Fun_People Archive
11 Feb
Beckett's Breath

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 11 Feb 99 13:21:34 -0800
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Subject: Beckett's Breath

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              FEATURE - Londoners gasp at Beckett's 35-second play
                              (Reuters; 02/11/99)

    By Paul Keller     LONDON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - To admirers, a play that
has no actors, just a stage littered with rubbish and takes 35 seconds to
perform is a sardonic comment on the brevity of life.

    To others, it's a pretentious piece of nonsense.

    The play in question, "Breath", is making its London West End debut. It
was written by the late avant-garde Irish playwright and Nobel prize
winner Samuel Beckett.

    Beckett's reputation doesn't matter a jot to the play's detractors. The
enigmatic quality of one of the world's shortest dramatic performances
simply enrages some.

    "I just want to put on record that I thought the whole evening was
completely bogus and pretentious," was one spectator's view.

    The rarely staged piece features in a double bill with a 45-minute
Beckett play, "Krapp's Last Tape", at the Arts Theatre, a small
playhouse in London's theatreland.

    That the play is controversial should be no surprise. Beckett's austere,
tragi-comic works are notorious for dividing critical opinion and for
flouting the theatrical conventions of time, plot and character.

    When "Waiting for Godot" was first staged nearly 50 years ago, critics
ridiculed the story of two tramps who do nothing but hang about and bicker.
It went on to achieve international fame and has been translated into
several languages. It regularly features in critics' lists of plays of the


    The stage directions for "Breath" occupy a single page and take longer
to read than the performing of them.

    A stage strewn with debris becomes visible in a light that starts as
faint, becomes less faint then fades again.

    Simultaneously the audience hears a faint cry, what Beckett calls an
"instant of recorded vagitus", then the sound of a human breath, followed
by another faint cry as the lights fade and the curtain falls. Blink and
you'd miss it.

    "It's all very well to read about "Breath" but I thought it'd be
fascinating to see what it actually amounts to," said Edward Petherbridge,
a veteran British actor responsible for bringing "Breath" to London after
an international tour.

    Written in 1969, the play is viewed as something of a theatrical
novelty.  Its appeal is usually reckoned to be restricted to die-hard
Beckett aficionados and theatre directors with a taste for the bizarre.

    "I thought there might be a few people in London who might like to see
it.  And I was right there are a few people," he quips, referring to
the less than sell-out appeal Beckett's ultra-minimalist play has had for
London theatre goers.

    The play is backed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), one of
Britain's top theatre companies. Persuading the RSC to put it on was no
pushover either, Petherbridge recalls.

    "I remember when some of us started to lose our nerve about it and
wondered whether it was really worth doing, I heard myself saying that
it was a very good play, it only takes 35 seconds to run -- What else would
we be doing?"


    Audience reaction to "Breath" ranges between respectful silence and
uncontrollable mirth, says Petherbridge who is unrepentant about stageing
the play.

    "It seemed a chance to put it on. There are not that many. After all
you can't imagine coming just to see it."

    Petherbridge says people find "Breath" quietly affecting and, like other
Beckett plays, the imagery oddly haunting.

    The two-act play "Happy Days" has a woman buried up to her waist, then
up to her neck, in sand; another play has two characters living in
dustbins; while a lone, disembodied mouth is the focus of a disturbing
monologue called "Not I".

    "Breath" achieved uninvited notoriety 30 years ago when top British
theatre critic Kenneth Tynan asked Beckett for a contribution to his
bawdy London revue "Oh Calcutta!"

    Tynan included "Breath" in the revue but with one crucial amendment --
naked bodies were added to the rubbish as the play's props. Beckett was
reported to be appalled, especially as the revue's programme attributed the
work to him.

    "So this is the first London production of "Breath" in its purest form,"
says Petherbridge.

    In its sparse, inexplicable form, "Breath", superficially at least,
seems to sum up a writer who loathed the limelight and avoided explaining
the meaning of his work.

    Even when awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 1969, Beckett stayed at
home. He never gave press interviews.

{Reuters:Entertainment-0210.00718}   02/11/99
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