Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Archive for the ‘Beckett, Samuel’ Category

Not eye

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a good documentary about great artists who did a bad film.

Or, more precisely, “Film.”

Yes, “Film,” by Samuel Beckett. I first saw it in college, 30 years ago. What I liked then I still like: many of the visuals (once one gets past Buster Keaton’s eyeball). Here’s the opening:

The other thing I like, of course, is that it brings together Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton, at the stage director Alan Schneider, who did many Beckett and Pinter and Albee premieres, under the producing aegis of Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, to whom we’re indebted for publishing D.H. Lawrence, Hubert Selby Jr., and Henry Miller, censors be damned. For some of us, “Film,” released in 1965, would have been like an All-Star Game.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good. Even at 22 minutes, it makes its point too soon. Worst of all, it completely misuses the talents of the primary creators:  Schneider was a stage director with no idea how to shoot a film (he blew most of the budget on the first day, shooting one scene that was later cut); Beckett’s ideas for the film are almost entirely intellectualized and impossible to translate effectively; and Keaton — a master of comedy and a justly legendary film director  — is kept away from any input and in particular ignored when trying to introduce funny bits. Each is stripped of his actual gifts, his real talents. The end result is like what you’d have if you’d asked Michelangelo to sculpt with his nose.

What really brought this into focus for me was seeing the documentary “Notfilm” last night at a screening in North Hollywood, accompanied by a talk with the director. You can learn more about “Notfilm” here. “Notfilm” is concerned with the making of “Film” — the preproduction, the artistic antecedents, the production itself, its reception and its legacy. It’s a smart and fascinating film, and also a personal one, as director Ross Lipman gives us his thoughts about the film, its underlying meaning, and the confusions that arose among its creators. In one example of a smart decision, Lipman narrates it, which places the film squarely within the realm of his personal perception (which is the theme of “Film”).

“Notfilm” gives us two further satisfactions: For the first time ever, anywhere that I know of, we get to hear the notoriously reclusive and reticent Samuel Beckett’s recorded voice. And we get to see just how one can make a two-hour documentary about a 22-minute short. There’s something ironically anti-Beckettian about that.

Must-see TV

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

I wish the Beckett estate would lift the embargo so the first (and only) season of this could be released on DVD or streaming.

Well, I guess ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

A man goes to the doctor

Monday, August 4th, 2014

That’s the start of many a joke. But you’ll have to tell me how funny you find this after reading it. This is a true story from a close friend of mine who is fighting cancer. My friend is doing well — he’s certainly in good spirits, and the scans he shared with me show great progress in treating the cancer.

My friend compares this situation to something out of Ionesco, and it certainly conjures up theatre of the absurd. But I think it would be funny if it weren’t depressing, or, maybe, depressing if it weren’t funny, so that makes it a bit more like Beckett. (Which I prefer on the stage, and not in medicine.)

Here goes:

OK, so even though I feel fine my Red Blood Cells and White Blood Cells and other things are completely out of whack.


One more transfusion (three units this time).  Hopefully I’ll be good for this coming Thursday.


Eugene Ionesco (the absurdist) comes to oncology


Arriving at Dr. M–’s office on Thursday I went to the receptionist’s desk and signed in as per usual.


Receptionist – Last name, please.


Me – [name]


Receptionist – Oh, you’re here for an infusion.  Just go right in to the center.


Me – No, I have to have blood drawn and see Dr. M– first.


Receptionist – I don’t see you on his schedule.  You’re just here for an infusion.  Go right into the infusion center.  Through that door there.


Me – No, I have a card that says I have an appointment with Dr. M–.  I have to have blood work done before the infusion and I have to see the doctor.


Receptionist – Well you’re not on the schedule.  Go on into the infusion center and they’ll draw your blood and take your vitals, and I’ll check with Dr. M– about seeing you.


Me – OK, but no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except George.


Receptionist – What?


Me – George told me that no one should put  a needle in me except him.  I am telling you what he told me.  Maybe you should check with him.


Receptionist – OK, just go into the infusion center and I’ll check with George.


Me – OK, thank you.


R– and I go into the infusion center and see the head nurse.


Me – I’m here for an infusion but I’m supposed to have blood drawn and then see Dr. M– before that.


Nurse – Uh, OK.  Have a seat and we’ll take your vitals and draw some blood and then we’ll see if Dr. M– is available to see you in here.


Me – OK.  George told me that no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except him.


