An Irishman’s Diary on Berlin’s tribute to Samuel Beckett
A rare outing for a unique work
“Over a liquid lunch of beer, the Irish writer listened to Feldman’s proposal – to collaborate on an opera.” Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The inauspicious meeting leads to an auspicious outcome. It was 1976 and Samuel Beckett was hard at work in Berlin’s Schiller Theatre where, a year previously, he had caused a theatrical sensation with his directorial debut of Waiting for Godot. Now he was working on the German premieres of That Time and Footfalls.
On September 20th about noon, the dramatist-turned-director was visited in the Werkstatt rehearsal space by the American composer Morton Feldman.
“I was led from daylight into a dark theatre, on stage, where I was presented to an invisible Beckett,” said Feldman later, who had poor eyesight and thick glasses. “He shook hands with my thumb and I fell softly down a huge black curtain to the ground.”
Feldman’s escort giggled, the composer recalled, while the assembled cast and crew began murmuring at the farcical scene. To escape his mortification the American composer invited Beckett to eat with him nearby.
Over a liquid lunch of beer, the Irish writer listened to Feldman’s proposal – to collaborate on an opera. The notoriously shy Beckett was embarrassed by the approach, telling the composer “Mr Feldman, I don’t like opera ... I don’t like my words being set to music.” But Feldman persisted, saying: “I don’t blame you ... I’m in complete agreement. In fact it’s very seldom that I’ve used words.”
Beckett, now confused, asked his visitor just what it was he wanted. Feldman said he had searched the Irishman’s existing writings for inspiration but was still hunting for “the quintessence, something that just hovered”.
Intrigued, Beckett took a pen and began writing down what he said was the “only theme in his life”, promised to polish it up and send on the result. A month later, a postcard arrived from Berlin to Feldman at the University of New York in Buffalo, with a text beginning: “to and fro in shadow/from inner to outer shadow/ from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself/ by way of neither”.
Thus began and ended Beckett’s contribution to Neither, the music for which Feldman had already begun composing. He said later: “I learned what an overture is – waiting for the text.”
The resulting work is a curious beast – a one-act anti-opera with music that is disturbing and dissonant yet flowing and elegant, like an art-house original later sampled by an entire generation of Hollywood horror scores, from The Shining to The Omen.
Last month Neither was given a rare outing at the place of its conception, Berlin’s Schiller Theatre, in a double-bill conceived by British director Katie Mitchell.
She opened the evening with Beckett’s short work Footfalls, which follows May as she paces back and forth on the stage – nine steps and turn, nine steps and turn. Mitchell’s May wears a heavy Victorian black dress, pacing as she carries on a discussion with her off-stage, unseen mother. Whether either is actually there – or whether we are watching a ghost story – is left to the audience.
In Mitchell’s staging – with a simple room with doorways left and right, illuminated offstage – Footfalls makes a seamless transition to Neither, as the backdrop lifts to reveal another woman, dressed identically to May, also pacing the stage. Again and again the backdrop lifts to reveal another May, and another, and another.
It’s a disturbing, grand moment of theatre, as if Mitchell has invited Susan Hill’s Woman in Black, Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers, Billie Whitelaw’s demonic Mrs Baylock and five other fearful females to torment May in her limbo. As one woman sings Beckett’s 16 lines, the eight other black figures pace their lines in futility, each woman’s illuminated pair of doors to salvation closing as they approach. Mitchell and her collaborators are offering their audience a Gesamtkunstwerk of existentialism without the exit.
“The subject essentially is whether you’re in the shadows of understanding or non-understanding,” said Feldman later. “I mean, finally you’re in the shadows. You’re not going to arrive at any understanding at all; you’re just left there holding this – the hot potato which is life.”
The show got a rousing reception for Mitchell, co-director Joseph Alford and choreographer Signe Fabricius.
“Footfalls is my favourite play, it’s a study in despair,” said Mitchell. “The opera is not unsimilar – bleak, dark, formally radical and despairing.”
Despite its short duration and limited – now completed – run, Footfalls-Neither was a thrilling tribute from Berlin’s adoptive theatrical home to its favourite Irishman, a quarter century after his death.