Beckett Meets Melville: An Interview With Conor and Judy Hegarty Lovett

[Actor, Artistic Director] [Director, Artistic Director]

“Americans are people too, Jim.”

Challenges presented in adapting Beckett and Melville for the stage:
Who speaks?
Who is speaking?
Moby Dick is a long book.

Husband and wife Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett are the co-founders and co-artistic directors of the Gare St. Lazare Ireland theater troupe. Both were raised in Cork, Ireland, but settled in Paris twenty years ago. The repatriation may have been a sheer coincidence but makes perfect sense, as over those same two decades, Gare St. Lazare Ireland, with Judy as director and Conor principal actor, has earned an international reputation as our foremost interpreters of the work of fellow Parisian transplant Samuel Beckett. While their repertoire, not surprisingly, includes Waiting for Godot and other pieces Beckett wrote for the stage, it goes far beyond that.The New York Times dubbed the troupe“the unparalleled Beckett champions” for their adaptations of Beckett’s novels and short prose, from a three-hour production of his trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable) to their most recent project, a staged version of Beckett’s final novel, How It Is—a three-part novel, it’s worth noting, which was published with no punctuation.

In what might seem an unlikely turn amid all that Beckett, for the past ten years they’ve also been touring the world with a two-hour one-man adaptation of Moby Dick. During their annual visit to the States this autumn, with stops in Hudson, NY, Middlebury, VT and the University of Florida at Gainesville, Gare St. Lazare Ireland will be presenting Moby Dick, The Beckett Trilogy, and another new adaptation of one of Beckett’s later prose works, ill seen ill said, featuring actor Deb Gwinn, founder of the Vermont Coffee Company playhouse.

I spoke with the Lovetts via phone at their home in Paris, as they were preparing to head back to their home theater in Cork for the premiere of How It is (Part 2). We talked about the troupe’s origins, what it takes to transform Beckett’s novels into theater pieces, and just how the hell you make that mighty leap from Beckett to Melville.

—Jim Knipfel

I. “This is just the actor.”

THE BELIEVER: When was the troupe founded?

CONOR LOVETT: Our troupe, Gare St. Lazare Ireland, dates from approximately 1996, 1997.

BLVR: So you’ve been around about twenty-three years or so.

CL: That’s right, but we came out of an earlier incarnation called Gare St. Lazare Players. They originated in Chicago in the mid-eighties. There was a gentleman called Bob Meyer, who’s an artist, and he began doing theater plays in a cafe in Chicago called the Cafe Gare St. Lazare. He moved to Paris in the late eighties and kept doing theater here as The Gare St. Lazare Players. We met him here in the early Nineties and worked with him for several years. Then we began doing our own things, and he said “Why don’t you guys change your name to Gare St. Lazare Ireland, and I’ll stay as Gare St. Lazare Players?

BLVR: I know you hear this all the time but it’s worth repeating. Over the years you’ve earned a reputation as the pre-eminent interpreters of the work of Samuel Beckett. You’ve even won the respect of Beckett scholars, who are notoriously hard to please. The interesting thing is that while you, of course, have a number of his theater pieces in your repertoire, you’re best known for adapting Beckett’s non-theatrical work for the stage—the novels and the shorter prose. That seems a very daunting undertaking. As you approach a new work, what are the unique challenges you find yourself coming up against?

Julia Hegarty Lovett

JUDY HEGARTY LOVETT: Well, the challenges have been interesting ones, and they’ve been mostly positive challenges. What’s unique is that most of the work we have staged—we have seventeen Beckett titles under our belt—we’ve done them in their entirety, word-for-word, except of course the Trilogy. Those are, obviously, selected texts from those prose works. The challenges seem to be the same all of the time, and I suppose those challenges exist within the works themselves. I think we have found a way to deal with that within the staging itself. And that issue would be, who speaks? Who is speaking? Whose voice is it? That has been the particular challenge with works that weren’t intended for the stage. One is always asking the question, “Is it the right move?” I say this twenty-three years later. Does it service the writing? And I think the approach we have taken to resolve ourselves to that and, hopefully accepting that challenge, is to in some way echo the form.

