December 2013

Mairead Case

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The Sun is Down: Rereading Krapp's Last Tape

I wrote a thesis once, which is important because not counting one fiscal year of grants, stacked end to end, it’s the longest piece I’ve finished so far. That thesis was how I realized writing longform isn’t like running a marathon. It’s like building a house. And sure, okay, you can build an automaton orchestra and creature carousel like Alex J. Jordan’s House on the Rock, or you can be Weetzie Bat and Duck and Secret Agent Lover Man, happily ever after in Los Angeles, but if you do not have stairs or a roof then look out. Structure is important because otherwise you are liable. My thesis didn’t have level floors but I built them as best I could. I made rooms where people could sit and look around.

I wrote about Krapp’s Last Tape, an obvious choice for a straightedge girl who made zines and did radio and dreamed -- literally, not like “maybe someday!” but while she was sleeping -- about walking down red carpets in a tux. Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-act play about power, ritual, sound, and men, set on a “late evening in the future.” It is small, a punch: Krapp, a desk, a banana, a closet with a light, a tape recorder, some reels, and some fart jokes. Every year on his birthday, Krapp records a tape about his thoughts and whatever’s happening in his life. Then he listens to it and the ones he made earlier.

The play is very funny and very sad and still beautiful. It is barely half an hour -- all power, no clutter. There is no one else, not even a dog or a landlady, and since Krapp doesn’t seem cold or hungry or locked in we think yes, okay this is how he wants it. (Here too I think about Sarah Kane. In Kane’s play Crave, C. says, “Whenever I look really close at something, it swims with white larvae.” Sometimes now, rereading, I picture Kane’s characters staggering onto Beckett’s stage, making smears and corpses, and yelling. They probably eat all the bananas. They really whoop it up before Krapp kicks them out.)

Anyway, basically Krapp was everything -- white guys, humor, death, sound -- I was mad at or wanted to understand (of course sometimes that’s the same thing). So I figured if I looked closely at this play about a guy in a room, if I cut a Y down its chest, then I would understand it and be a better writer. I could wear that tux. This column is not about Krapp’s Last Tape though, it is about how reading a story ten years ago, and returning to it regularly, how that can shape other stories we hear.

* * *

I used to work at a small nonprofit, and one of our board members was mama to a little girl who came out to our events sometimes. The girl liked to sit in the front row with a book and take notes in it. She was too little to write in English, so instead she just made wavy line after wavy line, moving her pencil only when someone was speaking, and faster if they were speaking loudly. The notes made sense if you just watched the girl’s seriousness. She filled up an entire book that way. The vectors, the movement, they reminded me of Daphne Oram’s electric sound patterns or my favorite photographs, which are by John Divola: Dogs Chasing My Car In The Desert.

Divola was driving and he had a camera, and the dogs out the window are fierce and graceful, black lines against the sand. They look like lines of type. They remind me how I learned to walk differently, once I moved to a city. The girl’s lines and these dogs have a similar seriousness. I write in my notebook every day and sometimes feel like the dog, sometimes it’s John inside the car, and others it’s the desert, once everyone’s gone. I wish I knew how Krapp really felt, listening to his tapes. He kept doing it so either he was bluffing or he liked the pain.

* * *

The first five minutes -- or ten or fifteen -- of the play are silent. Krapp shuffles around the stage; he eats a banana, pours himself booze. When he finally speaks -- “spool” -- it’s funny, like blowing a raspberry at a funeral to make a baby laugh.

First Krapp listens to older reels -- here he is, throwing a ball for a little white dog; and there in a boat, with a lady who has gooseberry scratches on her thigh -- and next he records a tape for this year, his sixty-ninth. He has to restart it a couple times. He is freaking out about his dogs loose in the desert. “Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of… the ages!” Krapp says. “Yes! Let that go! Jesus!” He is passionate and so crabby.

I loved Krapp then and now, especially alongside Peter Handke’s Till Day Do You Part, a short monologue for the lady in the boat. (“You sly old actor, Krapp. Or what should I call you, Krapp-of-my-heart? Krapp the crocodile? Krapp-a-hard-act-to-follow? Well its my act now.”) And I love the play’s music, how it loops and scratches while Krapp listens and records. Sometimes hush, sometimes wow, sometimes it’s like a snowing TV that needs a whack. Probably this -- the sound, the shivers and highlights it gives the narrative -- is something I was supposed to learn from the Greeks. But I didn’t, I learned it from this purple-nosed guy holding court in a room of his own. “Spooool.”

In all ten years I’ve been reading it though, Krapp never once gets up from that table for real. I want to put Gertrude Stein next to him. Maybe her head is in her hands, or maybe her chin is out, defiant. “If everybody did not die the earth would be all covered over,” Stein tells Krapp, like she says in Wars I Have Seen (quoted also in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely). “And I, I as I” -- I as I! I can be someone else a while -- “could not have come to be and try as much as I can try not to be I, nevertheless, I would not mind that so much, as much as anything, so then why not die, and yet and again not a thing, not a thing to be liking, not a thing.” I don’t think Krapp would get up, even then. If I was teaching this to my high schoolers I’d say Stein goes “Yolo,” Krapp goes “Spooool.”

***

Other stories with spools, with characters who reflect through marks on paper or film: John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, which is about a boy describing music to himself because adults won’t let him hear any. Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, about a boy literally writing a new world. Also Dodie Bellamy’s Letters of Mina Harker, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, most of Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and pretty much everything Kathy Acker wrote.

It’s helpful too to think about how the narrator’s body looks while listening to herself: shocked like C., spinning like Stein, slouched over lonely like Krapp or maybe, standing straight like Kathleen Hanna. Onstage she usually has one hand to her ear like mixing something through headphones, eyes squinched like trying to hear a high sound. In all cases we try to hear what we need. What makes sense. This is different than listening.

Finally I think about Juliana Spahr’s poems from the book Fuck You – Aloha – Hello -- I love how “to be” works here as both question and statement, “we” as selves or a group. When Krapp was listening to the spools, was he a “we?” Was he, in the boat?

What I mean to say here is that I
am confused.

I am part of a we and then not
part of a we.

Or what I am confessing is that
when I am lost simple juxtapositions,
like comparing people in a room
with a table to people in a hotel
room, feel like sense.

Like truth feels.

What I am saying. 

I am saying, spools and notebooks and forward movement. I say see the little girl, and the dogs, and how we walk in the streets now and the way I scribble when I do. I see us moving towards something significant. I think first you have to spend a lot of time writing in your notebooks, lots of time making spools. I think burning, burning, burning like fabulous yellow roman candles is a rough way to go. I would rather be the dog running through the desert.

Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. An MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate of the 2013 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, Mairead is Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library and an editor-at-large for Yeti Publishing, featherproof books, and elsewhere.