Beckett's Centenary: Revisiting a Legacy As the centenary of playwright Samuel Beckett's birth approaches, remembrances and performances of his work are under way. His influence skipped from country to country during his lifetime, and it remains profound in the world of the theater.

Beckett's Centenary: Revisiting a Legacy

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Edward Albee has named four great masters of 20th century theater: Anton Chekhov, Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett. Next week marks the centenary of Mr. Beckett's birth. And like his work, Samuel Beckett was a complicated man, an accomplished athlete in college who also wrote his treatise on Proust that's still used today. He worked relentlessly to make his name as a writer, yet he shunned publicity. And almost despite himself, Samuel Beckett remains very much with us.

From Paris, Frank Browning reports.

FRANK BROWNING reporting:

The first thing everybody says about getting Beckett is just to listen, hear the words. If you're reading him, read him out loud. Fall into the spare, blunt brutality of the language as it rips and caresses your ears, as in this reading of Beckett's early novel, Murphy, produced by the San Quentin Drama Workshop.

Murphy, a tormented, love obsessed Irishman visits a mystic named Neary to learn the rhythms of the heart.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor, San Quentin Drama Workshop): For Murphy had such an irrational heart that no physician could get to the root of it. Inspected, palpated, osculated, percussed, radiographed and cardiographed, it was all that a heart should be. Buttoned up and left to perform, it was like Petrouchka and his box. One moment in such labor that it seemed on the point of seizing, the next in such ebullition that it seemed on the point of bursting.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor, San Quentin Drama Workshop): It was the mediation between these extremes that Neary called the Apmonia. When he got tired of calling it the Apmonia, he called it the Isonomy. When he got sick of the sound of the Isonomy he called it the Attunement. But he might call it what he liked, into Murphy's heart it would not enter. Neary could not blend the opposites in Murphy's heart.

BROWNING: Whether it's the early novels or his most famous play, Waiting for Godot, Beckett is the geographer of the inside of the soul. And, says Edward Albee, he changed forever how we write and read novels and plays.

Mr. EDWARD ALBEE (Playwright): He re-invented the novel. And he re-invented the play. He made us understand that interior movement in a play was infinitely more important than physical movement.

BROWNING: Beckett's theater of the internal first came to America in 1953. Two characters on a bare stage, Vladimir and Estragon, two tramps waiting for a revelation. Waiting for Godot was restaged for television in 1961 with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel.

(Soundbite of Waiting for Godot)

Mr. BURGESS MEREDITH (As Vladimir in Waiting for Godot): Will you say it even if it isn't true?

Mr. ZERO MOSTEL (As Estragon): What shall I say?

Mr. MEREDITH (As Vladimir): Say we are happy!

Mr. MOSTEL (As Estragon): We are happy!

Mr. MEREDITH (As Vladimir): So am I.

Mr. MOSTEL (As Estragon): So am I!

Mr. MEREDITH (As Vladimir): We are happy!

Mr. MOSTEL (As Estragon): We are happy! What do we do now, now that we are happy?

Mr. MEREDITH (As Vladimir): Wait for Godot.

Mr. MOSTEL (As Estragon): Oh! Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh.

BROWNING: The dialogue bounces back and forth, ostensibly about the varying gospel accounts of the two thieves crucified beside Jesus, and the impossibility of moving ahead without knowing which is the true account, a truth that can only be revealed if they wait for the arrival of Godot, who will, like God, never appear.

Mr. BARNEY ROSSET (Publisher, Theatrical Agent): The play did not last very long.

BROWNING: Barney Rosset was Beckett's American publisher, and later his theatrical agent.

Mr. ROSSET: The sales of the book were very, very slow. I think we sold something like 400 copies the first year.

BROWNING: Eventually, Godot sold more than a million copies, though it took a while. The early response in London, where theater then varied between social realism and cocktail comedy, was tepid at best. However, a minor revolution had begun in the early 1950s at the BBC Drama Department, where a young iconoclast name Barbara Bray had just been hired. Beckett, like John Osborne and Harold Pinter later, were tough sells. But Bray developed a technique for seducing radio listeners.

Ms. BARBARA BRAY (Former Script Drama Editor, BBC): You had an original broadcast early in the quarter. Then after ten days you had a repeat. Then before the end of the 13 weeks, you had the second repeat. Now, the first audience (unintelligible) would say ravings of a lunatic, couldn't understand a word. Then the second one would say hmm, it might be something in it. And then the third one would say fantastic, let's hear some more of it.

BROWNING: Beckett, by then, was living in France, where Bray still lives in an apartment on a quiet courtyard a block from the Seine.

Ms. BRAY: It was very exciting. He was here in the late '20s and lots of things were going on. And he met everybody. And he met Joyce. And found his spiritual home here.

