Judy Hegarty Lovett on Interpreting Samuel Beckett
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
November 2nd, 2017
Although best known for his work as a playwright, Samuel Beckett also wrote a number of novels throughout his life. Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival will be presenting theatrical adaptations of three of his novels—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—in The Beckett Trilogy by the company Gare St. Lazare Ireland November 3rd-5th. Gare St. Lazare Ireland was co-founded by Judy Hegarty Lovett who also directed and co-adapted this production. Judy has become known as one of the premiere interpreters of Beckett’s work. We recently spoke to her about adapting Beckett’s novels for the stage.
This work is an adaptation of Beckett’s novels. What was your adaptation process like?
The company, Gare St. Lazare Ireland, have been adapting Beckett’s prose for more than twenty years, and at this stage we have seventeen Beckett titles. So the adaptation process in fact began with Molloy by Samuel Beckett, which is the first part of the trilogy, and we put that piece together twenty years ago. We began with perhaps 20-25 minutes of the work, and we went on to develop it into an hour and 15 minutes. So the process is one, in this instance, where much of the prose work that we’ve done has been the text in its entirety.
For the trilogy, we’ve obviously had to make selections from the novels, otherwise we’d be here all day. I suppose the process began by making selections from the text. The text lends itself very well to that because the plot is quite thin and the story is circular. So it doesn’t really matter where you pick up or let down some of the text. You’re not following a linear narrative, so it’s quite easy to make selections from the text because most of it is just the ramblings or random thoughts of Molloy, the character within the piece.
That’s how we began the process. Then, we would very swiftly put those on the floor and stand them up, say them aloud. The bigger part of the process is essentially avoiding character, not wanting to place the character in any specific time or place, and I suppose not wanting to attach very particular, specific characteristics to the character. What we like to do is keep the language, the words, and the delivery very close to the actors’ natural delivery. We work with direct address to the audience, so what we like to do is make it look like those are the actor’s words and he is speaking to you directly. It’s an interesting process because we like that the character never fully settles, and we like that the audience are, as with the book, always questioning, “Who is this guy, and is he real? And is this happening?” Because in the book, the writer’s voice appears through the character as well, so we like to mirror that in the staging process. At any given moment you, as the audience, are perhaps asking, “Is this the actor speaking, or is it the character speaking?” And it oscillates between both at all times. A lot of the process is trying to arrive at that—it’s trying to arrive at the clearest, simplest delivery of that.
When you first started doing these adaptations—following what you’re saying about avoiding character as a way of dealing with the different modes of narration that happen in the novel—was that something that took a little experimentation to come to or did you always know that that is what it needed?
I don’t think we always knew that that’s what it needed. I think we did arrive at that, and I think that happened quite organically. Of course, we were aware of that while reading the text, but we weren’t aware and we didn’t set out with a plan to do that in the staging. That really did evolve through the process.
Beckett is probably, in America, most known for his theatre work. When you’re doing the adaptation do you think about why he did this as a novel versus why he wrote something else as a play?
I don’t think about that while I’m making it, but outside of the making of it, that question is an obvious question: why am I approaching the prose and wanting to stage the prose? And I think it’s important to point out that I certainty am not the first to do that, and Beckett himself permitted stagings of his prose with various actors, particularly Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. So those actors would have set a precedent for the prose of Samuel Beckett being staged. It’s not like I’m breaking new ground or doing something that hasn’t been done before. It has already been done, and so as long as you have permissions from the estate to do that, which we do, then I suppose that gives you a certain amount of freedom and acceptance that the process that you’re approaching is a good one.
But having staged the plays as well, I do see a significant difference between staging the work that he intended to be for the stage because he’s very, very prescriptive and specific about his stage directions. Whereas in the prose works, none of the information is there, so there is a certain amount of access to our own interpretation and ideas in terms of how the prose can be staged.
Was that part of the reason for why it was interesting for you to do?
To be honest with you, from the beginning, I had a bigger response to the prose than I did to the plays. I felt that the language there was perhaps more accessible, and I found the characters really interesting. And I suppose, because the characters are speaking in first-person as well, I knew that they would lend themselves very easily to staging. Not across the works, but most of the works are in first-person. All of that felt very attractive to me, and I suppose because they’re the lesser-known works as well, I felt very keen that people should hear that part of Beckett’s canon.
Beckett originally wrote all this in French. Do you find that dealing with something in translation affects work as well?
