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Thomas Davis Lecture Series

Thursdays at 8.30pm, RTÉ Radio 1

The Thomas Davis Lecture series this year will focus on the work of Samuel Beckett. The lectures will be broadcast each Thursday at 8.02pm for thirteen weeks from 13th April onwards.

The Thomas Davis Lecture series will be published in book form by New Island Books and is available in shops nationwide and here from www.rte.ie/shop

Lecture 1 by Christopher Murray Listen here
Introduction: Panting on to a Hundred

Lecture 2 by Terence Brown Listen here
Beckett and Irish Society

Lecture 3 by Gerry Dukes  Listen here
The Godot Phenomenon

Lecture 4 by Declan Kiberd  Listen here
Murphy and the World of Samuel Beckett

Lecture 5 by J.C.C. Mays Listen here
Beckett as Poet: Verse, Poetry, Prose Poems

Lecture 6 by Anthony Roche Listen here
Samuel Beckett: The Great Plays after Godot

Lecture 7 by Rosemary Pountney Listen here
Stringent Demands: Aspects of Beckett in Performance

Lecture 8 by Anthony Cronin Listen here
Beckett’s Trilogy

Lecture 9 by Dermot Moran Listen here
Beckett and Philosophy

Lecture 10 by Richard Kearney Listen here
Imagination Wanted: Dead or Alive

Lecture 11 by John Banville Listen here
Beckett’s Last Words

Lecture 12 by Barry McGovern Listen here
Beckett and the Radio Voice

Lecture 13 by Katharine Worth  Listen here
Beckett on the World Stage

Panting On To A Hundred

Introduction by Christopher Murray

  book cover
For more information on the book visit New Island Books.

In Beckett’s first and best radio play, All That Fall, there is this delicious speech uttered by a typically ill-tempered husband to his put-upon wife who has made the mistake of asking him on his birthday if he is not well: ‘Well! Did you ever know me to be well? The day you met me I should have been in bed. The day you proposed to me the doctors gave me up. You knew that, did you not? The night you married me they came for me with an ambulance. You have not forgotten that I suppose?’ The series of reversals of the usual point of view in marital relationships, ‘the day you proposed to me’ and ‘the night you married me’, comically indicate Beckett’s topsy-turvy world well enough, but so too do the sentences which follow if we bear in mind that the speaker, Dan Rooney, though still gainfully employed – just about – is four score years and upward: ‘No, I cannot be said to be well. But I am no worse. Indeed I am better than I was. The loss of my sight was a great fillip. If I could go deaf and dumb I think I might pant on to be a hundred. Or have I done so? [Pause.] Was I a hundred today? [Pause.] Am I a hundred, Maddy?’1 This wonderful barrage is greeted with silence. The Beckett style, as humorous as it is bleak, is here beautifully inscribed on air. Beckett himself was to die at roughly the same age Dan Rooney achieved in this radio play. Had he panted on to a hundred he might be addressing you here this evening instead of your humble servant, though I wouldn’t put money on it. It could have been twenty-nine minutes of silence.

At any rate, here we are on the hundredth birthday of Samuel Barclay Beckett, a cause for celebration even if he, like most of the characters he created, saw little to celebrate in such matters. ‘Birth was the death of him,’ he allowed one of his later monologuists to intone.2 A few years back Christopher Ricks wrote a witty book under the unpromising title Beckett’s Dying Words, the point of which was to illustrate how astringent the pessimism can be. Patrick Kavanagh, surprisingly, had made a similar point in a review of the text of Waiting for Godot in 1956. ‘All of us who are sincere,’ said Kavanagh, ‘know that if we are unhappy, trying to forget our futility in pubs, it is due to no exterior cause, but to what is now popularly called the human condition.’ Kavanagh was astute in observing that to deny the misery, for whatever reason, was to be dishonest. ‘It is because of its awareness of the peculiar sickness of society and a possible remedy suggested,’ he went on, ‘that I like Beckett’s play.’3 We can come back to this question of a remedy later on. For now let us, like true Beckettians, stay with the misery.

