Beckett, writer with froideur
never tells us just who were
those people Godot would not meet,
fraught with frissons more than heat.
He answered once, when he was asked,
“Are you Christian, Jew or atheist,”
“None of three,” and, multitasked,
said “Wait!” and added Godot to his list,
a sad homestricken solipsist.
Inspired by an article by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, March 30, 2009, reviewing a new collection of the letters of Samuel Beckett:
At the end of January, 1958, the first American production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” opened, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The idea of Beckett playing on Commerce Street is rich in irony, and the director, Alan Schneider, and his cast would have been all too aware of the fate that had befallen “Waiting for Godot” when that play received its national première, two years earlier. Advertised, perhaps unwisely, as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” “Godot” had opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, in Miami, and closed after two weeks, having led some viewers to inquire if one of the continents in question had been Antarctica. Beckett himself had been not just stoical but positively braced, as was made clear in a letter to Schneider: “Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me, in fact I feel much more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years.”
Such can be the privilege of a poet and prose writer, especially one with ambitions as fearsome and uningratiating as Beckett’s; but it is small comfort to anyone in the theatre business, and Schneider was determined that the first-night fiasco of “Godot” was not to be repeated. With that in mind, he sent queries to the author about various cruces in the text, to which Beckett responded in detail; his replies covered everything from pre-Socratic philosophers to brands of dog biscuit. Thus equipped, Schneider prepared an article on “Endgame,” to be printed in the Times on the weekend before the opening. The idea was to soften the ground for nervous newcomers, and incorporate some of Beckett’s advisory comments, from his correspondence with Schneider. The author was not pleased. “I do not like publication of letters,” he wrote Schneider. (The Times never ran the piece.) Later that year, Beckett toughened his position: “I prefer those letters not to be republished and quite frankly, dear Alan, I do not want any of my letters to anyone to be published anywhere, either in the petit pendant or the long après.” And here we are, more than half a century after the dog biscuits, with the petit pendant—the little now—dead and gone, and the long thereafter in full swing, and what do we find? Seven hundred pages of Beckett’s letters, nearly three pounds in weight, with another three bricks to come….
The Beckett who appears before us, in other words, in his middle to late twenties is already fully formed in his froideurs: another reason for one’s annoyance at the starting date of this edition, for one would dearly like to know if there was ever a time when his narrow-eyed distrust of worldly conventions—and what many of us would embrace as conventional pleasures—was not in place. “This life is terrible and I dont understand how it can be endured,” he writes to McGreevy in 1930. “Quip—that most foul malady—Scandal & KINDNESS.” Unpacked, this means two things. First, he was encountering the gossipy, keen-witted backchat of the Common Room at Trinity; and, second, he was living at home, in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, while he taught. There are worse things than a family trying to be decent and encouraging toward its brilliant son, but, for Beckett, what he endured at Cooldrinagh—the family home, with its summerhouse, servants, and tennis court—was purgatorial….
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/4/09