13 April 2006

Beckett at 100

Today is the day we have been waiting for, even though it is better not to wait, because always what you get is less than what you hoped. 100 years since Samuel Beckett's birth. (Yes yes, they shall all now scream, "Birth was the death of him.")
I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter--and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!

(Pause.)

He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.
(Endgame)
The thing is, Beckett makes me laugh. That's why I've stuck with him. Yes, there's bleakness and dreariness and the-world-is-awful and all that, but before there is that there is laughter. A sad laughter, yes, but that just makes it more meaningful and complex.

Before the laughter, there is language. That's what caused my first crush. It was "Happy Days", and yes they were -- high school, my head blown off. It took me forever to read the play. People were allowed to write like this? ("Embedded up to her waist in exact center of mound, WINNIE.") I couldn't make head or tail or kneecap of it. I wanted to know more. Who gave insane people pens to write with? Who published them? From the library, I took a copy of Waiting for Godot. I don't remember making much of it, but I do remember reading it entranced. Something in the rhythms.
ESTRAGON:
Let's hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR:
From a bough?
(They go towards the tree.)
I wouldn't trust it.

ESTRAGON:
We can always try.

VLADIMIR:
Go ahead.

ESTRAGON:
After you.

VLADIMIR:
No no, you first.

ESTRAGON:
Why me?

VLADIMIR:
You're lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON:
Just so!

VLADIMIR:
I don't understand.

ESTRAGON:
Use your intelligence, can't you?

(Vladimir uses his intelligence.)

VLADIMIR:
(finally).
I remain in the dark.
I couldn't stop. I read all the plays. They fit in one book and feel like a shelf. I haven't stopped reading. Now I have a case.

Eventually, I discovered the prose. Where? How? I don't remember. It took me a while. I still haven't finished Watt, fun as it is. With the prose, I tend to like it shorter -- the sublime How It Is and Texts for Nothing are particular favorites.
intent on these horizons I do not feel my fatique it is manifest none the less passage more laborious from one side to the other one semi-side prolongation of intermediate procumbency multiplication of mute imprecations

sudden quasi-certitude that another inch and I fall headlong into a ravine or dash myself against a wall though nothing I know only too well to be hoped for in that quarter this tears me from my reverie I've arrived

(How It Is)
Closest to my heart, though, is Endgame, perhaps because I once directed it (with high school students! Yes, I'm insane! But it turned out well, despite the odds.) and so I have lived with that text most closely. I find myself using phrases from it suddenly in everyday moments ("We'd need a proper wheel-chair. With big wheels. Bicycle wheels!"). It's an interesting enough play to read, but it's when you're in the midst of a production of it that the wonder of Beckett becomes most apparent, because the words become, somehow, living things -- not so much fragments shored against the ruins, but the magnificence of the ruins themselves, the words adorning the death of everything, an apotheosis in words, the last things left, the only things we can still apprehend after the speaker or writer is gone.
I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.
(Endgame)

5 comments:

  1. Oh, good, I'm not the only one. I think Beckett's hilarious, a confession that is often met with raised eyebrows and accusations of snobbery. In fact, I was once called The Biggest Snob Someone Had Ever Met when I said that a party (there was a dull, regularly pulsing light in the corner and lots of disjointed, strange conversation)was like something out of Beckett. But I mean, he's f'ing funny, man. I don't think people read him much. I think they assume they've read him at some point only to find that no, they were thinking of someone else.

    Anyway.

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  2. Was introduced to your blog by Frank at BOOKS, INQ.

    I agree, Beckett can be very funny ... but, I have found it to be a case of 'different jokes for different folks.'

    In "Godot," there were lines that, even after repeated rehearsals, left us laughing ... sometimes the audience found them funny, too, and sometimes they didn't ... they also found their own humorous moments that left us, in the cast, wondering ...

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  3. Funny and ironic, but acute, or perhaps individual in his observations of human behaviour.

    Godot's very funny to me, at least.

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  4. Nice post, Matt. I think people underestimate the value of teaching Beckett to teenagers finishing school, I studied Godot in my final year and was delighted to be able to share the Abbey Theatre televisual version with my daughter a couple of years back while she was reading it for drama. I remember being drawn to 'Astride of the grave, a difficult birth' and 'All the dead voices' when I was that age. Interesting to find later that Beckett laboured over every word to bring out that distinctive musicality, and often inserted snippets of other great prose into his work, then reworked them.

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  5. Well, now I know we're kindred spirits. There is nothing funnier in English than a live production of Endgame. Ham wore "toe socks" in the version I saw. That director understood and you do, too, how very funny grim can be.

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