You & Me

Solid review of You & Me, Padgett Powell’s new book. Review is by William Giraldi at the LARB.

It starts with a great discussion of Beckett, which You & Me seems to resemble. Powell’s such a solid author. Is he read as much as he should be? I have the feeling he’s not, even among the literary classes . . .

Great bit here about a performance of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin State Prison:

If the pedantic cabal of philosophers and critics has insisted upon Godot’s interminable difficulty as an utterance of our existential dread — as the quiddity of our existential condition — then there was at least one group of theatergoers who received the play by mainline, who required no assistance from obfuscating academics. Esslin begins The Theater of the Absurd with the extraordinary story of Godot’s 1957 production at San Quentin State Prison just north of San Francisco. The director, Herbert Blau, was atremble with anxiety: “How were they to face one of the toughest audiences in the world with a highly obscure, intellectual play that had produced near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe?” (If the only crime committed by “highly sophisticated” Europeans was their propensity for near riot, civilization in the twentieth century would have been a less barbarous affair.) In an act of either condescension or assuagement of his own nerves, Blau introduced Godot to the inmates and compared it to jazz, “to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it.” But his introduction was for naught because “what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences in Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts.”

Esslin goes on to speculate about why these caged men might intuitively comprehend a plotless play about abject wastrels conversing obscurely on a country road, waiting for someone who will not appear, someone about whom they know only rumors. Either the circumstances in Godot paralleled the men’s incarceration and they merely identified — “merely” because your identification with or distance from a work of literature says nothing at all about the work and everything about you — or their paucity of critical apparatus rendered them especially susceptible to Beckett’s meaning, a meaning that must be, in the end, emotional as well as intellectual if the work is to succeed. Esslin suggests that the San Quentin inmates might have been “unsophisticated enough to come to the theater without any preconceived notions and ready-made expectations, so that they avoided the mistake that trapped so many established critics who condemned the play for its lack of plot, development, characterization, suspense, or plain common sense.”

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Great part of an interesting book (“Theatre of the Absurd”). As Gerald Murnane and Andrei Tarkovsky found, among many others, it is limiting and unnecessary to define one’s work as “not for everyone” because one never knows where one’s audience might span.

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