Archives Diary: Beckett Goes Head-to-Head with ART, 1984

Samuel Beckett Caricature by Edmund S. Valtman

It comes as little surprise that the work of the enigmatic Samuel Beckett might stir up controversy from time to time, especially given that many of his works deal with the absurdity of life and his later works became increasingly minimal. The Burns Library holds a significant collection of Samuel Beckett materials, which includes some of the letters, notes from legal proceedings and other documents surrounding a particularly polemical production of Endgame.

As the anniversary of Beckett’s 1969 Nobel Prize in literature approaches, it seems time to honor the Irish author and playwright by sharing some of the details of the controversy surrounding the American Repertory Theater’s 1984 production of Endgame. Please note that this post is from the perspective not of a Beckett scholar, but rather of a graduate student with some knowledge of the collection after reprocessing the manuscript collection over several months and who has great enthusiasm for the projects we carry out in the Archives & Manuscripts Department of the Burns Library.

The Samuel Beckett Collection was due for review, rehousing (new folders and boxes for preservation), and finding aid revision. The ultimate goal of this project was to improve physical housing and compile a single easily searchable finding aid so that researchers can quickly determine what they need and where it is within the collection. As we came closer to finishing the project, we developed a sense of its importance: being on the Graduate Research Assistant side of the Beckett Collection could be frustrating at times, but as the bits and pieces came together to form a new and well organized corpus, we could see exactly how this project was going to benefit not only scholars and other visitors who come to use the material, but the library staff as well.

Aside from the satisfaction of seeing the direct results of our rehousing work, it was truly a treat to find surprising and sometimes scandalous bits of correspondence in the collection, in particular in the Samuel Beckett – Barney Rosset section. Reading through someone’s letters (or in this case deciphering someone’s letters) can bring a reward of intrigue. Small notes can be psychologically and emotionally revealing; the use of one language over another (French vs. English in Beckett’s case) also speaks to some part of the man’s personality and his interactions with the world around him. In my view one of the most revealing moments in Beckett’s later life is his response to the 1984 ART production of Beckett’s Endgame in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In brief, ART director JoAnne Akalaitis cast the play and designed its set with seemingly little regard for Beckett’s very precise instructions. Well known for a serious attachment to his own instructions for his plays and for giving little room for interpretation, Beckett gave the ART a furious response which ended in a law suit. The legal battle yielded an uncommon agreement in which the production went ahead as directed by Akalaitis, but with a two-page insert addressed to the audience by Beckett in the theater program.

Beckett’s attorneys in this case, Martin Garbus and Gerald E. Singleton, describe its details in their 1984 article in New York Law Journal, including the justification of Beckett’s response as owner of intellectual property (Endgame). In the article they juxtapose Beckett’s stage instructions with a description of the ART production set: “Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins” (2); “The ART production is set in an underground milieu subway tunnel, with a bombed-out, vandalized subway car extending halfway across the stage. In the rear, a wall rises the full height of the stage, with long, narrow iron ladders climbing to the top in the places where the ‘windows’ are supposed to be. Instead of two plain ‘ashbins,’ the ART production substitutes seven beat up oil drums” (Garbus 3).

This article predicts, in some way, what the audience would ultimately see in the theater program the night of the show. Due to financial issues Beckett could not go forward with the lawsuit, therefore he agreed to allow the production with the aforementioned two-page insert. First came the initial page of Endgame, complete with Beckett’s own stage instructions; second was a message from Beckett stating the following, as seen in Jeff McLaughlin’s 1984 article in The Boston Globe: “Any production of ‘Endgame’ which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production, which dismisses my directions, is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.’”

Just as exciting and interesting as reading the correspondence between Beckett, his US literary agent Barney Rosset and ART was the outpouring of responses from the community, including lawyers, actors, theater students, directors, professors and other playwrights. The responses varied greatly, but all centered around the larger issue which came out of the Beckett-ART conflict: what are the limitations on a living author when it comes to reproductions of his or her work?

Many people argued that technically speaking, the ART production broke its contract after having agreed to work with Beckett material knowing he would bind (or try to bind) them to his original stage instructions. Whether or not this was the case was made unclear by the results of the legal proceedings. In my view, the most interesting part of this long lasting and far-reaching debate is that no clear response was generated. The demand for a playwright to collaborate and the playwrights’ ownership of intellectual property hovered around each other in an amorphous grey area because it was — and continues to be — a very difficult question.

This post could go on about the debate the ensued from this production, but its objective is to give a brief look the Endgame-ART controversy, which we are sharing with the community in hopes of sparking interest not only in Beckett, his life and his work, but in the truly exciting materials and resources that are available in the John J. Burns library.

For more information on Samuel Beckett, Barney Rosset or any of the information shared in this post please visit the Reading Room at the Burns Library. All articles cited in this post can be found there. For the intellectual property argument, see Justin Hughes’ “Between Art and Law”. Beckett biographical information came from Roger Bolan’s “Desperately Seeking Sam”.

  • Katie Lyle, Graduate Research Assistant, Burns Library & Ph.D. Student in the Department of Romance Languages, Boston College

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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