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Existential Dread Found Live on Stage at the Irish Rep in Samuel Beckett’s Challenging “Endgame”

Play: “Endgame”
Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Ciarán O’Reilly
Cast: John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin, Joe Grifasi, Patrice Johnson Chevannes
Run: Until April 16th (last four performances will also be live streamed)
Venue: Irish Repertory Theater
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenue)

In this world of upside-down values, Bizarro politics and contradictory social analysis, a viewing of any play by ultra-absurdist Samuel Beckett makes much more sense. So, when a new production of “Endgame, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, opened at New York City’s Irish Repertory Theater recently, it became something one must experience. Previews began at the end of January with an opening date taking place on February, 2nd, 2023. Starring John Douglas Thompson as Hamm, Bill Irwin as Clov, Joe Grifasi as Nagg and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Nell, the production was originally scheduled to run until mid March, but thanks to audience demand, it has now been extended until mid April.

This stark, one-act tragicomedy is focused on a blind, partially paralyzed, dominating older man (Thompson) sitting at center stage, his harried, servile companion (Irwin) and his geriatric parents (Grifasi and Chevannes) in an ramshackle old house in what seems like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Two garbage cans sit to the left of Hamm’s wheelchair. Only two small windows at the back suggest there is a world outside.

Hamm references some unspecified “end” whether it is to be the end of their lives or death of the world in general or the end of the events which make up the actual play. Much of the content consists of terse, back-and-forth dialogue between the characters which alternates between bantering and whimpering. Along with trivial stage actions, we are forced to wonder just how they ended up here.

What plot there is held together by Hamm’s telling of a grotesque story-within-a-story that erupts from his mouth from moment to moment. He does this with sometimes bombastic outbursts and other times, a pathetic whining.

An aesthetically profound part of the play is the way the story-within-story and the actual play converge at roughly the same time bringing this skeletal drama to a close. With such skillful actors as these, they eke out humor despite the bleakness, often delivered not with dialogue but with the silent profundity of a head nod, their expressive eyes or awkward gestures.

Upon Hamm’s loudly modulated voicing of the lines, Clov reacts with a world-weariness that lets us know this is not the first time this dynamic between them or the foursome for that matter, has taken place. If anything, Beckett has set this up as if we have been allowed a glimpse into these final moments. The play’s title refers to chess and frames the characters as acting out a losing battle with each other or their fate. Certainly, it’s an odd set of moves that has awarded this play with praise and proclamations that it is the ultimate expression of the existential dilemma — we keep going on no matter how absurd that notion is.

Taken as a whole, much of the dialogue adds up to nothing but bit pieces — sutured together within the context of these 85 minutes, they provoke, prod and compel the audience’s emotional reaction to the infuriating plight of the characters — mostly driven by Hamm’s powerful presence. Though it seems thoroughly unrelenting in its darkness, Clov begins to see a light at the end of the tunnel so there is a glimmer of possibilities.

Originally written in French (“Fin de partie”), the play was translated into English by Beckett himself and was first performed in French on April 3, 1957, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Written before, but premiering after his most well-known play, “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame” is among Beckett’s best works and a crucial influence on so many young avant-garde playwrights.

Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom has called it the greatest prose drama of the 20th century, saying, “I know of no other work of its reverberatory power.” Though some might consider “Waiting for Godot” his masterpiece, Beckett considered “Endgame” the most aesthetically perfect, compact representation of his artistic views on human existence. But both plays require repeated viewings to fully appreciate them.

The Seasons & Shakespeare With The American Ballet Theater

Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo in The Dream. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

At the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Saturday, October 29th, I had the especial privilege of attending a stunning program of mixed repertory featuring the marvelous artists of American Ballet Theater, in the final week of its fall season.

The first half of the event was a dazzling presentation of Frederick Ashton’s incredible The Dream, after William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to Felix Mendelssohn’s wonderful incidental music to the play, arranged by John Lanchbery and here admirably conducted by David LaMarche with the assistance of The Young People’s Chorus of New York City, under the direction of Francisco J. Nuñez. George Balanchine was probably Ashton’s only equal in greatness from the last century as a choreographer and The Dream is a masterpiece—a worthy counterpart to Balanchine’s own setting of the same story and music—and one of the most beautiful productions in the company’s repertoire. The attractive sets and costumes were designed by David Walker and the superlative lighting by John B. Read.

