Archive | Roger Blin and Beckett by Mary Benson

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The following essay was first published in The London Magazine, October 1978, Volume 18, No. 7, and edited by Alan Ross. That year, Roger Blin (1907-1984) — actor and original director of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame — directed a new production of En Attendant Godot for the Comédie-Française in Paris.

Mary Benson


Roger Blin and Beckett

Roger Blin is convinced that reality is only attained through poetry, a conviction that informs his work in theatre. One of the great European directors of our time, he is habitually labelled avant-garde by writers on theatre and by critics. ‘Avant-garde?’ he mocks, ‘I don’t know what that is. It’s a word that escapes me completely. I have a text or subject in my hands; I try to follow it, to give it the greatest possible effect by rapport with the author, and in reaction to the playing of the actors. I have no ideas — no theories — on theatre at all.’

It was in this spirit that he chose to direct a work by an unknown playwright twenty-five years ago in Paris — a play that was to create a revolution in theatre and change the course of modern English drama. The play, of course, was Waiting for Godot. But for Roger Blin, it might never have been performed. Now his new production of En Attendant Godot has joined the repertoire of the Comédie Française in Paris. When first asked to direct the play for this company, he refused — classical French theatre had never interested him and he felt no rapport with this ‘official’ theatre; he himself had always been on the fringe — but then, as he had absolute confidence with the actors who would play Estragon and Vladimir — Jean-Paul Roussillon and Michel Aumont — and the others too, and as many people, especially the young, hadn’t seen the play except for what he regarded as caricatures, he eventually agreed to do it. Since its opening at the Odéon theatre in February, performances have been packed out.

I met Blin in a friend’s apartment high up in Montmatre where Spring sunlight filtered through the windows. He is a modest, reserved man — very tall with disorderly greying hair. One hand tensely gripping a small clay pipe, he overcame his persistent stammer to recount how it had all come about, back in 1949: ‘Beckett didn’t know me, I had a little theatre — the Gaité Montparnasse — somebody told him I was a director who might put on the play he’d just written. I’d directed Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata and Beckett came to see it. He came a second time.’ Beckett, who is on record as saying he chose Blin because his production was faithful to the text and because the theatre was nearly empty every night, then sent a copy of En Attendant Godot to Blin.

‘I read it at once without understanding it very well, but I felt a kind of mysterious voice which shook my natural laziness, which said it must be put on and I must direct it, I absolutely must. I proposed it to associates who didn’t want to do it. I took it to a number of theatre managers in Paris — they laughed in my face.’ In 1950 Blin first met Beckett — ‘We liked each other at once.’ Meanwhile he had found friends willing to work with him on the play: ‘Beckett himself hadn’t seen his characters really in writing them, he had heard their voices but hadn’t visualized them, so it fell to me to choose the actors and, among them, those who liked the play and to find those also who would work without being paid and without hope of performing it.’

In an afterthought he adds: ‘I was quite mad about Keaton, Chaplin, above all — Harry Langdon — those early American comics; when I first had Godot in my hands, that’s what I thought of.’ He cast an out-of-work music-hall artist as Vladimir — ‘Raimbourg, a small man, he was a quite extraordinary Vladimir.’ (Indeed, it was not until after Raimbourg’s death three years ago that Blin felt open to consider a new actor in the part.)

All these years later Blin can speak philosophically about the three years’ search for a theatre: ‘We had plenty of time to work on the play, to examine all the questions, and many false trails were avoided. Also, talking with Beckett, though he didn’t want to give me much information on it.’ One of Beckett’s clues was that ‘godot’ came from ‘godillot’ — hobnailed boot — chosen because of the importance of boots in the play which is perhaps why in the present production Blin spotlighted Estragon’s boots where they had been abandoned at the end of Act I. Blin continues: ‘I had seen the religious context — the tree representing the Cross, the two tramps the two thieves and the stories of being saved or not, etc. Some were to say, “At last, a Christian play!” but I soon came to the conviction that for Beckett it was a mockery. The four characters represent one, who is Man. One is more lucid than the other, one exploits the other, etc. I didn’t want to press the symbolic side — I know that at the end of the day the audience must get the play at the second level but to arrive there, it’s necessary to achieve the first level. I didn’t bother the actors by saying, “Look, careful, this is very important, it means something other than it seems”. I wanted them to discover it for themselves; through the rehearsals they should give something surpassing the everyday realism of tramps — who finally are not tramps but you and me.’