He himself told the story of the English intellectual who grilled him at a party as to why he always wrote about distress and who thought him perverse when Beckett conceded he had had a happy childhood and his mother had not run away from home. ‘I left the party as soon as possible and got into a taxi. On the glass partition between me and the driver were three signs: one asked for help for the blind, another for orphans, and the third for relief for the war refugees.’ He concluded: ‘One does not have to look for distress. It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London.’4 It is commonplace to observe that at bottom Beckett saw all this suffering as absurd. That is no doubt the case, but it would be quite wrong to see this attitude as in any way complacent or (worse) in Byron’s adolescent vein when he quipped, ‘And if I laugh at any mortal thing,/‘Tis that I may not weep.’ Beckett’s sense of the absurd was tragic and imbued with compassion; it did not dress escapism in any other garb but black. Thus we have the laughably lugubrious certainties of Watt in the novel of the same name, as Watt reflects upon the so-called wonders of the natural world in its eternal cycles, life itself, and arrives at these sentences, not to say conclusion:

And if I could begin it all over again knowing what I know now, the result would be the same. And if I could begin again a third time, knowing what I would know then, the result would be the same. And if I could begin it all over again a hundred times, knowing each time a little more than the time before, the result would always be the same, and the hundredth life as the first, and the hundred lives as one. […] But at this rate we shall be here all night.5

Watt was written in France during the darkest days of World War Two and yet remains consistently a funny book. I think the scholars may allow me to say that all of Beckett’s leading figures, for one dare not call them heroes, aim for Nirvana and miss. Like the first of these figures in the fiction, Murphy, or the first in the plays, Victor in Eleutheria, they try to obliterate the self, nothing being so painful as consciousness to an awakened sensibility, only to find themselves going in circles. If we care to, we might see Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea behind much of this series of vain attempts by Beckett’s characters to outwit the way things are. But time enough for that exercise, perhaps, when we have heard later on in this series from another speaker on Beckett and philosophy. Our task is to try to see how comedy and tragedy combine in his work.

We’re beginning to find here that to introduce or reintroduce Beckett in his centenary year is also to sum up. We have glanced at his tragicomic emphasis, his angle of vision. But we need to see how original this vision was and how controlled and courageous. The idea of the inadequacy of tragedy for the twentieth century was probably first introduced by Chekhov, who showed how comedy is often better suited to plumb the depths of despair. In his own way, Seán O’Casey developed an Irish version of tragicomedy, starting with The Shadow of a Gunman in 1923, continuing through Juno and the Paycock in 1924 and culminating in his masterpiece The Plough and the Stars in 1926. Beckett saw these first productions at the Abbey. He came to admire how O’Casey used ‘the principle of knockabout’ [farce] at the domestic level to dramatise collapse, ‘mind and world come asunder in irreparable dissociation – "chassis"’, at the social and political levels.6 The drama after 1945 tended to endorse this tragicomic mode. But Beckett took the idea to extremes O’Casey could not accept. O'Casey's main objection serves to show how drama was now taking two main forms, the politically conscious and the studiously non-political. It angered O’Casey that Beckett seemed to be saying, to quote the opening line of Waiting for Godot, that there was ‘nothing to be done’. That he could not accept. For him change was always a possibility; indeed, if justice was to be achieved, a necessity. Thus, O’Casey wrote, ‘his [Beckett’s] philosophy isn’t my philosophy, for within him there is no hazard of hope, no desire for it; nothing in it but a lust for despair, and a crying of woe.’7 Beckett’s route was to be independent of the Irish one, and independent too of much of the European dramatic tradition from Ibsen on. Arthur Miller, for example, took a stand on behalf of a drama, a form of tragedy rather than of tragicomedy, which deliberately opposed the theatre of the absurd which Beckett helped create. Writing in the introduction to the first volume of his Collected Plays in 1958, Arthur Miller declared: ‘The assumption – or presumption – behind these plays [such as All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible] is that life has meaning.’ A lot of other playwrights agreed. Beckett bravely dissented.