Nurse – What?


Me – George told me that he is the only person who’s allowed to stick me with a needle.  I’m telling you what he told me.  Maybe you can check with him.


Nurse – OK, well take a seat and we’ll get your vitals.


We sit.  Nurse comes over with a tray to draw blood.


Nurse – It’s OK, I can do it.


Me – Uh, OK.


The nurse looks at my arms, chooses a vein in the left one, swabs me down and inserts the needle.


Nurse – There, that looks good.  Oh, the vein collapsed.


Me – George said he’s the only one who’s supposed to do this to me.


Nurse – OK, I’ll be right back.


She removes the needle, puts on some cotton and tapes it in place.  She leaves.


Ten minutes later . . .


Nurse – [name], go down the hall and see George.


Me – OK.


We get up and troupe down the hall, nurse in tow (I don’t know why) where George is waiting.  He sees the bandage on my arm.


George – What are you doing?  No one is supposed to stick you except me.


Me – I told them three times.


George – Never let them poke you.  Just come and see me.


Me – I told them.


George – If they tell you something else just get up and come down here and yell my name.


Me – They also said I had no appointment.


George – well you do now.


Nurse – he was only scheduled for an infusion.


George – He can’t be infused without seeing Dr. M– and doing his blood work.  That’s crazy.


No response.


We go into an examination room and I sit on the table.  The nurse sits down right beside me, looking at George as if to say, “OK, show me what you got.”


George pulls out a new needle and swabs, looks at the nurse and says,


George – You can go now.  I don’t need an audience.


Nurse – But, . . .


George – You can go.  You don’t need to be poking him anymore.


She leaves.


George – Don’t ever let them do this to you again.


Me – OK . . .


George picks his vein, inserts the needle, gets a good location and draws the blood.  No muss, no fuss.


The rest of the appointment went as usual.  Dr. M– came in.  We talked about Scotland, and movies and then he told me my blood work was in sad shape, and I wasn’t infused (as previously stated).  If I had let them do what they wanted to do I might be in very bad place right now.


George also told me to come and see him to put a needle in the next time I have a CT or PET scan done in the radiology center down stairs.  “Just come up here and I’ll put it in.  Don’t let them do it.”


Apparently George owns me now.

hot and young vs. cool and old

Friday, March 14th, 2014

South Coast Rep just mailed me a postcard for the world premiere of Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds. Here’s the description:

“Jamie enjoys a quiet life in his small Pennsylvania town, fixing up his grandfather’s old lake house and pining after Mary, his troubled coworker. But when his brother comes back to town with a new girlfriend, Jamie’s peaceful world is turned upside down. A tender story about those who stay and those who go away — by one of the country’s hottest young writers.”

It’s a long drive down to Costa Mesa, although I’ve done it often enough when it was a play or playwright that interested me. This doesn’t sound like one of those times. But here’s what I find annoying: when they bill someone as “one of the country’s hottest young writers” — I’ve seen this before — as though young is an advantage of some sort. It’ll be better somehow because the playwright is young. (Which makes me wonder just why Shakespeare and Beckett are done so frequently, because they’re not only old, they’re also dead.) Now I’d like to see someone do the new play by, say, Sam Shepard and bill it as “by one of the country’s coolest old writers.”

New playwright premiere

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Yes, I did go see Waiting for Godot at the Taper on Friday night, and it was marvelous. It was surprising how fresh and entertaining the play was, and how moving in its conclusion, especially given how many times I’ve seen productions of it. Big congrats to the cast, director Michael Arabian, all the designers, and everyone else involved, on a flawless production.

But there’s another production that I’d like to talk about at greater length.

On Tuesday night I was able to see another play, this one the world premiere reading of a new play that marked the literary debut of a promising new playwright: my daughter Emma. Emma is an 8th grader who participated in a program at her school by Center Theatre Group — the folks who put on that Waiting for Godot production you should see — wherein students work for many weeks with a playwright who is a teaching artist to learn how plays work, and how to write one. Over the course of the school year, they do improv games, write scenes and lines of dialogue, and get to work with professional actors, culminating in an evening of readings by those professional actors. (One of whom, it turns out, was Rob Nagle, whom I’ve worked with at Moving Arts.) Eight of these brief plays, each of them co-authored by small groups of the students, were performed on Tuesday night by the actors.

