August 26, 1996 Volume 148, No. 10
They came to the plays in limos or on Rollerblades, in bright summer colors or basic Beckett black. Inside, they toted books by or about the master. When the curtain rose, their attention was votive; they laughed and sighed and never dared cough. The dangling melodramatic ending of one play elicited a collective gasp, like that of a child hearing a ghost story's tantalizing punch line. At the curtain calls their faces beamed at the actors with rapture and gratitude. In the lobby afterward they bought T shirts reading GATE THEATRE--BECKETT FESTIVAL.
Why, even Samuel Beckett, the Irish pessimist who was born on Good Friday--the 13th--and whose fondest artistic hope was to "fail better," might have smiled at the glory of it all. Beckett (1906-89) would have been 90 this year, and to celebrate his indelible mark on the modern spirit, the Gate Theatre of Dublin came to New York City's Lincoln Center with productions of all 19 works he wrote for the stage, from the full-length Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days to the 40-second Breath. (Another 13 pieces were composed for radio, TV or film.)
The Beckett Festival, which ended last week, is fresh evidence of a bustling industry devoted to the Nobel-prizewinning author. He has inspired more than 100 books, including three essential studies this year: Mel Gussow's Conversations with and About Beckett (Grove Press) and two biographies--Lois Gordon's The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946 (Yale University Press) and an authorized life, Damned to Fame, by Beckett scholar James Knowlson (due in October from Simon & Schuster). Knowlson's book is reverent, exhaustive--3,361 footnotes!--and full of fine detail on Beckett's dogged, monastic creativity. If anyone could know this private man, Knowlson does. And tells.
Together, the plays and books paint the fullest portrait yet of an artist whose vision of human existence as a painful, poignant marking of time between the crib and the crypt helped define our world view in the atomic age. In doing so, they correct the canard that Beckett's work is boring, mired in gloom; the Gate pieces were darkly funny and passionate. And they reveal Beckett, who may seem so forbidding and remote as to be of another species, as a stoic but gentle man, a hero of the French Resistance and a generous soul--he once impulsively gave his new jacket to a derelict in a Montparnasse bar--who tried to relieve the suffering of others because he felt his own so deeply.
Beckett was born near Dublin, into a comfortable Irish Protestant family. At Trinity College, Dublin, Sam was first in his class. He studied in Paris and discovered as strong a love for the city as he had a hatred for the small-mindedness of old Eire. Sam went home thereafter only to see his family, especially his mother May, whose lingering death from Parkinson's disease touched him as he stared into her pained eyes. "These are the first eyes I think I truly see," he wrote to a friend, in a letter cited in Knowlson's biography. "I do not need to see others; there is enough there to make one love and weep."
In wartime France, Beckett joined a Resistance group; his jobs were to send coded messages abroad (some would say he did the same thing as a writer) and later, when he and his future wife Suzanne moved to the southern part of the country, to hide weapons. He earned the Croix de Guerre for exploits that were not in his nature; he once hid grenades and dynamite on his front porch, in plain sight, because he was afraid they'd go off inside.
By the end of the '40s he had written several inventive novels that brought him little renown and less income. In 1949 he was an indigent author (by now writing in French), when, as a relief from the bondage of fiction, he wrote a play.
He called it En Attendant (Waiting, later Waiting for Godot), and it was just the jolt of negative energy that a somnolent postwar theater needed. Vladimir and Estragon, two tramplike figures in a blank landscape, pass the time in Act I "blathering about nothing in particular," as Estragon notes, while awaiting the arrival of the never-to-arrive Godot. They spend Act II doing the same thing. As one critic said, "Nothing happens, twice."
Yet from its premiere at a tiny Left Bank venue in 1953, Godot seized the theatrical imagination. By reducing what occurs on the stage to essentials, Beckett expanded the horizon of the possible. Oh--and he made it funny. A fancier of the music hall and silent-film comedians, Beckett turned his stranded souls into entertainers. They dance, do calisthenics, trade philosophies and insults, do a giddy hat-switching routine. They could be Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys: wizened vaudevillians replaying the same old effective shtick for 50 years. They know the absurdity of their plight, yet like every Beckett character, they persevere. They have to, or else there wouldn't be a play.
Godot might have been obscure, but Beckett no longer was. Tout Paris swarmed to his play, and the theater world soon caught up. After a disastrous U.S. premiere in Miami, Godot had a respectable Broadway run with E.G. Marshall as Vladimir and Bert Lahr as Estragon. Other beguiling star tandems never quite materialized: Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson in London; Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando on Broadway. In the '60s, Steve McQueen wanted to star in a Godot film. Beckett declined.
A Beckett play may aspire to silence, yet its characters can't shut up. The women, reminiscent of Beckett's Dublin youth, chatter on about postnuclear sunlight (Happy Days) or adulterous affairs (Play)--what's Gaelic for yenta? The men ponder the efficacy of torture (Rough for Theatre II, What Where), the memory of a mother's last days (Krapp's Last Tape, Footfalls). Their dialogue often sounds like bumper stickers for the clinically depressed: "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" asks Hamm in Endgame. But it is also savagely, and savingly, comic. As Beckett knew, all hope is comic. So is the search for meaning. So too, perhaps, is writing about hopelessness and meaninglessness.
But there was meaning and majesty in the Gate's fortnight at Lincoln Center. The actors, their voices tinged with the guilt of Irish laughter, restored the author to his homeland. Beckett tortured actors--burying them in hillsides or trash cans, reducing them to mouths or silence--and loved them too, by writing roles so concentrated, in settings so austere, that the performance is the play. And here some wonderful actors (Rosaleen Linehan in Happy Days, David Kelly in Krapp's Last Tape, Barry McGovern in Godot and Endgame) made two weeks of wonderful theater.
In Gussow's book the Irish actor Jack MacGowran says Beckett's subject was "human distress, not human despair." In fact, the Gate Theatre season--surely, in its scope, power and wit, this year's great theatrical event--proves that Beckett's subject was human beings. And Knowlson's biography proves that Beckett was one of them. One of us.
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