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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

from The Times on line
Feb. 23, 2006

Beckett centenary a timely reminder of a lifetime of artistic integrity

NEXT MONTH celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of Samuel Beckett begin. What would he have made of them? I doubt he would have turned up — but then I doubt that the man who saw life as a fatal disease would have turned up for his own birth if he had been given the choice.

Beckett was a stubbornly unorthodox character. His utter indifference to our principal human pastimes — the will to live, for example, or the impulse to procreate — marked him out. “All I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante,” he once told a concerned friend. He dismissed his role in the French Resistance (for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre) as “boy scout stuff”. “My life,” he later informed an enthusiastic biographer, “is dull and without interest” and “best left unchampioned”.

Indeed, for much of its course it was, most emphatically by the publishing industry which rejected his manuscripts so frequently that the Dublin postman who brought them back to him became a character in a play. And yet now, London (the city that Beckett shunned in favour of Paris) and Dublin (the birthplace that he deplored and almost gave up hope of ever escaping — “I’ll be here ’til I die,” he once despaired, “creeping along genteel roads on a stranger’s bike”) join forces to celebrate his birth. The Barbican and the Gate Theatre, Dublin, are presenting a simultaneous, six-week centenary festival to encompass drama, prose and poetry, film music and talks.

In our over-cluttered, contemporary culture, fanatical about fame, greedy for status, Beckett stands as a gaunt icon of creative integrity. Detesting artists who paraded their “puny exploits”, thinking they could “keep on doing the same old thing . . . going a little further along the dreary road”, he divided creative types in to two categories: those who kept their own counsel and waited for their muse, and those who did not. He dismissed the latter as mere writing machines.

He was adamant that he could not compromise (although he did periodically consider more remunerative occupations, including becoming a cameraman or a pilot). He confronted his writing as a victim confronts the instrument of his fate. “Yes, in my life, there were three things”, says The Unnameable: “the inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude, that’s what I’ve had to make the best of.”

Beckett did just that. Ridding himself of all extraneous considerations — sobriety, romance and grinding poverty included — he distilled a stark vision of the fundamental inner self. And at the age of 47, with Waiting for Godot, he finally found acclaim.

It came embedded, of course, in a mire of commentary. The plays of the man who saw words as “an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness” leave plenty of emptiness for the academics to fill. But Beckett, who at university had invented a hoax literary movement to mock his teachers, despised academia. In Godot, the word “critic” is snarled as a term of abuse. Like some solitary hawk, indifferent to the flock of chirruping songbirds which its presence unsettles, he remained remote from the debate that fluttered around his pieces. “I meant what I said,” was all he would contribute. He knew the folly and futility of explicating, apologising for, or even discussing his work.

And so it is that now, in this centenary year of his birth, we should try to remember his work as it, too, was born: exposed and wincing like a stripped nerve under harsh theatre lights. We should go back to life’s basic predicament as Beckett presented it: “There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” It is with this unsparing simplicity that the whole complexity of the human condition is caught.

Familiarity makes us forget just how raw and how radical Beckett’s work must once have seemed. Now is the time to remind ourselves of the warning given by Harold Hobson, among the most perceptive of the great playwright’s admirers. There is a danger, he said, of Beckett’s plays being sentimentalised. “Self-defensively we are driven to persuade ourselves that his plays are not really filled with terror and horror, but are, at bottom, jolly good fun. Well, they are not jolly good fun. They are amongst the most frightening prophecies of, and longing for, doom ever written.”

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