BROWNING: Bray, who eventually followed him here and acted as his lifelong collaborator, producer and editor, says Beckett tapped into the continental zeitgeist.

Mr. BRAY: He was an extremely hypersensitive person, hyper-aesthetic, really. And whatever he saw, he took in with sort of supernatural acuity. And he took in this feeling that people had after the Second World War, that things were getting out of control and going towards some sort of catastrophe. So this business of dissatisfaction and waiting for something that doesn't come appealed to people because it appeals to them as a truth that they knew themselves.

BROWNING: Beckett had fled the confines of Dublin University life, where he hated the exposure of standing in front of a classroom full of students, and the constraints of a family, particularly a mother who disapproved of his writing career. He eked out a living in Paris as a translator, survived being stabbed by a pimp, and he spent the war years working for British intelligence in the French Resistance, efforts that earned him the Croix de Guerre. But the intensely private Beckett never told anyone that he'd been awarded France's highest military honor.

In France, Beckett found escape and exile, an exile that he made complete when he began writing exclusively in French. It was, says Irish poet Tom McCarthy, a kind of double exile.

Mr. TOM MCCARTHY (Irish Poet): He needed to reject not only the Ireland of his youth and his young manhood by leaving, but rejecting it by rejecting the language that both describes it to the rest of he world and oppresses it, which is English. And Beckett, remember, not only emigrated physically, but emigrated mentally into the French language. France became his place of freedom where he learned to write.

For Beckett, I think, what was extraordinary was that he had the linguistic skills to really go into exile, which was to leave the language itself.

BROWNING: There may be another reason Beckett chose French, says his publisher, Barney Rosset.

Mr. ROSSET: French, to him, was a very controlled language, very sparse from certain points of view, whereas English could be very explosive and spread out. And I think maybe Beckett was a little afraid of being overly emotional. I try to disabuse him of that.

BROWNING: The longer he wrote, whether in French or in English, says Edward Albee, the more eloquently spare his language became.

Mr. ALBEE: There's a wonderful late monologue called A Piece of Monologue actually. There's an old man in a white nightgown, long white hair, staring out through a window, which we don't see, of course, into the night. And he says, and I may paraphrase this a little bit but not the important words: Nothing out there in the dark vast. Think about that, nothing out there in the dark vast. I'm convinced that any other playwright writing that line would have said nothing out there in the vast dark. But the dark vast is so much closer to the essence of what the words mean. And I think only Beckett would have understood that.

BROWNING: In the early days, audiences and critics complained that Beckett was difficult to understand; a reaction that baffles Edward Albee.

Mr. ALBEE: Take a play like Happy Days, for example. Two act play, Act One, the woman, Winnie, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Act Two, buried up to her neck. That's why it's a two act play rather than a three act play. But it's absolutely believable and naturalistic. We, all, are by middle age, buried up to our waists. And as we get older we're buried up to our necks in a mound of earth on our way down.

(Soundbite of Happy Days)

Ms. GERALDINE MCEWAN (Actress, as Winnie): Oh, can't complain. No. No, mustn't complain. So much to be thankful for. No pain. Hardly any. Wonderful thing, that, nothing like it. Slight headache sometimes.

BROWNING: That 1995 BBC production of Happy Days starred Geraldine McEwan. Actor and playwright Rick Cluchey first saw Beckett produced while he was an inmate at San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. Cluchey co-founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop and upon his release became one of Beckett's close collaborators, and a leading interpreter of Beckett's words.

Mr. RICK CLUCHEY (Actor, Playwright and Founder, San Quentin Drama Workshop): You have to have the courage to go on. I can't go on. I will go on, or fail. Fail again. Fail better. These metaphors for existence are brought out in the plays especially well, I think. There is a moment in the play, Krapp's Last Tape, when it's his birthday and he wants to get back to that moment in time, 30 years before, when he had a love affair with a girl. And he had abandoned the girl and the love affair because he saw a vision that he was going to write this great, what he called the opus magnum.

And so he chose the life of the mind and abandoned the life of the body. And of course, 30 years later he's reduced to listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago. Aha, to believe I was ever as bad as that.

Mr. ALBEE: Beckett was once asked by somebody, You're such a pessimist why do you keep on writing plays?

BROWNING: Edward Albee.

Mr. ALBEE: And Beckett said, very simply and very truly, If I were a pessimist, I wouldn't write. I'm an optimist. I assume that communication is possible. And therefore, he writes.

BROWNING: Beckett biographer Richard Ellman wrote that in stripping away the niceties of life and the filigrees of traditional theater, 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. Where language alone guides us through the dark vast.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

SIMON: And clips from the Beckett play Krapp's Last Tape can be found at our website, npr.org. And our special thanks to NPR's Tom Cole for his help in arranging this story.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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