Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

On 16 April, the literary world will be celebrating the centenary of Samuel Beckett's birth. To mark this occasion, a collection of essays entitled Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett has just been published. Celebrations of Beckett's centenary are taking different forms. There is a Beckett exhibition in London comprising a selection of photographs of the playwright together with some productions of his plays.

I remember writing about the francophone Irish writer back in 2003, on the occasion of the publication of James Knowlson's Images of Beckett. In that column, I had described my first encounter with Beckett's work, when I attended a performance of Waiting for Godot in London sometime in the late 1950s. I must admit the play left me a bit cold, but my curiosity about the Irish literary rebel later led me to read some of his plays, such as Endgame, Happy Days and Krapp's Last Tape.

Like his compatriot James Joyce, Beckett preferred to live in Paris, rather than Dublin or London. In States of Desire, Vicki Mahaffey argues that a number of Irish writers embraced France "as an alien alternative to England and Ireland." The Irish- French axis, writes Mahaffey, "is more than a trajectory of desire." Indeed Beckett wrote in French, his plays being later translated into English.

Beckett's plays -- in particular Waiting for Godot -- are notoriously open to interpretation. Mahaffey believes that Beckett exploits the process of discovery that precedes the formation of habit. The only sparks of vitality in Godot, she goes on to say, "are associations not with experience but with experiment, with the kind of discovery that becomes possible when we abandon the intentions, goals and expectations born of experience."

Vladimir and Estragon expect Godot. They are so preoccupied with their appointment with the unknown, which they faithfully await, that they miss the chance to analyse or learn from the present. Underscoring that ennui results from repetition, Beckett has Vladimir say, "We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener..."

During the ongoing celebrations, a number of actors, directors and critics have expressed their opinions on Beckett. Sir Peter Hall, who directed the British premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1955, has this to say: " Waiting for Godot revolutionised the whole Western world in making us re-think what drama is. Sam moved theatre out of wooden naturalism and opened people's minds to theatre's imaginative possibilities, to metaphorical theatre."

In its issue of 26 February 2006, the London Observer devoted two full pages to the playwright, under the title "Scenes from the life of Sam." They contain moving memories of the great playwright by friends, collaborators and admirers. Under the headline "Beckett the teacher", the Irish writer Francis Stuart recalls first meeting the playwright when he was on the staff of Trinity College. The last time Stuart met him was on a cold day in Paris in 1987. "He gave me an appointment in his hotel," writes Stuart, "I hadn't seen him in exactly 50 years... It was a moving experience... He said, of course, he was through with Ireland. I knew what his attitude was already, but he asked about Dublin and about acquaintances. One thing he said was 'You know, Francis, my days are filled with trivia.'"

Another writer and radio producer describes his meeting with Beckett in Paris in 1961 when he was writing a book on the theatre of the Absurd. Beckett started the conversation by saying, "You can ask me anything about my life, but don't ask me to explain my work."

The actor who played Estragon in the British premiere of Waiting for Godot explains how on the first night "there was only one curtain call" and there were "boos and cat- calls. But then the whole atmosphere changed... after the Sunday reviews by [famous theatre critics] Hobson and Tynan. There were two shows on Sunday and they sold out."

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