However, the ballet’s success owed as much to its sterling cast of interpreters as to its creators. Cassandra Trenary, who has proven to be a very fine ballerina, excelled in the role of Titania while Daniel Camargo was superb as Oberon. Elwince Magbitang astonished as Puck while Blaine Hoven was a characteristically brilliant Bottom. The four lovers of the play were also remarkable, including Betsy McBride as Helena, Alexandra Basmagy as Hermia, Patrick Frenette as Demetrius, and Sung Woo Han as Lysander. There was strong support from the secondary cast while the superiorcorps de balletwas in perfect form.

The second ballet in the program was also fabulous: Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s magnificent The Seasons, set to Alexander Glazunov’s delightful score—originally written for the immortal Marius Petipa—sensitively conducted by Charles Barker. Ratmansky—whose exquisite Whipped Cream was presented the previous week—is probably the greatest living choreographer andThe Seasonsis one of his best works. The splendid, colorful costumes were designed by Robert Perdziola.

This ballet too featured a superlative cast. The first section, “Winter,” was danced by Jarod Curley as Winter, Zimmi Coker as Frost, Ingrid Thoms as Ice, Sunmi Park as Hail, and Zhong-Jing Fang as Snow. In “Spring,” Joo Won Ahn was exceptional as Zephyr, alongside McBride again as the Rose and Fangqi Li as the Swallow. In “Summer,” Hee Seo shone as the Spirit of the Corn, with Michael de la Nuez as the Faun, and Melvin Lawovi and Jonathan Klein as Satyrs. Finally, “Autumn” featured Courtney Shealy as Bacchante and Hoven again terrific as Bacchus. The members of the graceful secondary cast are too numerous to be cited by name while thecorps de balletwas again wondrous.

I look forward to the return of this fantastic company next spring.

"Microfictions Vol. 3" Blends Sci-fi Concepts & Classical Music

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic with Roomful of Teeth performing world premiere of Caroline Shaw's "Microfictions, Vol. 3".Photo by Chris Lee

At the new David Geffen Hall—now aesthetically and acoustically enhanced—at Lincoln Center, on Sunday, October 23rd, I had the excellent fortune to attend a terrific matinee appearance of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden.

The program reached its apotheosis with its first presentation , a sterling realization of Claude Debussy’s glorious Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the greatest works in the history of music. The eminent vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, then joined the musicians for a compelling performance of the US Premiere of Caroline Shaw’s impressive Microfictions, Vol. 3. About the composer, the note for the program states that: “In 2019 she was one of 19 women composers selected by the New York Philharmonic for Project 19, the commissioning initiative to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the US the right to vote; Microfictions, Vol. 3 is the result.” It adds that Shaw

told the Dutch newspaper de Volksrant, “in my music I try to create a garden, a space where you feel, even for a moment, the breath of existence.” Much of Shaw’s work remains centered on vocal music and string ensembles.

It also explains that the work “is part of a series that Shaw began in 2021, inspired by the Twitter microfiction of T.R. Darling.”  Shaw’s own comment on the piece is as follows:

Microfictions, Vol. 3 is part of a series exploring my personal, intuitive connection between image and music. When designing a piece, I often begin by thinking of an object, place, person, or any non-musical thing and ask: if that thing were music, what would it sound like? (An orange. A tree. A cacophonous conversation.) That initial analogy rarely holds as a rigorous compositional system, but it does guide my intuition: imagining unusual juxtapositions; playing with triads as if they are blocks to be broken and tossed around; finger painting with harmony and texture with the kind of wonder and joy I felt about music as a child; pushing against my own inherited expectations of form.

I began this Microfictions series inspired by the work of T.R. Darling and other writers of micro science fiction (within a tweet’s 280 characters). For each movement, I would keep a log of different images or narratives that came to mind, allowing words and music to shape each other along the way. The resulting movement titles are my crafted distillations of those logs into something vivid, surreal, and playful — a space where the impossible colorfully coexists with the utterly familiar. Ultimately there is no right way to hear or understand this music, but I hope that these (very) short stories can simply be a delightful frame for the experience of creative listening and imagination.

The narrative titles of the work’s five sections are:

I. A filament of rust threaded through the pixelated chord structure of an old-growth forest.

II. Anton Webern steered his blue pickup into a field where grasses grew ten stories tall and the wind carried the weight of suggestion.

III. The ground beneath chattered relentlessly, its hard edge tempered only by elastic intonation and parenthetical umami.

IV. Suspended in iridescent fog, the chimes congealed to form a hyaline tsunami.

V. Clocks glided by each other through the diaphanous din of last year’s song of the summer. Time divided work and rest.

After an intermission, the program concluded marvelously with a rewarding account of Florence Price’s engaging Symphony No. 4. Program annotator Imani Danielle Mosley, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Florida, had this to say about the background of the piece and its composer:

The inspiration for her Fourth Symphony is unclear; we do not know if it was written for a contest, like her First Symphony, or some other occasion. Archival materials do tell us that Price was eager to have the work heard. In 1942 she wrote to Artur Rodziński, then conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra (and later Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), asking him to “examine some of [my] orchestral work .... I also have a symphony (D minor) which has not yet been performed publicly.”

