The greatest dramatist of
the twentieth century and the most influential, Samuel Beckett was forty-six
when his first successful play, “Waiting for Godot,” written in French
as En attendant Godot, opened in Paris in January 1953.
By then he had left Ireland to live in Paris, had befriended James
Joyce and served as an assistant on Finnegan’s Wake, worked as a
college lecturer, and written novels, poetry, and literary criticism.
None of his published work earned much attention.
As Krapp says, recording his year in “Krapp’s Last Tape,”
“Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating
libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.”
Samuel Beckett was born
in Ireland on April 13, 1906, at Cooldrinach in Foxrock, County Dublin, a
locale made familiar to his readers and audiences.
At Trinity College in Dublin, he majored in French and Italian,
having learned French as a schoolboy, a language in which he would write
such works as Godot and Fin de partie, “Endgame,” which
premiered in Paris in 1955-56. Soon
after their French premieres, these two works in Beckett’s English
translations were seen in London and New York
Their reception varied from wild enthusiasm to misapprehension and
condemnation. At “Godot,”
in its American premiere in Palm Beach, Florida, audiences walked out;
others were less polite and voiced their disapproval during the
Yet discerning critics
were quick to appreciate the dramatic impact of these works, with their
spare but sharp dialogue that varied from one-liners to recitative and from
terse to lyrical, their blend of comedic and tragic, of silence and
laughter, of jokes and formal addresses, and above all, their universal
truths. Didi and Gogo in
their tramp attire are recognized as Everyman, waiting and hoping for the
expected that never comes but just might do so one day, cheerful at one time
and despairing at another, refusing to give up, each dependent upon and
nurturing the other. Beckett’s minimalist style was hailed as a new
direction in theater, and influenced playwrights to come, including Harold
Pinter, with whom Beckett became friends.
critics accused Beckett of pessimism; others pointed out his optimism.
In “Endgame,” Hamm
is the blind master and ham actor (“Me to play”) who demands center
stage and Clov his servant, always threatening to leave but failing to do so
If Hamm’s parents (“cursed progenitors”) are in ash cans, the
small boy Clov sees through his telescope suggests a future : “a potential
procreator?” asks Clov. Hamm:
“It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you any
Invited by the BBC to write a
radio play, Beckett in 1957 produced “After the Fall,” a drama both
moving and comic, about the arrival of a delayed train at a rural station
and the villagers who go to meet it, each with a separate, identifying voice
and story. They include Mrs.
Rooney, who has come to the station to fetch her blind husband from the
train, a porter, a racecourse clerk, the station master, and youngster
Jerry, who for a penny leads Mr. Rooney to and from his job.
Amid the many sound effects Beckett writes into the script, rural
sounds of birds and animals, and human sounds of voices and feet of the
passengers, we hear the rain start. Mr.
Rooney asks, “Who is the preacher to-morrow?….Has he announced the
text?” Mrs. Rooney: “The
Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” “(Silence.
They join in wild laughter.)”
The following year,
“Krapp’s Last Tape” premiered at the Royal Court in London.
Seen most recently in London at the Beckett Festival at the Barbican
Theatre, John Hurt performed the solo title role.
With square-cut gray hair and lined face, looking like Beckett, Hurt
impressively portrayed the 65-year-old who each birthday tape records the
past year and reviews his life by replaying some of the earlier tapes.
Finding the tape he made as a thirty-nine-year-old, Krapp plays and
replays the episode recalling his love-making in a punt and the couple’s
decision to end the affair, as the lines themselves echo the rhythm of the
water. Hurt’s face and body
language recall the poignancy of lost love and a wasted life in a
performance preserved on film, as noted below.
In Paris, where Beckett
moved permanently in 1937, he met Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil, his partner
for the rest of his life, although the two did not marry until 1961.
By that time, realizing that his estate could provide for Suzanne
after his death, the two took the ferry from Boulogne on the coast of France
to Folkestone on the Southeast coast of England, where they were married.
In 1941, when Paris was invaded by the Nazis during World War II,
Beckett and Suzanne worked as resistance fighters and were nearly arrested
by the Gestapo, who arrived just after the couple had fled to Rousillion in
the south of France.
Following the war,
Beckett wrote his first novel in French, Mercier and Camier, a
delightful work about a duo whose comic wanderings by bicycle, told in a
spare style, remind some of “Godot.”
He also wrote his novel trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The
Unnameable. Irish actor
Barry McGovern has created an impressive solo stage performance based on
these novels, titled “I’ll Go On,” seen at the Beckett Festival at the
Barbican in London and on a tour of colleges in the United States.
