Samuel Beckett said little of his experiences during the Second World War. He dismissed his work with the French Resistance as “boy scout stuff.” Whatever his activities, they were important enough for General Charles de Gaulle to award Beckett the Croix de Guerre.
After the war, he returned home to Ireland to see his mother. He stopped off in London to visit friends, who noticed the change in him—he had lost weight, looked tired, weary, his face lined, his teeth bad.
At home in Dublin, he was saddened to find his mother ill with Parkinson’s disease. He stayed to look after her for six weeks. It was during this time that Beckett had an epiphany that was to change his life, and eventually modern literature.
One day, while out walking along the harbor wall during storm, Beckett had a vision how his life must be if he wanted to succeed as a writer.
He had always written in English, and had been long influenced by James Joyce. Facing out to the gray, lace-capped sea, Beckett understood he must write in another language, and must break with Ireland’s rich literary traditions, which were holding him back. He suddenly saw his path was not with “enrichment,” but with “impoverishment.”
“I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”
Beckett began to write in French, and over the following decade, he composed the novels, poetry and plays that established his reputation as one of the century’s greatest authors.
With reference to the autobiographical elements contained within Krapp’s Last Tape, this two-part documentary, Samuel Beckett: As the Story was Told is “a rare glimpse into the reclusive world of this literary giant, whose most famous work, Waiting for Godot, evokes with unnerving precision the cosmic despair and isolation of modern humankind.”
In 1964, The British Labour Party was elected into government with a slim majority of 4 seats. Such a small majority made governing the country difficult for canny Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Therefore, after 17 months in power, Wilson called a second election. In support of winning re-election, the Labour Party’s magazine, Tribune asked a selection of writers and artists who they would vote for in the 1966 General Election. In response, sensing Labour might not hold to their socialist ideals, poet Christopher Logue wrote the poem “I shall vote Labour.”
I shall vote Labour
I shall vote Labour because
God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour to protect
the sacred institution of The Family.
I shall vote Labour because
I am a dog.
I shall vote Labour because
upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because
I am on a diet.
I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
somebody else will:
I shall vote Labour because if one person
everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because
there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because I am
a hopeless drug addict.
I shall vote Labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because Labour will build
more maximum security prisons.
I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
I shall vote Labour because
the Queen’s stamp collection is the best
in the world.
I shall vote Labour because
deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.
Christopher Logue was a poet, writer, journalist, dramatist, screenwriter, actor and performer. Born in Portsmouth, in 1926, Logue was an only child of middle-aged parents. After school, he served in the Black Watch regiment, from which he was given a court-martial for selling stolen pay books, and given a 16-months’ jail sentence.
‘It was so drab. There was nowhere to go. You couldn’t seem to meet any girls. If you went up to London in 1951, looking for the literary scene, what did you find? Dylan Thomas. I thought that if I came to the place where Pound flourished, I might too.’
In Paris, Logue met writer Alexander Trocchi (who saved Logue from an attempted suicide), and the pair set-up and edited the legendary literary magazine Merlin, which premiered work by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Chester Himes, as well as Logue and Trocchi. The pair also wrote pornographic novels for Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, and briefly met William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the late 1950s.
George Whitman, propietor of Shakespeare and Co., described the pairing of Trocchi and Logue as:
‘True bohemians, Beats before Beats officially existed. Christopher was the scruffy poet, quite down and out most of the time. He definitely fancied himself as Baudelaire or somebody like that.’
In Paris, Logue toyed with Marxism, and was once famously put down by the author Richard Wright.
‘You’ve got nothing to fight for, boy—you’re looking for a fight. If you were a black, boy, you’re so cheeky you’d be dead.’
But Logue lost none of his mettle, or his socialist convictions and he continued to be a gadfly throughout his life. In the 1960s, he collaborated with Lindsay Anderson, giving poetry readings at the National Film Theater between features. He was a pacifist and a member of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, taking part with Bertrand Russell on the marches to Aldermarston.
