In India, everything must stop to let a sacred cow pass. In Western culture, the rational mind must stop inquiring to let the words of that most sacred of cows, Samuel Beckett, pass for theater. It is worse than politically incorrect—it is downright hazardous—to question his artistic supremacy.
Early and middle Beckett were indeed wonderful. But then Sam became like one of those self-destructive body artists, cutting off more and more body parts—i.e., more and more of what makes a play alive. You can peruse texts like Not I (spoken by an illuminated mouth on an otherwise darkened stage), A Piece of Monologue (more like a clunky chunk), and Footfalls (wherein the protagonist clomps back and forth along a lighted strip of stage, always nine steps and turn), which constitute the first half of Beckett/Albee, and read quite a lot out of or into them. On the stage, however, they come across as sheer mystification. Contrary to what Tom Stoppard has claimed in defense of them, I say that drama is words plus x, whatever that x may be, not Beckett’s x minus 5 and, later, minus 25, redefining theater, as Stoppard exultantly asserts. This, to me, is not redefining; it is refining away.
To be sure, the audience, Pavlovianly primed by some of our premier playwrights and critics, laughs and laughs, and applauds and applauds. One wonders how many theatergoers, queried about just what they saw and cheered, could come up with a cogent reply. Would they even know that the stuff is the exact antithesis of life-affirming?
In the second half, with Albee’s Counting the Ways, the laughs become deafening cachinnations, and here there are some funny things. It is all very brief scenes—some lasting no more than a few seconds—from the life of He and She, a married couple meant to be archetypal, but mostly just arch. They ask troubling questions of each other and indulge in some weird, sometimes comic antics. As expertly played by Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, it is tremendously cute, though it does go on—not awfully, but merely too, long.