Samuel Beckett: Nothing Funnier Than Unhappiness

David Mamet nails it. “He was a great kisser,” Mamet faxes the New York Times in answer to the centennial survey of American playwrights on the modernist master, Samuel Beckett.

Samuel Beckett

It helps in the Times piece to see Jane Brown’s late portrait of Beckett’s craggy, catatonic “face full of trenches.” But it’s Mamet’s crack, from our own “prince of f***ing darkness,” that confirms precisely what Tony Kushner observes as the essential Beckett effect — “the way the writing is pitched on the line between profundity and meaninglessness,” with a burst of rude laughter, I would add.

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Nell in Beckett’s “Endgame.”

So on the occasion of his hundredth (April 13), amid readings and Beckett performances around the world, we are beginning again with Beckett: the grimly prolific minimalist, the generous recluse, the gaunt ex-athlete (a 7-handicap golfer in his youth), the Protestant Dubliner who moved to Paris and preferred to write his major works in French and recreate them in English; the pianist who loved to play Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart (not Bach) and worshipped Schubert, most especially for his late song cycle, Die Winterreise, the “Winter Passage” of a lonely traveler toward a very Beckettian madness and death.

Once at a cricket match a friend remarked to Beckett that it was “the sort of day that makes one glad to be alive.” Beckett hesitated: “Oh, I don’t think I would go quite so far as to say that.”

We know him best in those revolutionary plotless dramas of people stuck on the way to nowhere. Most famously, “Waiting for Godot,” which begins with Estragon’s line: “Nothing to be done.” It ends with Estragon asking his fellow tramp, “Well, shall we go?” and Vladimir answering, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett’s stage direction at the curtain reads: “They do not move.”

Everywhere in Beckett we feel him refining literature in the direction of music, but also diminishing the noise of too many words toward silence. He was an endlessly dedicated and productive writer in lifelong struggle with artistic expression itself. As in the novel Molloy: “Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.”

And in the last words of The Unnamable, closing his great mid-century trilogy of novels: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Great words for these despairing times. Let’s get busy on Beckett. Where shall with go with his legacy?

Tim Conley

Co-edits a Beckett blog Apmoniaa code word from the novel Murphy. He’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brock University in Ontario—his new book of short stories is titled Whatever Happens.

Richard Seaver

Translator, Editor Richard Seaver encountered Samuel Beckett and his work as an American student in Paris in the early 1950’s. He joins us from New York.

Steve Cosson

Founding Artistic Director of New York based theater company The Civilians

Anne Atik

American-born poet, married to an Israeli artist. They were both intimates of the Beckett circle in Paris 50 years ago. A world of food, drink, art and endless talk that she has recreated from notes in her memoir How it Was.???

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