Performing Arts

Beckett's Centenary: Revisiting a Legacy

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Beckett i

Beckett, shown here in an undated photo, died in 1989. Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Getty Images

Beckett, shown here in an undated photo, died in 1989.

Getty Images
A young Beckett plays golf. i

A young Beckett plays golf. Courtesy of Mrs. Nancy Cunningham hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Mrs. Nancy Cunningham
A young Beckett plays golf.

A young Beckett plays golf.

Courtesy of Mrs. Nancy Cunningham

Albee on Beckett

One famous playwright praises another.

Samuel Beckett's legacy skips from continent to continent. He was born in Dublin, Ireland; he became an assistant and friend to James Joyce in his adopted home of Paris; and later turned the London and New York theater scenes upside down with his absurdist play Waiting for Godot.

"Mix a powerful imagination with a logic in absurdum, and the result will be either a paradox or an Irishman. If it is an Irishman, you will get the paradox into the bargain..." reads the presentation speech for Beckett's Nobel Prize in Literature. "Paradoxically, this has happened in 1969, a single award being addressed to one man, two languages and a third nation, itself divided."

As the centenary of Beckett's birth approaches this week, remembrances and performances of his work are under way. In addition to plays such as Godot, Krapp's Last Tape and Endgame, Beckett wrote novels, essays and poetry, as well.

Godot, considered an influential classic today, earned everything from apathy to anger when it debuted in 1953. The dialogue bounces back and forth between two tramps named Vladimir and Estragon, stuck waiting for the arrival of an M. Godot — who, like God, will never appear. When Godot opened in London, the British Lord Chamberlain censored some of the lines for supposed vulgarity and blasphemy.

Beckett's plays are sometimes characterized as desperate or depressing. But biographer Richard Ellman wrote that, in stripping away the niceties of life and the filigrees of traditional theatre, Samuel Beckett entered the real territory of God — not of his plenty, but his paucity, where nothing is left but the elemental grief and joy of being alive.

'Krapp's Last Tape': Scenes

Excerpt: 'Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett'

From an essay by Richard Seaver, an editor and friend of Beckett's from the 1950s

Translating Beckett into English: An Act of Youthful Folly

Paris, 1950s

... I became involved in a new literary magazine published in Paris, Merlin, whose first issue appeared in the spring of 1952, edited by a talented, charismatic Scotsman Alex Trocchi. When we met I overwhelmed him with my exuberant, long-winded description of Beckett's work. "I've never read anyone like him," I insisted. "Totally new, totally different. Maybe more important than Joyce." Finally, probably to stem the flow, Trocchi said: "Well, if this man is so wonderful, why don't you write a piece about him?" Which I did, in the second issue. Entitled "Samuel Beckett: An Introduction," it began:

Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer long established in France, has recently published two novels which, if they defy all commentary, merit the attention of anyone interested in this century's literature . . .

If one excepts the phrase "if they defy all commentary," that opening sentence is one I still stand by.

When the issue appeared in the fall, I took a copy over to Minuit with a note to the publisher Jérôme Lindon, asking if he would kindly forward it to Beckett. When Lindon's secretary told him the purpose of my visit, he apparently told her to send me right up, for what I did not then know was that his opinion of his Irish discovery more than matched mine. A tall, ascetic-looking man with an already receding hairline—he was still in his twenties—and a gaze as intense as I had ever seen, he was impeccably clothed in a dark suit and matching tie. In my Army-surplus khaki fatigues, I felt more than a little uncomfortable and out-of-place, but he soon put me at ease. He assured me he would forward it to Beckett, then let drop that, while he was now writing exclusively in French, Beckett had during the war written a still unpublished novel in English, entitled Watt. I must have half-risen from my chair. Could we see it, with a view toward publishing an excerpt in the magazine? He did not know the status of the work, he believed it was circulating in England, but would enquire. I left elated at the news.

Weeks went by with no response from Beckett. Either he had disliked my piece, I decided, or was uninterested in showing us Watt. By that time, late fall, my rue du Sabot lodgings had become the world headquarters for Merlin, where all involved would meet two or three times a week to discuss the magazine, the state of the world, and the seductive merits of Paris. We had all but given up hope about Beckett when, one late afternoon in early November, during a not untypical Paris downpour, a knock came at the door. I opened it to confront a tall, gaunt figure in a dripping raincoat, from beneath whose folds he produced a rain-soaked package. "Here," he said, "I understand you asked for this," turned, and disappeared into the night. Opening the package, it was indeed the long-awaited Watt, delivered in person by the mysterious Mr. Beckett. Most of the Merlin crew was there that day, and I have recounted elsewhere how we stayed up most of the night, reading pages in turn until our voices gave out, or until our tears or laughter stilled our lips.

We published a long excerpt of Watt in our next issue—Beckett had dictated which passage we could use, Mr. Knott's inventory of the possibilities of his attire ("As for his feet, sometimes he wore on each a sock, or on the one a sock and on the other a stocking, or a boot, or a shoe, or a slipper, or a sock and a boot, or a sock and a shoe, or a sock and a slipper, or nothing at all. . . .") and the various permutations of the furniture in his room ("Thus it was not rare to find, on the Sunday, the tallboy on its feet by the fire, and the dressing-table on its head by the bed, and the night-stool on its face by the door, and the wash-stand on its back by the window; and on the Monday, the tallboy on its head by the bed . . ." etc.). I suspected then, and later confirmed, that in so specifying that passage, Beckett was testing the literary fiber of the magazine, for taken out of context it could have been judged pedantic or wearily over-experimental, which indeed, according to some of our readers' letters, it was. But we didn't care: we had a mission, and Beckett was our leading man. In fact, in virtually every issue thereafter something by Beckett graced our pages. What was more, having lost minor but painful sums on the magazine itself, the next year we decided to expand and see if we could compound our losses by publishing books. And, of course, the first book we chose was Watt.

