McMullen Musings

Alvin Epstein, Beckett, and the Absurdity of The Fulbright Triptych

McMullen Student Ambassador Dana Connolly, LSEHD ’22, reflects on The Fulbright Triptych and actor Alvin Epstein’s legacy in art and theatre.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet Alvin Epstein at the Actor’s Shakespeare Project Spring Gala. During his storied life on stage, Mr. Epstein established himself as the authoritative actor-interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama. Epstein made his Broadway debut as Lucky in Beckett’s opus, Waiting for Godot. Soon after, he played the leading role of Estragon, launching his career into the absurd world of Beckett.  

After a stint of Broadway successes, Epstein became a founding member of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, establishing himself in the Boston theatre scene. In Boston, Epstein supported local and nonprofit theatre ventures, and was a lover and cultivator of Boston’s Artistic Heritage. 

Alvin, at age 92, spoke in hushed tones but indelible wit. Sitting upon a monumental career in the art world, he seemed mostly unbothered.  I felt as though he had embraced the absurdity of the life that he imitated on stage for so many years. Epstein’s contribution to The Suspension of Time: Reflections on Simon Dinnerstein and Fulbright Triptych, echoes this sentiment. 

The title, “Where Are We? When Are We?” is pulled straight from Beckett’s oeuvre (although in truth, it’s a Back To The Future Quote). Epstein bemoans the lack of guard rails that Dinnerstein gives to the viewer: no “dynamic diagonals to lead [the] eye,” the paintings “immense” size feels suffocating to the casual interpreter. Every intricate detail is so carefully organized, only a fool would attempt to decode a painting layered in this much symbolism and personal history! Like Beckett’s long, confusing, inane plays, The Triptych overwhelms the viewer with content, giving them no point of entry. 

So Epstein has a piece of advice: “read it,” not as a book but an anthology of family history. Wade into the uncertainty, sample the absurdity, “linger,” where you wish. Waiting for Godot taught audiences the paramount importance of choice. The Triptych is so dense with meaning that the viewer must pick and choose what to focus on. Each texture, inscription, portrait, and sketch ensures that no person experience the Triptych the same way twice. To describe the Triptych, as Epstein tried to, is to describe how one viewer experienced it in one fleeting moment. 

That’s okay. Epstein found comfort in the indefinite. If you’re still looking for concrete answers, consider Wittgenstein’s message, inscribed in the bottom left of the center panel of the triptych: 

“Every form of life could be other than it is.”

  1. Simon Dinnerstein (1943—), The Fulbright Triptych, c. 1971-74, oil on wood panels, 79.5 x 168 in. Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, Gift of the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art.
  2. Mili, Gjon. First American Production of “Endgame,” in 1958The New York Times. December 11, 2018.