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Beckett’s Endgame is canonical modern theater, and the American Repertory Theatre has staged it for the second time during the many years I’ve been a subscriber. An earlier production in 1984 was directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, a co-founder with Lee Breuer et al of the legendary theatrical mavens, Mabou Mines, which, along with Robert Wilson, were the most important theatrical influences on my life in the 70’s in New York City.

Is Endgame too bleak for these times? Well, maybe. But it is also hauntingly exacting in its archetypal austerity. And for me personally, it is a default measuring device for how the force fields of my life have shifted. I first saw it performed in the 60s in San Francisco during a time when life as we knew it was being ripped open and replaced with an unleashed wild energy of change. That shift was intoxicating, exciting and personal, and Beckett was a clarion reminder of the profundity of the revolution at hand. Or so it seemed to a wide eyed, teenaged idealist.

Twenty years later in Cambridge, the center of gravity of my life had turned domestic, having just had three children in three years (and yes, we did finally figure out what was causing that.) At that point in my life, the existential angst of Endgame felt more theatrical than a desperate call from an inchoate world consciousness.

Now, 25 years after that viewing, I watched the play last night and felt as though I had circled back into a world where catastrophic change is rampant and ubiquitous, where the unknowns are winning out against the knowns. Bleak and intense, Endgame has proven itself to be a play for all seasons—certainly in my life anyway.

A few excellent quotes on Beckett are provided below thanks to the dramaturgy work of ART’s Heidi Nelson:

One has to give up the comfort or security of a single interpretation of Endgame, recognizing that the play does not work towards the clarification of meaning but, rather, towards the clarification of the impossibility of meaning.

Beckett’s unequivocal refusal to discuss his plays, clarify intentions or comment upon the meaning of his work must derivce from his own awareness that the significance of his dramas depends upon their exercise of indeterminacies, not from their representation of experience that can be translated into interpretations of human behavior. The radical simplicity of the environments he creates and the ambiguous nature of the time he imitates force his spectators to confront the very uncertainties that plague the minds of his characters.

—Charles R. Lyons

At the root of his art was a philosophy of the deepest yet most courageous pessimism, exploring man’s relationship with his God. With Beckett, one searched for hope amid despair and continued living with a kind of stoicism.

—Mel Gussow

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Tom Stoppard and Conor McPherson each hold pole positions in their respective areas of expertise—Stoppard is the master of idea-driven theater and McPherson is the feelings first guy. In the production of Shining City currently playing in Boston, McPherson’s characters carve out a reality driven by the way it feels inside rather than some rational, linear external version of the story. McPherson has an ear for language of the human heart the way Stoppard has a mind that can constellate powerful ideas into drama.

Here’s a brief overview from critic Albert Williams:

When Shining City made its Broadway debut in 2006, its author, Irish playwright Conor McPherson, candidly discussed his painful journey toward sobriety after years of alcohol abuse—an addiction that nearly cost him his life in 2001, when at the age of 29 he was hospitalized with pancreatitis. “In going to therapists, I realized how many crazy people are in that job,” McPherson told a New York Times writer. “To want to do a job like that, you have to be very attracted to dysfunction.”

The same can be said of most playwrights. And McPherson is a very good playwright. In Shining City—now receiving its beautifully acted Chicago premiere under the direction of Robert Falls, who also staged the New York production—McPherson fuses extraordinary skill at shaping language with an aching awareness of the difficulties of communicating. His characters are remarkably real, and the psychological and spiritual journeys they take are readily recognizable; McPherson has clearly invested himself in each of them.

When McPherson wrote about Samuel Beckett, theater god and fellow Irishman, he holds up a mirror for his own work’s power:

Each one [of Beckett’s plays] is a beautifully honed, determined, focused world unto itself…I believe that his plays will continue to echo through time because he managed to articulate a feeling as opposed to an idea. And that feeling is the unique human predicament of being alive and conscious. Of course, it’s a very complicated feeling (and it’s a complicated idea), but he makes it look simple because his great genius, along with his incomparable literary power, was the precision and clarity he brought to bear in depicting the human condition itself.

“I’ve always had an existential darkness,” McPherson says…”An awareness of the predicament of being alive. We’re alive in this cold and mysterious universe, and we’re only very small. That seems to me to be a stunning predicament.”

It IS a stunning predicament. But when McPherson crafts characters who can speak with such strange and sometimes mad clarity, I am reassured to know that angst is not a solitary journey.

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