Today is the 106th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett, whose pared-down prose and plays are among the greatest achievements of late modernism.
At a young man Beckett moved to Paris, where he befriended another Irish exile, James Joyce. As a writer, Beckett realized early on that he would never match Joyce’s “epic, heroic” achievement. Where Joyce was a synthesizer, Beckett once said, he was an analyzer. “I realized that my own way was impoverishment,” he said, “in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding.”
To celebrate Beckett’s birthday we bring you a pair of videos, including an excellent 2001 film version (above) of the most famous of his enigmatic creations, Waiting for Godot. (Find the original text here.) It’s the centerpiece of Beckett on Film, a series of adaptions of all 19 of Beckett’s plays, organized by Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin. The film features Barry McGovern as Vladimir, Johnny Murphy as Estragon, Alan Stanford as Pozzo and Stephen Brennan as Lucky. It was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who describes Waiting for Godot as being “like Mozart–too easy for children, too difficult for adults.” He goes on:
The play is what it is about. Samuel Beckett would have said it’s about two men waiting on the side of the road for someone to turn up. But you can invest in the importance of who is going to turn up. Is it a local farmer? Is it God? Or is it simply someone who doesn’t show up? The important thing is the ambiguity–the fact that it doesn’t really state what it is. That’s why it’s so great for the audience to be part of–they fill in a lot of the blanks. It works in their imaginations.
You can order the 19-film boxed set of Beckett on Film here, and read the full text of Waiting for Godot while listening to a CBC audio recording of the play, read by the Stratford Festival Players, starting here.
Harold Pinter in A Wake for Sam:
In early 1990, less than two months after Beckett’s death on December 22, 1989, the British playwright Harold Pinter paid tribute to his friend and hero as part of a BBC series called A Wake for Sam. Pinter begins by telling the story of the night in 1961 when he first met Beckett, while in Paris for a performance of The Caretaker:
I’d known his work for many years of course but it hadn’t led me to believe that he’d be such a very fast driver. He drove his little Citroen from bar to bar throughout the whole evening, very quickly indeed. We were together for hours, and finally ended up in a place in Les Halles eating onion soup at about four o’clock in the morning and I was by this time overcome–through, I think, alcohol and tobacco and excitement–with indigestion and heartburn, so I lay down on the table. I can still see the place. When I looked up he was gone. As I say, it was about four o’clock in the morning. I had no idea where he’d gone and he remained away and I thought, “Perhaps this has all been a dream.”
The conclusion of Pinter’s story (you’ll have to watch the video) reveals something of Beckett’s character. Pinter then goes on to read an eloquent, oft-quoted passage from a letter he wrote to a friend as a young man, in 1954, assessing Beckett’s power as a writer:
The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy–he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not–he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.
The 13-minute film concludes with a dramatic reading by Pinter of the final section of Beckett’s experimental novel The Unnamable, which was completed the same year as Waiting for Godot, in 1953. The passage builds in a crescendo of doubt and despair, with a sliver of resolve at the end:
Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.