Rodziński did not look over the work, and Price’s Fourth Symphony remained unperformed in her lifetime. It was one of her compositions that were found in her former summer home outside of St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009, more than a half-century after she died. This led to its premiere in 2018 by the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony, which subsequently released the only current recording of the work.

The elaborate opening movement—animated by the theme of the beautiful spiritual, “Wade in the Water”—like the piece as a whole, is within the mainstream of American compositional style of the era in which it was written and contains some jazzy inflections. The ensuing Andante cantabile has some of the work’s loveliest music, with melodies also recalling Negro spirituals. The populist strain of the symphony is most visible in the Allegro, based on the African-American dance-form, the Juba, while the finale is the score’s most exuberant movement. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a fabulous encore: Antonín Dvořák’s delightful Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46, No. 8.

I look forward to the remainder of the season.

King Vidor Reigns Over Lincoln Center As Part of Retrospective


From August 5th through the 14th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a major retrospective devoted to the director, King Vidor. Below is a commentary on the screenings that I attended.

La Bohème from 1926 was Vidor’s next work after his very successful The Big Parade—one of his strongest silent films, unfortunately screened in this series only in a digital format. It is based on Henri Murger’s famous Scenes of Bohemian Life, the source for Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, and was a project selected by Lillian Gish who was then at the peak of her career. Her magnificent performance as Mimi is one of the most memorable aspects of this moving work. Although the director had some disagreements with the actress about her approach, he nonetheless went on to say that “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.” (John Gilbert who was the lead in Vidor’s previous feature, is also superb as Rodolfe.) Gish had substantial control over the production but the material was evidently congenial to the director who here displays his mastery of melodrama, a genre of which he was to become one of the finest practitioners in Hollywood, alongside such sterling exemplars as D.W. Griffith, John M. Stahl, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli, among others. La Bohème features striking photography by Hendrik Sartov, who had worked with Gish previously, but regrettably the original elements do not appear to have survived in a pristine state, diminishing what visual pleasures it must have originally afforded. The presentation featured live piano accompaniment by the excellent Donald Sosin who performed along with all the silents in the series.

The Crowd, another of Vidor’s most important silent films and one of his most expressionistic despite its commitment to naturalism, is about the marital and economic struggles of a low-level worker in a large New York firm. It too has an extraordinary pair of leads: Eleanor Boardman—the director’s second wife—and James Murray, whom he discovered and who went on to have a tragic life that later inspired an unproduced screenplay by the filmmaker. The theme of the American Dream was to prove a crucial one in the Vidor’s career and his work displays a remarkable class-consciousness—he went on to re-use these protagonists in his even greater Our Daily Bread of 1934, one of the most left-wing films ever produced in Hollywood, which was screened in this series only in a digital format. A bravura crane shot traversing an endless series of office desks would seem to have influenced similar shots in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Orson Welles’s The Trial. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard said, “Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it?” I hope someday to have an opportunity to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the film with a score by Carl Davis. Dave Kehr’s capsule review for the Chicago Reader is worth quoting:

King Vidor’s 1928 classic, with James Murray as the “average man” picked out of the crowd by Vidor’s gliding camera. In his autobiography, Vidor claims he sold the project to Irving Thalberg as a sequel to his hit war film,The Big Parade: “Life is like a battle, isn’t it?” Accordingly, the misfortunes that befall Murray are hardly average, but the melodramatic elements are integral to Vidor’s vision of individual struggle. The camera style owes something to Murnau, but the sense of space—the vast environments that define and attack his protagonists—is Vidor’s own.

Immediately after The Crowd—and released in the same year—Vidor directed two romantic comedies—a genre that he only infrequently essayed—that demonstrated the delightful talents of the underrated Marion Davies. The first, The Patsy, is the more substantial. In a hilarious sequence, the actress does amazing impressions of Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri. Marie Dressler is amusing too as the character’s unsympathetic mother. The second film, Show People, a spoof of Hollywood, is slighter but quite charming and co-stars the appealing William Haines as the love interest of the heroine. Davies does an equally astonishing impression of Gloria Swanson here.

Vidor’s subsequent feature of the following year, Hallelujah, a religious musical with an all-Black cast, is one of his most perfectly realized and was a personal project partly financed with his own salary, although it proved to be a popular success. The director commented on the inspiration for the film:

I used to watch the negroes in the South, which was my home. I studied their music, and I used to wonder at the pent-up romance in them.