In my research for my article on Beckett, I discovered that he had earlier published two longish short stories written in French, one called "Suite" in Sartre's Les Temps modernes and the other "L'Expulsé" in Fontaine. Both were superb, and I asked Beckett if we could publish one or the other. "The only problem," he said, "they need to be translated, and I've neither the time nor inclination to do so." Then he brightened. "Why don't you try you hand at one?" I hesitated. "When you've finished I can go over it with you," he assured. In the folly of my youth, I said yes. Folly because here I was sitting with a man whose mastery of English was extraordinary, perhaps unique—I had so stated so in print—and I was to recreate, in his native language, his own words. Still, I set to work, sure I could finish the task in a couple of weeks, urged on by Trocchi, who wanted the story for the next issue. Two months later I was still hard at it, revising, thinking: how would Beckett say that? Finally I could do no more and dropped the pages in the mail.

A few days later he dropped me a postcard, saying what a fine job I had done and suggesting we meet at the Dôme to "give it a glance." We met promptly at 4:00 P.M., an hour when clients were scarce, in the back where we were alone. Beckett had my pages and the French edition opened side by side, ready to begin. Our beer orders before us, we looked at my opening lines:

They dressed me and gave me some money. I knew what the money was to be used for, it was for my traveling expenses. When it was gone, they said, I would have to get some more, if I wanted to go on traveling.

Beckett studied first the English, then the French, then back and forth another time, his wire-framed glasses pushed back into the thick shock of graying hair, squinting, then shaking his head. My heart, to coin a phrase, sank. Clearly my rendition was inadequate. But I was wrong; it was the original that displeased him. "You can't translate that," he said, referring to a passage further along, "it makes no sense." More squinting and cross-checking produced a more optimistic report. "That's good," he murmured. "Those first few sentences read very nicely indeed. But what would you think if we used the word 'clothed' instead of 'dressed'? They clothed me and gave me money.' Do you like the ring of that better?"

Yes, clearly, "clothed" was the better word.

"In the next sentence," he said, "you're literally correct. In French I spelled it out, said 'travelling expenses' alright. But maybe we can make it a bit tighter here, just say something like 'it was to get me going,' or 'it was to get me started.' Do you like either of them at all?" On we went, phrase by phrase, Beckett praising my translation as a prelude to shaping it to what he really wanted, reworking here a word, there an entire sentence, chipping away, tightening, shortening, always finding not only le mot juste but the phrase juste as well, exchanging the ordinary for the poetic, until the prose sang. Never, I am sure, to his satisfaction, but certainly to my ear. Under Beckett's tireless wand, that opening passage became:

They clothed me and gave me money. I knew what that money was for, it was to get me started. When it was gone I would have to get more, if I wanted to go on.

During those several (for me) edifying sessions, Beckett was often visibly suffering, for revisiting a text he had left behind some years before, and from which he had progressed to other levels and other considerations, was clearly painful. Finally, during one of our afternoon sessions, in response to a particularly long moment of despair on his part, I blurted: "But Mr. Beckett, don't you realize what an important writer you are? Why, you're a thousand times more important than . . . than Albert Camus, for example!" Grasping for superlatives, I had lighted on the contemporary French writer who at the time was world famous. At that youthfully enthusiastic but obviously outlandish declaration, Beckett gazed compassionately across at me, his hawk-like features mirroring a response halfway between disbelief and despair. "You don't know what you're saying, Dick," he said, shaking his head sadly. "No one's interested in this . . . this rubbish," and he gestured contemptuously toward the untidy pile of manuscript pages on the table. "Camus," he laughed. "Why, Camus is known even on the moon!"

Beckett's sincere self-deprecation saddened me, for if there was one conviction I had held unfailingly since my initial encounter with Beckett's work, it was that, sooner or later, the world would catch up with and give due recognition to this great man. Yet it was not as though his negative assessment of his work was based solely on his own predilection for pessimism. After all, the man had been writing incessantly since he was twenty-two, and here he was pushing fifty with no more than a handful of friends and fanatics like ourselves caring about his work.

When we had finally finished "The End" to his satisfaction, Beckett asked me—to my surprise but nonetheless pleasure, for a vote of confidence from him restored in large measure the humbling experience of our joint endeavor—if I would translate another story, "L'Expulsé," "The Expelled." I hesitated. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to do it yourself?" I ventured. "Not at all," he said. "I couldn't. . . . I simply couldn't. No, it's a great help, Dick, believe me." So I said I would, and did.

What neither of us knew during those long—and for me privileged—autumn afternoons was that Beckett's life was about to change, and change dramatically, for his second play, long kept from the boards by whims of fate and theatrical mishaps, was about to open early the following year, propelling him suddenly to the fame he deserved and changing his life, public and private, forever. Aptly titled for a man who had waited so long, it was called first Waiting, then altered, finally, to Waiting for Godot.

Books Featured In This Story

Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett

A Centenary Celebration

by Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson and Elizabeth Knowlson

Hardcover, 313 pages |


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