FAMED for the existentialist gloom of plays like Waiting for Godot, which probe all the absurdity, despair and bleak humour of the human condition with unflinching honesty, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) remains one of Ireland’s most celebrated and experimental writers.
There is a pessimism in his often challenging work, a need to face all of reality head-on, without the comfort of illusions and comforting lies: characters wait for a Godot who never comes, unhappy, their questions unanswered and their hopes dashed; in Endgame - theatre of the absurd by all accounts - they live in bins or are blind and immobile, only fleetingly able to escape through random flights of memory and fancy. Beckett could do darkness well, but also saw the humour in the darkness; his great triumph was laughing in the teeth of despair.
Born in Dublin in 1919, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh - an institution Oscar Wilde had also attended. He studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College, then taught for a time at Campbell College in Belfast and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. While in the latter city he befriended James Joyce; one of his first publications was an essay on the great author of Ulysses. After a stint as a lecturer at Trinity - the strictures of academic life bored and depressed him - Beckett fully gave himself up to the pursuit of writing, roaming from London to Paris. He wrote short stories, poems, novels, then plays; success eluded him time and again. But he never gave up. Commercial clout was never the goal. He wrote because he loved writing. Beckett was an artist of exquisite integrity.
It wasn’t until Waiting for Godot (1953) that he came to fame as an avant garde playwright. This dark piece concentrated on Vladimir and Estragon waiting and waiting in vain - discussing repentance, swapping hats, moaning, contemplating suicide - anything ‘to hold the terrible silence at bay’. Mostly there is nothing to do; a great boredom prevails.
Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Not I (1972) were similarly dark, obscure, avant garde dramatic works. The former features a character listening to a tape he has recorded at an earlier stage of his life, then making a new recording to capture the events and thoughts of the last 12 months. Whereas the younger Krapp talks about the “fire in me”, the tired old man who sits listening is, tragically, simply “burning to be gone.”
Not I pared the action back in the most minimal way: the focus is on a single mouth, lit-up, the rest of the body shrouded in darkness, the 20 minute frantic monologue that of a raging, raving female voice. Mouth talks of having been abandoned, living a loveless, mechanical existence, and of suffering an unspecified trauma. The language is moving and fractured, difficult to understand. Beckett saw this as a piece he hoped would “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect”.
In August the world’s first annual festival to celebrate the work and influence of Samuel Beckett - entitled Happy Days - will take place in Enniskillen, where the writer attended school.
The line-up is glittering and will include a performance of Krapp’s Last Tape by the world renowned director Robert Wilson at the Ardhowen Theatre and Not I delivered at breakneck speed by the actress Lisa Dwan. There will be readings at different locations pertinent to Beckett’s life; a tree for a performance of Waiting for Godot designed by prestigious sculptor Anthony Gormley will go on display; there will be discussions, appearances by Will Self, Adrian Dunbar, Edna O’Brien, John Banville and Paul Muldoon; and even dining using foodstuffs referred to in Beckett’s ouevre.
“We’ve called the festival Happy Days not just because that’s the title of one of his plays but also because we want to highlight the humour of the man,” says festival director Sean Doran. “Beckett had such a wonderful capacity for black humour, something we definitely specialise in here in Northern Ireland.
“One of the highlights will undoubtedly be Robert Wilson performing Krapp’s Last Tape; Wilson is widely considered one of the greatest theatre directors of the last 30 years. Everyone from Brad Pitt to Lou Reed and Tom Waits have all wanted to work with him, and Krapp’s Last Tape is a very poignant piece of theatre when done well.
“Not I by Lisa Dwan, who trained for the part with Billie Whitelaw - who Beckett himself cast and tutored for the role - will be performed at Portora School and is also bound to be captivating.”
For information on the full line-up for the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, August 23-27, visit www.happy-days-enniskillen.com. Tickets are also available in person from Fermanagh Tourism Centre.