edited: Friday, April 14, 2006
By Peter Paton
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, April 14, 2006
Become a Fan
The centenary of playwright Samuel Beckett's birth is being marked by major festivals in the UK, Ireland, the US, Germany, France and Japan. What's the fuss about a man famous for writing a play where "nothing happened... twice"?
For a man so notoriously uncomfortable about public attention, Samuel Beckett's profile has never been higher, his craggy face appearing on festival billboards around the world.
The centenary of the enigmatic playwright's birth has sparked a wave of Beckettmania, involving performances, television and radio shows, lectures, photography exhibitions, book launches and film festivals. It's been claimed as the biggest ever international event for a modern writer.
But what was the man behind that eagle stare really like? What was the character of the creator of those austere, modernist masterpieces; deadpan comedies about the bleakness of life.
Part of the mystique surrounding Beckett, who died in 1989, derives from the fact there are no television interviews, no press cuttings, no chat-circuit clips.
Beckett was only formally interviewed by one person, James Knowlson, a long-standing friend and academic who became his official biographer, who visited the writer in Paris.
DUFFERS' GUIDE PT1
Born 13 April 1906, Foxrock, County Dublin
Moved to Paris in 1937, hung out with James Joyce, Jean-Paul Sartre, assorted Left Bank intellectuals
Stayed in France during war and fought with the Resistance
Most famous play Waiting for Godot, premiered in Paris in 1953
"His outward appearance was very formidable, but he was very witty, very friendly, an extremely good listener. Despite all the stories about his silences, there were not many occasions when laughter did not join us," says Mr Knowlson.
"You really looked forward to spending an evening with him. The idea that Beckett was a miserabilist or a nihilist is a myth, he was very funny. He was very loyal to his friends, he liked drinking, he liked beautiful women," he says.
Women also liked him, the biographer discovered, as he researched Beckett's private life. After he had uncovered the first 20 affairs, Mr Knowlson said he "stopped counting".
Whatever his private enthusiasms, the writer had a loathing for any kind of public attention. But was this a cultivated image of mystery?
"It wasn't a game, he hated public exposure, it would be torture for him, any public appearances would make him literally run away."
Beckett: a private man now public property
But his reluctance to become a public figure did not mean that Beckett lived in isolation, says Mr Knowlson.
"He was also part of the real world, he didn't stand by during the war when he saw what was happening to his Jewish friends. He was profoundly anti-racist all his life."
Among the footnotes to Beckett's literary career was that he was awarded a croix de guerre, a wartime medal, for his work with the French Resistance.
Another piece of Beckett trivia is that he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for literature to appear in the pages of Wisden - and Mr Knowlson says that his interest in cricket remained undiminished.
"You learned never to call him on a Saturday afternoon, he was listening to the rugby or the cricket or the tennis. He read newspapers beginning with the sports pages.
"He was also extraordinarily generous. When he won the Nobel Prize, he had given away most of the money within a week," he says. And this generosity, and a certain "unworldliness", made him vulnerable to spongers.
Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin which is jointly presenting the Beckett Centenary Festival with the Barbican Arts Centre in London, also knew Beckett, and saw his inability to refuse requests for help.
DUFFERS' GUIDE PT2
Most famous novels: The trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
Other plays include: Happy Days, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, Not I
Nobel Prize for Literature, 1969
Classic line: 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'
Died 22 December 1989, Paris
Mr Colgan recalls Beckett being challenged over why he'd given such a large sum of money to a beggar who was obviously a con-merchant.
"I thought he was, but I just couldn't take the chance," Beckett replied.
Mr Colgan also describes the strange way that in his latter years the author was stalked by the curious and greedy. People would knock on the door of Beckett's Paris apartment and, when he answered, take a photograph and run away.
Or they would follow him to a cafe and take his picture. Beckett would ask how much they would get for the photograph - and when they named a price, he'd offer them a higher figure and would take the roll of film and destroy it.
But why has Beckett become such a successfully literary brand?
Mr Colgan produced his first major Beckett festival in 1991 - and rather than a declining interest, he has seen the crowds getting bigger, particularly among younger theatregoers.
The programme for the 1955 Godot production in London
This could be because audiences have "caught up" with a style that once seemed difficult and avant garde - and that Beckett, the outsider who once struggled to get published, is now mainstream.
"Audiences once treated Beckett's plays as though they were some kind of crossword puzzle, something to debate as a work of philosophy. Now they can enjoy the humanity," says Mr Colgan.
Mr Knowlson also says the minimalist style of the plays, not specific to any time or place, has helped their international appeal. The dislocated characters could be wandering aimlessly just as easily in modern Asia or South America as in post-war Europe.
And he believes that audiences are now much more aware of the bleak humour in Beckett's work, enjoying its beleaguered playfulness, rather than seeing it as being depressing.
How would Beckett have felt about becoming a tourist attraction - with his face literally flying on the flags in Dublin this week?
"Would Beckett himself have gone to any of these centenary events? Probably not," says Mr Colgan - and he recalls the writer's reaction to celebrity interest.
When Beckett was asked about how he felt about a couple of Hollywood stars wanting to perform in Waiting for Godot, Mr Colgan says the playwright paused and then delivered a one-word response: "Gloomy."