Miller pointed out that the purpose of drama is ‘the creation of a higher consciousness and not merely a subjective attack upon the audience’s nerves and feelings.’8 Beckett might have agreed that the task was to put modern consciousness on the stage, or in the novel for that matter, but he would surely have balked at calling it ‘a higher consciousness’. The consciousness Beckett was interested in was of the abyss. There is the passage in Endgame (1958) where Hamm wonders if he and Clov aren’t beginning to ‘mean something’, which Clov scoffingly rejects and Hamm defends: ‘Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. [Voice of rational being.] Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they’re at!’ But the passage ends up laughably with Hamm grasping at straws: ‘And without going so far as that, we ourselves … [with emotion] … we ourselves … at certain moments … [Vehemently.] To think it won’t all have been for nothing!’ (CDW 108) Clov meantime cries out in anguish that he has a flea on his person. A whole philosophical debate is reduced to a fleabite. Not much chance of changing the situation here, or indeed in any of the surreal situations Beckett puts on stage as images of human experience. In such situations consciousness is in flight from horror. Hamm and Clov dwell in a world in free fall towards annihilation.

In his little book on Proust, published as early as 1931 and still essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Beckett himself, he said we are faced with either living a life of thoughtless ‘habit’ or with accepting the stark reality of ‘the suffering of being’. It is Hobson’s choice for the intelligent person. As Beckett repeatedly illustrates through his habit-bound characters, the self-deception of human kind, male and female, is incorrigible. As he puts it: ‘The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering – that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom […] that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.’9 I am bored therefore I am. But I am bored because I won’t face up to the reality, which is that the world is one of two things, a hospital (mental, for preference) or a top-security prison, from neither of which is release possible. It’s like Mephostophilis’ reply to Faustus, who wonders how he can wander about the earth at liberty: ‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.’10 For Beckett the truth is here, in the despair. And from this point he can move on, at least in the imagination. It was a journey equal to Dante’s in the middle of that dark wood. Only for Beckett the journey was also in some measure comic, taking it for granted that, as he says in Endgame, ‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness […] it’s the most comical thing in the world’ (CDW 101).

It is because Beckett believed that to be is to suffer and that at the same time pain is evil that he saw life itself as fundamentally evil. I think by this he meant the terms on which life is offered, its brevity, its loneliness, the fragility of love, and so on. It is what we cannot usually avoid, even if we should choose to live as reclusively as some of Beckett’s solitary figures, like Joe in the television play Eh Joe (1966), who is afraid to go to bed at night even though he has checked every nook and corner of his room for hidden terrors. A woman’s voice speaks to him as he sits uneasily on the edge of his bed at night:

Thought of everything? … Forgotten nothing? … You’re all right now, eh? … No one can see you now … No one can get at you now … Why don’t you put out that light? There might be a louse watching you …Why don’t you go to bed? … What’s wrong with that bed, Joe? (CDW 362)

The voice torments him with memories of past relationships, in particular with a lover whom he turned off and who committed suicide. In slow accumulation of detail the voice describes the scene where the woman combined pills with drowning on Killiney beach in the nighttime. ‘Imagine what in her mind to make her do that … Imagine … Trailing her feet in the water like a child. … Takes a few more [pills] on the way … Will I go on, Joe? … Eh Joe?’ The voice is relentless. ‘There’s love for you … Eh Joe?’ (CDW 366). I think this play marks an unusual disclosure by Beckett that he was a deep-dyed humanist. He was no Dadaist, no believer in the superficial hand of chance. He accepted responsibility and demanded that his characters did likewise. The voice within, the consciousness which will not let Joe rest, is really conscience in disguise, the notion of numquam minus solus quam solus, never less alone than when we are alone. It is a common burden for Beckett’s characters to bear, which is why they create the company of other voices to console and assuage. In another century Beckett would have been talking about original sin. Instead, what he actually says is, ‘the tragic figure represents the expiation of original sin […] the sin of having been born.’11 This is the source of the inescapable guilt present throughout Beckett’s work. Unlike the work of Arthur Miller or any other writer of social drama this guilt is never resolved through action, by means of a plot. It is a persistent condition, to be dissolved only in death, which Beckett happily supplies in his last plays, especially in That Time, where no less than three inner voices or memories haunt the last moments of the central character called the Listener.

