Notes on a Voice: Emma Hogan on a man who reinvented theatre, while rarely going to it
From INTELLIGENT LIFE January/February 2013
"Nothing to be done." So begins the play that changed the game. When it opened in Paris, 60 years ago, its author was 46, an Irish former teacher who claimed, even as he reinvented the form, that "I have no ideas about theatre. I know nothing about it. I do not go to it."
Who else but Beckett: arch-moderniser, polyglot, droll existentialist. Born near Dublin in 1906, he was a well-to-do Protestant who read French and Italian at Trinity College, finishing first in his year. By 1937 he had left Ireland, and his mother’s "savage loving", for Paris, where he lived until his death in 1989. He wrote 32 plays, one film (entitled "Film"), eight novels, 17 other prose works, and one set of poems. But it was "Waiting for Godot", with its four figures and simple setting of "A country road. A tree. Evening", that marked him out as a colossus.
To write in French. This enabled him to find his starkness – to shed his "Anglo-Irish exuberance" and the lyrical influence of Joyce ("I vow I will get over J.J. ere I die. Yessir", he had scrawled in a letter). From 1939, he wrote mostly in painstaking French, then translated into "queer English" to create the bleached voices that make his work unmistakable.
(1) First lines. From his earliest novel, "Murphy" (1938), Beckett set his own tone: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." (2) Pauses. Without Beckett, Pinter could never have created his sinister tension. He marks the silences as "[Pause]" or "[Silence]", each becoming something palpable. (3) Compassion. Within these grey landscapes, his characters flicker with warmth – even if it is just Estragon and Vladimir looking on in helpless horror at Lucky’s enslavement by Pozzo.
Never to compromise. Estragon’s trousers have to fall all the way down at the end of "Godot". The action and dialogue of "Play" has to be repeated, by actors who are up to their necks in urns. Whole novels can go by without a paragraph break. Both his novels and plays require concentration, and a stomach for repetition. But they reward the persistent.
Characters correcting or interrupting themselves. Phrases or names are misremembered, and remembered anew. Even hiccups ("pardon") are kept in, puncturing Beckett’s short sentences. He forces the dramatic monologue to capture every bodily emission and the ragged form of human speech.
Though he claimed to have "always been a poor reader", at 30 Beckett had published an essay on Proust, written an unfinished play about Dr Johnson and a short story inspired by Dante, and had worked for Joyce. But it was plays that most inspired him. The landscapes of "King Lear" and Edgar’s refrain, "the worst is not/So long as we can say, "This is the worst"" shaped his defiance of melancholy. And in Racine’s "Berenice", Beckett found a form to mirror his own: "There too nothing happens, they just talk, but what talk, and how spoken."
"Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors." ("Waiting for Godot")
Watt by Beckett, Barbican, London, Feb 26th
Emma Hogan is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Economist's Books and Arts pages, and was a judge of this year’s Forward poetry prize
Illustration Kathryn Rathke