Little by little they succeeded in ‘raising’ the play. The actors soon got its melody, the pauses, the rhythm. ‘Then, for the movements, I first thought of something quite elementary, of beginning with their ailments: Estragon has bad feet and is always falling asleep so is more static, while Vladimir has bladder trouble and is therefore much more mobile, going from time to time to relieve himself — or try to — he succeeds or he doesn’t. And Pozzo is carried along by his stomach — I imagined also he has flat feet, while Lucky is completely gaga, an ex-intellectual who gives a lecture, this lecture is not without meaning, based on three principal phases: the absence of God, then the dwindling of humanity and, following that, matter — stones and such things. If in this speech of Lucky which takes seven pages — if you cut out all repetition, you come to something which really stands up.’

Finally they understood the play — Blin and three of the actors that is — there still was no satisfactory Pozzo. ‘And really there was a kind of work done which wouldn’t have happened if it had been immediately taken by a theatre.’ Then his attempts to get a small subsidy succeeded and, with what would now amount to no less than £700, he at last found a theatre. Two weeks to opening and no Pozzo. An experienced actor himself, as he knew the lines, he plunged into the part. (Amazingly, when it comes to acting he completely overcomes his stammer through a technique of breathing.) Not that he was right for Pozzo — Beckett had imagined the character as a kind of mass, of flesh — ‘But I put on a bald pate and a false belly and a ‘fat’ voice; it was a total creation, the nearest I could get to the ideal Pozzo.’

The play was launched at the Petit Théâtre Babylone on 5 January, 1953 — ‘Without knowing what it was going to turn out as. I was convinced it was a great thing, and the actors also. Beckett had absolutely no idea — he hadn’t been in on the production but had attended some rehearsals.’ The outcome, as Blin puts it, was a ‘surprise’.

A sensation actually: wild applause broke out from some in the audience, others sat in baffled silence; fisticuffs were exchanged by pro’s and con’s; most critics demolished play and production but a handful wrote prophetically — among them the playwright Armand Salacrou: ‘We were waiting for this play of our time, with its new tone, its simple and modest language, and its closed, circular plot.’ Anouilh described it as ‘the music-hall sketch of Pascal’s Pensées as played by the Fratellini clowns’. Significant that playwrights were the first to value Godot — it is they who ever since have most radically felt its influence — to mention only Pinter and Fugard. It is all now a part of theatrical history, and Beckett was set on the path that led to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

His next play, Endgame, he dedicated to Blin. ‘I was very very moved by this,’ Blin recalls. ‘We first produced it in London in 1957 at the Royal Court, in French, because in spite of the success of Godot in France no manager wanted to do Fin de Partie — Beckett was bad news however much he was already famous.’ Blin directed, and played Hamm. Critics who had detested Godot, detested the new work even more — at least in Godot they had found something ‘deceptively’ mystical — Blin laughs. Nevertheless, the play had a success and he then directed it in Paris, later in Holland and Germany and, in 1970, took a French production to major cities in Eastern Europe. He regards his Hamm in a revival in Paris in 1968 as his best creation — ‘in the sense I was able to take my distance’. Meanwhile, he had directed Krapp’s Last TapeLa Dernière Bande — in Paris in 1958; it was only after directing it for Swiss television last year that he learned Beckett had intended the part for him.

Acting in Beckett’s plays, he says, is an ‘extremely heavy experience’. ‘You have to put all your flesh and guts into it yet, at the same time, you must give it an air of lightness. They aren’t roles that liberate you, like in a tragedy actors can liberate themselves by great shouts and gymnastics and that sort of thing.’ He observed the present actors in Godot: ‘It’s not at all for them a kind of story that continues — it alternates, sometimes classic, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, then all at once, mingled in the same phrase. The comic should never be farce and the tragic should never be lamentation. It’s a question of dosage — judging how much and then a delicate approach also.’ Recalling the original production, he adds: ‘Playing Pozzo every evening for 150 times, it’s a tremendous ordeal, it makes you ill, you are possessed by the character. Endgame also — Hamm is blind and I couldn’t use my eyes, I couldn’t budge from my armchair, everything had to come from the voice and a few gestures of the hands. It’s very very painful but — he emphasizes — ‘it’s really exhilarating.’