No, I think it complements the work. Beckett is definitely a bilingual writer. I think what’s interesting is that I have approached and read the works in French as well and happen to live in France and have lived there for the past 20 years. Beckett, who lived in France for the best part of his life—I believe he went there in his mid-twenties, and he remained in France all of his life—didn’t write all of his works in French first. There was a point of departure where he decided to write in French. I think the going between the two languages and the fact that he translated all the work himself is significant in that all of Beckett’s writing, in French and in English, is a language event and he, for me, plays so brilliantly and poetically with both languages.
Could you talk a little bit more about the performance style that you mentioned? Using direct address?
I suppose what we felt early on is that the direct address approach really helped us to communicate the language in a very human and simple and direct way. And we, just from trial and error and starting out that way, discovered that it worked very well and that the audiences were very responsive to hearing the language in that way and feeling that they were in Molloy[‘s head], or any of the other characters, included in their journey and in their thought processes and in their thinking. The audiences were, in some way, complicit, or in some way involved, or in some way connected with the journey and the discoveries that the character was making and as he was going along. It feels in the performance that those questions and those discoveries and those insights are being discovered instantly with the audience together.
Do you find that that takes even more precision? When people are reading they can go back and reread a sentence, but if they’re listening to someone say it and somebody moves in a way that’s distracting, you could lose the message.
Sure, I think you can lose it, but I think you can also gain a huge amount from a live event, because it positions the text and the actor and the audience in very direct communication with each other. That can make it feel very real and very human. Naturally, theatre has a time constraint that the reading process doesn’t have—you can put down the book and walk away and come back to the book. So, you’re dealing with a very kind of different time element when watching the performance. But again, that has its value in the same way as the reading has its value. And we have spoken to our audiences and had feedback, which is that we’ve managed to explode the myth that Beckett is difficult or highbrow or inaccessible or just for academics.
Many think something about hearing the voice of the character and having some aspect of the character in front of you is helpful. But like I said, it’s very important for me to find out that we have been very particular and very intent on making sure, in the actual staging and the delivery, not to land solidly or heavily on the character. So we will not do a direct character representation. It won’t be that we’re dressing as Molloy or looking like Molloy or any of that kind of representation. We like to keep it a step behind that and allow a certain amount of freedom there.
Do you find that audiences do come with certain ideas or expectations about Beckett?
Yes, I do. We work with students and we work quite a bit at the O’Neill Center in Connecticut, which is a theatre education center, and we work with actors there. Particularly the younger generation will have very particular ideas about Beckett being serious or difficult or gloomy or hard to understand, etc. And so we see how that reputation has arrived. It’s a pity, because the work is very enjoyable, very rich, very beautiful, and in fact, I think, very accessible.
Do you also find a difference in terms of how Americans view it?
Not especially. Across the Anglo community, I have found that it’s quite a general response to Beckett. It’s the one that I mentioned earlier. And also, it’s curious and it is interesting, but a lot of people have had access to the plays and very few have had access to the prose works. I think that’s perhaps some of the value of our presentations and offering another door and another way into the writing of Samuel Beckett.
How did you get interested in Beckett to begin with?
The first play that I ever saw was Waiting For Godot. I saw that in my teens in Cork, in a very small theatre called the Ivernia Theater. It was a brilliant production, and I really enjoyed it. I found it very, very inspiring. Prior to that, any of the theatre I would’ve gone to or had access to would have been kids’ stuff or pantomimes, and so it was an explosive experience to see a play of that depth, richness, and extraordinarily different to anything that I’d ever seen before. So that, I suppose, is where it began.
How did you go from that to being so invested?
I didn’t set out with a plan to spend 20 years of my life working mostly singularly on Beckett’s writing. That happened. It wasn’t the plan. Conor Lovett, the performer who I work with and have worked with on most of the prose works over the 20-year period, and I, put together Molloy as an audition piece for him. When we stood that up, it was kind of like an experiment, and he chose that text to deliver as an audition piece, and he went, “Hey, this is really good.” We both loved it. We just kept stretching that and brought it from an audition piece into a performance piece and first delivered it in the Battersea Arts Center in London. It worked very well. We brought it to the Edinburgh Festival where we got a fantastic review. We then brought it to Dublin and it was seen in Dublin, and there were, again, fantastic reviews and a brilliant response to the work. And from there, it went on to New York, and we played at the Irish Arts Center. And again, it got fantastic reviews and great response. So it kind of took off and grew by itself, and we just followed what it was telling us. It kind of told us what to do.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
Hopefully another way of meeting or reaching Beckett’s writing and the joy that is his world and fantastic words and brilliant writing.