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The Gift of Not “Getting It”

“Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end.” – Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

I just recently saw the Frida Kahlo now on display at the MFA called Dos Mujeres. It’s a rather straight forward painting of two women next to each other from early in Kahlo’s body of work.

As someone obsessed with Frida’s work, I love to speculate about the significance of this painting and how it factored into Frida’s notorious personal life. It’s only natural for us create our own narratives about the art we see – it’s just what we do. As a huge fan of Kahlo’s I try to “get” for myself what she’s after in each piece I experience.

For those of you familiar with Beckett’s work, you may have some experience of when you stopped trying to “get it” on a moment to moment basis. If you joined us for Lisa Dwan’s nine-minute dash through Beckett’s Not I, you got a crash course in what Beckett’s up to. He fills your ears with language and your brain grabs on to any kind of logic it can until finally at some point, your natural desire for narrative and meaning overrides your desire for thorough comprehension. This is why people who love Beckett love him so dearly – because the only way to find meaning is when you allow your interpretation to be a deep reflection of yourself. Maybe this is why the great performers and directors of his work are referred to as “interpreters.”

What is most exciting to me about Gare St. Lazare Ireland’s production of Here All Night is that it perfectly captures the mastery of interpreation as it integrates Beckett with other art forms where we are more accustomed to creating our own stories. The spoken text juxtaposed with the music, the lyrical melodies crashing into the angular almost discordant musical phrases, the theater performance playing out on the installation art – it’s a series of opposites that when experienced all together reveal something fundamental about the experience of being alive. The stage becomes a manifestation of all of the ever-present dichotomies in our minds that we navigate to invent our daily identities. And those intersections and what they mean will be completely different for each audience member. There are no Capulets and Montagues making their stances clear to help us follow along. There are onions and peppermints, Harry Mac and Sucky Sally, and a procession of other ideas and elements co-existing and celebrating their individual incomprehensibility for you to find meaning in yourself.

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Melanie Pappenheim in Here All Night

The more challenging stories to craft come later in the body of Frida Kahlo’s works. Consider Las Dos Fridas, a depiction of two versions of the artist holding hands with exposed hearts connected by blood filled veins, one of which has been cut by scissors and bleeds out onto her white dress. Beyond the blood, what makes it perhaps more striking than a piece like Dos Mujeres is the invitation for the viewer to assess meaning. When Kahlo started painting what she was feeling, the bold artistic statements encouraged interpretations that are as individual and reflective of the viewer as the painting is of Kahlo.

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Las Dos Fridas

It’s useless to think we can ever really understand what Frida meant or Beckett meant. It’s even more foolish to assume that we can know what they felt. Regardless, their work has become not for us to understand but to interpret and learn about ourselves.

Beckett’s raw emotion is a gift to us – as a way to see the dark corners of our own mind. We expect this exchange between artist and spectator in the context of modern and contemporary art. It is less expected, though no less powerful, in the theater.

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