San Quentin and Samuel Beckett: An Interview with Rick Cluchey

Rhys Tranter talks to the renowned Beckett actor and director
On 24 September 1977, Samuel Beckett wrote a letter to the American theatre director Alan Schneider. At the time, the playwright was in Berlin, busily rehearsing a production of Krapp’s Last Tape with the American actor Rick Cluchey: ‘Rick is an impressive Krapp’, Beckett confided. In future correspondence with Schneider, he would go on to convey similarly approving remarks. One comment in a letter from 1981 finds Beckett surmising: ‘Rick’s Krapp about right for me’. And, in another from 1982, he suggested that the actor’s strength derived from the ‘massive presence’ he emanates on stage.

Rick Cluchey was drawn to the theatre in 1957, whilst serving a life sentence at San Quentin State Prison for armed robbery. In November of that year, Herbert Blau and the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop staged a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for the inmate population. Today, Cluchey remembers that it ‘caused [a] stirring among inmate population who saw the single showing.’ Nothing quite like it had been witnessed before, and the play seemed to strike a poignant and powerful chord. ‘My cellmate returned [and] told glowing stories’, Cluchey revealed, ‘as I was unable to leave the cage’. He remained confined to his cell for the duration of the performance, as he had been perceived by the warden as a possible security liability: ‘They knew if Rick got out at night, tomorrow they’d be waiting for both Rick and Mr. Godot.’
Rick Cluchey stars in a Chicago production of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape
Rick Cluchey stars in a Chicago production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape

The cellmate’s excited account of the Godot production stays with Cluchey today. At one point in the play, two characters arrive on stage to the bafflement of Vladimir and Estragon. There is the character of Pozzo, well-dressed and voluble in his opinions, and a second, more mysterious figure who carries his belongings. This second figure, who remains largely silent in the play unless called upon to perform or speak, was an object of fascination to the prisoners. Prompted by whips and verbal abuse, the character spent the duration of the production hunched over with a rope around his neck. ‘Guess what the guy-whipping dude called him?’, the cellmate had asked. ‘Lucky.’ The irony of the name was not lost on Cluchey. Nor was the association of confinement and cruelty: ‘Warden had a rope round [my neck] too.’

Cluchey holds that it was ‘[Herbert] Blau’s curtain speech [that] nailed Godot’. ‘It’s like jazz’, he had said. ‘This statement opened creative perceptions for men who never attended theatre.’

Samuel Beckett (left) with Rick Cluchey (right)

Inspired by what he heard of Beckett’s play, six months later the prisoners decided to stage a kind of response. It was a theatrical production of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, the story of a jury presiding over a homicide trial. The close quarters of the deliberation room, and the rising tension of the story, had a powerful effect. ‘Our first play understated the situation, as close to 3,000 [men] had found Quentin a place to be angry.’ Cluchey goes on: ‘Four years and eight productions later we discovered a copy of Godot in a Theatre Arts [magazine (Vol. XL, No. 8, August 1956)] and began staging the play’. He reveals that someone had the inspiration to invite Blau’s company to see the prisoner’s production. They came. Cluchey remembers that ‘a strange murmur went up as act two rolled out’, and they later discovered that the Theatre Arts edition had been bound incorrectly. ‘We’d performed mixed elements of both acts.’ The production was a success, although Cluchey intimates that he has been trying to get it right ever since. In some ways, he feels that he is still waiting.

Rick Cluchey was paroled in 1966, after serving twelve years of his sentence. His preoccupation with Beckett’s work had blossomed into the founding of the San Quentin Drama Workshop, and a series of successful productions ensued (Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame and Waiting for Godot). Cluchey also worked on other plays by prominent twentieth-century writers, such as Harold Pinter, Eugene O’Neill and Jean Genet.

Cluchey and Beckett first met in Berlin in 1975. At the time, Cluchey was directing Jean Genet’s prison play Haute surveillance (Deathwatch) at the Forum Theater. ‘So just like that,’ Cluchey says, ‘we are together in the walled city. Beckett invited me to observe his work with top German actors [at the Schiller Theater]. Ten weeks of rehearsals. Truly amazing!’ In the authorised biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame, James Knowlson ventures that ‘Berlin cemented their friendship.’

An enduring bond developed between Cluchey, now an actor, writer and director, and the Irish Nobel laureate. In his biography, Knowlson states that Beckett enjoyed the ‘friendly, family atmosphere’ of the San Quentin Drama Workshop; its sense of community made rehearsing ‘like working with a bigger family’.

Rick Cluchey stars in a Chicago production of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape
Rick Cluchey stars in a Chicago production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape

Now, over twenty years since Beckett’s death in 1989, his plays continue to exert an enduring fascination for audience members, and indeed for Cluchey himself. The SQDW founder is presenting a performance of Krapp’s Last Tape, and a moderated discussion, Sam and Rick, that recounts his experiences and memories of working with the writer. Both the play and discussion are playing at the Shattered Globe Theatre in Cluchey’s hometown of Chicago, running from the 2 to the 12 May 2013.

I ask Cluchey whether there has been a change in the way Beckett’s work is received in the twenty years since his death. ‘As you know,’ he replies, ‘Beckett is going through a revival, based on the [60th] anniversary of Godot.’ He goes on: ‘The truth is that most people who come to a Beckett play come because they love his writing, and that hasn’t changed.’

Since Cluchey’s first encounter with Beckett’s work in 1957, some fifty-six years have elapsed. I ask whether age has changed the way he performs the plays, or whether it’s changed what the texts mean to him. ‘No. Age has nothing to do with the template that Beckett has pressed into my soul. Beckett is the architect of the play, I follow his blue lines.’ Of Krapp’s Last Tape, he says: ‘I have played this part in three generations: prior to the age of Krapp in the play, whilst I was his age, and for many years after.’ Does the play, then, seem to remain relevant over the course of a whole lifetime? ‘Based on Beckett’s writing and direction, age shouldn’t be a factor.’



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