Strange things happen to writers who have had a quarrel with Ireland. James Joyce, Seán O’Casey, Samuel Beckett — all three felt stifled, all three escaped and made homes elsewhere, and all three are now (once safely dead) the cornerstones of the cultural heritage and tourist industries in their abandoned homeland. Once these writers had made their reputations elsewhere, and the social and political critique had been blunted by time, they were ripe for exploitation.
But why Beckett? The novels are monotonous sub-Joycean narratives with little in the way of momentum: another Irishman, the 18th-century novelist Laurence Sterne, dramatised inertia and monotony with infinitely more style and wit. But it is the plays that I dislike the most. With the conceivable exception of the passably entertaining but vastly overrated Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s entire dramatic oeuvre is reductive, repetitive and astonishingly limited. It is also, for the most part, relentlessly male-centred.
Apart from the apprentice piece Eleutheria, Beckett only ever wrote one full-length play (judged by ordinary standards). He never understood how actors worked and given a chance he reduced them to the status of puppets. Indeed there is a very good argument that Waiting for Godot was a success despite, and not because of, Beckett — in that his early actors and directors disregarded his instructions and injected human warmth into what were at best outline shapes for characters. So why did I feel impelled to write two plays about him, In Search of Mister B, and In Search of Mister B (Part Deux) ?
I first came across Beckett in the late 1960s, at university. It seemed obvious that he was fascinated by Music Hall. Over the years I became amused by the remarkably solemn attitudes to the man and his work which were being propagated in the world of academia. I was less amused when, as a playwright myself who was being translated into other languages, I found that a number of translators were remarking on the Beckett influence: I didn’t think there was any. When my French translator Claude Clergé, a remarkable man who for some 25 years was the official translator for the Théâtre de l’Odeon of Jean-Louis Barrault, and who translated from at least seven languages including Japanese, remarked on the Beckett influence, I challenged him. ‘It’s the metaphysics’ he pointed out — and then I understood.
I have never been interested in naturalism (neither was Beckett) so it should come as no surprise that the form of my own plays about Beckett make no concessions to standard biography. When we open, there is a coffin on stage. From it Mister B will emerge, complete with fangs, as he is now a vampire. For a man who was obsessed with putrefaction and death, who was a non-believer yet who used religious imagery consistently, this seemed to me rather apt.
The humour in many of Beckett’s plays – and they can be funny – stems from music-hall routines, so I thought that a ventriloquist’s dummy would allow the routines to develop. At first I thought that it should be an actual dummy and that the comedy would come from the interplay between its inertness and the ‘life’ breathed into it by Mister B. Then I realised that this was far too limiting: a ‘dummy’ played by a real actor, with a life of its own, was far more interesting. That ‘life’ would be the 80 percent of Beckett that was never ever seen in real life: his alter ego, if you like. In Beckett’s case this was emphasised by what we know of his character: close-grained, repressed, and very tightly controlled. The dummy would be the opposite, therefore, expressing all of those things that the actual Beckett kept carefully buttoned up.
So why did I write the plays? Why did I feel I had to? I admit that I was irritated by the scholarly and writerly acclaim. But the key to my need to write about him is what the playwright John Arden once referred to as ‘The Matter of Ireland’. Arden felt, as an Englishman who had moved to Ireland, that he needed to come to terms with the history, culture and politics of his new home, and in particular the Anglo-Irish aspects of those areas.
Beckett, who was born in Dublin, attended Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland and then Trinity College, Dublin. He taught briefly in both Trinity College, and in Campbell College in the North — where he found his students to be ‘rich and thick’. Yet he went to France, initially in 1928 and permanently from 1937, and became, to all intents and purposes, a French writer. He even wrote primarily in French as well as in his native English. I myself had a Dublin mother, a father from County Down in Northern Ireland, and was born in Belfast, but have refused to work there as a playwright since 1989, finding the place to be stifling.
So there were some points of comparison. I had fought a long, long battle with The Matter of Ireland (I consider myself European first, and then insist on my dual nationality as being both British and Irish), and I was curious as to what exactly was the relationship between Beckett, Ireland and France. What was the connection between the child sent north by his parents to avoid political turmoil and the man who joined the French resistance in 1941? Did Ireland form him, or did France? Did exile make him a writer? What was his relationship with the man he ran errands for in Paris, one James Joyce? How did he get started as a playwright?
I also wanted to understand if he was really someone who created a new form of playwriting, as is sometimes claimed. It is my belief that ‘Beckett’ was essentially the construct of academics who did not understand the mechanics of theatre and did not know their theatre history. Let’s consider the ‘novelty’ of Beckett for a moment. Did he come out of nothing? He certainly did not want to acknowledge influences, but even a quick scan of the theatre in Paris between, say, 1935 and 1955, reveals productions by Strindberg, Gide, Sartre, Camus, Cocteau, Artaud, Genet, Adamov, Ionesco, Schedadé, Marguerite Duras, Boris Vian, Tardieu, Arrabal, Pichette, Audiberti, Ghelderode and Jean Vauthier, all of whom left their imprints upon his work. Not only did he see productions of many of the plays by these writers but he also had access to their scripts as there were a huge number of magazines, newspaper supplements, and journals which printed the texts of scripts, as well as interviews, articles and reviews on the plays.
Can a European playwright with an Irish and British constituency escape the influence of Beckett? Yes and no. What is interesting and useful to me is not the language, nor indeed the dramatic shapes of his work but rather the occasional, potent image: a talking mouth, for instance. What Beckett realised, and he surely learnt it from the movies, was that a filmic ‘close-up’ image could be transposed to the stage in a highly potent, suggestive and emblematic manner. And what is also powerful, for me, is my own negative reaction — because that is not only like a cattle prod, pushing me to create work, but it is also a necessary reminder that I must always interrogate what I am doing dramatically.
What is also worthwhile is to remember, constantly, that academic analysis is no substitute for theatrical analysis, and that Beckett gets surprisingly little of the latter. When we produced the first of the plays, one of the actors remarked, near the end of the run, that he believed that what I was doing was ‘saving Beckett from the academics and giving him back to a popular audience’. I thought that was fair enough.
What I also hope that I was doing was stripping away the cosy cultural banalities of the cultural and tourist industry versions of Beckett, and replacing them with the original impulses signalled all those years ago by Joyce, O’Casey and Beckett himself: the need to escape from a repressive, clerically-trimmed, stagnating Ireland; the need to see one’s country, as it really is, from afar, with a cold, lapidary eye but one enlivened with the warmth of the Music Hall.
Most of all, though, I wanted to reintroduce the ‘Matter of Ireland’ to Ireland — as seen from Beckett’s point of view. Unlike Joyce and O’Casey, or indeed Yeats, Beckett had little interest in the politics, the history, or even the culture of Ireland. He was the classic Anglo-Irishman, at home in his case in Paris rather than London. This was a European who decided that France and the French language were central to him, and that Ireland was like a scab that you constantly scratched — crucial in that its many negative influences had shaped him, and needed to be leached out, like pus from the boil, again and again and again.