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TELEVISION REVIEW;Seeking Beckett Through His Words

Published: May 7, 1996, Tuesday

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Among the pleasures of "Waiting for Beckett" are snatches of Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith in the first television production of "Waiting for Godot"; Patrick Magee listening with desperate anguish to "Krapp's Last Tape"; Jack MacGowran, as the tramp Molloy, delivering his great soliloquy on the sucking stones, and Billie Whitelaw, up to her chin in sand, ending her "Happy Days."

The 90-minute "Global Village" production, an earnest attempt to find in Samuel Beckett's reclusive life the sources of his resounding work, follows the writer from his birth into a middle-class Protestant family near Dublin in 1906 to his death in France in 1989. He left Ireland as a young man, joined the circle around James Joyce in Paris, published his first novel, "Murphy," to little recognition in 1937, took part in the French Resistance and in the decades after World War II wrote the works that shook world literature.

Despite some revealing interviews with people who knew Beckett in Ireland and in France, tonight's account of his life is sketchy. Even after fame struck, he remained a most private person, uninfected with celebrityitis. Drawn though he was to making works for television in his later years, you can't imagine him as a news magazine interviewee.

The critical appreciations that run through this first American documentary on the writer range from enlightening to innocuous to sappy. One academic offers what she seems to consider the ultimate accolade: Beckett was a feminist. It's like capping a tribute to Mozart by calling him a Freemason, only less relevant.

Although another critic makes the point that it is the novels of the 1940's, beginning with "Watt," that represent "the core of his work," the television program understandably draws more on his camera-friendly plays, particularly "Waiting for Godot," which was heartily panned at its opening in Miami in 1956. You can see Steve Martin and Robin Williams clowning their way through a scene or two in the 1987 Lincoln Center production.

It was the plays that brought Beckett fame (and possibly his Nobel Prize); their influence, as noted here, can be detected in the works of Harold Pinter, David Mamet and others. In one of the more illuminating critical contributions, Hugh Kenner points out how the experience of the Nazi occupation of France reverberates through "Waiting for Godot" and other plays in which characters seem to be under interrogation, talking when they don't want to talk or afraid to stop talking.

Television being drawn to television, too much of the conclusion of "Waiting for Beckett" (a pointless title, by the way) is given to late and lesser works for the small screen, in one case for no better reason than that the writer can been seen commenting somewhat fuzzily on a production. He once said, "At the end of the day my last work will be a blank piece of paper," and indeed some of his television contributions, like "Quad," glimpsed here, were sheer movement.

Yet it is the Beckett text, in his novels and in the earlier plays, that remains, at once profoundly bleak and wildly comic. Just as we are relishing the vaudeville wit of "Godot," the blinded tyrant Pozzo brings us back to earth and beyond: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

WAITING FOR BECKETT Channel 31, tonight at 8

John L. Reilly, executive producer and director; Melissa Shaw-Smith, producer.

Published: 05 - 07 - 1996 , Late Edition - Final , Section C , Column 4 , Page 18

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