Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Krapp's Last Post": The legacy of Samuel Beckett as reflected in today's online connectedness

[The following playlet was inspired equally by Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" and a "Fresh Air" interview with Adam Alter, author of "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked."]

A late evening in the future. A small room in Krapp's home, with a plain wooden table front center and one chair behind it. A floor
From a production of "Krapp's Last Tape," by Samuel Beckett.
lamp should be behind the table and to the left, as though to illuminate an area that's never occupied. There's a small refrigerator toward the rear of the stage, plugged in.

Elderly man moves downstage from the back. Hair gray and mussed. He's casually, even shabbily, dressed: scuffed tennis shoes, blue jeans, pullover sweater with a tear at the neck, nondescript shirt.

Before sitting down wearily at the desk, takes iPhone from right jeans pocket, holds it up momentarily like a chalice, stares at it, then sets it down. Takes a granola bar out of jeans' other pocket, sets it on the table to his left. Sits down. Glances warily at iPhone. Pause. Then to the granola bar. Picks it up, unwraps it slowly. Places one end in his mouth. It sticks out like a cigar. Sets wrapper down and smooths it out. Turns back to iPhone, picks it up. Suddenly remembers he has a granola bar in his mouth, so he sets iPhone down again, bites off part of the granola bar, then sets the rest down on the wrapper.

Picks up the iPhone, swipes to Facebook app as he chews his bite of granola bar. Sighs heavily.

Voice [all words whenever they follow this stage direction should be read by a hidden offstage voice, representing Krapp's reading from the iPhone screen to himself]: What's on your mind?

Krapp: Always the same question. (Pause.) Should ask Siri. (Presses home button.) What's on your mind?

Voice: Who, me?

Krapp (Groans. Presses home button again. Louder): What's on MY mind?

Voice: Interesting question.

Krapp: That figures. Dodge the difficult ones, she does. The obscene ones, too. So they tell me. Doubt that Alexa's any better.  A real catfight, though, those two. And they slut-shame Cortana, I understand. (Pause.) Facebook knows it's my birthday, so here I am, like clockwork. Check my feed. My Facebook friends. How many? 223! (Pause.) Could I name 50 of them, even. Gun to my head. Many people I've never met. Friends (Savoring the word.)  Friends. (Pause.) Here's a status report.

Voice: Thanks for all the many prayers and well wishes. Gramps came through the procedure OK, considering, and is now resting comfortably. We are hoping for the best. Welcome your prayers and...

Krapp: Oh, this is a long one. On it goes (Scrolls down, browsing hastily.) Well, I'll like it. (Pause. Staring at screen, he reaches for granola bar, takes another bite, sets it down.) Or a smile emoji, maybe? (Pause.) The old man may be near death. Should I be smiling? (Pause.) "Like" it is. Means I'm glad to hear from you, basically. And he had a full life, whatever that is. And whoever you are. (Pause.) OK, now what's on my mind? Ah. (Types.) I heard the other day that "World of Warcraft" is a weaponized game. A hundred million people play it worldwide. They form guilds and go on missions. (Stops typing.) Why post this? Never played the game. Facebook friends, some may be into gaming. Or their kids must be. I'm warning them not to become addicted, right. (Pause.) Or else I'm implying they, or their loved ones, are already addicted. Criticize a friend's leisure pursuits. Not good. Might start interesting comment thread, though. (Pause.) Check my settings. OK, not "public," just "friends." Damage control. Maybe only "certain friends." Then I gotta choose: who's in, who's out. (Waves a hand dismissively.) Keep it public. No man is an island.

Voice: You have memories today. (Pause as Krapp scrolls down a bit.) Digital media allows you to exist in the world without being inventive, except in extreme cases as when someone playing Pokemon Go walks into traffic.

Krapp: How long ago was Pokemon Go hot? Look it up. (Types keywords, waits briefly.)

Voice: Initial release date July 6, 2016.

Krapp: Seems it should be longer ago. Not like memories of women who once let you get close to them. Always seem recent, those. Tactile. Yet somehow far away, too. (Pause. Looks off into space.) But all these fads recede at warp speed. Unless you're into the fad, I suppose. (Pause. Sings, slowly.)

            "It's been a hard day's night, I've been working like a dog. It's been a hard..."

(Pause. Realizes he has forgotten the next line.) Look it up. (Finds lyrics to "A Hard Day's Night.") Yes, of course. (Sings.)

           "I should be sleeping like a log."

Surprising I forgot that. How many rhymes for "dog"? Not many. Fog and bog, too. Then there's blog, don't remind me. Curious idea, though: "Sleeping like a log." Where's that come from? Like "happy as a clam." I've always wondered. How does anybody know? Ought to look up "studies of happiness in clams." (Pause.) Bah! Maybe later. Someday.

Voice: You have memories today with....

