Theft of the Commons: On David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu’s “Who Owns This Sentence?”

May 6, 2024
Los Angeles Review of Books

Types : Bylined Articles

IN 1984, THEATER DIRECTOR JoAnne Akalaitis was preparing a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame for Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. The stage directions describing the play’s single set read: “Bare interior. Grey Light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins.” This is what the set looked like when the play was originally produced in London in 1957. It was what the set looked like when the play was first produced in the United States in 1958. It was what the set always looked like. Most everyone alive or dead who had ever seen a production of Endgame had seen it played in an empty room with two small windows.

Akalaitis thought it might be time to try something different. Dramatic texts stay relevant because new generations of artists interpret them in new ways that make them speak to new audiences. In Akalaitis’s production, she set the play in an abandoned subway station. Far from bare, the stage was full of trash, including a broken-down train car, a choice some contemporary critics read as ingeniously concretizing the play’s metaphorical setting in a bunker after a nuclear holocaust. Akalaitis also deviated from tradition by incorporating music by Philip Glass into her production and casting Black actors in two of the play’s four roles.