He appeared at Peter Cook’s club The Establishment and wrote songs for jazz singer Annie Ross, and had one recorded by Joan Baez. He also appeared at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival, and contributed the wonderfully bizarre “True Stories” to Private Eye magazine. He acted for Ken Russell in The Devils, wrote the screenplay for Russell’s Savage Messiah, and acted in Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. Logue’s poetry was incredibly popular, even appearing in posters throughout the London Underground. His most famous works were Red Bird, a jazz colaboration with Tony Kinsey, and War Music, a stunning and critically praised adaption of Homer’s Illiad. He was awarded the 2005 Whitbread Poetry Prize for his collection Cold Calls.
Logue died in 2011, and Wilson won the 1966 election with a majority of 96 seats.
This is Christopher Logue reading “I shall vote Labour” in 2002, as filmed by Colin Still.
They may seem to be an unlikely pair, but Irish avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett and actor/wrestler André the Giant knew each other.
Beckett even rode the young André Roussimoff, who suffered from acromegaly, a condition that sees the pituitary gland producing excess growth hormone during puberty, to school in his truck, as the young man was too big to travel in school transportation by the age of 12.
Samuel Beckett, Nobel Prize winner (literature) and esteemed playwright, probably most noted for Waiting for Godot, bought some land in 1953 near a hamlet around forty miles northeast of Paris and built a cottage for himself with the help of some locals.
One of the locals that helped him build the cottage was a Bulgarian-born farmer named Boris Rousimoff, who Beckett befriended and would sometimes play cards with. As you might’ve been able to guess, Rousimoff’s son was André the Giant, and when Beckett found out that Rousimoff was having trouble getting his son to school, Beckett offered to drive André to school in his truck — a vehicle that could fit André — to repay Rousimoff for helping to build Beckett’s cottage. Adorably, when André recounted the drives with Beckett, he revealed they rarely talked about anything other than cricket.
A review for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot from when the play first opened in England, at the Arts Theater Club, London, in August 1955.
Writing in the Guardian, critic Philip Hope-Wallace described Beckett’s play as “inexplicit and deliberately fatuous..” and claimed it “bored some people acutely. Others found it a witty and poetic conundrum.”
‘TWO EVENINGS WITH TWO TRAMPS
“Waiting for Godot”
By Philip Hope-Wallace
“Waiting for Godot” at the Arts Theatre Club is a play to send the rationalist out of his mind and induce tooth-gnashing among people who would take Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen and Lear’s nonsense exchanges with the food as easiest stuff in the world. the play, if about anything is ostensibly about two tramps who spend the two acts, two evenings long, under a tree on a bit of waste ground “waiting for Godot.”
Godot, it would seem, is quite possibly God, just as Charlot is Charles. Both tramps are dressed like the Chaplinesque zanies of the circus and much of their futile cross-talk seems to bear some sort of resemblance to those music-hall exchanges we know so well: “You know my sister?” “Your sister?” “Yes, my sister,” and so on, ad lib. One of the tramps is called Estragon, which is the French for tarragon herb; the other is called Vladimir. On the first evening their vigil is broken by the arrival of a choleric employer called Pozzo (Italian for “a well”), and a down-trodden servant Lucky, who looks like the Mad Hatter’s uncle.
On the second evening this pair reappears, the former now blind and led by the latter, now a deaf mute. As night falls on both seasons a boy arrives to announce that Godot cannot keep the interview for which the tramps so longingly wait. And at the end of it, for all its inexplicit and deliberately fatuous flatness, a curious sense of the passage of time and the wretchedness of man’s uncertainty about his destiny has been communicated out of the very unpromising material.
The allegorist is Sam Beckett, who was once James Joyce’s secretary and who writes in French for preference. His English version bears traces of that language still. The language, however, is flat and feeble in the extreme in any case. Fine words might supply the missing wings, but at least we are spared a Claudelian rhetoric to coat the metaphysical moonshine.
