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  • Writer's pictureGrace Davidson-Lynch

Setting Audience Challenges with Samuel Beckett and Bennett Foddy

It makes sense that audiences need different media to satisfy different needs. I for one have been watching a lot of documentaries and reality TV while I’ve been at home, probably to distract myself from the strangeness of the world outside. My partner has been revisiting games he played in high school, for similar reasons. While we’ve been looking to distract ourselves, others are attempting to embrace experiences of plague that media can present us with. Some have been binging on ‘viral’ movies like Contagion or Outbreak. I am repelled by the idea of doing this, but physiologist Pamela Rutledge suggests that this kind of cinema can help some people “…feel we're not alone, and there's a resolution to these stories so we can express our anxiety that way (Guerrasio, 2020).” But even without a pandemic, we look for our media to satisfy lots of different social, intellectual, and emotional needs. This week I came across a video game from 2017 that has got me thinking about a play from 1957, and why audiences love returning to art that makes them feel even “undesirable” emotions.


But first, I have to confess something.


When I was a teenager just getting interested in theatre, I went through a pretty intense Samuel Beckett phase.



I think it’s as close to teenage rebellion as I ever got, as if rebellion against dramatic structures and characterisation was somehow more exciting than anything the world of illicit substances or lying to my parents could offer me. Even at the age of 17 I was aware that my obsession was probably a phase. I noticed that a lot of my friends who liked theatre were going through a similar phase, a love of ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ that included other playwrights like Stoppard, Ionesco, and Sartre. These writers are stylistically groupable, but once I hit university, I discovered that the real theatre academics didn’t enjoy the grouping as much as the teenagers did. Is it helpful to the world of academia to group plays that ask the same existential questions but in completely different ways and from completely different contexts? My lecturer certainly didn’t think so. But at the age of 17, I felt like maybe the drama kids around me (and including me) were having their own existential crises brought on by puberty, and that the voices of these existential playwrights were comforting background noise to have while spinning into the void.


As a 22-year-old dramaturg who is now professionally concerned with the audience experience, I can see another aspect of this teenage phase that was quite lost on me. The plays of Beckett were somewhat impenetrable and required active thought to engage with, but I never found them so baffling that I didn’t understand what was happening. Obviously, some people won’t get it at all, but if you have an interest in theatre or literature it’s not impossible to get what is happening almost immediately. I compare this to my three attempts at reading Ulysses, where I would read a SparkNotes chapter summery after each section to fill in the gaps my brain was (and is) unable to process; 17-year-old me found Joyce to be a chore, but Beckett to be a pleasure. Godot and Endgame are challenges, but they are surmountable. They appear conquerable from the outset, and so sticking with these convoluted scripts feels like there’s a reward at the end for those clever enough to make it that far. It’s theatrical street cred to like Beckett- again, if you’re 17 and feeling a particularly intellectual angst. If you want to be seen as a smart drama kid, you should be reading/enjoying/understanding Beckett. But the challenge is only fun if you want to be challenged. If you hate theatre, you’ll probably fall asleep during Waiting for Godot. If you hate theatre, you’ll probably feel palpable rage at the repetitions of Beckett’s work, his mean and existentially pointless characters, and his vague hints towards interesting things that you never actually get see.


So, do other kinds of audience experiences offer the surmountable challenge as a form of dramaturgy? This week I found a videogame so uniquely frustrating and rewarding that the experience of playing it conjured alarming parallels to Beckett’s work. It also happens to star an unidentified white male confined to a pot.


It was released in 2017, and it’s called Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy.



You play as a naked man sitting in a cauldron filled with water, and you must use a hammer to pull yourself up a mountain. When I first heard of this game, I was immediately reminded of the countless jar-dwellers from Beckett’s catalogue- Endgame (1957) and Play (1963) prominently feature characters confined in bins and urns. The setting of a dull green wasteland is reminiscent of Waiting For Godot (1952), but I again found it to resonate with Endgame and it’s more obviously post-apocalyptic setting.


The first notable feature of this game is a running commentary provided by Foddy himself. Learning to haul your cauldron up unforgiving peaks, you’ll hear Foddy’s calm Australian accent as he says-


“…if you’ve already had a bad day then what you’re about to go through might be too much. Feel free to go away and come back. I’ll be here.”

(Foddy, 2017)


As I played this game, looking at the desolate landscape programmed for me, I really didn’t anticipate a running commentary so reassuring. But the statements really felt more like a thinly veiled dare. I can almost imagine Beckett feeling a similar way about his work; it’s a theatrical performance in a sense, but not one you’ve ever experienced before. As I played, I found myself starting to tune out his monologue so I could concentrate. Not that it helped- the controls are unwieldy and the falls are brutal. I didn't manage to get very far before giving up.


When I found this strange intersection of Beckett and game design, I decided to read Anna Douglass' chapter in Pop Beckett: Intersections with Popular Culture to get a second opinion and try to uncover some meaning to this. There are similarities between the two artists, but what can this teach us? Douglass opts to focus on the treatment of failure in both works, culminating in the idea that-


“…While… these particular examples… show further similarities in tone between Foddy and Beckett, they also gesture back to the commonality of failure in both works as each example highlights an insufficiency; in both cases, a lack of understanding or knowledge.”

