Robert Scanlan: The Beckett policeman

Samuel BeckettRobert Scanlan, a leading Samuel Beckett scholar and director, talks about his friendship and work with the playwright.

By Jake Stepansky '17

Robert ScanlanWhen the women had been swallowed up into the yawning blackness below the stage, only Death stood, stock-still and head bowed, and a palpable silence filled the dim theater.

Then, like that, the house lights were on and the evening of theater was over.

At first, I thought that denying a curtain call to a group of actresses was cruel. Later, the show’s director, Robert Scanlan, a professor at Harvard for many years, told me the actresses had made this decision to preserve the intensity and integrity of the work. As one of the world’s leading scholars and directors of plays by Samuel Beckett, Scanlan creates tour-de-force productions of the Irish playwright’s works.

Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure – the show with the missing curtain call – took place in September at Farkas Hall. I found it challenging, visceral and profound. After the production closed, I met up with Scanlan for coffee at a crowded back table in Algier’s (one of his haunts in Cambridge). We spoke at length about his relationship with Beckett and about working as a theater artist. An edited version of our exchange follows.  

How did you become involved with Samuel Beckett?

I met him in 1981, but I had worked with his work for a decade. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Beckett, and I was involved with Mabou Mines, the avant-garde theater company started in the early 70s. They knew Beckett well. It’s through my collaboration with them that I met Beckett. We were working on a piece that was based on a prose text of his called Company. The year it came out, we started staging it, and I was collaborating with one of the Mabou Mines directors. Beckett was very concerned with what we were doing, so that became an area of expertise for me without really meaning to be. I was mainly a theater director; still am. But he wanted to know exactly how we were handling something he had not written for the stage.

How has your connection to Beckett influenced your work and your study?

Being face to face with Beckett – as I am with you right now – is a life-changing experience. I grew up in France, so I’m fully bilingual. Beckett obviously liked that aspect of being able to talk to me in both languages interchangeably. As well known as he was, very few of his English-speaking friends were fluent in French and vice versa, so we just indulged in a kind of free wordplay that was very amusing. He was constantly punning and joking, but we also (without being humorous) would use whichever expression in whichever language seemed most appropriate for the conversation. He steered me towards a deeper understanding of how his plays work, how all of his work works and that’s shaped everything I’ve done. The influence is profound: He taught me things about the integrity of art and about not flinching when the material is extremely difficult. I learned [about] his immense artistic courage, his utter indifference to a general public acceptance. He was always digging for a much deeper cultural anchoring point, and that’s why he’s as great as he is.

What is it like to be an envoy of Beckett on campus and in the Boston area? 

It’s an awkward position, and I anticipated that it would be. I had become part of what got dubbed (not by a friend, but by an enemy) as The Beckett Police. I was frequently dispatched by him to review and report on other people’s productions, which can seem in the creative world like a betrayal. But because I was consulting so closely with him, I got the idea of what he was trying to protect, and I consented to protecting the same thing. In a funny way, he let me off the hook just before he died. At one of our last meetings he said, “Bob, it’s going to be impossible to control this,” which I took as a way of saying, “Don’t try – or don’t kill yourself doing it.” But what I’m trying to leave behind is a series of examples in productions like the one you saw of what’s at stake. My job is to pay my respects to Beckett by showing what he cared about so that future productions have that integrity he was trying to protect, and that it not be misinterpreted as limiting other people’s creativity.

If Beckett’s work is always to be performed as written by Beckett, does that limit the directors and designers in the creative process, or does that actually allow them more artistic freedom?

I like to compare this to what a concert pianist needs to achieve in terms of perfection. The idea of taking creative liberties while playing, say, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier or Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas is out of place. And to say that you’re a lesser artist because you are actually hitting all the notes as prescribed, making no mistakes, taking no variations, doing nothing but interpreting it to your fullest capacity to rise to the greatness of the art – well, that’s why following the rules, especially if you’re young, makes sense with Beckett. It doesn’t make sense with everybody, and there are a lot of mediocre artists who benefit from us taking liberties, and we all know that. But with Beckett, I simply have never seen it fail. With these plays, I learn something I did not know the more faithful I am to the spirit of the piece. Also, because I’ve been a teacher all my life, I’ve also learned that using Beckett as a pedagogical vehicle is a way of saying “Learn from the masters. Just because time has passed, don’t underestimate what you have to learn by doing it right and by doing it by the rules. These are not just rules; they’re actually detailed instructions of what’s really going on in these works of art.”