We’re certainly not the first to present Beckett’s prose works on stage. There were precedents like Jack MacGowran and Barry McGovern and others, who would have received permission from Beckett directly to present the prose onstage. And I know Beckett was fairly prescriptive even there. It’s well known he wasn’t especially happy to present the prose onstage, but he did give his permission. When he did, he very often asked the actor to read the text first and then dispense with it, I suppose to demonstrate to the audience that it was from a text. The prose lends itself very well to the first person. It has an orality. When you’re reading the prose text itself you don’t know very much about who this person is. It seems to be more like a stream of consciousness that the character is expressing. In the reading of it, Beckett says, “To whom do I speak, to you dear reader, to whom nothing is denied.”

So what we try to do in some way is to echo what the book or the prose is trying to do, in that the writer is speaking directly to the reader, and in this instance the actor is speaking directly to the audience. We like to keep it very present, and give it the feeling of the actor giving a direct address to the audience. It gives the feeling of being kind of improvised, so that it feels immediate, as though those thoughts are occurring to the character at that moment and at that time, and they’re being shared with the people in the room. Some of what we’ve tried to do is to make sure and avoid total character representation. Conor first did Molloy when he was in his twenties, his late twenties, and Molloy is an octogenarian by all accounts of what’s said in the text. He certainly didn’t come on stage with a bicycle and a pair of crutches. We have a younger actor who is in his own clothing, not dressed in the long coat with the newspapers pasted inside. We try to say, “This is just the actor, the person you see in front of you, and these are perhaps his thoughts, perhaps not.” We like to try and slip between the two, so it morphs at times into the character, and at times remains fairly rooted in the actor, this person in front of you.

BLVR: For all the things people focus on when they talk about Beckett—the pure language, the question of identity, the struggle to communicate, at the very heart of things he’s still a storyteller.

JHL: Yeah, absolutely. The storyteller has a long tradition in theater and a long tradition in Ireland, the person who goes around telling stories. It can feel very oral and imaginative. A story’s been conjured, images have been conjured the same way as any other story, and that can be compelling for an audience. Also there’s his fascination—and when I say ‘his,” many of Beckett’s characters being male—with detail and the need to express the permutation and obsession with details. It’s what makes it humorous, it’s what makes it human, it’s what makes it interesting and compelling.

BLVR: Working together as a team and as husband and wife for as long as you have, do you ever find yourself coming to loggerheads over questions of interpretation or line readings or staging?

CL: Very, very rarely, I would say. Certainly very occasionally we might come upon a line, in the learning of it, that we discuss. We certainly don’t come to blows. Again I don’t think what we’re doing is trying to interpret stuff. Often we find the text very musical, and that can form the pacing. Like any good writer, Beckett can create a mood, and he can change the pacing of his writing. So things might speed up or slow down, but very often that was all dictated by Beckett himself.

JHL: The idea of working together comes pretty natural to us, as both our parents worked together. And ran their own businesses together.

CL: That’s right.

JHL: It’s mostly the business end of things, when you’ve got a deadline. We run the business as well. We didn’t go to school for this, we learned about it on the job. That can be very challenging and difficult and… boring. That’s where I find we get kind of testy.

CL: But it’s not a matter of disagreeing, it’s not so much a matter of disagreeing as it has to do with frustration.

II. Part Two

BLVR: Now, you’re about to head off to Cork for the premiere of How It Is (Part 2). It’s an ongoing project, you’ve already done part one, with part three still ahead. Could you tell me a bit about how the whole project evolved?

CL: So this is a piece that Judy had her eye on for quite awhile. We began work on it around 2015. Probably what’s interesting about it is that around 2013, we’d done Waiting for Godot, and developed a musical creation that has evolved even further over the years called Here All Night. We sought out musical references in Beckett’s texts, and worked with a composer. We had the experience of working with larger groups of people than we had used to do. With the advent of How It Is, I began learning the text, but Judy said she was very aware she wanted to invite in some other artistic collaborators on this. The first person we invited in was Mel Mercier, the sound designer and composer. He’s based in Ireland, although he works around the world. He regularly works with Deborah Warner, the theater director. So we invited Mel in. By that stage I had learned about thirty or forty minutes of text from How It Is (Part 1). We started doing workshops at The Everyman Theatre in Cork, where we were artists in residence at the time. So that piece became very much a piece that was borne out of the Everyman Theatre auditorium and our experience there.

