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(Notes for a performance piece) ©1992


"Actors" -- Samuel Beckett and Marcel Duchamp -- can be presented as live humans (frozen in a pose or mobile), as dolls or marionettes, as cardboard cut-outs (eg, profiles of Beckett and Duchamp, seated at a chess board), or even as a part of one of Duchamp's paintings of chess players.

The presence of other actors is also a directorial decision, especially relevant to the form in which the pieces (in the chess problem specified below) will be presented.


One can use live voices, human taped voices, or computer-sunthesized voices (attributed to Beckett and Duchamp, to a possible narrator announcing the moves in the chess problem, or even to chess pieces whether or not they are played by human actors).

Alternatively, the piece can be entirely devoid of voices. In the latter case, one interesting possibility is the projection, somewhere in the performance space, of a video or film of the actors' larger-than-life lips (in reference to Beckett's The Mouth, but in this case silently enunciating -- some, whichever -- words).


If it is decided that the production would profit from the inclusion of music, it has to be collaboratively and carefully chosen. I would like to ask Joji Yuasa, a leading Japanese avantgarde composer based in San Diego (California) and Tokyo, to write music especially for the piece. Mr. Yuasa has expressed an interest in doing so. Alternatively, some of his existing pieces (with which I am familiar) could be used, naturally with the composer's permission. I have in mind especially Yuasa's The Sea Darkens (6min 15sec, with lyrics by Bashó, in Japanese), a part of Mutterings (percussion atonalities with soprano), and the 45sec section of I can't stand it beginning with "My neck is..."

Sets & Props

Some ideas: :

-- A gigantic reproduction of Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase (Nu descendant un Escalier, either No. 1, 1911, or No. 2 -- the definitive version — 1912) that the audience walks into, through or merely toward.

-- Some sort of chess "demonstration board" (for the problem described below) with either live actors (children perhaps?) or projected on a screen or a gauze scrim. Or the board could physically exist, for example, improbably suspended in space and could be semi-transparent or penetrable. The color of the squares should not be black & white, but rather some unconvential combination of colors (one could look at Duchamp's paintings of chess boards). The color of the pieces should also be carefully chosen, with special attention to the colors of the White Queen and Black King: These should be subtly differentiated from the color of the pieces on their respective sides, as well as from each other, but it also should be to shown that this is a pair of warriors attracted and fascinated by each other, a warring couple, united while in a deadly battle for the antagonistic sides (some sort of reversal of the Anthony/Cleopatra situation, since here the Queen is stronger and will eventually commit regicide). If live actors are used for the chess pieces, the White Queen (and possibly the Black King) should be nude or semi-nude and, eventually, blood-stained.

-- If live actors (or even cardboard silhouettes) are used for the Beckett and Duchamp characters , it might be visually effective to have them seated at a chess board within some sort of transparent 3-dimensional structure. It could be shaped as a tear, a drop of rain, a piece of fruit/or as two cones placed vertically, with bases attached (the bottom one thus balanced on a point). At a crucial moment (the check-mate) the structure would fall apart (open up into slices of a peeled orange or halves of a peach, juice flowing -- perhaps real?).

-- It is known that Beckett and Duchamp played chess against each other in Paris bistros. Duchamp was a much stronger player/a person obsessed by chess (and gambling) all of his life. Schizophrenic or not, he played chess at close to grandmaster level. There are many of his paintings and drawings of chess players, chess pieces, chess boards; a large one always hung in his bedroom as an aid in mental games. Perhaps some of these, but sparingly. could-be incorporated into sets and props (this performance piece is by no means meant to "illustrate" these two people's lives, works, characters, and so on; it should operate at a more abstract level, as an intellectual battle of indeterminate ideas).

There also exist interesting photographs by the painter Man Ray of Duchamp disguised as a woman -- another usable angle.

The Chess Problem

Moves of the pieces in this problem constitute just about the only "action". The problem is by S. Barret from 1894 and was assigned (with 100 prizes given) in the international competition organized as part of the 1991 Tilburg (The Netherlands) super-tournament.

Initial board position (an illustration is also enclosed):

White (to be played by the Duchamp character): King d2. Queen c2, Pawns e2, f2, g2.

Black (Beckett): King a1. Pawns a2, b2. :

White to play and check-mate in 12 moves.

Solution:1. Qc3, Kb1 2.Qd3+, Ka1 3.Qd4, Kb1 4. Qe4+, Ka1 5.Qe5, Kb1 6.Qf5+, Ka1 7.Qf6, Kb1 6.Qg6+, Ka1 9. Qg7, Kb1 10.Qh7+, Ka1 11.Qh8, Kb1 12. QhlX.

The moves complement Duchamp's Descending Nude (perhaps she could be made "mobile" in a film or video to be shown in the performance space).


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Beckett v. Duchamp can be performed alone, but it would be more effective if done as the first of two companion pieces, the second being my play St. Jacques-ln-Erlian, 1989. In the latter piece, Beckett expires on the stage and the manner of his dying is actually the performance of his own (wordless, quarter-of-a-page-long) play Breath.

In both pieces, the power of woman is transcendental.

In Beckett v. Duchamp, the Queen beats both Beckett and Duchamp -- as characters in the play and as they were in their life-in-art: She defeats Beckett's morbidity (the Black King's pacing to-and-fro in the chess problem, in Beckett's private life, in his plays, in St. Jacques); and Duchamp, while winning the game, wins it by a woman ascending, falling, winning by falling -- a complete woman — unlike the "nude" that made him famous.

In St. Jacques-in-Erlian, 1989, the young woman, M-G, defeats death. This is an old theme, of course, but the twist is in the question: Can there be a time (a moment, an eternity) during which one does not know whether one has died or not, in part because one so fiercely loves another?

Some "dramaturgical" comments on Beckett, Duchamp, and the possible conceptual connections between B. v. D. and St. J.

-- See the marked paragraph (enclosed) on p. 83 of Robert Lebel's Marcel Duchamp, regarding Duchamp's thoughts on chess endgames. Consider Beckett's plays Endgame and What Where (Quoi où): In both, all movement has been "for nothing".

-- And Hamm's first words in Endgame:

"Me --              
(he yawns)   
to play --

-- Duchamp lost his mother and father in the same year (1925). The author (Vladimir Konečni) lost his wife and mother within six days (in 1989) and lost them again in St. J. Samuel Beckett and his wife died within five months of each other (also in 1989) and again in St. J. The author is left alone.

-- In What Where the character V. says: "I am alone. In the present as were I still". Hamm, in Endgame, "But deep in what sleep, deep in what sleep already?" Please compare parts of St. J.

-- In Waiting for Godot, one of the characters, Vladimir: "Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? To-morrow when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today"? Consider these questions in terms of what the character M-G asks herself in St. J.

-- Enoch Brater: "In [Beckett's] Film [Buster] Keaton's face eludes us until the last few frames; and when we finally see it, it is as disfigured as Duchamp's celebrated portrait of the Mona Lisa with a moustache" (in Beyond Minimalism, 1987, p. 80).

-- There is Duchamp's painting Cimetière des Uniformes et Livrées. Was something like this, or indeed a prison yard at the Maison d'Arrêt de la Santé (see St. J.), that Sam Beckett looked at from the window in the back of his apartment at Boulevard St. Jacques?


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