Reflections on the International Conference  ‘Samuel Beckett in Central Europe: Staging and Reception Beyond Censorship’

Review written by Astrid Greve Kristensen (PhD student, CEFRES)

This two-day international conference was held in Prague on April 20-21st, first at the CEFRES library, then at the Faculty of Letters, and brought together Beckett scholars of various disciplines and stages of research; theatre scholars, stage directors, actors, writers and performers, as well as other participants with different approaches to the world of theatre in the 20th and 21st centuries. The conference consisted of an opening speech, an introductory roundtable discussion, a keynote speech and a total of three panels. Instead of compiling a list commenting on each intervention, this review teases out some of the essential aspects that this conference has brought to Beckett scholarship. First and foremost, one feels compelled to congratulate the two organisers, Alice Clabaut and Charles Guillorit on a successful and well-executed conference. Based on the observations of this reviewer as well as testimonies from the many participants, the level of satisfaction among those present (and online) can only be said to have been high.

The two-day event was kicked off with an evening program, including an opening speech, the very first panel of the conference, as well as a thoroughly engaging roundtable discussion to round things out. Immediately engaging with the absurdity of the Beckett universe, the opening remarks had been pre-recorded on a beach in Bali, a point the speaker, President of the International Association of Theatre Leaders and theatre scholar Octavia Saiu, did not fail to mention. Drawing attention to the situatedness of theatre as well as scholarship, the palm trees blowing in the ocean wind in the background could not have seemed more out of place – and thus strangely appropriate.

The opening speech was followed by the conference’s first panel concerning poetics and politics and a roundtable focusing specifically on staging practices in the contemporary era. We were treated to recordings of two recent stagings of Waiting for Godot – one Ukrainian reinterpretation staged in Prague, addressing the Russo-Ukrainian war, and one staging from Germany which took place during the most severe COVID restrictions. 

To straight away address perhaps the most crucial innovation this project has brought, is the focus on the Central European perspective and how this ties to Samuel Becketts oeuvre. To paraphrase theatre scholar Martin Pšenička’s presentation: “the land was fertile for the absurd”. If we expand the understanding of “the land” to include the notion of Central Europe, the many interventions that concerned themselves with stagings in both the socialist and post-socialist countries of the region, a pattern of recognition and similarities seems to emerge. Certainly, particular absurd aspects of Samuel Beckett’s plays lend themselves extremely well to the experience of the socialist era. A suggestion was made that the sensation of waiting itself could be considered a particularly central European experience – one that could be seen as permeating the feeling of time standing still and the weak hope of resolutions and reunifications. Insights into the reception and circulation of Becketts plays in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, as well as Germany, were thoroughly discussed – and the growing popularity of Beckett stagings after 1989 was a clear indicator not only of censorship and cultural currents, but also of populations ready to engage with the frustratingly repetitive, strange, at times depressing and violent world of Samuel Beckett. 

This leads into another aspect that seemed a recurring point in many of the interventions, something that was suggested by French Beckett scholar Matthieu Protin to be lacking in i.e. the French reception to Beckett: a sense of humour. That Beckett is considered a giant of extreme scope is not to be neglected, but the reverence with which his work sometimes is treated seems to undercut an aspect of many of his plays that seems undeniable, the fact that they can be absurdly, tragically funny. The musical chairs of visual repetition and bizarre statements made by characters can be treated, as Protin claims, with gravity and sternness, as in the French case, but may just as easily lend themselves to the ridiculous. An example was shown in stage director Jan Bosses COVID-staging of Waiting for Godot, in which the obscene and violent character of Pozzo was introduced in a colourful and oversized coat, and played up as an imposing, but simultaneously humorous, pompous clown. Perhaps the surreal societal conditions under which the socialist/post-socialist realms of Europe found themselves in opens its directors and public up this approach. One would be remiss not to mention the absurdist plays of Václav Havel as a natural link here, where the repetitious absurdity of relationships between the most mundane characters keeps recycling dialogues ad absurdum in a way that is also hard not to chuckle at.   

The final observation about this conference has to do with censorship and legality. For while it is true that Beckett has been interpreted and treated through a different lens in the Central European context, the spectre of the Beckett estate still looms large as soon as his oeuvre, and particular his stagings, are considered. This conference was no exception, and the restrictive and at times downright problematic directions that the estate has imposed on theatre companies and directors was a topic that resurfaced many times, culminating in the final panel entitled “The Question of Censorship in and of Beckett’s Theatre: A Legal or A Personal Issue?”. Central Europe is of course a region in which the notion of censorship of the arts is not a foreign issue. Beckett’s plays were to differing degrees censored in the Communist-era Central Europe as decadent, and thus, there is a considerable delay to consider in the reception of Beckett in this region. Writer, critic, translator and theatre director Marek Kędzierski, the keynote speaker at the conference, could offer some interesting, not to mention personal remarks, as he himself both met and worked with Beckett in the 1980’s. Underlining points also made by Protin (based on stage directions and notes found in Becketts own writings), Beckett as a man here emerged as an engaged, dynamic and open director, willing to listen, adapt and consider his works from several angles. Kędzierski as such offered an invaluable perspective considering Beckett the man, who scholars may (and I would not hold this conference as an exception) canonize and reify to a point of becoming untouchable. 

All in all, this conference brough together a diverse and engaged group of scholars and theatre people, several of which expressed enormous gratitude for being included, getting to engage with people from several fields and many countries. Finally, a special issue of the prestigious bilingual Beckett journal Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, will collect the results of many of these rich interventions. For anyone with an interest either in Samuel Beckett himself, circulation of theatre or theatre in Central Europe will surely find many articles of great interest once this publication sees light.    

See the complete program of the conference here.

 

 


OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Claire Madl (7 juin 2023). Reflections on the International Conference  ‘Samuel Beckett in Central Europe: Staging and Reception Beyond Censorship’. Forum Recherche du CEFRES. Consulté le 20 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/mi9s