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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Saturday, 15 April 2006
The Arts: Beckett and Hollywood
Topic: The Arts

The Arts: Beckett and Hollywood

Full moon over Hollywood, Thursday, April 13, 2006There was a full moon on Thursday, April 13th, the one hundredth birthday of the playwright Samuel Beckett. How odd. The photo at the right is the moon that night floating over the Hollywood Hills. Of course, no one noted this man's birthday much in Hollywood, as his works really could not be turned into movies. Generally plays do not make good movies, or more precisely, good plays make for dull movies, as in various versions of "The Glass Menagerie" not exactly lighting up the box offices across America and so on. Take a fairly crappy stage play, never produced, and you can make a fine movie. The obvious example is "Casablanca" - just voted the best screenplay of all time and based on "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, which seems to have never been produced on stage.

Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" was first performed in Paris in 1953 and ran for four hundred performances at the Théâtre de Babylone, and went on to become perhaps the most important play of the twentieth century - but it's not for Hollywood. The man may have who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, but his stuff can't be marketed to those who consume what is produced in these parts.

But Paris is not Hollywood, and on the 13th, as AFP reports here - "In a scene which might have appealed to Samuel Beckett's sense of the absurd, French and Irish fans marked the writer's 100th birthday Thursday at his grave topped with a bowler hat, flowers and a banana."

It was only about forty people in the Montparnasse cemetery, nor far from where Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, hangs his hat. There were reading in French and English which dealt with "Beckett's fundamental themes of birth and death."

The bowler hat, flowers and banana? The characters in "Waiting for Godot" wore bowler hats. In "Krapp's Last Tape" the nearly blind and deaf man lives in a one filthy room, living on bananas. The flowers were just conventional, of course.

AFP background -
Beckett, who was born near Dublin on April 13, 1906, was buried in a simple, granite grave here after his death in December 1989.

Ever struggling to capture the bleakness and futility which he saw in the human condition, Beckett, who moved to Paris in 1937, wrote many of his most memorable works in French first, delighting in the economy forced on him by writing in a foreign language.

Those who marked the 100th anniversary of his birth both in Paris and in a larger ceremony held in Dublin on Thursday, remembered a man, who despite being intensely private, was also generous and kind.

"Beckett was a writer who turned a relentless searchlight on the human condition, directly and courageously, making each of us confront our deepest selves with little help along the way except those flashes of black humour," said Ireland's ambassador to France, Anne Anderson.

... The widow of Beckett's French publisher Jerome Lindon has now donated the French manuscript of "Waiting for Godot" to France's National Library, the library announced on Thursday.

Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, was "Irish by inspiration and in his imagination, his syntax and his cadence. He was deeply, pervasively Irish," Anderson told the gathering.

But we know how French he was too. He loved France, he chose to live here, he wrote in French, he thought in French. So, French and Irish, we gather together to honor this great man."
It seem that Marianne Alphant, a curator at the Pompidou Centre, is organizing a major Beckett exhibition there for March 2007 (the Los Angeles stuff will be gone by then).

There was no one from Hollywood at the Montparnasse cemetery, or none mentioned, but there were his old neighbors from the village of Ussy-sur-Marne, not far from Paris. And in regard to this man who stunningly portrayed existential angst, and how one can or cannot get along in this sorry world devoid of inherent meaning, one villager, Paule Savane, noted this - "He was very solitary and looking for peace and calm. But every Sunday when the children returned home from their catechism lessons, he always had chocolates and sweets for those who knocked on his door."

The world may be devoid of inherent meaning, but there's no point being a grump when the kids drop by.

A good appreciation can be found here - Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star. That opens with this - "He opened the door to what looked like a darkened room and invited us to step inside. Once our eyes grew accustomed to the shadows, we could see things more clearly than ever before. That's the achievement of author Samuel Beckett, who was born 100 years ago this week."

