The following article appeared in the Erie Times-News SHOWcase
Thursday, March 1, 1990.
Photo by Dmitri Kasterine, London, 1970.
An Appreciation of Samuel Beckett:
'A voice that I felt was speaking in the clearest and most accurate terms
about what it meant to be human and in the world'
by Rick Lopez
Samuel Beckett passed from this earth on Friday, December 22, 1989. Had he an active post-life voice (apart from the astonishing body of literary and theatrical work he left) he would likely be claiming that he had died on Christmas day. According to his birth certificate, he had made his entrance, stage left, on May 13, 1906, but he steadfastly maintained that he had been born on April 13, Good Friday—just another strand in the playful web of contradictions strung across his life and work."I like all these lies and legends," he had said. "The more there are, the more interesting I become."
No other living author elicited the critical interest that Beckett had. A bibliography of his work and critics ran to 320 pages, and is now two decades out of date. Of this focus on his literary output, Beckett remained unconcerned, commenting that the scholars and critics
finding headaches in their search for symbolism and meaning in his writings "should bring their own aspirin."
Hamm: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
Clov: Mean something! You and I, mean something! Ah, that's a good one!.
"No symbols where none intended."
Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, an event which caused him only embarrassment. Always the recluse, he fled in secret to a small vilage in Tunisia in order to avoid the publicity. When reporters finally tracked him down, Beckett agreed to see them only if they promised not to ask questions. One of the cameramen, obviously sensitive to Beckett's need for privacy, whispered an apology as he took his picture. "That's all right," said Beckett, "I understand."
It was his only public response to the award.
Waiting for Godot, Beckett's most famous work, premiered in Paris in 1953, and the theater was changed forever, its limits and conventions dashed to bits. What audiences found on their innocent night out was a set consisting simply of a scruffy, barren little tree beside an equally barren country road. And there they were, Vladimir and Estragon, a pair of destitutes from the fringes of vaudeville, patiently, and not so patiently, waiting for Godot. And how long will they wait? Why, as long as it takes; until he comes; or until the end, if he doesn't come; or forever. And so it goes, this classic of twentieth-century theater, a tragicomedy in two acts, during which nothing changes, nothing happens (twice), time passes, and Godot never comes.
Godot's brilliance, seen immediately by some, and missed completely by most, lies in its not being about anything. It was something: a situation, simply put and simply presented, of a state we all find ourselves in with great regularity. We wait in line, we wait for our paychecks, we wait for dinner, we wait for our ships to come in, for Friday, for the mail, for a phone call... it's one of our common endeavors.
Another is to "look for sense where possibly there is none" (Play, 1963), heaping meaning upon the meaningless—and this was another aspect of the play's importance, and of Beckett's work in general: It is so open-ended that we must abandon our habitual need for meaning. And yet audiences rush out to make their myriad decisions on what it all signifies, and the decisions are legion. The most common, and a fitting example of opposites applying for no other reason than that we require it, were the positions that either Godot was God, and Vladimir and Estragon brave Christians waiting for his return; or that Godot was a God who would never come because he didn't exist—both equally wrong. This think-yourself-to-death confusion on Godot's identity irritated Beckett to no end: "If I knew, I would have said so..." Beckett felt that a classically captive audience of a production at San Quentin Prison understood waiting, and hence the play, perfectly.
"Look Jean, this play is simple! So simple a child could read every word of it. How can you not understand such language!"
—Actor Lucien Raimbourg, answering actor Jean Martin's "What's it mean?" at rehearsals for the premiere of Waiting for Godot (1953)
And so Samuel Beckett, with his first piece for theatre, became famous at the ripe old age of 47. After Godot, Beckett produced a number of lesser-known works which continued to stretch the boundaries of what was possible and acceptable in the theater.
Endgame is an apocalyptic, post-civilization romp with Hamm as the blind and wheel-chair-bound king, Clov as his whining subservient pawn, a three-legged dog (Hamm: "Is my dog ready?" Clov:"He lacks a leg,") and parents in trash cans begging for sustenance ("Where's me pap?")
Krapp's Last Tape (1958) in which Old Krapp celebrates his final birthday in ritual manner—recording his thoughts on the year past while listening to random passages of tapes made during youth and middle age—portrays three selves with little in common, trapped by time and separated by the unreeling years.
