The films are part of a project by Michael Colgan, the artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and Irish producer Alan Moloney, to produce film versions of all 19 of Beckett's stage plays. Colgan got the idea after producing a Beckett festival in 1991, featuring stage productions of the plays over three weeks.
The PBS series "Stage on Screen" plans to present two programs from the film project -- Sunday's collection, and "Waiting for Godot," perhaps Beckett's most famous work, scheduled to air on Jan. 1, 2003.
Beckett became one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, even as he was breaking all the rules of conventional theater and challenging audiences with work that dared to provoke and discomfort them. Sunday's program -- hosted by Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons ("Reversal of Fortune," "Lolita") -- offers something of a tutorial on understanding Beckett.
Irons also stars in one of the films, "Ohio Impromptu," a two-character play in which he plays both characters -- who appear to be two parts of the same person. One reads aloud from a book while the other listens, expressing his emotional responses silently.
"It is a tale of a man coming to terms with loss and regret," said Irons. "And as at such moments in our lives, normally the small hours of the morning, we go over and over in our head where we went wrong, what we should have done differently, at the same time as we remember the smell of the lost one and certain specific moments of our time with them, so the reader is that still small voice that will not leave us, the listener.
"Finally at the end of this short play there comes an understanding between them that enough is enough. Grieving must be over. Life must go on without the beloved other."
The play is as good a demonstration as any in the collection of the challenge that Beckett threw down for those who would stage his work.
On paper, Beckett's words can seem disconnected from the world of every day experience. Actors and directors are required to invest them with some interpretation -- a task that is frequently easier to describe than to carry out.
"Originally, Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead") was intending to direct 'Ohio Impromptu' and he saw it as I did, in a very filmic way, seeing the apartment in the Ile de la Cité (the cradle of Parisian civilization) and opening up Beckett's very formal and stylistic world," said Irons. "However, the Beckett estate who jealously and perhaps rightly guard his legacy, insisted that we keep the play within the physical otherworld that Beckett describes."
Stoppard pulled out of the project and director Charles Sturridge -- who worked with Irons on "Brideshead Revisited" and "Longitude" -- took over. Even then, Irons and Sturridge needed to presume Beckett's intention in order to film the play as they did.
"We had all agreed that although Beckett had described a reader and a listener dressed identically in black and with long white hair, his intention was that these were two parts of the same person," said Irons. "Since with the camera it is possible to create this illusion, we continued with me the one actor."
Other films included in "Beckett on Film" also feature world-class actors and directors whose names are familiar to American audiences.
"Catastrophe," directed by David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross," "The Untouchables"), stars playwright Harold Pinter and the late Sir John Gielgud -- in his final film role before his death in May 2000.
"Play," directed by Anthony Minghella ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") features performances by Kristin Scott Thomas, who starred in Minghella's "The English Patient," and Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman, who worked with Minghella in "Truly Madly Deeply."
Although Beckett's plays may not be as easily understood by most audiences as your typical Hollywood movie, Irons said playing Beckett is not a very different experience than starring in big movies such as "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," "Dead Ringers" or "The Lion King."
"I like to think of myself as a craftsman," he said. "It is all part of the same tradition of storytelling."