I want to tell you the three most important theatrical events of my life. There have been many—my first Sophocles, my first Shakespeare, my first Molière, my first Uncle Vanya, my first this, my first that, the extraordinary excesses of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which I saw when I was sixteen . . . But here are three that have shaped me as a playwright:
When I was six years old, my nanny took me into New York to see a musical called Jumbo, at the old Hippodrome Theater. It starred Jimmy Durante and an elephant. The interaction between Jimmy Durante and that elephant—the magic of it, the wonder of it—filled my very young mind with the wonder of theater, the amazing things that can happen with real people and real animals on a stage together.
In my early teens, I was in New York again, without my nanny, to see an extraordinary show called Hellzapoppin, with Olsen and Johnson, who were two vaudeville performers. It was my first experience of the Theater of the Absurd. There was no Theater of the Absurd then, but I had the experience of it. For, at the beginning of this show, audiences would be brought down by an usher, and taken to the wrong seat, and then, with the usher, be forced to climb over several other seats. There was a man in the lobby at the beginning of the show with a small plant, calling out for “Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown!” At intermission: “Plant for Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown!” And at the end of the show, when we came out into the lobby, there was a huge tree, and sitting on the top was this usher, calling in the distance, “Mr. Brown! Tree for Mr. Brown!” It was pure and extraordinary Theater of the Absurd.
The next, most important experience was my first encounter with Sam Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape. These are related events, because in each case the wonder of the possibilities of theater, of live theater, were brought home. I first saw Krapp’s Last Tape in West Berlin, in German, where my play The Zoo Story was having its world premiere. Four months later they were done together in New York at the Provincetown Playhouse. And while my play may have suffered something, being reverted into the original from the German, Beckett’s play did not. It was an extraordinary event. The reality, the purity of it, the wisdom, the sadness, the beauty of it.
I want to tell you about some of the things that Beckett has taught me. He taught me, more than anything else, and first: Do not ever imitate another playwright, especially if it’s Sam Beckett you’re planning to imitate. He is unique, he cannot be imitated; he cannot even be parodied, which is a true test of the extraordinary power of a writer. I don’t understand why so many people think that Sam Beckett is an avant-garde playwright. I don’t understand why so many people think that his work is obscure and difficult. Take Happy Days, for example. Completely naturalistic play. Act 1, a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Well, we know that feeling, yes? Act 2, the woman is buried up to her neck—she is older—in a mound of earth. We know that feeling, too. That, by the way, is why it is a two-act play and not a three-act play.
Beckett was capable of mixing metaphor and reality without the metaphor ever getting in the way of the reality. He is the most naturalistic of playwrights. I’m convinced that if Waiting for Godot had first been performed on an outdoor patio, nobody would have been confused. And had Endgame been done in a recreation room, nobody would have said, “This is obscure, this is difficult, this is avant-garde.” No writer that I know writes as purely, as clearly, as Sam Beckett does. There’s so much that we playwrights can learn from him. Do not write a word that is not necessary. No music. Listen to the sounds, the music your characters make, and put that down precisely, but not an extra note, not an extra word.
There are probably four or five essential playwrights in the twentieth century: Beckett, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett. And perhaps there are four essential novelists in the twentieth century: Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett. Because Beckett did something extraordinary that no other writer has ever done. Not only did he reinvent the play, not only did he reinvent the drama, but he also reinvented the novel. This simple, pure, clear, most naturalistic, and most valuable of playwrights.