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Who Am I Anyway? John Hurt Listens to 'Krapp's Last Tape' at BAM

Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. It is an honor reserved for writers whose work embraces and illuminates the human condition. Irony, surely, to present this palm to a man whose plays parade before us human beings at their most abject: scrofulous old women, vagrants, boozy and decrepit old men.

But it was Beckett’s peculiar gift to imbue these sorry souls with the absolute essence of humanity.  The solitary protagonist of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which is playing at the BAM Harvey Theater for a limited run through December 18, is one of a succession of unique voices that include Maddy Rooney in “All That Fall” and Mouth in “Not I.” Eccentric, particular, slightly demented, they nevertheless turn out in the end to be speaking for us all.

The Gate Theatre production that has brought John Hurt to BAM (in his New York stage debut) begins in total silence. The light comes up on Krapp sitting at a long table, old-fashioned and faintly redolent of libraries, illuminated by a single bulb that frames him in a wane rectangle of light. It is nearly two minutes (an age in the theatre) before he makes a sound, and then it is just a growl and mumble as he rummages through the desk drawers looking for: a banana. He eats two of these with relish, and Hurt’s marvelously mobile face lets us know that Krapp is surprised that his senses still function with this intensity.

He then paces out the limits of his space, stopping short at the point at which the light falls away into darkness (symbolism, anyone?). We remember this, later, as images of light and dark cycle through on the tape to which he listens. Krapp’s labored gait turns into jaunty cakewalk, and then — this is Beckett, remember, creator of those clownish fellows Vladimir and Estragon — he slips on one of his banana peels. This little routine gives us a good glimpse of his grubby clothes, and the sound of his cheap, squeaky shoes.

Now we know where we are. Krapp is a little addled, and poor, but there is a glint of humor in the decaying face, which resembles a particularly unkind portrait by Lucien Freud.

Like the White Rabbit, Krapp seats himself at the table, and takes out a pocket watch, which he makes a great show of consulting. It is hard to imagine what urgency there can be in a life this circumscribed and marginal, but the business takes him upstage right, to the recesses of his darkened room, and out of our sight. He returns with a heavy, aged ledger, which he thumbs through anxiously, eventually yielding up the information “Box 3, reel 5.” Another trip: he’s back with even grubbier boxes of 7-inch magnetic tape of a kind that hasn’t been seen in the broadcast industry for twenty years. (This play may be unstageable in a decade). Krapp locates the reel, leaves again, and returns with an ancient recording deck. The fragile reel is spooled onto the player (I felt nostalgic just watching this) a switch is flipped, and suddenly, astonishingly, there are two Krapps: the husk before us, and the mellifluous, narcissistic, sensuous being of the 30-year-old recordings. 

The rest of the play, famously, is a fantastic Nihilistic duet between the elder and the younger Krapp, the tape taking us not only back in time — Krapp switches the tape on and off, affording us fragments of the experience of the past — but outward into a dark, velvety universe that might just be the whole world. 

Because on one level Krapp’s alternate compulsion and revulsion about the contents of the tape relate to his divergence from his former self. He actually begins a new tape with the sour observation "Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago,” but aborts it almost immediately. 

And after a while, the repetition begins to develop critical mass — the hinted-at scenario of the tape is a doomed love affair and blighted career, but the phrases that support the slender narrative “Under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side … Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited” turn Krapp’s narrow world into a protean, timeless universe. We may again, among the rushes that catch the lover’s boat, be witnessing Genesis, which leaches into “All That Fall,” or be standing at the apocalyptic edge of something, as in “Waiting for Godot.”

Some backstory that might be helpful: Beckett spent most of World War II in hiding in France, barely escaping with his life, so he knows from apocalypse, and he was born in 1906, so was among the generation that grew up with the marvels of early broadcasting, with the idea that life can be captured and recreated on tape. (“Krapp’s Last Tape” was written in 1957, and was partly inspired by the radio work of its original star Patrick Magee.)

Or let’s leave creationism and move towards existentialism. Because if there is ever a piece that is about what precisely constitutes “existence”, this is it. In Krapp’s 55 minutes (just short of the length of a traditional psychotherapy session) we are exposed to a life that has been fundamentally ground to stasis. Krapp has so obsessively documented every detail of his life, from his “sour cud” and the “iron stool” to his cosmic epiphany “that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last", that he has failed to actually live it.

“Nothing to say,” he mutters hopelessly to the unrecorded reel before tossing it on the floor. “Be again" we hear over and over, from the recycled recording. “Be again,” a plea for rebirth, because the title of this highly self aware piece of theatre is “Krapp’s Last Tape,” and although he does not die off before us, it seems likely that this is the message of the recurring pocket watch. "Time is. Time was. Time is past,” says the brass oracle of “The Spanish Tragedy.” Beckett leaves Krapp suspended in all times:

Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.
Here I end this reel. Box--(pause)--three, spool--(pause)--five. (Pause. Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.

"At the Crest of the Wave": Hurt as Krapp

“Krapp’s Last Tape” is a play in which the actor must completely inhabit the role and dominate every moment. There is no downtime while another speaks, and none of the reciprocal energy of dialogue.

John Hurt first played Krapp in 1999, when he was quite a bit younger than the character’s 69 years. Now, at 71, he has said in interviews that he is finding more remorse than anger in the role. (Hurt’s career has been marked by a number of characters, who, like Krapp, have been marginalized or damaged in some way — the terrifying Caligula of “I Claudius,” heartrending John Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” gay icon Quentin Crisp in “The Naked Civil Servant.”)  Then, too, at 71, he has an aging body to draw on. His Krapp moves disjointedly, like an unstrung marionette (sometimes with a little too much exaggeration for my taste), and his present-day voice is a harsh bray, making us all the more aware of the beauty of the tapes. The tracks were recorded for the 1999 production, placing Hurt to some extent in the same position as his character, listening to an earlier self.

Actors are taught to think of their faces as masks, and Hurt’s really does have an almost totemic quality, crowded with furrows and pouches, like a well-traveled landscape. He uses it to great effect, in the provocative silence of the play’s opening, in his disgust at the “self” of the tapes, and later in the moments in which he begins to respond to the tape recorder with sensuous longing, as if it were the flesh of the woman he long ago “lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her.” And Hurt's voice matches his face, as if the scarring of life could be imparted to speech as much as to the body itself. 

Beckett was notoriously ungenerous about the actor’s process, discouraging those in his plays from embellishment, back story, or psychological projections. But his works do offer the performer one great gift in return for self-abnegation. Once Beckett has reduced his particular world to nothing, the glimmering something that remains is the actor.

On Friday, when I saw “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Hurt lingered on luminously even after the stage dissolved in black.