The play bored some people acutely. Others found it a witty and poetic conundrum. There was general agreement that Peter Hall’s production did fairly by a work which has won much applause in many parts of the world already and that Paul Daneman in particular, as the more thoughtful of the two tramps, gave a fine and rather touching performance. Peter Woodthorpe, Timothy Bateson, Peter Bull and a boy, Michael Walker, the mysterious Godot’s messenger all played up loyally. There was only one audible retirement from the audience though the ranks had thinned after the interval. It is good to find that plays at once dubbed “incomprehensible and pretentious” can still get a staging. Where better than the Arts Theatre?”
While the daily papers were generally negative in their reviews of the play, Kenneth Tynan was more favorable and wrote in the Observer:
By all the known criteria, Mr Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum.
It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end.
Unavoidably, it has a situation, and it might be accused of having suspense, since it deals with the impatience of two tramps waiting beneath a tree for a cryptic Mr Godot to keep his appointment with them; but the situation is never developed, and a glance at the programme shows that Mr Godot is not going to arrive.
Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare: yet it gets through as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than any in the books.
A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.
Not long after this review, Waiting for Godot transferred to the West End, London, and went on to win an Evening Standard award.
A condensed, cartoon version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as imagined by Guinea Pig Theater.
Many people view this play as one in which nothing whatsoever happens. Clearly, if you’re [sic] hold this view, you have missed the existential boat that Samuel Beckett so poignantly explores in this modern classic. Since guinea pigs excel at waiting, among other things, who better to bring this masterpiece to life than Guinea Pig Theater!
Sit back, enjoy a carrot, and experience Waiting For Godot as you never have before.
Hardly as Beckett intended, when the play was first performed sixty-years ago at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris, January 4th, 1953, but still fun.
Billie Whitelaw stars in Samuel Beckett’s one-woman play Rockaby, which was written in 1980 at the request of Daniel Labeille, to tie-in with a festival and symposium celebrating Beckett’s 75th birthday.
The play focuses on a woman (W),who contemplates her life, and the loss of the things she had been unable to do, leaving her gently, slowly, to her own lonely demise.
““went and sat/at her window/facing other windows/so in the end/close of a long day/in the end went and sat/went back in and sat/at her window”
The play uses repetition, in a similar way a lullaby uses it to comfort a child, but here its purpose is to underscore Beckett’s view of the terrible loneliness and emptiness of the human condition. W searches for some positive affirmation of her life - “a little like.” The chair rocks in time with the words, as if its movement comforts and maintains her life. A dark, and many layered play, that rewards with a second viewing.
As for Whitelaw, she is, as always in Beckett’s plays, perfect.
In this short clip (uploaded by Oranj Telor Theatre) Beckett reads an extract from his difficult and complex second novel, Watt, which was written “just an exercise”, while on the run from the Gestapo during the Second World War. “No symbols where none intended.”
An even shorter Q & A with Beckett, after the jump…
Harold PInter liked Samuel Beckett because he rubbed his nose in the shit. He wasn’t leading him up the garden path. He wasn’t giving him the wink. And he certainly wasn’t fucking him about. No.
Pinter knew Beckett wasn’t selling him anything. But if he was selling him anything, then he would have bought it hook, line and sinker.
Pinter first read Beckett in 1953, while working in Ireland. When he returned home to London, Pinter searched the libraries for any of Beckett’s books. He couldn’t find any, that is until he happened upon a copy of Beckett’s novel Murphy in the Bermondsley Reserve LIbrary. Pinter borrowed it, and as he noted that the book had not been taken out since 1939, he kept it.
This is Pinter’s astounding performance in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Though Patrick Magee was Beckett’s original choice for the role, Pinter brings a dark, bitter irony to the character, as well as a heightened sense of personal mortality. Pinter described the play he sees as being about death, and about love - the impossibility of love and the necessity of love.
‘He came into the hotel, very quickly indeed. Sharp strides, quick handshake. It was extremely friendly.’
And then he tells you about himself, a slight pride, ‘I’d known his work for many years, of course.’
Of course, as if there would have been any question to otherwise. Then the non sequitur, ‘But it hadn’t led me to believe that he would be such a very fast driver. He drove his little Citreon, from bar-to-bar, throughout the evening. Very quickly, indeed.’
And of course, there are (pauses).
It’s Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett, recalling an evening spent in his company. A pub crawl in France.