Here’s the plot of the play by my 13-year-old daughter and her co-authors:

A father asks his (13-year-old?) daughter if she’s done her homework. She says she wants to watch TV first. (As I was watching this unfold, I was immediately hooked by the theatricality of this setup. I closely related to it, and its inherently theatrical complications.) He gets angry and loses his cool — so the daughter and her mother leave. They just get on a bus and leave town. For good. And then the father is angry with himself (for enforcing homework, I guess).

Clearly, there’s a lesson here for all of us, and that lesson was not lost on me: Be careful about how you insist on homework getting done, lest your wife and daughter get on a bus and leave town for good.

Over the years, I have made appearances in the writing of other people I’ve known, sometimes in poems, sometimes in plays or stories or essays, sometimes thinly disguised and sometimes not. One time I went to the reading of a play at the Pasadena Playhouse by someone I know and the characters were discussing another character, unseen in the play, who seemed rather much like me, and whose character name was “Mr. Wochner.” That seemed eerily similar to my own name, which is “Mr. Wochner.” So I have had previous experience of seeing a character that might or might not be based upon me shown in another light. But to be the abject villain of a piece — a piece written in part by my daughter, in which our heroine simply wants to watch TV unfettered by the necessities of homework — was new. And to witness the wretched state that the encounter with a demanding father left the mother and daughter in as they rode the bus to a faraway town was to leave me questioning my approach to homework. (Mother: “Do you think we’ll be okay?” Daughter: “I don’t know.”)

I was impressed with all eight of the students’ plays. They were funny, they were dark, they were brave, and they were untrammeled by the proclivities of professional playwriting that insists upon such things as subtext. In these plays, what is said is what is meant, and that made me hunger for such a world, where if we don’t want to go somewhere we say it, where if we want something from each other we just demand it immediately with the expectation that it will be given. The evening was a window into the mind of 13-year-olds, and that made for an experience I’ll long remember. And I offer this as proof: Tonight I took my family out to dinner, and then when we got home, we watched some TV. And when it was over, and only when it was over, did I tell my daughter to go do her homework. I don’t want to find her with a one-way bus ticket to elsewhere.


Waiting again for Godot

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I’m seeing Waiting for Godot tonight at the Mark Taper Forum.

Just recently, I was telling the playwrights in my workshop that I would not being seeing this, given how many productions I’ve seen of this play. Just off the top of my head, here are some of them:

  • a college production in 198x starring my friend Joe Stafford. (Still probably the best Pozzo I’ve seen. Joe had a commanding and imperious presence, leavened by an impish humor.)
  • the filmed version with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel
  • as much of the staged version with Robin Williams and Steve Martin as I was able to stand
  • a production in… was it 1989? At the Taper, Too. (Now known as [Inside] the Ford.)
  • a production at the Matrix starring Robin Gammell and David Dukes. They were superb. Dukes may have been the best Vladimir I’ve seen — you really felt his pain when Godot didn’t show up, and his desperate desire for the man to make an appearance, for God’s sake
  • a production by the Dublin Gate Theatre in 2006 at UCLA Live that, despite its acclaim, I didn’t like at all because it was so meaningful.  “Godot” is much better when played as vaudeville; Robin Gammell (above) was an excellent clown. The play is intended to be played that way — one stage direction has a character “scratching his head like Stan Laurel.” When it’s filled with portent, it’s a drag. And that’s what this production was like.

I’m sure I’m leaving out four other productions. Minimum.

And yet, I’m going again. Why? Top-notch cast, including Alan Mandell (who is now 84 and unlikely to be doing this sort of thing much longer; sorry, Alan), and featuring two actors who knew and worked with Beckett himself (Alan, and Barry McGovern); a video clip (above) from the production that, just in this excerpt, shows that the approach is right; it’s one of the most important plays of the 20th century and one I find deeply effecting; and, well, my friend Dorinne had an extra ticket and invited me.

Wish me luck.

Fun fact find of the day

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

When Andre the Giant was a boy, Samuel Beckett used to drive him to school — in the back of his truck because that’s the only place he’d fit. All they would discuss was cricket. The absurdity of this situation — the future professional wrestler and adored star of “The Princess Bride” growing up carted by a future Nobel playwright of the existential — cries out for a play. Maybe I should write it. (I know Ionesco would have, had it occurred to him.)

Sitting in judgment theatrically

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Two or three times a year, I get called upon to judge theatre competitions of varying sorts. This year, I’m one of the readers for the PEN USA literary awards, which is always an honor. And this Saturday evening, I’m a judge of this playwriting and performance event at the Secret Rose Theatre. It sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re around, stop by.

