CAMBRIDGE - Samuel Beckett was notoriously picky about productions of his plays. More than once, he demanded theater companies "cease and desist" because the productions did not reflect his intentions. But this week, noted Beckett scholar Robert Scanlan, a self-professed member of "the Beckett police," will stage three of Beckett's short pieces out of context. And still, he says, the production will be "true to the inner coherences of the plays."
"Beckett at 100," which runs at Harvard University's New College Theatre Thursday through Nov. 18, was created to celebrate the late Irish writer's centenary last year. Nine Circles Chamber Theatre and New York's 92nd St. Y commissioned new music by Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman for what Scanlan calls an essay on Beckett's development as an artist: two radio plays - "Words and Music" and "Cascando" - and one teleplay, written 15 years later, ". . . but the clouds. . . ." All three works were created for the BBC.
"Beckett left specific instructions in his will not to do what I'm doing," says Scanlan, sitting in his office in the English department at Harvard University, where he is a professor, surrounded by posters of Beckett on the walls and books about Beckett strewn across his desk. "But I think what I'm doing is saving these plays from oblivion, and I'm very careful to respect the form in which they were created. You could say they've been neglected, but I think they've been misunderstood. I hope by putting them together in an evening, they'll reveal avenues of Beckett's aesthetic we haven't explored."
The three short plays work well together, Scanlan says, because they reflect Beckett's career-long struggle to express his grief over the death of a young woman early in his life. He notes that they all respond to a poem by Yeats about loss ("The Tower"), from which the title of the third play is drawn.
Scanlan says Beckett's nephew, who controls the writer's estate, made the permission to produce the three plays conditional on being true to Beckett's vision. "I'm trying to illustrate the essence of his work," says Scanlan. "Because the first two are radio plays, and Beckett knew he was working in a purely aural medium, we are staging them as a recording session, and every performance will be recorded, while every performance of the teleplay will be filmed."
The actors, including respected Beckett veteran Alvin Epstein and Mickey Solis (who appeared in the 92nd Street Y production), had to learn to play to the microphone and the imagination for the radio plays. Throughout, Scanlan says, the music exists as another character. For this production, a musical ensemble including renowned violinist Gil Morgenstern (co-artistic director of Nine Circles Chamber Theatre), a pianist, and a percussionist will perform.
"Words and Music" explores the efforts of a character named Croak to force Words and Music to work together. "He fails," says Scanlan. "The lyrics don't work, and the music is kind of awful. Even though he's trying to get them to express this terrible sadness, his efforts become a hilarious farce. It's the dramatization of a complete train wreck."
The real challenge, he says, was asking a composer to write bad music in an artful way. Music for the radio plays was originally written by John Beckett, the writer's cousin, and then later by Morton Feldman (who also wrote the opera "Neither" with Beckett), but Scanlan says the playwright was never quite satisfied with either score. Scanlan turned to Pearlman because, he says, "I've been a groupie of Boston Baroque and of Marty's for a long time."
Pearlman, speaking by phone before teaching a class at Boston University, where he's a professor of music, says he's a fan of Beckett's work, but "I've always felt he's been treated as difficult or obscure, when really there's a lot of humor in it. It's funny to hear Music annoying Words, and I wanted my own composition to reflect that."
In the play, Words writes the lyrics on the topic Croak demands (grief and loss), and Music tries to teach Words the melody for them. "Words resists and is having a lot of trouble learning," says Pearlman, "It's sort of a tortured process, and I thought, 'What kind of music can you use to express this?' I chose to write a distorted imitation of an Irish tune, which provides a certain lightness to the scene."
"Cascando," the second radio piece, returns to the same theme, but this time the collaboration is more effective. "I think Beckett is exploring the same idea about how an artist tells a story and how he worries about where his characters are going," says Pearlman. "The music is more parallel since it expresses the narrative and then the creator's anxiety about the narrative."
The third play, ". . . but the clouds . . .," adds the visual component available with TV. "The three plays are linked by Beckett's haunted memory of his great love who died young," says Scanlan, and her image appears fleetingly on screen. "Time has made grief worse for him," says Scanlan. "Memories did not recede like the clouds of the poem."
Epstein, who appeared in the original Broadway production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in 1956, says he keeps returning to Beckett because there are always new things to discover. "The process we go through with these short, intense plays is the same as when we first approached 'Godot,' " he says. "What is he talking about? And then the closer you look at, in my case, Lucky's speech, the more you realize that he's talking about quite a few things."
Staging "Beckett at 100" in New York last year has made Scanlan feel confident about his new approach to Beckett's plays, he says. "I know he was always ready to look at things anew," says Scanlan, who spent a lot of time with Beckett during the last decade of his life.
"There's a formal precision to his work that is similar to classical music training," Scanlan continues. "You need to have the discipline of your technique to play the notes exactly as written. It's only when you can play it perfectly that you can make new discoveries about it. I'm hoping audiences will see the connections through the way I've staged the plays."