Play, a lover's triangle where a man and two women, encased in funeral urns, are battered into "telling" by an inquisitor's light—trying to get it right, to tell the truth—has as its second act an exact repeat of the first, a stunning take on Heraclitus' assertion that we never step twice into the same stream. The play may be an exact repeat for the actors—but for the audience, whose first trip into these hellish waters is one fraught with confusion at the rapid-fire speech and fragmentary nature of what they aren't quite hearing, their second trip brings it all, with the gift of familiarity, into shocking perspective. Beckett plays another of his little jokes here, with the ending threatening a third repetition just before the light goes out once and, thankfuly, for all.
Not I (1963) is a mad-woman's monologue, where all that is seen in the absolute dark of the stage is a mouth appearing out of the void, accompanied by a rush of words describing her plight. Most of what she is saying, if we can catch it, describes our own situation as audience as much as it describes hers. Not concerned with the play's intelligibility, but rather with its effect, Beckett described the words as "verbal ammunition."
Beckett had been writing fiction since the early thirties, but until the attention brought by Godot, the novels went relatively unnoticed. He rendered this public oversight obsolete with the publication in 1951-53 of the trilogy, Molloy/Malone Dies/ The Unnamable. Here again, Beckett was to sweep aside a genre's standards, and the novel would never be the same. The trilogy was the center of gravity of a body of work which began with 300-page ruminations lined with the complexities and frustrations of a search for voice, and ended in the late '80s with 48-page, larger-than-large-type novellas wrought with frighteningly precise focus, covering the same routes and distances in a fraction of the time.
Beckett's subject, both onstage and onpage, has always been the same—a dialogue between, and search for, the many levels of self: I tell the story; I listen to myself tell the story; I know I am listening to myself tell the story; none of me knows if it's the right one. And what are we to make of stories in which, instead of plot and character becoming logical conclusion, we find story, situation and being dissolving in a rain of contradictions?
"Then I went into the house and wrote, it is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining."
With his fiction, Beckett straps us into the front seat of a roller-coaster mind with fifty-mile hills, explosive drops, impossible curves, and tracks that splinter and scream with the constant threat of disaster. All this exhilaration, and beautiful prose to boot.
Stripped of our trappings—our occupations, politics, myths, and interests—we all become Beckett's Character: alone, clawing our way through the muddied chaos of a maddened world, enduring beyond the limits of endurance, hoping when all seems hopeless, surviving the storms of life sheltered only by our will and persistence.
"You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." —The Unnamable (1949)
I found Samuel Beckett in the Winter of 1980-81.
I had seen him before, but I hadn't noticed, or hadn't looked closely enough, or perhaps I just hadn't been prepared. After reading some short works of fiction and a few of the one-act plays, I ordered the then twenty-plus volume Collected Works, and spent the next few years swimming in them. I filled ten feet of shelf space and a filing cabinet with criticism, unpublished ephemera, video and audio tapes, and several pounds of miscellany. I attended symposiums and world premieres, produced and directed three programs of the one-act plays, joined the Samuel Beckett Society, subscribed to the Journal of Beckett Studies, and gradually drowned. It was a good death, an embracing of a voice that I felt was speaking in the clearest and most accurate terms about what it meant to be human and in the world.
The years rolled by, and I lost track of my passion somehow—not that it diminished, but that I found other focused pursuits, while Sam rested quietly on my shelves. It's nine years later and he's gone, and when I heard that he had died I felt guilty that I hadn't kept up—that he'd published a few more books I don't own, written a few more plays that I haven't seen.
There are those who claim that Beckett's work is too dark, too nihilistic—but it is a darkness shot through with blazing lights of humor, hope, and humanity. There are those who claim that his work is "difficult"—but it is a difficulty in the reading of words pared to their essence; unfamiliarly perfect sentences; paragraphs that echo every other; and stories that reflect with terrifying clarity the uncertainty and havoc of our time.
Beckett walking with a friend across a soccer field on a sunny afternoon, heading for a pub:
Beckett: "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
The friend: "Yes, it makes one glad to be alive."
Beckett: "Aw now, I wouldn't go that far.."
A vast array of BECKETT materials may be found
at Lifeform's exhaustive Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links page.