Another highly successful stage production based on Beckett’s prose
is the adaptation by Katharine Worth (Samuel Beckett’s Theatre,
Oxford University Press, 1999) of his autobiographical novella
“Company,” acted by Julian Curry as the solo live performer plus
recorded “voices,” and directed by Tim Piggott-Smith.
It won an award at the Edinburgh Festival, and was seen in Dublin and
London before receiving its American premiere at the Lehman College Center
for the Performing Arts in New York in 1988.
For Ohio State University’s Beckett Symposium held in celebration
of his seventy-fifth birthday, he wrote “Ohio Impromptu,” while “Rockabye,”
with Billy Whitelaw, premiered in
1980 at the University of Buffalo.
As his fame grew, Beckett
became uncomfortable with all the attention he was receiving worldwide.
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, Beckett
hid in Tunisia while a friend accepted for him.
As the plays were becoming classics in their day, and were being
produced all over the world, Beckett closely involved himself with their
stage productions and attended rehearsals, insisting that their stage
representations adhere to his directions in the text.
Problems with his eyes
led to operations for cataracts, and as a smoker, he also developed
emphysema. His last important
prose work was Stirrings Still in 1986, and his last poem “What is
the Word,” written that same year. He
died on December 22, 1989 and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
The Beckett Film Festival
held at the Barbican in London in September 2001 presented nineteen films of
the plays, created by Channel 4 television in England, with major actors
directed by nineteen different directors.
Described below, the films offer a permanent, accessible record of
Beckett’s plays as presented at the time of the millennium.
“Waiting for Godot”
is the jewel in the crown of this series.
Probably this is due to the fact that it adheres closely to the stage
production seen at the Barbican Theatre’s Samuel Beckett Festival in 1999
and previously in Dublin and New York.
With Barry McGovern as Vladimir and Johnny Murphy as Estragon, these
roles are as well played as I believe they ever will be.
All the lines are made meaningful, the character of each man is
plumbed to its depth, while both the comedy and the serious implications are
given full value. Also, the
authentic Irish accent preserves the music of the lines
As reviewed above, John
Hurt is perfect as Krapp in the film of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” based on
his stage appearance. Directed
by Adam Egoyan, the film loses something of its claustrophobic setting when
staged, but this said, its concentration on Hurt brings out all the nuances
of the character, the old man’s regret, anger, humor, and acceptance as he
listens to the tape of himself at thirty-nine.
directed by Richard Eyre, with Penelope Wilton as the sole actor, the
“prematurely aged” woman in a black dress, rocking, listening to a
recorded voice, sometimes speaking with it, recalling and becoming her dead
mother when, at the end, at the “close of a long day,” she goes “down
the steep stair,” and joins her mother: “and she said to herself, time
she stopped.” In close-up at
the end, the camera reveals her fist, first clutching the arm of the rocker,
then relaxing and hanging limp. Ms.
Wilton subtly modulates both her facial expression and her voices (actual
and recorded) in a remarkable performance in which her body does not move,
for the rocker rocks itself.
originated the role in “Rockabye” but now Ms. Wilton makes it her own.
The same cannot be said for the film of “Not I,” also originated
by Ms. Whitelaw. Julianne Moore
as Mouth lacks both the urgency and the desperation Ms. Whitelaw brought to
the role. Under the
direction of Neil Jordan, this new cinematic conception lacks both clarity
and a sense of urgency. Beckett’s
Mouth, who fills the screen, belongs to a woman spilling out the story of a
life in which she was characteristically mute.
But Ms. Moore’s carefully made up, tooth-gleaming mouth seems like
a toothpaste ad rather than a menacing member cut loose from the body of the
speaker. The Auditor is
The film of
“Catastrophe” is imaginatively conceived by director David Mamet.
Harold Pinter acts the Director, Rebecca Pidgeon his Assistant, and
John Gielgud (in his final performance) the figure on the stage being
“arranged” artistically by the director, who is interested only in the
visual effect, not the human being on stage.
The political implications of the 1982 play are clear, for Beckett
dedicated it to Vaclav Havel, who at the time was under house arrest by the
Czech Communist government. In
a darkened theater, the Director is barking orders to his Assistant, who is
noting down and agreeing with his every remark, except for one timidly
offered suggestion, which the Director rejects. Dominating and shaping the
human on stage, Pinter gives a masterful performance, reminiscent of his
then current portrayal of the cruel but cool interrogator in his play “One
for the Road,” where his victims, like Gielgud here onstage, are too
terrified to speak.
