MA Thesis (intro)

Maintaining Subversion:
A Contemporary Vision of Endgame
Informed by the Mise en Scène Style of Ivo Van Hove


Introduction — 1
Chapter 1: The World of Beckett; The World of Endgame — 4
Chapter 2: Contemporary Classics: Ivo Van Hove and his Mise en Scène — 18
Chapter 3: Maintaining Subversion: An Exploration in Adapting Endgame — 22
Conclusion — 49
Works Cited — 50
Appendix A — 52
Appendix B — 53


Samuel Beckett’s 1957 French language play Endgame shocked the world when it was first produced. Many viewers, promised a side-splitting comedy, were so affronted by its bleak representation of reality that they cued up not to purchase tickets for another night but to demand refunds. To be sure, it is a difficult play. It even earned a spot in Frankfort School philosopher Theodor Adorno’s definition of “autonomous” work, which describes art that challenges its viewers to such an extent that it causes them to transcend the “culture industry,” and to achieve a freer mode of thought.

However, the experience of the artistic community has drastically changed since 1957. Today’s generation of theatre-goers grew up in the context of a world blighted by the memory and continuation of war, grew up taking nihilism for granted, grew up living in the wake of what Beckett’s generation theatrically and existentially discovered. Consequently, it is no longer affronted by the same things as was Beckett’s audience. I argue that, as a result of this difference, Endgame can no longer be conceived of as “autonomous,” and that, as such, it no longer reads as a political piece. Instead, as traditionally directed, it comes across as escapist. Furthermore, I argue that it has been subsumed by the culture industry against which it originally struck a blow. Beckett, once positioned on the front lines of experimentation and at the fringes of accepted practice, now occupies a central place in historical and theoretical texts; he has become the monolith against which his plays originally fought. Finally, and most damningly of all, Beckett’s estate holds the rights to his works close to the chest, denying practitioners any opportunity to creatively stage his works. It went so far as to take legal action against JoAnne Akalaitis in 1985 when she made the arguably minor change of staging the production in a set dressed as an abandoned subway station instead in the empty room for which Beckett’s stage directions call (Levine, Gussow, Freedman). The way his estate reserves the rights to produce his texts at the expense of contemporary creation and progressive interpretation keeps his plays from expanding and evolving with the changing times, causing their meanings to stagnate and potentially become harmful to the collective health of their audience. However, the power dynamics established by this choice of action illustrate the true extent of the damage that Beckett, his estate, and the greater body of his work today effects: in a capitalistically driven attempt to protect individual intellectual property from being modified by the living masses, Beckett’s estate inscribes a fascist relationship between itself and new understandings of the plays in question. Far from representing the occurrence of politically subversive events, the name “Beckett,” once a thorn in the side of authority, now actively prohibits the creation of anti-authoritarian works, and needs to be treated as such.

To that end, I conceived of and directed a piece similar to

Endgame, making choices that I hoped would bring the production into conversation with contemporary politics. I chose to produce a similar, slightly shorter piece because I wanted to maintain the idea of a dramatic arc but did not have the rehearsal time to, in good faith, produce a complete work. To achieve this, I chose to address the first and last scenes, with a sequence containing a vital plot point, that of the alarm clock, in between. My attempt was two-tiered. First, I identified a political problem that I was facing in my own experience as a politically engaged individual, that of the disingenuous “activist,” who performs the role outwardly but won’t show up when the time comes to act, and adapted the stage directions, setting, and costume to speak to this issue. Second, I chose a contemporary director, Ivo Van Hove, whose productions of establish texts create, without changing the lines of dialogue, a sense of discovery in their viewing that completely reinvigorates the source material. I studied his style of mise en scène in hopes that I could determine what it was that made his work fresh and learn from that approach how to bring the same kind of immediacy to my own work. In conclusion, after my production played in an academic setting to a select audience of peers and friends, I collected comment cards that I had inserted into each spectator’s program and conducted a talkback session in which I received feedback on what the audience had understood from the production, what struck them as having been effective or meaningful, and where they thought that their engagement with the production had been challenged by a choice. Conversation centered around three major topics: gender relations, age relations, including familial duty, and race relations, including immigration and the irony of the American promise, and the rejection of inherited teachings. This suggests that the project, if it created unintentional associations, was at least successful on a foundational level. Beckett and his estate need to be fought if we are to see new politically efficacious theatre in our lifetimes. It is my hope that this project will inspire other theatre makers and scholars to reexamine the canon, to explore its established texts for new meanings, and to continually reevaluate its included works’ political impact and consequent utility as dramatic experiences in the changing cultural climate of contemporaneity.

More about the project here.