Today is the birthday of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), probably the twentieth century’s greatest and (arguably) most influential playwright, also much admired for his essays, fiction and poetry, both in English and French. Beckett merits attention here on a few scores in connection with my two books.
Burlesque and vaudeville comedian Bert Lahr starred in the first American production of Waiting for Godot (1956), with E.G. Marshall. The two main characters in this existential merry-go-round of a play seem influenced by Laurel and Hardy, and all bowler hat wearing clowns in general.
And Buster Keaton starred in his 1965 movie Film, one of his last screen credits, although the two artists found the project mutually dissatisfying.
Beckett also influenced my earlier one-act playwriting efforts. In particular there are two of my plays that premiered at HERE Arts Center’s American Living Room: Hecate and Beckett (1997) and The Dorothy Building (2006), and my play Ezekiel’s Wheelchair, which premiered at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village in 1993, and was later performed in London and Austin, Texas. I performed my solo piece Nihils: The Negation of Everything in the Brick’s Pretentious Festival in 2007.
The Trinity Rep production of Waiting for Godot in 1979 with Richard Jenkins and George Martin was one of my first theatrical experiences. I was 13 when I saw it; it was one of the formative experiences of my life. Because Beckett exercised such control of his literary properties, actual productions of his theatreworks tend to be EVENTS. One more commonly engages with his writing on the page (at least that has been my experience). To see his work in the theatre is memorable. In addition to that seminal Godot, I saw the 2008 production of his 1957 play Endgame, directed by Andre Belgrader, and starring John Torturro, Max Casella, Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch! Now that is a cast! And I was also among the lucky to have had experienced Bill Irwin’s solo show at the Irish Rep a few years back, and even had the honor of interviewing him. Irwin has engaged with Beckett’s work for decades — the best known single production was probably the 1988 Lincoln Center production of Godot with Steve Martin and Robin Williams.
Beckett trusted few actors to interpret his work during his lifetime. One of his favorites, believe it or not was Billie Whitelaw, whom American audiences know best as the sinister nanny Mrs. Blaylock in The Omen (1976). Another was Irish actor Jack MacGowran, whom, amusingly, Americans may know best for playing the drunken movie director in The Exorcist (1973). All the Beckett actors are in devil movies, apparently! MacGowran performed in the first one-man show of Beckett’s writings off-Broadway in 1970-71. I recently came across this TV Guide ad for a televised version of it:
I called Beckett arguably the 20th century’s most influential playwright. By that I’m not crazy enough to imply that he made much of a dent in the commercial theatre, although you can find ripples there too. But certainly many post-war Absurdists and post-Absurdists were. Harold Pinter emulated his minimalism. Edward Albee, whose The Zoo Story debuted on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 1960, is perhaps the foremost American exponent. You may think he has nothing to do with pop culture, but I see his influence everywhere…from the films of Jim Jarmusch to the stand-up comedy of Steven Wright.
A Dublin native, Beckett studied at Trinity College in the late ’20s and went on to be a kind of apprentice and assistant to James Joyce before beginning to publish scholarly and literary works of his own. The Nobel Prize website has a list of his principal works here.
Beckett’s minimalism is sort of a landmark, a signpost on the very last outskirts of town — the town being language. Beyond, lies only desert, or if you prefer, silence. But, then, Beckett had done silence, too. In fact, he’s doing it now. He’s performing his masterpiece RIGHT NOW.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And please check out Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube as well.