Albee’s directing of Beckett’s work is something that has been of particular interest to me for he respected Beckett to the utmost degree — he really revered him — and claimed to be veraciously loyal to Beckett’s stage directions which are famously explicit. Yet he did take some sort of directorial liberty with Beclett’s work, at least on one occasion. How he contextualizes that as loyalty is exceedingly smart.
I’m not a great fan of “the Bard” or of pre-twentieth century work generally speaking (as blasphemous as that may sound), but do love to see anything modern or contemporary, especially if it’s American, French, or Irish!
“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” – Samuel Beckett
JW: Which of the arts to do you find to be your favorite?
Dr. Lois Oppenheim: I was for many years a professional dancer and that is still at the heart of my identity. But I love writing about all the arts; I take great pleasure in writing (which isn’t to say it is without pain) and creativity itself is what has most meaning to me so any creative medium interests me.
My “favorites” to write about are literature and painting–more precisely, the work of modernist writers and painters. It is an extraordinary thing to discover a painter, say, with whose work you were only familiar in a limited way and find that suddenly you HAVE to explore some aspect of it. Agnes Martin is one such painter: I am fascinated by her late paintings at present and very engaged in exploring them in a book where I also look at the experiential dimension of creative process in dance, performance art, photography and more as it relates to the experience of viewing.
As I am co-authoring this book (the first of my books to be written with a colleague), I am exposed to another critic’s passions in a way one isn’t in simply reading the work of someone else. And this has been enlightening as our tastes sometimes differ, though not in any way that might impede our psychoanalytically and neuroscientifically oriented investigations. On the contrary.
That said, Beckett and a number of twentieth-century French writers will always be home base. Beckett was there from the start; I return to him often (in fact, there is a sense in which I never leave his work); and I suspect I will go on writing about his theater and prose as long as I write.
JW: What is the role of the critic in theater and the arts?
Dr. Lois Oppenheim: I find very disturbing the work of those critics, particularly in the theater, who find it imperative to tell the entire narrative so that it cannot be fresh when one views the work. Do I want to know what happens in a novel before reading it? Certainly not. And the same is true of the theater. HOW a novel takes shape, HOW a play comes together, or HOW and WHY they fail to: these are the roles of the critic in my opinion. Too many critics focus mightily on the story at hand, whatever the art form, rather than what really allows it to succeed or not. That, to my way of thinking, is the role of the critic, to look, in other words, at what makes it what it is.
Moreover, a judgment can only represent one individual’s opinion and the pronouncement of a work as good or bad is not of much use to me as a reader of a review, at least without a solid investigation of why it is felt to be so, which is something that all too often is given short shrift as the telling of the story is put in high relief. No wonder Beckett slandered the “crritic!” as he did in “Waiting for Godot.”