We were rehearsing on the stage, as one might expect, and there was a fire curtain that was open about six feet off the ground, so not the entire space. It was the middle of January, and we were looking out into the empty auditorium, and Judy was quite taken by this framing of the Pricenium Arch and the fire curtain framing the seating in the auditorium. That developed into putting the audience on the stage and the performance in the auditorium. Mel of course was there, and he eventually—this was over a couple years of development—set up twelve sound sources, or speakers, throughout the auditorium and the stage. Along the way Stephen Dillane joined the process as a fellow actor. So he and I shared the text. There were a whole series of design choices and developments that Judy made, and that was what became How It Is (Part 1). It was performed in January 2018, and it went very well. We got four nominations at the Irish Theater Awards, including Best Production and Best Actor for Stephen Dillane. We actually won Best Soundscape for Mel Mercier and Best Lighting for Chris Stone. So that was good.

JHL: Now we’re off to Cork as you said to present Part 2 in September, and our key collaborators are still with us. Since 2015, as Conor mentioned. If we get to do all three parts, it will have been a six-year project. We do intend to mount part three in 2020 in September in Cork at the Everyman Theatre. This has very much been a relationship with that building and that venue. True to our form and to the way we work and the way we like to work, it takes a lot of time, a slow cooking process. We’ve come to recognize it as a key sort of way to making the work. During that process what we do as well is open the rehearsals to invited audiences, to school groups etc., because we see the audience as an integral part of the making, of finding out together what works for them, a kind of breaking down the piece to really understand how to make the best presentation possible, the one that helps the audience hear the work.

BLVR: Now, a number of the pieces you’ve staged have been solo performances featuring Conor, and I’m wondering. When you come to the States in October, you’ll be doing The Beckett Trilogy one night, and the next night you’ll be doing Moby Dick. Both performances must be exhausting, What kind of psychic readjustment do you have to make to go from Beckett one night to Melville the next?

CL: If you discover anything about that psychic readjustment, please let me know [Laughs]. At the end of the day, it’s an acting gig. I have to be ready for both performances, and I have to have a good sense of what each performance requires. When it comes to being prepared or being in character, that’s not really the way I approach performing. I don’t think in terms of character, I think in terms of the piece of writing, the musicality perhaps. A lot of that is due to the way Judy directs, which is to say, “I’m not interested in you showing me how good you are as an actor doing all these different characters, I’m more interested in believing what you’re telling me, and believing that all this is happening.” So it brings it down to your own voice and your own person. You present Ishmael through Conor, Molloy through Conor, that sort of thing.

JHL: And as I mentioned there’s the slow-cook process when it comes to adjusting to the work. Because we’ve been dealing with it over time, allowing it to percolate slowly, it gets deeply embedded and embodied. So it’s not like a more traditional type presentation, whereby you put a piece together in a three-to-four week period and then put it up while it’s still sizzling on the outside. When you deal with a single piece of writing over a four or five year period, and in this case it’s been twenty years since we first did Molloy, there’s an evolution. You actually live with that writing, with that piece over time, and it inevitably becomes something in you and of you. Simply by repeating and having it with you for such a long time.

BLVR: How long have you been doing Moby Dick now?

JHL: Ten years. I know theater is very ephemeral in the sense that it goes up and it’s gone after however many performances. We worked on the text over time and we’ve cut bits and added bits. It was originally a three-hour piece and we had an interval. And now it’s a two-hour piece with no interval. So it has changed a bit, it’s evolved over time. Essentially we’ve been engaging with that novel for ten years, and meeting an audience with that novel for ten years. Breathing all that new life into the piece, all those people who come to it, people who talk about it, the people you meet through doing the piece, and it just kind of grows and strengthens with time.

BLVR: Moving from Beckett to Melville is a bit like moving from Beckett to Joyce. What attracted you to the novel? I mean, Ireland of course has a long seafaring history, but Moby Dick is considered such a deeply iconic American novel.

CL: It is, but Americans are people too, Jim.

BLVR: Some of us, anyway.

CL: We’ve done a lot of traveling with our work, and one of the things you learn—what anyone who travels learns—is that people have the same general interests and preoccupations. Several years ago we were having dinner with a friend of ours who said, “Have you still not read Moby Dick? You’ve got to read it.” So Judy finally bought a copy and she was only a few chapters into it when she turned to me and said, “You have to read this, too, because we’re going to adapt it and put it on stage.” I had not read it. I knew it was a major, major piece of literature, and like anyone who hasn’t read it, I thought I probably should read it. I don’t want to say I was cavalier, but Judy was much more gung-ho in her approach to it. We’ve been spoiled for having spent so much time with Beckett’s writing. You turn to other writers, and you rarely find someone who can be said to breathe the same air. Here was somebody who certainly could.

