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Eire celebrates Beckett

Ireland is going all out to celebrate the birth centenary of difficult son, Samuel Beckett, on April 13.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2006 19:57 IST

By JILL LAWLESS

Samuel Beckett is everywhere in Dublin, glowering down on the hometown he deserted as a young man. A hundred years after the playwright's birth on April 13, 1906, the Irish capital has decided to embrace its difficult native son.

Beckett's lean, craggy face and coxcomb of grey hair flutter from banners along O'Connell Street, Dublin's main shopping throughfare. Posters bearing his words greet arrivals at the city's airport. The man whose spare, nihilistic plays - Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days - divided audiences during his lifetime is being wholeheartedly celebrated in death. The Irish government has backed a major centenary festival, complete with play stagings, film screenings, readings, debates and art exhibitions. A festival of his plays featuring such actors as Michael Gambon and John Hurt is running at Dublin's Gate Theatre and the Barbican in London. Beckett has even been lauded by the Irish republic's answer to royalty - U2 lead singer Bono.

"I'm a fan," Bono said at the festival's Dublin Castle launch, revealing that he'd once given Beckett a copy of U2's 1985 album, The Unforgettable Fire. Bono said he often did not understand Beckett's work, "but I have enjoyed not knowing. He blew my mind, that is all I can say."

 
 Samuel Beckett specialised in minimalist writing, preferring to pare it down as much as he could.

It is a sentiment shared by many people meeting Beckett's work for the first time - often through

Waiting for Godot

, his most famous play, with its central image of two vagrants waiting by a bleak roadside for someone who never arrives.

Many early critics were inclined to agree with the play's own words: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." Its first Broadway production, which starred Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall, closed after 59 performances in 1956.

But since then, the play's stark minimalism and existential despair have come to be regarded as revolutionary. "He changed what was conceived as possible on stage," said Ronan McDonald, director of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading, near London. "It's not possible to get back to what a scandal it was, how new it was. People were suspicious whether the whole thing wasn't a big wind-up." Ireland loves to celebrate its writers - at least the dead ones - but in many ways, Beckett is an unlikely Irish literary hero. He's a contrast to another Dublin literary star, the loquacious James Joyce, for whom the young Beckett worked in Paris. In overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland, Beckett was Protestant, raised in the affluent Dublin suburb of Foxrock and educated at the Northern Ireland boarding school that had taught Oscar Wilde. Beckett left grey 1930s Dublin for Paris and lived in France for the rest of his long life. After his death in 1989, he was buried in Paris' Montparnasse Cemetery.

Some Dubliners doubt his relevance in modern Ireland. "We call ourselves the land of saints and scholars," said Tony MacCarthy, a retired English teacher. But young people "are only interested in English footballers. They know Beckham, but they don't know Beckett."

Rather than drawing on the garrulousness of Irish English, Beckett often wrote in French - Godot was originally En Attendant Godot - and translated his own work. His language and imagery began lean and grew even more minimalist as he aged. By the time he wrote the 1972 play, Not I, the sole character had been reduced to a mouth onstage, surrounded by darkness.

It is only one of a series of startling and unnerving images. In Happy Days, the central character is buried up to her waist, and then her neck, in sand. In Play, the three characters are trapped in urns.

"I didn't invent this buzzing confusion. It's all around us," Beckett once said.

Mary Bryden, a Cardiff University academic and president of the Samuel Beckett Society, said Beckett's motto was "pare it down, pare it down".

"He used to say that to people who sent him their work. It's only when you've faced your own nothingness that you've got something valid to say," she recalled.

The world may have caught up with Beckett. A writer whose work shocked viewers with its bleakness now seems to capture the violence and chaos of the 20th century - and the 21st.

Beckett witnessed its worst firsthand, fighting with the French resistance against the Nazis in World War II - he was later decorated by the French government - and working at a Red Cross hospital in a bombed-out Normandy town.

By the end of his life, Beckett had become an elder statesman of existential anguish. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His influence can be heard in the work of minimalist composers such as John Cage and Philip Glass, and every pared-down playwright from Edward Albee to Harold Pinter.

Beckett's work is still performed frequently around the world, under the intensely - some say overly - protective gaze of the estate managed by his nephew, Edward Beckett.

Several directors' plans have been overturned by the family's desire to be loyal to Beckett's vision. Earlier this year, the estate objected to an all-female Godot in Italy. It went ahead, and an Italian court agreed with the show's producers. Despite Beckett's pessimism, his works are frequently very funny: The two hobos in Waiting for Godot swap patter like an old vaudeville act.

His poems, plays, novels and essays also exude humanity, and a dogged determination to carry on against the odds. "No matter," he wrote in a late novel, Worstward Ho. "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

An international Beckett symposium this month at Trinity College Dublin, Beckett's alma mater, drew not only academics and playwrights but ordinary people influenced by his work. Retired civil engineer Brendan Foley, 73, said he had first encountered Beckett during a period of illness and severe depression.

"I saw Waiting for Godot and I could identify with it," he said. "Without over-intellectualizing it, he cut to the heart of what it means to be human. He taught me to be awake in the moment, to go with the flow. I found that very therapeutic."