And Ouzounian notes the irony of Beckett's birth in Ireland in 1906 - it was in both Good Friday and Friday the 13th. That about sums it up, as there is this in "Waiting for Godot" - "...one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

But the serious part -
Beckett has variously been called a minimalist, an absurdist, an existentialist, a nihilist, a pessimist, an anarchist and an atheist, but he would shrug off all those labels, insisting instead "the words, the words, the words - they speak for themselves." One of the few times he was ever lured into categorizing himself was when someone asked him how he would compare himself to James Joyce, his mentor, friend and fellow Irish literary giant.

"James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could," he said. "I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can."

What he chose to leave out was what the theatre tended to thrive on in the mid 20th-century: elegant settings, sumptuous costumes, twisting plots, and happy endings.

Instead, he gave us such things as a stage bare except for a single tree, occupied by two shabby tramps waiting for someone who never comes.

On that empty stage and in those tattered souls, he offered us a wealth of brutality, compassion, hope and despair.

Still, he would constantly denigrate the value of his work to anyone who would listen. "What do I know of man's destiny?" he would sneer. "I could tell you more about radishes."

"I have an Irish soul and a French brain," he once laconically quipped. "That explains it all."
But why do all these Irish writers end up in Paris? These two, friends there, and the earlier Irish-born Oscar Wilde (but not his choice exactly). Who knows?

Ouzounian's biographical and literary notes follow, and they're worth a read. And this nugget is cool -
He moved back to Paris in 1937 and kept writing, although his books sold very little and his strongest work from the period, Murphy, took years to find a publisher.

Still, Beckett was starting to form a distinctive voice of his own, though it was nearly stilled forever when a deranged pimp stabbed him through the lung on a Parisian street. Joyce rallied to his side, as did a young woman named Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who would soon become Beckett's constant companion, finally marrying him in 1961.

The arrival of World War II brought one of the strangest chapters in the previously apolitical Beckett's life. As the Nazis drew near to his beloved Paris, he never thought of returning to Ireland but instead became radically politicized and joined the Resistance, where he was known by the code name "L'Irlandais."

He would later dismiss his activities as "just Boy Scout stuff," but the French Government awarded him the Croix de Guerre in 1945 "for extreme bravery."
So he was not only nice to kids, he fought the good fight, for the good guys.

And in the fifties he turned to writing fro the stage -
It took four years for actor-director Roger Blin to raise enough money to get En Attendant Godot on stage in Paris, in a decrepit venue in Montparnasse called Théâtre de Babylone.

When it opened in January of 1953, the critics were dismissive and the initial audiences confused. But people kept filling the theatre. There was something that drew them to this simple work about two tramps, a bully, a mute and a little boy, all waiting for someone who never comes.

Director Peter Hall brought it to England, but Ralph Richardson turned down the lead on the advice of John Gielgud, who called the play "rubbish." Richardson was later to pronounce it "the biggest mistake of my career, turning down the greatest play of my generation."

It opened quietly in the summer of 1955, once again to confused reviews and baffled audiences, who still couldn't keep away.

But some of the critics began to grasp the message, and the venerable Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times called it "something that will securely lodge in a corner of your mind as long as you live."

When it opened on Broadway the next year, starring the great comedian Bert Lahr, The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, while admitting that the play mystified him, hailed "the strange power this drama has to convey the impression of some melancholy truths about the hopeless destiny of the human race."

Over the decades, Waiting for Godot has proven to be one of the most durable scripts of our time. It has been cast all white, all black and rainbow-hued. Mike Nichols took it on a mad comic ride with Steve Martin and Robin Williams...
Ah Hollywood folks. But still, it's a different sort of thing than is done out here.

Ouzounian quotes Harold Pinter on Beckett, and we see how far from popular entertainment Beckett really was -
He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit, the more I am grateful to him.

He's not fucking me about, he's not leading me up any garden path, he's not slipping me a wink, he's not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he's not selling me anything I don't want to buy - he doesn't give a bollock whether I buy or not - he hasn't got his hand over his heart. Well, I'll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.
Yep, Pinter, explaining Beckett, just explained Hollywood.

So the anniversary passed without much notice out here. But the full moon was mighty fine.

Posted by Alan at 17:35 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 16 April 2006 17:19 PDT home

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