by Mallory Sweeney
I found, that the best way to get to know the artist, is to stare at the piercing eyes and cavernous wrinkles that dually dominate his face, captured in the renowned photographs of John Minihan, featured in an exhibit at the National Photographic Archive, in Dublin’s City Centre. Perhaps you will see the director who valued the choreography of a scene above all, an ideal, which redefined theatre through movement and gesture. Or there is a chance you will see the haunting genius that was celebrated for writing plays in which nothing happens, and has been immortalized through his words, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
But maybe, just maybe, you will see a man who delighted in writing and relished in directing, while enjoying the occasional Guinness with a smile across his crinkled lips in a few of Minihan’s classic photos. Whatever your verdict is, if you explore the man correctly, you will find that Samuel Beckett was a complex being, with a life as interesting as his works of literature.
Samuel Barclay Beckett entered the world on Good Friday April 13th, 1906 in Foxrock, an affluent suburb just outside of Dublin. He was the second son of a successful businessman and a strong-willed nurse, loving parents who did everything to ensure their children’s happiness, although Beckett often facetiously added, “I had little talent for happiness,” as some of his writings would later hauntingly echo.
Critics used to search endlessly for tales of abuse or depression in Beckett’s life as the cause of his often sarcastic, empty plays–classic examples of course being works like Waiting for Godot and Endgame. But Beckett, raised Protestant, enjoyed a pleasant childhood insulated from the national cause and fight for Irishness which was occurring as he grew up. He was reportedly an excellent golfer and after attending the Portora Royal preparatory school in Northern Ireland, he continued to play cricket when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin.
One of the only altercations Beckett ever described was one he had with his mother, whom he referred to as “a pillar of strength and security,” which sent him into exile in the attic of his father’s consulting office, where he stayed and wrote for a week. The incident later became a family joke and the building, located at Eight Clare St., Dublin, can still be seen today.
Beckett attended Trinity College from 1923 to 1927, studying modern languages and earning top marks in his class. He graduated with the award of the much coveted teaching post at the l’Ecole Normale Suprieure in Paris, at the age of 22. It was here that through a mutual acquaintance he met James Joyce and a friendship began that would last the rest of Joyce’s life. Beckett helped the increasingly blind Joyce read and ran errands for him.
Beckett claims, “Joyce taught me what it meant to be a real artist.” It was at this time he began writing short stories (what would become the beginnings of his novels Murphy and Malloy) in French and translating them into English–and returned to Dublin after living in London to teach French at Trinity for a year.
When I was living in Dublin this past spring, my voice teacher, Professor Cathal Quinn, happened to be pursuing a thesis on Beckett, and we studied and performed a variety of Beckett plays under his coaching. Once, when we, like all our other expatriate companions, began complaining about our financial predicaments as students abroad, Mr. Quinn shared perhaps my favorite Beckett anecdote:
When Beckett was living in Dublin and working, as a professor at Trinity College, he and his colleagues would frequent Davy Byrnes pub, also a favorite spot of Joyce. There they would have a contest, seeing who could stick a postage stamp the highest on the wall–the winner of course garnering free rounds of drinks. Mr. Beckett, with his lanky, yet athletic limbs, always won. That night, we of course trooped over the Davy Byrnes, still located at 21 Duke St, in Dublin 2, for some more theatrical nostalgia.
Beckett was in Dublin for the outbreak of World War II, but returned to Paris, ultimately preferring, “Paris in war to Ireland in peace.” Beckett worked for the French resistance in 1941, narrowly escaped the Gestapo and then served in the Irish Red Cross through 1945. He spent most of his days from then on in Paris, only returning to Ireland and Dublin on visits. Both his novel trilogy (Molloy, Murphy, and The Unnamable) and Waiting for Godot would be published in 1953, Endgame would follow in 1958, and in 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I found it odd that a man who was so important to Ireland, like Joyce before him, rarely spent much time in the nation of his birth. Although he was both a student and a teacher at Trinity College Dublin, Beckett could have never imagined the impact of his work would be culminate in the founding of the Samuel Beckett Centre for drama at the college in 1992. Besides providing excellent theatre facilities, the staff at the Centre is constantly striving to urge students to study theatre in an international context. While taking a directing course at the Centre, I remember one professor explaining to me that, because Beckett was beyond the narrow nationalism of Ireland of his time, he was the first truly Irish playwright, essentially, “He wrote as himself.” This is truly what we get from Beckett’s drama–the beats, the pauses, the questions thrown into the dark–all are the most inherent expressions of human confusion.
I was unbelievably fortunate to have been in Dublin during Beckett’s birth month of April and even luckier to experience the Centenary Festival which occurred this past year. The festival takes place every year, but it was an incredibly lively experience to be a part of what Dublin city officials called, “a celebration of one of her most talented sons.” The highly acclaimed Beckett on Film series is shown at the Irish Film Institute located in Temple Bar Square and many of Beckett’s radio plays, such as Not I are produced on the local radio-stations, a true nostalgic treat. The Gate Theatre, which has been celebrating Beckett’s life with shows for the festival since 1991, produced an entire bill of epic proportions, including limited engagements of Endgame, Eh Joe featuring Michael Gambon, Krapp’s Last Tape starring Michael Hurt, and a world renown production of Waiting for Godot, all of which I had the privilege to see and all of which were consummate productions.
By far though, the best experience for me was being part of the various street performances my acting school participated in the week of Beckett’s birth. Dressed in the comical hobo garb of Didi and Gogo and led by a Pozzo with his Lucky on a rope, we marched about Dublin City Centre, pausing on beats to read, all at once, from the musty volumes also in tow. It was marvelous to see the interest we drew and the crowds who followed, wondering if what they were hearing was nonsense or brilliance.
Additionally, I recently learned Beckett enthusiasts will have a whole museum to look forward to in the future, with the completion of Point Village, a watchtower-like building being constructed on Dublin’s North Wall Quay. The building, which will house the Samuel Beckett Museum, among movie theatres and luxury apartments, is scheduled to open this coming year.
The most intense component of Beckett’s plays and works are they fact that they continue to live on. Beckett always felt that the body out-does the mind and interferes with the mind–and perhaps this is the challenge that keeps bringing both the seasoned professionals and the amateur acting students back to Beckett again and again. Although Beckett spent a great deal of his life outside of Ireland, the country still honors him and remembers the great man. It is in the festival, the work and productions of the Samuel Beckett Centre for Drama, and in the repetitions of the actors serving his plays that the playwright lives on.
Actors are drawn to Beckett, but are often scared as well–worrying that they will not be true to a creator who so valued the acuity of action and a devotion to his text. But we must always remember: he was a man who lived, breathed, and saw the flaws in life and man–insisting,
“It’s all play. Nothing but play.”