In his 1953 autobiography, A Tree is a Tree, he said about Hallelujah:

The sincerity and fervour of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.

The film is also notable for the indelible first screen appearance of Nina Mae McKinney.

Street Scene, from 1931, is an adaptation of the eponymous, acclaimed play by Elmer Rice—it later became an opera with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes—but, like Hallelujah, is photographed, very creatively, like a silent movie, despite almost entirely being filmed on a single set. The distinguished source, however, like that of many stage works turned into motion pictures, does seem to hamper the film somewhat—one would have liked for a scenarist to have re-written the dialogue for the new medium. One asset is the incomparably beautiful Sylvia Sidney in the lead role. The justly famous theme music—it is a clever pastiche of George Gershwin—is by Alfred Newman.

Vidor’s following feature, The Champ, released the same year and which was an enormous success, is less original and more conventional in style but nonetheless incredibly moving, especially for Jackie Cooper’s astounding child performance. The film helped revive Wallace Beery’s career. As heartbreaking but more complex as a work of social criticism is Stella Dallas from 1937, a superior remake of the excellent Henry King silent of the same name—again with a Newman score and elegantly photographed by the superb Rudolph Maté. The effect of the director’s accomplishedmise-en-scèneis amplified by a marvelous cast, particularly Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, and Alan Hale.

Vidor’s next work, The Citadel, released the following year—an adaptation of a novel by A.J. Cronin, who wrote the classic novel, The Stars Look Down, famously filmed by Carol Reed—seems less personally charged despite Vidor’s admiration of the material but is certainly worth seeing. Handsomely photographed by Harry Stradling, it too has a wonderful cast, including Robert Donat, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Francis L. Sullivan, Cecil Parker, Nora Swinburne, and Felix Aylmer.

After this, Vidor contributed most of the outstanding black-and-white Kansas sequences in David O. Selznick’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as those of “Over the Rainbow” And “We’re Off to See the Wizard”; he then completed a masterpiece, Northwest Passage of 1940—shot in glorious Technicolor—a patriotic itinerary Western about the French and Indian Wars of the eighteenth century, which was screened in an astonishing 35-millimeter print from the archive of the George Eastman Museum. The director replaced W. S. Van Dyke after shooting began but his visual imagination was wholly engaged despite this. The cast includes a charismatic Spencer Tracy and an unusually good Robert Young in lead roles.

His following film, Comrade X, released the same year, is an entertaining, if lightweight and less personal, comedy—an apparent attempt to duplicate the success of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka—attractively photographedby Joseph Ruttenberg, and with an amusing screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, with uncredited work by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Of the leads, Clark Gable is characteristically excellent while the stunningly gorgeous Hedy Lamarr is surprisingly so. The fine secondary cast includes Eve Arden, Felix Bressart, Oscar Homolka, and Sig Rumann, the latter especially hilarious.

Vidor attempted something more significant and more in line with his thematic preoccupations with his next opus, which was released the following year, H.M. Pulham, Esq.,from the novel by John P. Marquand, which Harold Bloom unpredictably prophesied—in The Western Canon—would prove to be a permanent book. Certainly a creditable achievement, the film nonetheless seemed to me to be less imposing than one might have expected given the director’s expected affinity for the material. One weakness may be Robert Young’s performance which lacks the pathos and wit that Ronald Colman brought to a comparable role in a more satisfying adaptation of a work by the same author, The Late George Apley, by a filmmaker of comparable stature to Vidor, Joseph Mankiewicz. Lamarr is again unusually convincing as the bewitching object of his youthful affection. The supporting cast includes Ruth Hussey, Charles Coburn, and Van Heflin. The director’s note on H.M. Pulham, Esq. is worth citing:

Here was American life today told in terms of American humor, romance and a generous sprinkling of our home-grown satire. In addition, the story covered a span of more than 30 years, and I saw a chance to present a sort of American cavalcade of the significant events of this century while telling the human story of an American gentleman.

The book is written in the first person. It was all told from Harry Pulham's viewpoint. This is responsible for much of the deep human psychology of the novel. Here was a challenge. Could a motion picture be told completely in the first person? It would mean that nothing could happen in the entire picture unless it was seen or witnessed or experienced by Pulham. We decided to try it. The result is that in the picture nothing happens that is not experienced by Pulham.

So Robert Young is in every scene of the picture or is in the room when every scene happens. In the case of telephone conversations, no one is shown at the other end of the line. We only hear what Pulham hears. We do not see the other person at any time, for this would be letting the audience see something that Harry Pulham didn't see.

