By Kenneth Hickey, University College Cork
L to R: A young Samuel Beckett, his wife Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil and Beckett in later life.
Samuel Beckett is one of those figures who, despite being known to almost anyone with even a passing interest in English literature, always somehow remain elusive. Despite several notable biographies it still seems incredibly difficult to get any sense of the man as opposed to the writer, whether through his work or the details of his life. In general I am not one for delving too deeply into the personal life of any writer when I come to study their literary output. I often feel it can cloud my judgement of the material and even overly inform readings of the themes and challenges presented in the work. However, with Beckett the temptation for me has always proved too great. Whether it is due to the difficult and opaque nature of his work or the truly remarkable details of his life I find myself time and time again searching for Sam.
It is not too clichéd to say that Samuel Beckett seems to have been a collection of contradictions. Beckett was born on 13 April 1906 (it was a Friday the 13th). Although born and raised in Dublin he lived almost his entire adult life in Paris, writing predominantly in French but on several occasions switching back to English with little or no indication why. Alongside his writing he served in the French resistance in both Paris and Roussillon, translating documents from French to English and storing weapons in his house. James Knowlson in his exhaustive biography Damned To Fame explains that the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a branch of British Intelligence, ‘in London had the following apt description of him in its files: ‘Age 38 (this was in 1944). 6ft. Well built, but stoops. Dark hair. Fresh complexion. Very silent. Paris agent.’ (307). After the war Beckett was awarded the Croix de guerre, a French military decoration, given to those who fought with the Allies as well as the Médaille de la Résistance which was given to recognise his remarkable acts of faith and of courage. He rarely spoke of his war-time activity.
(Head of the Resistance in Roussillon talking about Samuel Beckett.)
In 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature becoming only the third Irishman to receive the honour, joining Shaw and Yeats. Seamus Heaney would receive his award in 1995. He refused to attend the ceremony, instead remaining on holiday in Morocco, and gave most of the prize money away. His wife Suzanne commented that the award was a ‘catastrophe’ due to the public attention it would bring to Beckett. While publicly completely loyal to his wife Suzanne he carried on an affair with his mistress Barbara Bray for over thirty years. He never had any children. Extremely publicity shy he has rarely been recorded, though I did stumble across the clip below recently which is partly why I find myself once more intrigued by this elusive character.
(Rare recording of Beckett speaking in 1987.)
So infatuated have I been over the years by Samuel Beckett and his work I have consciously found myself trying to gain some distance from him. I detail more of this on my own blog A Year In The Academy. While Beckett is best known for his longer plays Waiting For Godot, Endgame and to a lesser extent Happy Days, it is always his later and shorter work which has captured my imagination. (It is worth remembering that Beckett’s early plays were often greeted with hostile bewilderment. One notable and little-known early performance of Waiting for Godot in Britain was at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool in 1956, where the production was something of a disaster.) Even though Waiting For Godot was voted the greatest play of the 20th century in 1998, this later work was the first drama of his I encountered and I have always found it infinitely fascinated. For me plays such as Play, Ohio Impromptu, Not I, Come and Go and What Where seem a reduction and distillation of his ideas, fractured philosophies and theatrical practice as he matured throughout his literary life. A harder political edge also seems to slip into his work. His play Catastrophe, written in 1982, was dedicated to then imprisoned Czech reformer and playwright, Václav Havel.
Since my initial engagement with Beckett I have moved out into his prose writing finding this equally challenging. To date his poetry still seems beyond me. While it continues to be difficult to get much of a sense of the man behind the words for anyone who loves theatre and what that dark space is capable of Beckett is a figure who will always loom large. He is a writer whose genius is genuinely beyond question.
Knowlson, James. Damned To Fame. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.
Lister, David. ‘Waiting for Godot voted best modern play in English’. The Independent. 18 Oct. 1998. Print.
Beckett on Beckett. Youtube.com. 10 Jun. 2008. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.
Ohio Impromptu. Youtube.com. 26 Feb. 2006. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.
Samuel Beckett in the French Resistance. Youtube.com. 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.