Shakespeare and Beckett Revisited: A Phenomenology of Theater


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Comparisons of William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett have been popular among academic critics over the past few decades. In the locus classicus of such comparisons, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Polish critic Jan Kott memorably argued that Shakespeare's King Lear bore a deep thematic resemblance to Beckett's dark absurdist dramas.1 Beckett's universe of the grotesque, of incomprehensible punishment and painful endurance, offered Kott the vision he needed to reinvent Shakespeare for Eastern European audiences who had undergone the atrocities of world war, concentration camps, fascism, and widespread oppression. Kott's Shakespeare, like Beckett, unflinchingly exposed the "absurd mechanism" at work in the universe and penetrated to "the thing itself," as Lear called man stripped to the bareness of his existence; through the ethos of Beckett's dramaturgy, Kott offered critics and directors a stark modernist approach to Shakespeare's histories and tragedies that rejected both nineteenth-century romanticized interpretations and realist-historical stagings. If the ultimate test of a theater critic's vision lies in its embodiment in a successful production, then Kott has seen the theatrical viability of his ideas proven beyond a doubt. Impressed with Kott's famous essay, "King Lear or Endgame," Peter Brook produced King Lear as a philosophically absurd, ponderous piece of theater that robbed the play's world of Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar's redemptive virtues-goodness, kindness, generous service, and love.2 As Charles Marowitz, Brook's assistant director, commented in his "Lear Log," the production was "not so much Shakespeare in the style of Beckett as it [was] Beckett in the style of Shakespeare, for Brook believes that the cue for Beckett's bleakness was given by the merciless King Lear."3 There were no consolations and no catharsis to be had in Brook's theater; many of those who saw his Stratford production in 1962 found themselves alienated, as in a Brechtian drama, "strangely unmoved," yet compelled to watch, as Robert Speaight claimed in his review.4 Speaight chastised the Stratford directorate for its "flirt with a fashionable and fugitive existentialism."5

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