Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider
On May 15, Scott Feldsher and Sledgehammer Theatre mount their first production in several years — and IT’S ABOUT TIME! Their choice, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, has a legendary San Diego connection.
In 1962, Alan Schneider stood on a Manhattan street corner and held the current greats of world theater in his hands. He was about to direct Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He had Harold Pinter’s latest manuscript in his overcoat pocket, along with a letter from Samuel Beckett detailing notes for their next staging. He was also scheduled to direct Jack Gelber’s The Connection in London.
Schneider saw the original Waiting for Godot in Paris. Seated with maybe eight or nine others, he became “alternately mystified and spellbound, uncertain and sure, knowing something terribly special was taking place on that small, almost bare stage.”
He took the Metro to Beckett’s modest apartment complex —15, rue des Favorites in the Sixth Arrondissement – and played “Waiting for Beckett”: he stood near the entrance for hours to catch a glimpse of the then relatively unknown, reclusive literary genius.
They met. Beckett said he could only spare half an hour. They talked for many and became friends.
Beckett may be one of the most precise playwrights ever. Each stage direction demands a mathematical precision. Schneider was equally obsessed with fidelity to the texts. Between 1955 and 1984 they corresponded with letters, postcards, and telegrams. The collection runs 474 pages.
Schneider went on to direct the first American productions of Godot and Endgame and the world premiere of Beckett’s Happy Days.
When Beckett read Happy Days — tentatively entitled Many Mercies or Tender Mercies — Schneider felt it didn’t live up to the earlier plays. And the director in him balked at “a leading character delivering what was practically a monologue while at the same time being confined to one place on the stage.”
Optimistic Winnie is stuck up to her waist in a mound of dirt. What actress would consent to play under that limitation?
Also: Winnie’s husband Willie spends much of the evening with his back to the audience and speaks maybe 20 lines total.
Schneider noted that the setting was “as usual with a Beckett play, simple but loaded with booby traps,” among them a flammable parasol, “The Merry Widow Waltz” (“loud enough to be heard”), and the ungainly mound.
Schneider kept mum and trusted that “any Beckett play would be unusual, unexpected, surprising, and stretching the fabric of drama even more tautly in some direction.” After his third time through the script Schneider saw “a great deal more on each page – of poetry, of truth, even of laughs – than I was yet able to perceive.”
He also realized that the weight of a world premiere would sit on his shoulders because “I felt that Sam had a special affection for this play.”
During rehearsals, Schneider although he saw connections to the Beckett’s earlier work, he urged his actors “to trust the material and try not to worry too much about what it ‘meant.’”
(Over the years, in all of Beckett’s myriad notes to Schneider, he never once offered a meaning or generalized idea; he just gave specifics).
When Happy Days opened, September 17, 1961, Schneider was so proud of the production, he had one of the rarest feelings in theater: “as though no one really cared what the reviews would say.”
They were mixed. Many reviewers had trouble with anything that dislodged them from their comfort zones. If they couldn’t understand it, they hated it.
Although Schneider had a similar reaction, initially, Happy Days became “my favorite Beckett play.”
In 1979, after directing the major works of Beckett, Albee, Pinter, Thornton Wilder, Joe Orton and others, Schneider became a Professor of Drama at UC San Diego. He headed the department of directing until his death — a freak motorcycle accident — in 1984.
Every year, Theatre Communications Group, The Acting Company, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society present the Alan Schneider Director Award. Recipients have included UCSD’s Kyle Donnelly, and former Old Globe mainstay, now artistic director of Hartford Stage Company, Darko Tresnjak.
Among all his accolades, probably the closest to Schneider’s heart came from Beckett after he read the reviews for Happy Days: “Thanks and affection for all you’ve done. I’ve the feeling no author was ever better served.”