This deeply Protestant, not to say Puritanical, obsession with the guilt of being allowed Beckett to create a body of plays which are deeply tragic in theme and expression. They present us with what in classical drama and in Shakespeare would be termed catastrophe and catharsis, the purgation to be experienced by seeing the representation of human suffering in the extreme. Instead of a full tragedy, Beckett’s plays give us only act five every time. And it is because we never, through plot development, see the cause of the suffering that his work sharply differs from the conventional form of tragedy where the catastrophe is traceable to a root in some error by or moral flaw in the hero. Lack of a cause would not do O’Casey, for whom a socialist analysis could provide the reason for human suffering. Lack of a cause would not do for Miller, for whom a psychological analysis could reveal the roots of the aberrant behaviour leading to catastrophe. James Joyce argued that in tragedy the spectator is not only united with the sufferer in pity but also united with what he called ‘the secret cause’, undefined and indefinable.12 In Beckett’s work the secret cause dominates all.

But of course this is only half of what Beckett does. As we know, the impression a Beckett play creates in the playing, though not in the overall effect, is of hilarious comedy. We call it comedy of the absurd or comedy of despair but it is a positive thing in any case, an expenditure of vital energy and high spirits in the face of the oncoming darkness. It is not just whistling past the graveyard; it is gaining entry with variety entertainers, at least in the early work. Indeed, graveyards and Beckett seem to go hand in hand. As one of his narrators breezily remarks, ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards; I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly there than elsewhere, when take the air I must.’13 No other author manages to derive such humour from death and its encumbrances. The narrator aforesaid of ‘First Love’ amuses himself in the graveyard where his father’s remains contribute to the atmosphere and where the narrator is inspired to compose his own epitaph:

Hereunder lies the above who up below
So hourly died that he lived on till now.

Even suicide is sometimes introduced as a subject of mirth, as more than once in Waiting for Godot, to stray no further.

