It was not enough to drag her into the world, now she must play the piano.
I remember the first times I encountered Beowulf, Auden, Hughes, Plath, and many others, but I can’t remember the first time I came across Beckett’s work. Was it on the page, in the theatre, on the radio, on television? Looking back, it feels like he was always-already there: like the knowledge you will die one day.
Funnily enough, I thought he would live forever. He looked and sounded like an immortal: a mysterious, private entity swathed in clouds of his own beautiful, disturbing text and only ever appearing in photographs of craggy beauty and aquiline intensity.
When he died in 1989, it was a genuine shock, a hole in the world. In 1991, I went to the Beckett Festival hosted by The Gate Theatre in Dublin and was able to see rarely performed short pieces and a great production of Happy Days.
I remember an elderly American gentleman plonking himself into the seat next to me, saying “I’ve just flown 12 hours to get here!” As soon as the curtain went up, he fell sound asleep: the sound being his snoring. He did the same through Act II. Later I ran into him in Davy Byrne’s pub where he somehow managed to cut his gum open eating a steak, and had to leave, clutching a bloody white handkerchief to his mouth. He was a rather Beckettian figure: blithely optimistic yet bedevilled by the daily horrors of petty existence.
Earlier, in 1986, I directed a production of Endgame with student friends and we managed to book a professional theatre for the occasion: The Midland Group Arts Centre in Nottingham. We did it on a shoestring, with me running around town procuring the necessary props. I got hold of two black plastic dustbins, cut the backs out of them, and forced my unfortunate friends, Jim and Karen, to crouch in them for the 90 minutes they were required to play Nagg and Nell, the canned ‘accursed progenitors’ who babble about biscuits, pap, and losing their legs in a cycling accident by Lake Como.
Our production was a sell-out, but we took outrageous liberties, including some improvised dialogue and the inclusion of a cabbage on stage. Blame youth. In 1988, I came across a Radio 3 recording of Beckett’s radio play Embers and became obsessed with it, playing it most days for a year and, thanks to a period of protracted insomnia, losing the separation between it and my life.
All this is to say that Beckett has been with me a long time. His work enchants and chastens and frequently makes me laugh out loud. Without the comedy, the work might be unbearable: too stark, too bleak, too unforgiving, too controlled. But the balance of his aesthetic works perfectly.
Earlier this year, in my ‘Killer Serials’ class, I realised that I was referring to Beckett’s style a lot, and when I read some of his short prose to the group, they loved it. It was then that I thought I should perhaps suggest a class on Beckett to The Poetry School.
In his preface to the Selected Poems (Faber, 2009), David Wheatley writes, “Beckett began and ended his career with poetry.” and that’s how my class will run. We will start by looking at Beckett’s (often overlooked) poems but then move through the stories, novels, plays, ‘dramaticules’, radio work, and fragments before coming back to the poems at the end. The thing about Beckett is that his writing, whatever the genre, remains exquisitely poetic and his entire output offers much to the student and practitioner of poetry.
En route, we will read, listen, and watch Beckett together and discuss his techniques, innovations, imagery, comedy, subject matter and style. I’m keen to look at some his lesser discussed works: Embers, Company, That Time, A Piece of Monologue, Murphy, Watt, and others. There is a lot to be said about his links with Proust and Joyce; his relationship with Irish literature and poetry; and his impact on literary and theatrical style.
Throughout, I will encourage students to write new work in response to Beckett and our exploration of his work, with a view to publishing an online anthology on CAMPUS. One of the fascinating things about Beckett, for me, is the fact that this restless innovator and experimenter (who became more avant-garde as his career progressed) managed to be so popular, so revered, so imitated and so celebrated.
And yet his style was never entirely appropriated into the mainstream. He is still on or near the margins: troubling the mainstream, the realists, the lyricists, those who would comfort or distract with their analogies, epiphanies and transparent style.
The class will suit fans of Beckett, of course, but I’d also like to encourage those who know little, or who are maybe a little intimidated by him. One could argue that Beckett’s primary theme is ‘writing’ itself: the need to tell stories, incessantly: to oneself, to others, to pass the time, to create the illusion of meaning, to re-present ‘reality’. There’s no better subject for poets, I think. There is much to learn, to discuss, and, crucially, to laugh about.