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Krapp, 39: A New Take On An "Old Muckball"

June 1, 2009

When actor and performer Michael Laurence asked the Samuel Beckett Estate for the rights to include a passage from Krapp's Last Tape, in his own dramatic riff based on the Irish bard's 1958 bittersweet meditation on memory, he was, unsurprisingly turned down. The Beckett Estate basically doesn't allow anyone to do anything with Beckett's work except observe it to the letter. So a New York theatre-maker's desire to take the basic premise of Krapp -- a drama about a man who meticulously documents his life on tape and then goes back many years later to play back the recordings and use them as a jumping off point for further analysis, documentation and no small amount of despair -- and turn it into a meditation on his own life, was never likely to get the go ahead from Beckett's famously uptight lawyers.

Not that the non-cooperation of Beckett's Estate matters at all. For Krapp, 39, Laurence's 21st century homage to Beckett and attempt to purge a personal obsession with Krapp's Last Tape, doesn't need the words of the original author to resonate. Beckett's play ends with a disavowal: "I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now" and Laurence's play makes us feel the flickering flames of our lives to a degree that we too don't need to hear Beckett's words.

Krapp, 39, is a rambling, hyper-self-indulgent work that spirals between many different time periods as the shabbily-dressed, 39-year-old narrator (Laurence, playing himself or at any rate a version of himself) looks back at his meticulously documented past and wonders about his future. But solipsism is a clever tool in Laurence's work, which he exploits in such an over-the-top way that the self is as much present center-stage as it disappears from view completely.

In Beckett's play, the 69-year-old protagonist looks back at his 39-year-old self, who in turn comments, on tape, about an even earlier version of himself. If Beckett's play feels like a set of mirror reflections, Laurence's feels even denser. There are so many time periods and layers of personal history and egotistical mood swings in the piece that one comes close to losing oneself as a viewer as well as the "self" that's talking to us on stage. Fragments of past are like shards of glass that get under the skin and cause pain.

In some ways, Laurence's play differs from Beckett's in the sense of being like a splinter you can't remove. While Beckett's protagonist looks back at his life during its twilight moments and comes to a degree of self-recognition about his past, Laurence's character, more tragically, is at the turning point of his life. Beckett marks 39 as the age when one is at "the crest of a wave", and in Laurence's play we see a character fully aware of the meaning of what it is to be 39 and yet powerless to negotiate the turning sea.

But for all that, Krapp 39, is as funny and and oddly life-affirming as the play upon which it is based. Laurence is a generous, cheeky presence on stage at the tiny Soho Playhouse in lower Manhattan where I happily caught his performance last week. Sitting there among the debris of his life -- old and dusty knick-knacks of a bygone age like books, toys and photographs nudging the shiny newness of video screens, camcorders and laptops -- with his dusty, ill-fitting suit, deranged hair and bananas, he looks like he's a happy hermit crab.

It's no wonder that Krapp, 39 has been enjoying such a long run in New York. I hope audiences in other parts of the country get to experience Laurence's homage to Beckett too.

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