Much more ambitious was Vidor’s next work, An American Romance, a very personal project released in 1944, the third part of an informal “War, Wheat and Steel” trilogy with The Big Parade and Our Daily Bread.(The novelist John Fante was an uncredited contributor to the screenplay.) Unhappily, the film was severely cut by about fifty minutes and was unsuccessful commercially. What remains, artfully photographed in Technicolor by Harold Rosson, is of genuine interest, however, if maybe not amongst the director’s supreme achievements—two sequences of industrial assembly are especially compelling. An American Romance stars Brian Donlevy—whom the director thought was miscast—and Ann Richards. (Vidor originally wanted Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten, all of whom were unavailable.) This too was shown in stellar 35-millimeter print from the George Eastman Museum. In A Tree is a Tree, Vidor had this to say about his experience after finishing the film:

When the picture was previewed in Inglewood, Louis B. Mayer came to me on the sidewalk in front of the theater, put his arm around my shoulders and said, 'I've just seen the greatest picture our company ever made'. However, an order came from the New York office to cut half an hour. They cut the human elements of the story instead of the documentary sections, explaining that this was the only way a half hour could be taken out without complications in the musical soundtrack. In other words, the film was edited according to the soundtrack and not according to the inherent story values. At the lowest emotional level I have reached since I have been on Hollywood, I went to my office, packed up and moved out of the studio. The picture was not a box office success. Many of the inhabitants of Hollywood and Beverly Hills have never seen the film and many do not even know it was made. I spent 3 years of my life on the project and MGM spent close to $3,000,000.

His next movie, the grandiose Duel in the Sun from 1946, a sublime Western photographed in dazzling Technicolor, is mesmerizing despite considerable interference from its producer, Selznick, as well as cuts demanded by ratings review boards. Disagreements with Selznick purportedly caused Vidor to quit the project two days before the end of shooting. Like other prominent films of the producer, such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, uncredited direction was undertaken by many hands, including Josef von Sternberg (who also served as color consultant), William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Otto Brower, Sidney Franklin, along with Selznick himself but, even so, Vidor’s vision is discernible. (Duel in the Sun also had three cinematographers: Rosson again, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan.) The source for the story is a novel by Niven Busch whose distinguished contributions as a screenwriter include Howard Hawks’s The Crowd Roars, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, and uncredited work on Minnelli’s Gigi; he also wrote the book that was the basis for Anthony Mann’s The Furies. Jennifer Jones is uncommonly convincing in the lead role and breathtakingly alluring. Gregory Peck gives a brilliant, atypical performance as her rakish lover. The secondary cast is probably the most notable of Vidor’s entire career, including Gish again, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Sidney Blackmer, Otto Kruger and, above all, Butterfly McQueen. The film was screened in a superlative 35-millimeter print from the Museum of Modern Art.

The erotic intensity of Duel in the Sun is continued in The Fountainhead from 1949–after Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel—one of the pinnacles of Vidor’s œuvre. The director’s ambivalence toward the author’s ideology generates a productive tension with the material. Rand’s dialogue is deliriously crazy; for the director, it serves as one vehicle for the expression of the larger-than-life passions that surge through his characters’ lives, as one can observe in many of his most essential films, such as Hallelujah, Duel in the Sun, and later in Beyond the Forest—released the same year but disappointingly not screened in this series—and Ruby Gentry from 1952, shown here only in a 16-millimeter print. With his cinematographer, Robert Burks—most celebrated for his terrific collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock—he found the most enthralling visual correlatives for these almost cosmic energies. A glamorous and entrancing Patricia Neal is a revelation in a cast that includes Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey, and Ray Collins.

Vidor’s Hollywood career concluded with Solomon and Sheba in 1958, a difficult production that he did not judge as fully successful. In 1964, he executed a very strange essay-film in 16-millimeter Kodachrome, Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics, which reflects his religious views—he was a Christian Scientist—and which is a kind of brief for philosophical idealism. (For an intriguing defense of this work, as well as an interpretation of the director’s style, see Fred Camper’s fascinating article, “The Myth of the Avant-Garde Film.”) He completed another short documentary in 16-millimeter in 1980, Metaphor, mostly a record of conversations on the title’s subject between Vidor and Andrew Wyeth, his favorite American painter. Wyeth’s favorite film was The Big Parade, which he claimed to have seen at least 180 times! Both films were screened in a digital format. As a footnote to the retrospective, the final program also featured Journey to Galveston, also from 1980, an estimable short 16-millimeter portrait of Vidor—shown in digital—at his ranch, directed by Catherine Berge, who talked at length about the background to the film before the presentation.

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