Krapp (interrupting): Oh no. Not her. But who is...? Oh, I became friends with her three years ago. Married now, I would guess. Or came out as a lesbian. Which today could also mean she's married, of course. (Pause.) Can't let down fellow players in the game. You feel bonded. Remember that detail from the guy I heard interviewed. On the radio. Told the whole world that Pokemon Go players sometimes walk into traffic. Ghastly scene, that must be. He's the one who talked about "World of Warcraft." Said a football player got into it off-season. Can't imagine people dividing their lives into seasons that aren't fall, winter, spring,  summer. But your athletes do. Pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. Never left his room. Ordered in. Got fat and doughy. His skin changed. I forget exactly how. But it wasn't good. I should have linked to the interview. (Looks down, scrolls.) What's this?

Voice: The average human attention span today is 8 seconds; 10 years ago, it was 12 seconds. The average goldfish has a nine-second attention span.

Krapp (shaking head): Can't say how I got any friends, or likes, the way I used to post. Fragmentary. No wonder I preferred Twitter. Even there I hated to link. Imposing on people: you have to read this! (Raises voice.) This is part of who I am, and you follow me on Twitter! (Pause. then quietly, as if hurt.) So you ought to read this. It's only fair. Where were the retweets? Where are the snows of yesteryear? But I should have provided links more often. That's only fair, too. Frustrate people, and they're on to the next thing. Every time.

Voice: Moment is an app that quantifies your use of your smartphone. Wastenotime sets a limit on your use of the iPhone.

Krapp: Did I ever download those apps? Seems too late now. (Gets up, stares into space, finishes eating granola bar. Turns and walks back to refrigerator, opens it. Gets out a can of beer, comes back to table. Sits down, pops tab, takes a sip. Looks at screen.)

Voice: Which character in a film noir is most like you? Take this quiz.

Krapp: Do I want to know this? Haven't seen much film noir. "Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep." (Pause.) Twitter scared me, because you have to do short bits. And I think in short bits. Always have. Made me self-conscious. I felt mocked. I kept the account, though. Followed thousands of accounts. Oh, Twitter was just made for you, my wife used to say. She was nuts. The most obvious things to her passed for great insights. (Pause. Drinks.) That was one of them.

Voice: With a behavioral addiction, the brain looks similar to a heroin addict's. The same pleasure centers are affected. The physiological response pairs with a psychological need. A digital-media addiction seeks to fill that gap.

Krapp: Something about dopamine released. He went into that, too. This natural thing — chemical — in the brain. All about pleasure. They had to give it a name that sounds so stupid. (Drinks beer again, sets can down with finality.) Dopamine: makes people feel stupid about pleasure. Why? (Sings again, slowly.)

             "But when I get home to you, I find the things that you do, will make me feel all right."

Voice: On July 18, 1993, the New York Times published a letter by Martin Baker of Philadelphia, asserting that the plays of Samuel Beckett are, quote, metaphorical displays of spiritual decay, unquote. And here's what he said after mentioning some instances of this decay, quote: We do, do, do, because if we pause we'll have to listen to the quiet pace of actual living, and listen to what we have to say to ourselves and find we have nothing to say, unquote.

Krapp (standing up, beer in one hand, iPhone in the other): Long time ago, 1993, and that was way before the Internet. There's plenty to say now. What was I thinking to post such a thing? Already faded testimony.  I must have saved a newspaper clipping. Thought the letter to the Times spoke to my, my what? My condition. (Pause. Sits down, types.) Had he lived long enough, Samuel Beckett could have been what they called "a design ethicist" at Google. Make sure their games and things would do no harm. He had the grasp for it. Well, they fired the design ethicist, I heard.  The actual one. (Pause. Resumes typing.) Spiritual decline, people don't know what that is. The Monopoly people put up an online survey to ask people which token they would get rid of. So they junked the thimble, then people went wild, upset. Surveys! Connectivity isolates, really. The more you ask people things, the less they feel their voice is being heard. (Stops. Looks his post over, clicks "post".) If no man is an island, that means there are no more islands. Everybody landlocked with everybody else.

Voice: A professor asked his class, How much would you pay if I took your phone away? To get your phone back, how much would you pay? They would pay a lot, it turned out. He was shocked. One student replied: If you'd pay me enough to buy another phone, yes, you could have this one. (Pause.) Consider the lilies of the field.

Krapp: I could do that. Neither toil, nor spin. That's the life, dealing with everyone face to face, so you could compare them with the people you once knew. Settle accounts. No spiritual decay. Or at least slower. (Pause. Sits down again. Starts typing.) I had her tears on my handkerchief. Hours later, I could still taste the salt. (Drinks the last of the beer. Resumes typing.) But the chance of happiness not worth going back, just to play the thimble. There are such options now. (Long pause.) Like Solomon in all his glory. Strike out overland for the shore. Must be real islands left somewhere. Time to put out to sea. That's the ticket! (Clicks "post." Holds phone up, chalicelike as at the beginning. Powers down, lays iPhone on table.)

Blackout. Curtain.

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