BLVR: Well, Judy, you were hitting at this before. It’s such a hefty novel made up of so many digressions and detours and tangents. Melville just crammed it full of everything he was thinking about at the time, whether they had anything to do with whaling or not. How do you go about editing that down to a two-hour performance?

JHL: Yeah, that’s the hard mission, isn’t it? Because it’s such a bulky book, and every chapter is great—it has so much detail. But as you said yourself, the book really digresses. I think Melville must have been paid by the word, which might explain all the digressions, the bulk of the work. It’s our experience that you’re never satisfied that you have enough in there, that you’re doing it justice, that you’re adequately portraying the book. Unless you do it word for word. I think they do a full twenty-four-hour reading of it in New Bedford annually. I’ve never seen that but I would like to, to hear the whole book. So I suppose, like any adaptation, what we did over time, we had Father Mapple’s speech in there, we took it out, we put it back in again. We were testing what works and how to join the pieces together. I suppose the story is circular in the sense they go out to sea and they do come back. Or, well, they don’t come back, but at least Ishmael survives to tell the tale. There is a certain linearity to the story, and we’ve kind of stuck with that. We were very much focused on the Ishmael story, it being told from his  point of view. So that was key. That was hugely helpful to us in terms of trying to keep the thread of logic in his point of view.

CL: There are moments in the novel where Ishmael is unlikely to have been party to some of the things. There are scenes where Ahab and Starbuck are down in the cabin, and there are soliloquies by Ahab. There’s the lovely moment just before the chase begins where Ahab is hunched over the edge of the boat, and questioning for the first time, it seems, what he’s doing, and almost about to head home. There are these moments where Ishmael certainly wasn’t involved in the conversation. But when you’re about a ship, what’s private? Maybe he was eavesdropping or maybe stories came back to him through other channels. We played with that a little bit. There’s the moment when Ahab has announced his intention with the gold coin nailed to the mast. Then he goes back down to his cabin and says something along the lines of, “They think I’m mad, but I’m not mad. They think I’m mad, Starbuck does. But I’m not mad, I’m demoniac—I am madness maddened.” I can’t remember from the book whether he was speaking to Pip or somebody else or whether he’s just speaking to himself. In the performance we do that section, and so the audience is suddenly faced for the first time with Ahab confiding in them the way Ishmael had all along. It’s quite a bizarre moment, and I often wonder what it must be like from the audience point of view. But as we come out of that moment, Ishmael pauses and then says, “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew.” So it’s as though, momentarily, Ishmael had been possessed by Ahab, or Ahab had somehow spoken through Ishmael. I guess that’s the license you take when you’re adapting something from one discipline to another. You take these little poetic licenses. There’s not a lot of that in our show. Mostly it’s Ishmael telling what happened, reporting what went down. But there are little moments like that, where you get a look into Ahab’s mind.

III. “The wonders of obsession, commitment, and determination.”

BLVR: Earlier you mentioned an evolving musical piece, and the music you’ve used in your productions has always been very interesting. For Moby Dick, for instance, you have a violinist on stage with you. At first a violinist seems counterintuitive, but then you hear it, and it works perfectly with the prose and the performance. He’s not playing a standard violin.

JHL: Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh is a very good friend and a great collaborator. His instrument is called a Hardanger d’Amore.

BLVR: I didn’t know he was playing a Hardanger. Those have long been considered the devil’s instrument. Which makes it perfect for Moby Dick.

JHL: It’s quite a special instrument that he had made for him in Norway. He’s a really good player and has a gorgeous sensibility. I think what’s remarkable is how he’s been with us from the beginning of the project and he’ll be on tour with us in the States this October as well. He was just on tour with us in June. Every time he comes he brings a little bit of something new to the piece. He’s a great improviser as well.

CL: He never plays the same thing the same way.

BLVR: From the snippets I’ve heard, I was going to ask if what all he was doing was improvised.