I have mixed feelings about contests, awards, and prizes. In grad school, one of my playwriting professors, Jerome Lawrence,  told me he was against writing contests because it pitted writers against writers. I understood his point of view (and that’s an indication of just what sort of a guy Jerry was:  generous beyond measure), especially as someone who at that time had already been on both sides of prize-winning — winning one when I wasn’t sure my play was the best, and losing the same contest the next year when I was sure mine was. Especially when there’s a performance element in judging  a playwriting contest, a lot rides on elements outside the playwright’s control:  How responsive was the audience on the judging night, how “on” were the performers, was it too cold or too hot in the theatre, how was traffic on the way there, was the box office friendly or surly, and so forth.

At the same time, believe me when I say I understand the marketing value of winning any contest or award (and, sometimes, the prize value). I don’t care which movies have won which awards, believe me (especially when  it’s a system that awards “Best Picture” to “Avatar”). But do awards build careers, and would I put the full thrust of marketing and PR behind any awards won? You bet.

There is a story — and I don’t know how reliable it is — that, 40 years ago, the Nobel committee was deadlocked between giving the award for literature to either Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Finally, after much deliberation, one of the Ionesco champions who felt that Ionesco’s work had a broader scope than Beckett’s (and there may be something to that), switched sides to end the deadlock. And so:  Samuel Beckett won the Nobel, and Eugene Ionesco never did. Is the work of Beckett, the Nobel-prize-winning writer, better than that of Ionesco? Beckett has become far more deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness — referenced in “The Simpsons,” name-checked on “Quantum Leap,” parodied on Sesame Street — and a lot of that came from winning the Nobel.

Web of confusion

Monday, February 7th, 2011


It looks like the major critics have abandoned waiting for “opening night” — whenever that will be — of  the musical “Spider-man:  Turn Off the Dark,” and are now running reviews. Their calculation, no doubt, is this:  The show is doing major box-office business, it’s big talk in theatre circles, and it’s essentially being reviewed daily on the internet by people who’ve seen it. So yet again, old media and its old way of doing business is responding too slowly to new dynamics.

So the “professional” reviews are in, and they are punishing.  The LA Times’ Charles McNulty calls it “a teetering colossus,”  a “frenetic Broadway jumble,”and “an artistic form of megalomania.” In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley shares his paper’s decision making process in going ahead with a review, before swooping in for the first strike:

But since this show was looking as if it might settle into being an unending work in progress — with Ms. Taymor playing Michelangelo to her notion of a Sistine Chapel on Broadway — my editors and I decided I might as well check out “Spider-Man” around Monday, the night it was supposed to have opened before its latest postponement. You are of course entitled to disagree with our decision. But from what I saw on Saturday night, “Spider-Man” is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair.

Of the many effects in the show, he adds:  “But they never connect into a comprehensible story with any momentum. Often you feel as if you were watching the installation of Christmas windows at a fancy department store.”

To me, two things are worth noting from these reviews:

  1. What he and McNulty are describing is spectacle. Whether or not one subscribes to Aristotle, it’s good to bear in mind that he ranked spectacle low on the level of artistic achievement. Story is important for a reason. Even the elementally simple “Waiting for Godot” has  a story — and a good one. And I can personally testify that Spider-Man has featured prominently in any number of good stories for the past 50 years.
  2. The character on the right in the photo above is Hammerhead. Hammerhead is bar none the lamest Spider-Man villain, even lamer than Stiltman (who, really, is a Daredevil villain). Stiltman is just a guy on, well, stilts. Hammerhead is just a guy with a steel plate in his head. I once met a guy with a steel plate in his head; it didn’t give him superhuman abilities, it just protected what was left of his brain. He was almost as dumb as Hammerhead. I didn’t realize that Hammerhead was in the Spider-Man musical; seeing him there alerts me to just how misbegotten this show must be, and makes me wonder how much better the show might have been had they hired any one of the writers who’ve written all those solid comic-book stories to at least consult on this.

Today’s big news

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Now that I’ve ended my day of internet silence — and thank you again to everyone here who joined me in helping to make the internet more available to everyone, especially those struggling with slow connections — I thought I’d share this great news. The previously lost Beckett play, “Attack the Day Gently,” has been found! Here are the details.

Thanks to Mark Chaet for alerting me to this!