As a boy, Roger — son of a doctor in a Paris suburb and eldest of five — was sent to a religious school; a distasteful experience from which one particular incident stands out: a priest’s long-drawn-out sermon on death, delivered by candlelight with one candle after another gradually extinguished so that the final terrifying evocation of hell took place in pitch-dark. Roger emerged with a disgust for religion but, also, with an appetite for theatre. He made his acting debut in 1934 with Jacques Prévert in an agit-prop group and, in the same year, worked with Antonin Artaud — the obsessed, heroic and eventually mad exponent of a Theatre of Cruelty — playing a dumb murderer in The Cenci, a melodrama of rape, incest and killing. Ever since he has been categorized a ‘disciple’ of Artaud but though he cared for the man and the poet, and for his revolt, he never liked Artaud’s work in theatre — too stylized and demonstrative with the director omnipotent. Only in directing Genêt’s The Screens in 1966 has Blin used what he calls a ‘very visible’ style of direction. He worked with two other great directors and actors: Jean-Louis Barrault and Charles Dullin. He acted in films and was for a time a film critic.

Shakespeare to him means the need for a big theatre, a big cast, money. As a young man he played Buckingham in Richard III and in 1972 directed Macbeth in Strasbourg. ‘It amused me, I did it as if for children, it’s the play children prefer — the torments of Hamlet bore them — but the witches! I took three dwarfs; then I brought them back at the end, surrounding Malcolm to show it all continued and that he was an even worse bastard than Macbeth.’

Irish theatre greatly attracted him — Synge, Gregory, Dunsany, Yeats. He found himself in recognizable territory. ‘I think Beckett’s plays are very Irish — much more than people realize in France.’ With Lorca, too, he felt at home. And in 1976, after a serious illness, he chose to make his ‘comeback’ as a director with Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, translated by a friend, Isabelle Famchon. Thus he could situate the South African problem which had long concerned him, in Europe. Captivated by the play’s humanity and poetry, he worked — characteristically — for next to nothing.

The readiness to transcend reality by imagination — it is this quality he best remembers of the surrealists and expressionists he knew in the early days; and their attachment to a form of art which strips bare, to the point of brutality. ‘I believe in dreams,’ he has said. ‘I believe that certain things don’t come except in a certain state.’

Though deeply concerned in the history of our time — in 1936 joining the Popular Front and during the Occupation taking part in the Resistance — he is sceptical about political theatre which he sees as an attempt to ‘square the circle’. Films and television, however, can be influential in giving form to political or socially significant problems. Nor does he believe in the value of the theatre to educate: ‘I don’t think Brecht has made one more communist and I don’t think the despair and apparent resignation of Beckett has prevented people from defending their Cause, their beefsteak.’ (Robert Shaw wrote in London Magazine: ‘I don’t know why so many people call “Waiting for Godot” a depressing play. Beckett writes about suffering in a way that makes me feel exhilarated — that I must get up and get out and do what I can.’)

Reverting to the question of balance of comic and tragic in Godot, Blin thinks his new production is more comic than the original one. And has greater tenderness — there is an unforgettable moment when Estragon finds refuge in Vladimir’s arms. Beckett had spoken to him of the latent despair in the play — absolute, global despair — but, inside that despair, inside the sense of ‘I don’t know what to do, there’s nothing to do’, there is perhaps from time to time the possibility of lending someone a helping hand. Blin explains: ‘He meant perhaps that Godot can be taken a little against the grain and, at the end of the evening, one is left with a feeling of tenderness.’

Just as one comes away from talking to Roger Blin.

 

Endgame is playing at the Old Vic until March 28th, starrring Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Tickets are available here.

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