‘We were together for hours, and finally ended up in… (Pause) ...a place in Les Halles, eating onion soup, at about 4 o’clock in the morning. (Longer Pause) And… (Pause) ...I was, by this time, overcome, through, I think, alcohol and tobacco and excitement (Pause) with indigestion and heartburn. So. I lay down on the table, to still see the place. (A Beat) When I looked up he was gone. (Pause) A I say, it was about 4 o’clock in the morning.’
It could be lines from a Pinter play, My Night Out With Samuel, or a comedy, When Harry Met Sammy, but it all progresses beautifully, and menacingly, towards a punchline.
‘I had no idea where he had gone, and he remained away and I thought perhaps this had all been a dream. (Long Pause) I think I went to sleep on the table and…. (Pause) ...About forty-five minutes later, the table jolted and I looked up and there he was, a package in his hand. A bag.
‘And he said, eh, “I’ve been over the whole of damned Paris to find this. I finally found it.” And he opened the bag and he gave me a tin of bicarbonate of soda. Which indeed worked wonders.’
Pinter then goes on to read from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1954, when he was 24, about Beckett - ‘The farther it goes, the more good it does me’ - before performing an extract from Beckett’s The Unnameable. In total, this short program is seven minutes of sheer brilliance.
Samuel Beckett painted from life in Paris by Reginald Grey, 1961
“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—The Unnamable
The great Irish modernist/minimalist writer Samuel Beckett was born on this day, April 13th, 106 years ago. Greatly influenced by his friend and mentor James Joyce, with plays like Krapp’s Last Tape, Waiting for Godot and Endgame; and his novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett established himself as the last of the great 20th century modernist writers.
Much of Beckett’s work dealt with the breakdown of communication, repetitive, pointless activities, hopelessness, loneliness and the general shitty bleakness of the human condition. He was closely associated with the post-war dramatic movement that the influential critic Martin Esslin dubbed “The Theatre of the Absurd” which also included Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and others. Samuel Beckett died on December 22, 1989 at the age of 83.
The late Anthony Minghella’s superb interpretation of Beckett’s Play from the 4-disc Beckett on Film set featured Harry Potter’s Alan Rickman in, uh, urn-ist with Kristen Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson. If you’ve never sampled Beckett’s work before, I reckon this Play is a great place to… hit “play”!
After Samuel Beckett heard Patrick Magee read extracts form his novel Molloy and From Abandoned Work on the radio, he wrote a one act play specifically for the Northern Irish actor. Beckett said Magee’s voice “was the one which he heard inside his mind,” and best suited his intentions for this dark and disturbing monologue on creativity, memory and mortality. Originally titled “Magee Monologue”, it soon became Krapp’s Last Tape.
Krapp’s Last Tape focuses on a man reviewing his life through a series of recordings, each made on the eve of his birthday. Krapp is a sixty-nine year-old, would-be writer who still believes he has the potential to create a great work of art, which will change the world. On listening to his past recordings, Krapp becomes aware of the different aspects of his life that have shaped him. Memory defines who he is, while wearing him down, limiting and inhibiting, until finally, impotent and in despair, Krapp recognizes the futility of his ambitions to create something, anything meaningful.
I suppose you could call this “playwright has mid-life crisis”, but still its themes are universal, and hit at the core of personal creativity and ambition.
Magee originally performed the play at the Royal Court Theater in 1958, under the direction of Donald McWhinnie, and this is the BBC 1972 version of that famous production.
Jack MacGowran was a frail-looking, bird-like man, whose frame belied his power and talent as an actor. You’ll recognize him from The Excorcist, where he played alcoholic director Burke Dennings, or perhaps from Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, or as Professor Abronsius, in The Fearless Vampire Killers.
