Southampton College professor John Reilly has created a documentary named Waiting For Beckett which will premiere on PBS stations across the country this Saturday.
The film's subject, Nobel Prize-winning writer Samuel Beckett, has been widely credited as being one of greatest artists of this century. His book of the play Waiting For Godot has sold a million and a half copies and it has been performed by actors like Zero Mostel, Burgess Meredith, Bert Lahr, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams. Fans of the television show Quantum Leap will remember that the hero's name was Sam Beckett. The name was oddly appropriate for a voyager without a fixed sense of identity or home.
Beckett began his life as a part of the Protestant minority of Dublin in the early 1900s. After a relatively contented childhood, he attended Trinity College where he became increasingly disatisfied with life. It was during his days as an English teacher in Paris that he became absorbed into the literary circle that surrounded Irish expatriate James Joyce. Around that time Beckett found his literary vision. "I accepted my despair," he once said. "I didn't try to put an optimistic view on life. To create something that would be easier for readers to accept."
During World War II, Beckett strongly allied himself with the French resistence which struggled to cast off Nazi rule.
Beckett, as a man, was quiet and enormously private. He refused to participate in publicity and was not even involved with the publishing and performance of his works. He left this to his life-long companion, Suzanne.
"Too Many Words"
Just last fall, Guild Hall hosted a one-night-only performance ofWatt by Richard Rutkowski, which was inspired by Beckett's eponymous novel. The author said years ago, "Most writers waste people's time with too many words. I'm trying to reduce everything down to the minimum. My last work will be a black piece of paper." In the spirit of this idea, Rutkowski's play had no words.
It is unusual that until recently there had been no American documentary about the artist, until Reilly took the endeavor into his own hands.
Reilly has been a documentary filmmaker since the late '60s. He came to know Beckett through a mutual friend, Barney Rosset. As Beckett's American publisher, Rosset was on the vanguard of introducing Beckett's revolutionary work to America.
"Beckett has been a tremendous force in freeing us from the limitations of plot and structure that were so prevalent in 19th century," said Reilly. Beckett's fame in this country started in the '40s with Waiting For Godot, a play where two fellows wait for a man named Godot whom never arrives. The work discusses man's search and necessity for hope.
A Startling Picture
Reilly's documentary deals with all facets of the writer's life and paints a startling picture of a painfully shy man. He was desitute at times, stabbed, starved, and mistreated. Understandably, he was greatly disappointed with the world at large. The documentary also focuses on Beckett's black humor.
Playwright Israel Horowitz spoke with embarrassment of an encounter with Beckett in the film. He said to the Irish writer, "We live our life in the space where a door opens and closes." "That is quite good," said Beckett quietly.
Horowitz became frustrated with himself. "Shit! I stole that from you."
"Shit!" Beckett responded. "I stole that from Dante me-self."
Mel Gussow of the New York Times termed Beckett's work as "uproarious pessimism." Professor Reilly added, "His humor is often over shadowed by the darkness of his plays. As long as people aren't expecting straight comedy, they are usually not disappointed."
In addition to footage of performances, actors Steve Martin and Bill Irwin appear on tape discussing their feelings about Beckett's work. What sets this documentary apart is that Reilly managed to secure Beckett's participation, a near-impossible task. Through a series of meetings in Paris, Reilly presented his company's production of Beckett's play What Where? Beckett's reactions and suggestions are recorded on video.
Five Years in the Making
"The opportunity to capture him on tape was the thrill of my lifetime," admitted Reilly. "He really helped shape the documentary and his cooperation was essential."
The documentary took five years to make and Beckett died during the filming at age 83. The broadcast on public television is set to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Beckett's birth on April13, 1906.
The film has already won several awards such as the Golden Apple at the1994 International Educational Film and Video Festival and a Silver Hugo at INTERCOM '94, a part of the Chicago Film Festival. The American Film Institute of Los Angeles will show it as an upcoming feature presentation.
When asked how he got PBS to run his film, Reilly answered, "Well, I've had several documentaries shown on PBS. The problem is getting the first one on. My Giving Birth was broadcast in 1975. It was about alternative birthing methods. It really changed attitudes." The communications teacher has also broadcast documentaries called Home and The Pursuit Of Happiness on Public Television.
On being an East Ender, he says that he's lived here for "many years." He enthused, "It's the ideal life to go back and forth between the Manhattan and the East End." About future projects Reilly remained reticent. "I have a few things in the works. Nothing I'm ready to comment on though."
Then he highlighted a major problem for people in his field. "The climate's changing. The cutbacks in funding are really hurting the arts. It becoming very difficult to get grants from the NEA and the NEH."
Waiting For Beckett will be broadcast locally on Channel 31, May 7  at 8 p.m.