(2019)


When speaking in more depth about the effect of failure on the audience, Douglass proposes that “…what in Waiting for Godot seems an implied failure to the audience, Getting Over It delivers as a much clearer failure because of the audience’s implication in it (2019).” However, if both works are rooted in audience experiences of failure, where is the pleasure coming from? Why did I- as an upwardly failing teenage nerd- find so much joy in Beckett? Why is this a common review on Foddy’s game?

As you progress in Getting Over It, the muted and depressing aesthetics of Beckett’s theatre start to melt away. A hovering world overflowing with colourful plastic scraps and blue skies come up to meet you. If Foddy aesthetically starts by pointing us towards Beckett, he soon steers us in a different direction. Foddy starts to commentate more like a beat poet, with refrains like this both urging the player on, and outlining his central thesis-


“Trash is disposable but maybe it doesn’t have to be approachable what’s the feeling like? are you stressed I guess you don’t hate it if you got this far feeling frustrated it’s underrated, right?”

(Foddy, 2017)


This commentary changes again as the man in the pot, now revealed to be named after a Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel, reaches the snowy summit. Foddy’s voice grows quieter, sounding as if he has moved closer to the microphone, less confident and expository then before. He thanks the player for continuing to play, and reflects on the journey. If you’ve spent hours and hours enduring the climb, the ending is a comforting and life-affirming win.


This is a very different feeling to the end of a Beckettian drama. There is often no promise of redemption or a change. Endgame just seems to finish with little consideration for the future-


HAMM: Clov! (Long pause.) No? Good. (He takes out the handkerchief.) Since that's the way we're playing it... (he unfolds handkerchief) ...let's play it that way... (he unfolds) ...and speak no more about it... (he finishes unfolding) ...speak no more. (He holds handkerchief spread out before him.) Old stancher! (Pause.) You... remain. (Pause. He covers his face with handkerchief, lowers his arms to armrests, remains motionless.)

(Beckett, 1957)


Beckett’s theatre can leave you feeling emotionally empty, or drained, or angry. But, is there maybe a similar feeling of accomplishment in finishing a difficult play or novel? Is there victory to be had here by finding the joy in depressing work?


My first live Beckett was Endgame at Sydney Theatre Company in 2015 when I was in high school. I went to a matinee with hundreds of other students, many presumably who had never encountered Beckett’s work before. I remember sitting in the audience and watching the opening scene, of Clov moving his ladder all over the place for what felt like 15 minutes.

Is this moment a profound statement on the depressing nature of something or other? Probably. Is it a confronting theatrical moment where the rules of Good Theatre are abandoned for a moment, without warning? Arguably, yes. But the teenagers I was with didn't baulk at the challenge to embrace the weirdness of the show. Instead, the audience laughed. They laughed quite a bit. It’s a moment of slapstick, and it’s intentional. The act of laughing in this situation is an audience response not borne from pure happiness, but from confusion and anxiety. The audience chose laughter because they were watching something vaguely funny, and could recognise that, so treated the moment like a moment of comedy. Playing Foddy’s game, I found myself laughing too. Losing minutes of progress in seconds is certainly tragic, and in any other game would be cause for rage or sadness. But in Getting Over It, how can I be mad? How can I rage when I did this to myself? It’s not like I wasn’t warned.


I just have to get over it.


And when we encounter something we don’t understand, in Beckett and Foddy, we not only have to get over it- we have to try again.


Is it impulsive? Has my experience with games led me to believe that I have to hit restart without thinking? Why reread a passage in a difficult novel, or continue trying to understand a confusing movie? What is the impulse that makes us start again when we have failed as an audience or player?


I don't have the answers, but these are useful questions to ask to make us more aware of our viewing habits. Dramaturgy can help us understand not just how audiences choose what media to interact with, but also why. Do audiences seek material that is challenging for the joy of being challenged? Or do they punish themselves with difficult material for other reasons?


Do you engage with challenging media on purpose? If you do, do you know why?


Here's one final thought- if you are a clever teenager going through your Theatre of the Absurd phase, or whatever the equivalent is in your media of choice, I truly mean no disrespect. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a masterpiece and I love it.


I bought my copy in 2013 at Sydney Theatre Company by waiting outside before a Saturday matinee and buying a copy from the store at the box office. I couldn't afford a ticket for the actual production, starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, so this was a sgood as I could get. I've reread it over and over again and performed monologues from it for school projects.

The inscription that i wrote in it seven years ago says- This belongs to GDL and it's my favourite, so be kind



Because true love never dies.


References

Douglass, A 2019, 'The aesthetics of failure in Beckett and Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy', in P Stewart and D Pattie (ed.), Pop Beckett: intersections with popular culture, Ibidem Verlag, Stuttgart.

Foddy, B 2017, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, digital download, Windows 10, New York.

Beckett, S 1957, Endgame, Faber & Faber, London.

Guerrasio, J 2020, 'Everyone is watching 'Contagion' right now. A psychologist explains why it's healthier to watch that than the news', April 21, Insider, viewed 25th April 2020, <https://www.insider.com/psychlogist-explains-why-contagion-is-so-popular-2020-4>.

Images

Play still © American Conservatory Theater

Endgame still © James Green

Steam review © Valve

Other photographs © myself

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