Thursday, November 26, 2015


Written over five years, between 1941 and 1945, while Beckett--as a result of his involvement in the French Resistance--hid from the Gestapo in Rousillon, Watt was rejected by publishers until 1953.




Playing at: Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St., Through Sat., Nov. 12. Tickets: $48 to $52. Information: 215-898-3900 or

You’ve got to hand it to Dublin’s Gate Theatre, and much-admired Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern. By running Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in repertory with McGovern’s cut-and-pasted version of Beckett’s wartime novel Watt, they give audiences an hourlong amuse bouche alongside the main course, and a mostly painless introduction to one of Beckett’s least welcoming, and subsequently less visited, works.

Written over five years, between 1941 and 1945, while Beckett--as a result of his involvement in the French Resistance--hid from the Gestapo in Rousillon, Watt was rejected by publishers until 1953. And you know, you can hardly blame them. Watt is “about” a butler who happens upon the home of one Mr. Knott, becomes a butler of sorts, has a nervous breakdown and leaves. But of course, that’s just the start.

On the one hand, the book is rife with mathematical extrapolations, extended Joycean dialogue (Sample: “Just as you ousted me, and Erskine Walter, and I Vincent, and Walter that other whose name I forget, and Vincent that other whose name I also forget, and that other whose name I forget that other whose name I never knew...” And so on, for most of a page), a convoluted narrative, and pages of “Addenda” that Beckett explains by noting, “Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.” On the other hand, it’s wickedly funny, and no disappointment to fans of his scatological leanings. But man, the reader sure earns every one of those laughs.

So, it’s not the worst idea to distill the novel to its essence, keep in enough digression to get Beckett’s point across, and rearrange the action--such as it is--to occur in sequence. The problem is that just as Watt doesn’t work as lively reading, neither does it work as lively theater. Much as the literary Watt has its charms, so does the staged version. However, those charms are probably best suited to Beckett enthusiasts or English majors, lest they frighten off rank-and-file members of the theatergoing public.

Endgame, Waiting for Godot, even the short story First Love, which Ireland’s Gare St. Lazare Players adapted and brought to this year’s Live Arts Festival, all have goals, even if that goal is merely to show the pointlessness of having a goal. But Watt is an exercise in form, and this solo performance, even with McGovern’s sharp instincts and compelling storyteller’s mien, or Tom Creed’s efforts at direction--the bewildered Watt is, at one point, represented by McGovern’s formal morning coat thrown over the back of a chair--can only do so much to make it resemble theater.


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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