Friday, 20 March 2009

Beckett

The event I visited at the Calder Bookshop yesterday, To its Beginning To its End, was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival twenty-seven years ago to critical acclaim. It was the first performance of Beckett’s work I’ve ever seen, though I read Waiting for Godot a long while ago.

It’s hard to know what to say to John Calder, who hosted the event; any of the questions I thought of suddenly seemed exceptionally banal (did you know Beckett a long time? – Yes, for nearly half a century. To which I should reply…? Was he a nice chap? What should I read apart from the famous bits? What did he like on his toast?). Actually I’d just have liked to sit down and listen to him reel off interesting and (ideally) salacious anecdotes. Bribery and corruption had already been covered earlier the same day and I was hoping for more.

But that hope was my downfall. Apart from in a few instances, I’m not sure I share Mr Calder’s taste for Beckett’s work. I read Waiting for Godot when I was sixteen and it made a strong impression on me then, but after hearing these excerpts again I realised that Beckett is really not for me.

One piece which seemed at first a culinary diatribe, Dante and the Lobster, I did like tremendously, partially because of its excellent rendering by Sean Barratt, partly because the second paragraph resonated with the day I’d just had, and because it was very funny and beautifully written. On the toasting of bread:
It was now that real skill began to be required, it was at this point that the average person began to make a hash of the entire proceedings. He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive. But he would very soon take that plush feel off it, by God but he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face. He lowered the gas a suspicion and plaqued one flabby slab plump down on the glowing fabric, but very pat and precise, so that the whole resembled the Japanese flag.
Other readings, including poetry and the unwholesome First Love (a homeless man is befriended by a woman he is repelled by, uses and ignores her, gets her pregnant then walks out in disgust as the baby is born) I found uninspiring, and by the end of the performance Beckett’s consistent hatred of life was beginning to get to me… There ensued an animated conversation among the audience as to whether all this showed the absurdity of existence and reflected the world “as it is”: the falsity of progress and idealism (and hope, and optimism)… And there followed gleeful allusions to the present economic situation as though to illustrate that Beckett was more relevant than ever: just the ticket if you’ve lost your job and you're living on the street.

Of course the world has its revolting and grimy side, but Beckett seems to deliver a message of unremitting hopelessness and despair, and I can’t be doing with that on a nice spring day, free wine or no. It’s the lack of variety in that stunted outlook that gets to me, not the outlook itself.

As for absurdity, for me the climax of the evening was when one elderly fellow with a lilting accent admitted that although his attention – and even his wakefulness – had strayed quite considerably during the performance, nonetheless he had felt the pertinence of those partially incomprehensible words so acutely that – look! (an index finger here indicated a misty orb) – he had shed not a few tears over the course of the night.

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