Friday, June 03, 2005

Beckett: Catastrophe

I visited Dachau in July 2002. In front of the visitor’s center was a huge ironwork sculpture, at a distance representing barbed wire, but closer revealed to be a tangle of charred Modigliani-length human remains. Across from the cremation chambers was an unassuming sculpture of a Jewish inmate with his hands in his pockets: a gesture of revolt, because a gesture disallowed by the authorities. Both sculptures were powerfully evocative, though they nonetheless seemed somehow inadequate to the rest of the memorial and the historical fact of the Shoah. But few things have ever troubled me more, as an aesthete, than the simple manicuring of the lawns, which left a patina of beauty over the whole evil. It seemed to express in a pure understated form, although unintentionally, the paradox of Nazi culture, that permitted a man like Eichmann to execute Jewry as resident Scharführer and then return home and play a Beethoven sonata on his grand piano. It also raised questions how we ourselves appreciate, or if not appreciate at least approach, the Holocaust a half-century hence.


Beckett, in Catastrophe, has his director insist that his actor mustn’t have his hands in his pockets, as did the Defiant Inmate statue. All his alterations to the pose emaciate the figure into a survivor’s state of degeneration. And all his alterations aim to increase his aesthetic impact. Catastrophe the title puns on this twinning, the collusion of the aesthetically and the genuinely tragic, for catastrophe can denote (though by absurd understatement) a historical fact like the Shoah, even as it takes its originary meaning from the final action in Greek tragedy. Applause at the end of the play carries a disquieting but crucial irony; the truer the representation of wretchedness, the more applause the tableau ought to receive. Should we ever be applauding human despair, or do we betray ourselves? What is the director’s pride if not in aesthetic ruin? And should we applaud the brilliantly contrived paradox, Catastrophe the play?

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