Anticipating a new production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at New York City’s Lincoln Center, Colm Tóibín shares his observations on the iconic play.

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Emilie Morin’s recent book sheds light on Beckett’s engagement with cultural and political issues
Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your research interests?

My research revolves around modernism and post-1945 literature, and the essays and books that I have published on Beckett’s work explore its relation to politics, its historical dimensions, and its Irish and European influences. I have been working in the Department of English at the University of York for over ten years.

How did you first encounter Samuel Beckett’s writing?

I must have been about fifteen, I think, when I first heard about Beckett. A friend of mine told me about a play that she had seen in which two actors were trapped in rubbish bins, and I was intrigued! Soon after I came across copies of the early absurdist plays, in the lovely Editions de Minuit versions. I was particularly struck by Oh les beaux jours, with its memorable cover featuring Madeleine Renaud stoically holding her umbrella.

livre_galerie_2707300551-Oh les beaux jours-beckett-happy daysIt seemed to me remarkable that a whole play could be made to unfold from that situation, from that image. The author was of no concern to me then, but from that first reading I recall being convinced that the work dealt with colonialism and with colonial wars, and I remember seeing a very literal political dimension within it. The French texts have a peculiar texture; they refract much of what is unsaid about colonial history, and much of what is culturally unsayable about historical injustice, and I was sensitive to that. These were powerful impressions, which stayed with me thereafter. When I began to study Beckett’s work properly, many years later, I did so in light of its Irish literary and historical contexts, and my first monograph was a reappraisal of Beckett’s relation to Ireland. For me, the work is never abstract: it is inseparable from war memory and from the long colonial histories that it invokes. In a sense, this new book was a return to my first impressions: when I started researching, I worked on what is now the final chapter on Beckett and the Algerian War of Independence. (more…)

As The Story Was Told (1996), a two-part documentary featuring interviews with authorised biographer James Knowlson, publishers John Calder and Barney Rosset, actress Billie Whitelaw, nephew Edward Beckett, and others. The documentary is notable, in part, for its glimpses of Beckett’s home in Paris and his country retreat in Ussy-sur-Marne.

Sat down and read Cormac McCarthy‘s play (or “novel in dramatic form”) The Sunset Limited. An African American man saves a white college professor from suicide, and they share a compelling dialogue about life, suffering, religion, and humanism. Sometimes McCarthy’s stage directions lack racial sensitivity and tact (e.g. “the black” vs. “the professor”), but the characters have an intelligent and entertaining critical dialogue. Dianne C. Luce offers an interesting reading of the text’s conclusion over at the official Cormac McCarthy website (contains spoilers):

“The novel’s denouement rests on the intellectual triumph of White, which ironically leads to his suicide, and the temporary rhetorical defeat of Black, who courageously recommits to his belief in the possibility of goodness. Thus the dialogue remains elegantly balanced, poised between forceful articulations of opposing views of life and human nature, giving ascendancy to neither. McCarthy seems to have no ideological agenda here, but rather he aims at capturing the internal debate of the thoughtful individual seeking to navigate the subway of earthly existence, who hears within him- or herself the competing voices of, on the one hand, empirical reasoning and world-wearying experience and, on the other, hope and the transcendent spirit.”

Overall, a genuinely engaging work struck through with darkly comic elements. Recommended.

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Today marks 112 years since the birth of Irish writer, playwright, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. To celebrate, the Samuel Beckett Society have assembled a collection of links to celebrate his life, work, and legacy. You can see their collection for yourself at the Samuel Beckett Society’s official website.