But I want now to take a look at a much less well-known play, Beckett’s first, written in French in 1947, never staged and not even translated until after Beckett’s death. Perhaps it is no more than the scrapings of the Beckettian barrel, then, but yet it is a piece which is challenging in many ways and one which deserves to be better known. It is called Eleutheria, meaning ‘freedom’. Here the young anti-hero, ironically called Victor Krap, is a total deadbeat, a drop-out before the term was coined, and a hopeless depressive. Apart from all that he is an interesting character. In some respects this play is surprisingly conventional, being a three-act study of a middle-class family and its troublesome son. In other respects it is quite radical and reminiscent of Albert Camus. It also introduces on stage a spectator who complains about the boring proceedings and the poor writing: ‘Actually, who wrote this rubbish? [he consults programme] Beckett [he says "Béké"], Samuel, Béké, Béké, he must be a cross between a Jew from Greenland and a peasant from the Auvergne.’ A character called the Glazier, a wise workman who might have been borrowed from O’Casey, considers the name Beckett and remarks, ‘Never heard of him. Seems he eats his soup with a fork.’14 The prompter also arrives on stage in fury, throws down the script and walks out. Nowadays this jokey self-consciousness might appear old-hat in the theatre but it shows the measure of Beckett’s confidence years before Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.15 In none other of Beckett’s plays does he break up the illusion quite so deliberately. It has to be said that the material of the play badly needs this comic relief. For two years young Victor has lived alone in a bare room while his fond parents, the Kraps, and his flighty fiancée, rejoicing under the name Olga Skunk, fret about him and try to reclaim him. A new in-law, one Dr Piouk (dare one write ‘sic’ in brackets here?), advises that Victor be offered a fatal dose on the basis that the solution to the problem of consciousness ‘simply consists in eliminating consciousness’ (108). The Glazier insists that they have to find a meaning for Victor’s world weariness in order to get him, as he puts it, ‘tolerated’ by society (105). Dr Piouk argues that if Victor refuses the suicide option, ‘that has a meaning’ (113), and if he accepts the pill that too has a meaning, namely, ‘That he has had enough.’ Everything, goes the Pioukish philosophy, ‘aspires either to the black or to the white. Colour is syncopation’ (113). Victor, however, does not want to be put into a black-and-white situation. Though he is as reluctant as Beckett the author to explain himself, under threat of Chinese torture Victor declares that what he wants is not to live the life set down as the one and only normal one. On the contrary, what he wants, and presumably what all of Beckett’s alienated figures whether in novels or plays desire is ‘a life consumed by its own liberty’ (147). Here the theme of the whole play, and perhaps of Beckett’s whole oeuvre comes out at last. ‘At first,’ Victor explains, ‘I was a prisoner of other people. So I left them. Then I was a prisoner of myself. That was worse. So I left myself’ (147). Asked how he achieved this somewhat mystical feat Victor, more sure of himself than most of Beckett’s anti-heroes, obligingly replies: ‘By being the least possible. By not moving, not thinking, not dreaming, not speaking, not listening, not perceiving, not knowing, not wishing, not being able, and so on. I believed that that was where my prisons lay’ (149). He considers taking Dr Piouk’s pill and then rejects it as a choice of genuine freedom, here employing for the first time Beckett’s famous use of the pause on stage: ‘My life will be long and horrible. [pause] But not so horrible as yours. [pause] I shall never be free. [pause]) But I shall always feel that I am becoming free. [pause]’ And so on for eight lines more. Having got rid of all those who have tried to rehabilitate him, including Mlle. Skunk, Victor pulls his bed close to the audience and lies down turning his emaciated back, as the final stage direction has it, on ‘humanity’(170). This is a gesture far more obvious than Beckett was ever subsequently to make. He is clearly saying in 1947 that defiance is all, revolt à la Camus the only honest response to society as constituted. He has no desire to change that society; indeed, in spite of his part in the French Resistance during World War Two, Beckett did not believe change was possible. But the individual was free to be unfree in the world as constituted, let the Godots come or not come as they may.

So, where do we stand then in our attempt to come to terms with Beckett in his centenary year? We do not stand still at any rate. He himself did not stand still throughout the long years of his literary career. His work went through several phases, All That Fall marking one turning point and Eleutheria marking another. There are others as well: his first novel, Murphy, and the trilogy of novels in French marked different attempts to put Joyce behind him and write his own kind of fiction. Like his own heroes Beckett kept on in the face of overwhelming and often self-imposed difficulties, accepting that failure was part of the enterprise, for, as he put it, ‘to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail’, since ‘failure is his world and to shrink from it desertion’.16 So, too, it would appear, for the individual. It is a case of ‘Nohow on’ in spite of the conditions. It is a case of ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’ as he put it in that late text Worstword Ho.17 Perhaps this is what Patrick Kavanagh detected in Beckett’s work when he remarked, ‘The remedy is that Beckett has put despair and futility on the stage for us to laugh at them. And we do laugh.’18 The risus purus turns out to be your only man. In the later work, to be sure, the laughter subsides and like the Fool in King Lear we are left darkling. But we are never left without the brio of the language, which, even in the ultimate situations Beckett imagines for us, ripples with dark humour. Dan Rooney in All That Fall declares that ‘not even certified death’ is equal to the pleasure of solitude and a good repast, implying that to be dead and conscious of it would be a supreme pleasure too (CDW 194). Maybe we should just finish our booze and leave it at that.


© Christopher Murray, 2006. Extract from the book Samuel Beckett – 100 Years, edited by Christopher Murray, courtesy of New Island, www.newisland.ie.

Samuel Beckett – 100 Years is out now, priced €14.99