JHL: Quite a bit of it, yeah. That is what he’s really, really good at. I think it’s taken him a long time to get to be able to do that so freely and so well. More than anything, he listens. He listens really, really well. He listens deeply to the text and to Conor. I think he’s listening to both the music of the text and the writing and Melville and Melville’s voice and Conor’s cadences. He really is echoing back, matching that and meeting that.

CL: It’s almost two hours of performance, and though he only plays for about fifteen minutes of that, he’s onstage the entire time. He acts as a sort of companion to Ishmael, or a witness, or some kind of support. And he really is a support to me as a performer because of his commitment to the production.

JHL: There’s this wonderful active engagement in how he responds and how present he is, and how much he brings in terms of thoughts and ideas and stories and inspiration to the piece.

BLVR: So why are you bringing Moby Dick to upstate New York?

CL: Hudson is celebrating a whaling festival. They’re celebrating their heritage as a major whaling town. It’s quite surprising for as far inland as they are, compared with Gloucester or New Bedford or Nantucket. [Pause] Oh, and Judy’s just handed me a book called Hudson’s Merchants and Whalers: the Rise and Fall of a River Port, 1783-1850. Jim, I haven’t read it.

JHL: It’s only recently been published, and the writer is Margaret B. Schram.

CL: So Hudson, as I say, is celebrating its heritage. We had worked in a couple previous incarnations with Tambra Dillon, who is now running the historic Hudson Hall and the Hudson Opera House. She had brought us with some of our Becketts back in 2006 to the Fisher Center at Bard College. She knew of our Moby Dick show and invited us to perform it this year, where Hudson is rediscovering their whaling past.  And we were introduced to Allan Melville Chapin, who is a descendant of Herman Melville’. He lived in Hudson and has family in the area as well. We met him and his sons and al their lovely wives and partners at the fundraising ball for this festival.. So that’s a wonderful extra connection. Through Melville, and I guess through all our work, but it’s become a feature with Melville. There are so many people who have such a deep interest in Moby Dick in particular, and Melville in general. Somehow these people are outward looking and like-minded. And we have met so many good friends since doing Moby Dick. We’ve really met so many people around the world who have this shared interest in the novel. It’s wonderful to have actually met some of the family.

BLVR: I asked earlier about making the leap from Beckett to Melville. But working as closely as you have with texts from both, have you come to notice any parallels?

CL: I see many parallels. It’s interesting, earlier you were talking about Beckett and storytelling. And Melville is of course a wonderful storyteller first and foremost. And I think storytellers have to have a story to tell, but they also have to have a mastery of their craft. A grasp of it anyway, of writing, of using language creatively and inventively. Both Beckett and Melville qualify in that regard. Melville was taking life and throwing everything at it, as you said with Moby Dick, digressing in all sorts of directions at once, telling us about biology and geology, the wind and the sea and everything.

BLVR: And the color white!

CL: He was also telling us about human nature and the wonders of obsession, commitment, and determination. And the whole microcosm of putting all these people on a ship and putting it out to sea. Clearly a master inventor and storyteller. It seems to me that somehow Joyce comes after Melville in that sense of taking all that you’ve got and throwing it into the book and seeing what happens. Ultimately, in Finnegans Wake, inventing his own language, because there wasn’t enough for him to do with the English language. He had to keep going. And then Beckett comes along and he says, “I don’t think I have anything to say, but I have to say something.” It’s like somehow Melville inspired Joyce, and then came Beckett. In a sense Beckett started telling stories, but he seemed to realize at a certain point—I wonder anyway if he realized at a certain point—that stories were merely vehicles for other endeavors. Europe just had its greatest shock. Two of its greatest shocks. What could he believe in? That seems to be an element. I think they all have in common great mastery, great need to express themselves, and—I threw Joyce in there but I’ll take him out again—Melville and Beckett seem to have similar philosophical preoccupations.

JHL: And they challenged the form of the novel. I think both writers were adventurous in what they wanted to do and how they wanted to look at what the novel can do. That’s primarily what I think they had in common. That and spectacular craftsmanship. We’re dealing with master craftsmen, and it feels very good to be surrounded by that kind of mettle.


See more about Gare St. Lazare Ireland’s upcoming performance schedule here.Ill Seen Ill Said will premiere September 28th and 29th in Middlebury, Vermont. Moby Dick will be showing in Hudson, New York on October 4th, 5th, and 6th. 

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