Sunday, May 11, 2008

Beckett & San Quentin Drama Workshop

Many people may not know of this collaboration between former inmate Rick Cluchey and Beckett, that staged three of his plays according to his directions. Cluchey had been jailed in a trumped-up case. He had earlier botched a robbery in L.A. in 1955 and shot himself with his own gun in his pants. He had a wife, two kids, was fresh out of the Army, and was desperate. Six months later he was jailed for kidnapping after an argument with a low-life pimp that got out of hand in a moving car. His second attempt at a life of crime brought him close to the death penalty under a cruelly meticulous prosecutor's application of the "Little Lindbergh Law." His victim testified that it was a brawl that went too far; he asked that Cluchey be released. However, the hotel chain on whose property the assault occurred wanted to make a lesson of the fracas.

Cluchey, about twenty when he faced life without parole, served a decade at what (at least until Pelican Bay's panopticon that would have angered I imagine Foucault if not Bentham) Californians know as the worst prison. Knowing as much or as little as the average con about what used to be deemed (if stereotypically) "the theatre of the absurd," he saw "Waiting for Godot" when the San Francisco Actor's Theater performed it there in 1957; he caught the acting bug and went on to work in or act in thirty-five plays. One of those appearing in "Godot," Alan Mandell, befriended Cluchey and championed his cause. Pat Brown on his last day in office after losing the gubernatorial race to Reagan considered life parole rather than the original life sentence; his son, Jerry, finally granted Cluchey a full pardon after a decade more of "civil death parole."

After prison, Cluchey worked in drama with his former cellmates, and became a playwright himself as well as a devoted interpreter of Beckett's characters. In 1973, he invited Beckett to a production of "Endgame." A close friendship blossomed, which does not surprise me. I've read in Anthony Cronin's splendid (and better than James Knowlson's more guarded "authorized") biography, "The Last Modernist," of the many decent and humane kindnesses on many "ordinary people" bestowed by a shy man who found himself caricatured after "Godot" became a beatnik-with-Gitanes sensation. Cluchey, cited in Skip Kaltenheuser's article that you can link to in full below, is worth quoting at length on his understanding of his close bonds with Beckett.

"Beckett was hit by a lot of labels, the victim of a lot of words. Avoiding interviews, he was greatly misunderstood," says Cluchey. "Everyone thought him an atheist, but he wasn't. Our common exchange, come and go, was 'God bless, Sam,' 'God bless, Rick.' He was a spiritual man with an Irish sense of humor who carried deep pain from his identification with the harsher events in the world. He was one of the originals, with Hemingway, against the loyalist movement in Spain, and a member of the French resistance—most of his group were killed. But Beckett was a stoic, not a cynic. He looked at the moment very closely. He was not a nihilist, but a minimalist, his poetic vision is distilled to the last drop." Indeed, Karl Ragnar Gierow, then secretary of the eighteen-member Swedish Academy that represents the literary establishment, fended off confusion over Alfred Nobel's mandate to honor uplifting literature. "The degradation of humanity is a recurrent theme in Beckett's writing," said Cluchey, "and to this extent his philosophy, simply accentuated by elements of the grotesque and of tragic farce, can be said to be a negativism that knows no heaven." Then, likening Beckett's work to a photograph, he says that printing a negative produces "a positive, a clarification, with the black proving to be the light of day, the parts in deepest shade, those which reflect the light sources. The perception of human degradation is not possible if human values are denied. This is the source of inner cleansing, the life force in spite of everything, in Beckett's pessimism. I look upon Beckett as a saintly man, who certainly made it easier for a lot of us who were trying to write for the theater," continues Cluchey. "He was a breakthrough dramatist, a form-smasher. The prose he was writing at the time had gone dry, and he turned to the theater for some relief from that process. But he was a man in his fifties before he ever saw his name on the theater marquee. He struggled all his life."

For more of this "saintly man," I recommend his publisher John Calder's eloquent monograph, "The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett." I post my review of it (via Amazon US) separately today on this blog. You can read a transcript of his own spoken recollections, downloadable on MP3s from the Naxos site at the bottom of this entry. He concludes them with a moving tribute to Beckett's unselfishness and gentility.

Calder's book's well worth the price or effort to seek out; for me, after a considerable amount of reading in and about the man, Calder's reflections on his secular courage remain some of the best insights ever into Beckett. His simple refusal to retreat into the compromises of piety or nihilism, as Calder convincingly displays, serve as a bold testament to our own frail position against the weight of the universe and the cold of interstellar annihilation.

Perhaps as with any dramatist worth the craft, this message may become recondite or strained on the page. Watching the performance of his monologues and dialogues, of course, lets their music unfold grimly or graciously. Now, you can listen easily.

You can find now parts of the video project from the 1980s "Beckett Directs Beckett" by the SQDW-- founded by Mandell & Cluchey-- here. As well as "Godot" (part 1 & 2 separately), "Krapp's Last Tape" and "Endgame" can be viewed. The link I give is to the UbuWeb avant-garde collective archive, via the great resource, that despite or because of its Deadhead milieu manages in John Perry Barlow fashion to keep alive the dream of an Internet that does more for us than sell us junk. See also on the invaluable "Wayback Machine" that retrieves, like Mr. Peabody knows, the past URLs that Sherman thought dead 404's.

The Smithsonian ripped off Cluchey, selling its filmed rights without compensating him at all, so this is one way the Net can redress past injustices. UbuNet also has Beckett's collaboration with Buster Keaton, "Film" (1964) and the script and film of the piece with Billie Whitelaw, "Not I" (1973). Cluchey, Mandell, and many more have also worked to do so by the unlikely power of dramas that, as the "San Quentin News" prison paper noted after that first "Godot," proved that "Beckett was not a writer for highbrows."

Skip Kaltenheuser writes on Cluchey in "Gadfly" Sept.-Oct. 1999 about The Prison Playwright

UbuNet for Beckett films; don't click the name hyperlinked, but the screen. Be patient. It's Beckett, after all. Slow down. Think of yourself behind bars. Relax. Get tense. Stay focused. Let yourself go.: Ubu Net: Beckett films; visit the Wayback Machine with your dormant URLs to type in, listen to endless shows of you know who and other jam bands, browse documents, videos, music, art, and all that generosity can provide in a free marketplace of ideas: main site

Photo: from Viper Records' CD of Cluchey reading Beckett's novel "Murphy," a disc he wishes to distribute free to prisoners. He writes about the recording here:Cluchey on "Murphy"

Here's the full text of Endgame at the Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources & Links meta-archive, highly recommended.

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