In “Play,” director
Anthony Minghella uses a variety of close-ups of the three characters in
separate urns. When the play is staged, each is spotlighted as he or she
speaks; here, the speaker is in close-up.
With Juliet Stevenson as Woman 1, Kristen Scott Thomas as Woman 2,
and Alan Rickman as the Man in the middle, the three are lively interpreters
of Beckett’s triangle. Stevenson
as W 1 is worrying, even alarmist, with Scott Thomas cool but more deadly.
As the wavering husband (“Adulterers take warning: never
admit.”), Alan Rickman is perfect, believing everything he says about each
woman in turn.
As a final shot,
Minghella draws the camera back from the three urns, from which now only the
actors’ heads project, to reveal a landscape of urns, with other heads,
all murmuring. Using close-ups means that the dialogue comes across more
clearly and more easily understandable than at times in the theater.
“Happy Days” is
directed by Patricia Rozema and stars Rosaleen Linehan as the cheerful and
optimistic Winnie, whose opening line is “Another heavenly day,” despite
the fact that she is buried up to her waist. Linehan is most impressive as
she tosses up the items from her handbag and endures the hot sun in what
looks like a desert. By the end, when Winnie is buried up to her neck, she
is still cheerful though no longer able to divert herself with the contents
of her large handbag. Richard Johnson plays her husband, who finally arrives
on the scene.
“Endgame,” staged by
Irish playwright Conor McPherson (“The Weir”) starred Michael Gambon as
Hamm and David Thewlis as Clov. Although
the actors were effective, this film suffered from the setting having to
conform to cinematic demands. As
“Endgame” is both a game of chess and a play within a play, with
references to both, the set Backett specifies is important to the staging
and needs to be seen throughout as the background to the drama: “Bare
interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows,
curtains drawn [at the beginning]. Front
right, a door. Hanging near
door, its face to wall, a picture. Front
left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet two ashcans.”
By moving the camera continually to focus upon one and then another
of the actors, the director diminishes the importance of the set as
background to a “play” within the action.
As the shorter works are
less frequently staged, the films are especially useful, perhaps offering
the only opportunity for students and playgoers to see these pieces acted.
“Ohio Impromptu” stars Jeremy Irons as both the reader and the
listener in this twelve-minute play about losing a loved one. In the
nineteen-minute “Rough for Theatre I”
Milo O’Shea and David Kelly, one blind and the other in a
wheelchair, discuss the possibility of joining forces in the interests of
survival. The hilarious “ Rough for Theatre II,” ten minutes
longer, is directed by Katie Mitchell and features Timothy Spall, Jim
Norton, and Hugh B.O’Brien. Two
men discuss whether a third should be allowed to jump from a window.
Having reviewed his life, and having been diverted by caged love
birds, they finally decide to let him jump, only to discover that he is
“Act Without Words I”
and “Act Without Words II” are mime plays.
In I, directed by Karel Reisz, Sean Foley is stranded in a desert,
and tries to reach for various objects that might bring relief or escape,
but they are always out of reach, although he persists in trying.
In II, directed by Enda Hughes, two players participate in a
never-ending cycle of activities in which player A is slow and awkward,
while B is “brisk, rapid, precise” as they dress and undress, get into
sacks, and perform, absurdly, everyday rituals.
In “A Piece of Monologue,” directed by Robin Lefevre, Stephen
Brennan tells of birth and death in a fragment of a story that opens a
window on the past.
In “That Time,” Niall
Buggy is the listener, only his face and a shock of white hair seen, during
three monologues covering three separate periods, the voice of the speaker
burdened by time and visions of nothingness.
Charles Garrad directs. “Come
and Go” presents Anna Massey, Sian Phillips, and Paola Dionisotti
as three women sitting on a bench, reminiscing about their school
days. John Crowley directs the
The short film of “What
Where” is director Damien O’Donnell’s version of Beckett’s work
about the abuse of power, in a changeless world where each person serves as
both interrogator and interrogated. The
actors are Sean McGinley and Gary Lewis.
“Footfalls,” like ”Rockaby,”
is concerned with a mother and daughter.
Here, instead of rocking, the daughter paces repeatedly, as she tends
her sick mother, whom she loves. With
Susan Fitzgerald and Joan O’Hara, directed by Walter Asmus.
entire project is a commendable undertaking, preserving Beckett in
performance, always preferable to Beckett on the page.
This great playwright wrote for the voice, as did Shakespeare, and to
see the works acted is a plus. That
some performances and interpretations are better than others in conveying
Beckett to the viewer is true of any presentation, but taken as a whole, the
film project is successful, for it provides audiences now and in the future
with versions of the plays as acted in the year 2000.