Yesterday afternoon, I had the remarkable experience of watching Rick Cluchey performing in Samuel Beckett’s one-act play, Krapp’s Last Tape. Cluchey is one of the few actors still working – perhaps the only one left – to have been directed by Samuel Beckett himself. So one had the privilege of witnessing an authentic performance, played as the playwright wished it, nearly 25 years after the director-playwright’s own death.

Cluchey brought a ferocious intensity to his performance, combined with a stylized, almost balletic set of gestures, and a precision and specificity which heightened the tension, sense of menace, and general feeling of incarceration that the text generates.

The notion of the passage of time and the tricks it plays on the mind were eerily underscored by the recordings of Krapp’s 30-years-younger self played on an old reel to reel tape recorder – recordings made by Cluchey himself in 1977 and also directed by Beckett.

Redemption through Theater

Cluchey’s own story is itself the stuff of high drama. A native of Chicago, he was involved in an armed robbery in Los Angeles in 1955. Given – even by the standards of the day – the extraordinarily severe sentence of life without parole, Cluchey ended up in San Quentin prison and began a life behind bars with no prospect of freedom.

Cluchey found solace and fulfillment in writing and in performing in the San Quentin Drama Workshop, which he cofounded. Eventually, Gov. Pat Brown of California was persuaded to allow the parole board to consider Cluchey’s case, and he eventually left prison in 1966.

Cluchey wrote to Beckett and eventually met the great playwright in Paris in 1973, and thus began a close working partnership that lasted until the 1980s.

After the performance of Krapp’s Last Tape, Cluchey spoke with an interviewer about his life and experiences before, during, and after his friendship with Beckett. At the age of 79, he intimated that he was bringing his career to a close as he came home. But judging by the fervor of his work at stage 773 on Sunday afternoon, Cluchey’s powers as a performer remain as yet undimmed.