If Billie Whitelaw was Samuel Beckett’s favorite actress, then MacGowran was his favored actor. The pair met in the bar of a shabby London hotel, an unlikely start to an “intimate alliance” that saw MacGowran collaborate with Beckett on the definitive versions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame. From this, their partnership led to a further legendary collaboration Beginning to End. As Jordan R. Young noted in his book, The Beckett Actor:
...Jack MacGowran in the Works of Samuel Beckett (aka Beginning to End) [is] one of the most highly-acclaimed one-man shows in the history of theatre, [which] changed forever the public perception of Beckett from a purveyor of gloom and despair, to a writer of wit, humanity and courage. It also brought the actor widespread recognition as Beckett’s foremost interpreter. “The first time I saw Jack, in Endgame… I came away haunted by the impression he made on me,” said Paul Scofield. “I have remained so ever since.”
The production was filmed to celebrate Beckett’s sixtieth birthday:
Beginning to End [which] features the peerless Jack MacGowran in his one-man show, devised with Beckett and recorded for RTÉ Television in 1966. “Jack’s stage presence stays with me more than anything,” said Peter O’Toole. “This frail thing with this enormous power. He walked a tightrope as if it were a three-lane highway.” Martin Esslin, in The Theatre of the Absurd, commented on Beckett’s deep affection for MacGowran: “If ever there was a perfect congruence between a great poet’s imagination and an actor, this was it ... Jack MacGowran’s individual quality and life story are an essential ingredient in our understanding of the life and work of one of the outstanding creative minds of our time.”
Rarely seen, and long thought lost, this is a must-see, for it is one of the greatest stage performances ever committed to film.
The actress Billie Whitelaw couldn’t imagine what it was like. The theater darkened, apart from a spotlight on Whitelaw’s mouth, as she delivered Samuel Beckett’s babbling stream of consciousness Not I.
It’s one of the most disturbing images in theater: a disembodied mouth, telling its tale “at the speed of thought.” It takes incredible discipline and strength for the actor to perform: the text isn’t easy to learn, its full of difficult instructions, pauses, repetitions and disjointed phrases; add to this the speed of delivery, which means the actor has to learn circular breathing in order to deliver the lines. Jessica Tandy once gave a performance that lasted twenty-four minutes, only to be told by Beckett that she had “ruined” his play. And let’s not forget the rigidity of the piece: the actor’s lack of mobility, the mouth tethered to a spotlight, all of which says everything for Whitelaw’s brilliance as an actor.
Here, Whitelaw introduces Not I in the short documentary, A Wake for Sam, and explains the effect it had on her:
Plenty of writers can write a play about a state of mind, but [Beckett] actually put that state of mind on the stage, in front of your eyes. And I think a lot of people recognized it. I recognized it. When I first read it at home, I just burst in to tears, because I recognized the inner scream. Perhaps that’s not what it is, I don’t know, but for me, that’s what I recognized, an inner scream, in there, and no escaping it.
Film, based on a script by Samuel Beckett, was made in 1965 and stars Buster Keaton. While Alan Schneider gets director’s credit, Beckett made his only trip to America (NYC) to supervise the making of the film and is generally considered to be the film’s actual director or, at the very least, a very present influence on its creation.
Beckett admired Keaton and chose him to play the character of “0.” Keaton, who was old and struggling with alcoholism, agreed to appear in the film despite not caring much for the script. Keaton wasn’t discriminating when it came to money gigs. The fact that Beckett had flown to Los Angeles to woo him was certainly a factor in Buster’s decision to do the movie. Little did he know at the time, or ultimately care, that he was starring in what is considered by many to be a small masterpiece.
Beckett describes the theme of Film thusly:
Film is about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds - from all perceivers - even divine perceivers. There is a picture which he pulls down. But he can’t escape from self-perception. It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist, “To be is to be perceived” - “Esse est percipi.” The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.’
According to film scholars Katherine Waugh & Fergus Daly:
Beckett sets his film in the year 1929, the year Un Chien Andalou was made (and of course the first year of the sound film). In addition the film opens and closes with close-ups of a sightless eye which would seem to refer to the notorious opening sequence of Un Chien Andalou in which a human eye is sliced open with a razor blade. In fact ‘Eye’ was Beckett’s original title for Film.
For a detailed and entertaining reflection on the making of Film read this piece by Alan Schneider.
Film is silent. Beckett intended that the script be read live during screenings. Here it is in its entirety.