Martin Mooney reflects on the importance of the Nobel prize-winning writer
Nobel prize winning playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin and lived most of his life in France. The centenary of Samuel Beckett’s birth (in Dublin on Good Friday, 1906) was marked by Prime Cut’s production of Endgame at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. Other events are taking place throughout the year. But given that Beckett's connections to Northern Ireland are relatively slender, why does Beckett’s life and work have any relevance here?
Let’s first get out of the way the best-known anecdote of Samuel Beckett’s slender connections with Northern Ireland. Once, when being chastised for some misdemeanour by the headmaster of Campbell College, where the future Nobel prize winner was a junior master, Beckett was told that his pupils were ‘the cream of Ulster society’. ‘Yes,’ said Beckett. ‘Rich and thick.’
Little else seems to be known about this brief interlude in the 1930s, a period when Beckett led what seems to have been an aimless, frustrated, peripatetic existence, before settling in Paris. But he had been in the north before. As a boy, Beckett attended Portora Royal School outside Enniskillen, whose other famous past-pupil, Oscar Wilde, is rarely if ever thought of in a Northern Irish context (I wonder why?).
So of course Samuel Beckett is not a Northern Irish writer. Indeed, his Irishness was for many decades a matter of dispute: ‘to call him an Irish writer requires some semantic sleight of hand’ (Vivian Mercer). Perhaps what northerners, especially those of Protestant background, found attractive in Beckett’s work was precisely the reluctance of writers and critics in post-de Valera Ireland to acknowledge him as one of their own. He was, many students of these matters seem to say, one of us:
‘…the name of Samuel Beckett recurs in these essays. His appeal to MacNeice and Mahon suggests that a residual waste land strikes chords in bleak and hitherto forbidden areas of the Ulster Protestant experience and psyche. There is a heritage of guilt, repressed, formless and diffuse; and of tribal customs and binding beliefs which individuals – and writers – transgress at their peril.’
(Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley, Across a Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland)
But as Beckett himself wrote, ‘The danger is in the neatness of identifications.’ If there is a single theme animating Beckett’s work in prose fiction and in drama, it is alienation from the local – or a sloughing off of all identifiable locales in favour of the ‘zero’ seascape glimpsed through the high window of Hamm’s shelter in Endgame:
HAMM: The waves, how are the waves?
CLOV: The waves? [He turns the telescope on the waves.] Lead.
HAMM: And the sun?
CLOV: [Looking.] Zero.
HAMM: Is it night already then?
CLOV: [Looking.] No.
HAMM: Then what is it?
CLOV: [Looking.] Grey.
If John Hewitt’s regionalist assertion that the Ulster writer ‘must be a rooted man, must carry the native tang of his idiom like the native dust on his sleeve’ can be taken as the credo of some mainstream of Northern Irish writers, then Beckett exists to assert the opposite, or to say, If only that was possible. For Beckett, setting is both unimportant and unknowable:
VLADIMIR: You recognize the place?
ESTRAGON: I didn’t say that.
ESTRAGON: It makes no difference.
VLADIMIR: All the same … that tree … (turning towards the auditorium) … that bog.
This may be what Beckett has meant to the two contemporary Northern Irish writers who most frequently cite him as influence and inspiration. For John Montague, Beckett offered the example of international modernism to reinvigorate a more traditionalist approach to both verse-making and cultural belonging. Montague, from a Catholic nationalist tradition, draws on the contrapuntal rhythms of Beckett’s plays to step outside linear history the better to represent its impact:
Lines of leaving
lines of returning
the long estuary
of Lough Foyle, a
in wet darkness
as a tender creeps
to carry passengers
back to Ireland…
(from 'A New Siege')
Conversely, for Derek Mahon, Beckett’s ‘existential lyric’ mode helps articulate a dissociation from place, from family, and from history:
In that instant
There was a sea, far off,
As bright as lettuce,
A northern landscape
(Danish?) and a huddle of
Houses along the shore.
Also, I think,
A white flicker of gulls and
Washing hung to dry
(The poignancy of those
Back yards) and the gravedigger
Putting aside his forceps.
(‘An Image from Beckett’)
Those twelve lines take all the familiar tropes of Northern Irish poetry, at least, and turn them inside out, dissolve them as if in blinding light. Their attraction and their human meaning (their ‘poignancy’) is reaffirmed, but their significance radically questioned. And this, maybe, is the final importance of Beckett for Northern Irish writers and writing, as an exemplar, however involuntary, of the artist refusing to accept precisely those themes and techniques he has no choice but to use.