Why Beckett? (Passion for your subject 1)
The ‘National Student Survey’ asks students to score how passionate their staff are about the subject they teach. I think this is a little unfair; when running from class to class, exhausted, under pressure, we don’t always have the energy reserves or the time to show or talk about ‘passion’, and some people can perform passion more easily than others.
However a colleague of mine, Gordon, had a great idea. A series of lectures/talks about staff member’s ‘life in art’, their personal influences and interests. As this could open up a space to discuss inspiration, and intellectual/artistic development. Through these our students could place their own passions and development, in relation to other people’s. See where it might take them. Yet, in the constrained time of classes we can’t always fit in a ‘personal note’, it might seem indulgent, when the point is anything but.
So, I’ll be writing occasionally on this subject. Here’s the first:
It starts with the obituary of David Warrilow, handed to me by my mum in 1995 when I was 19. Just before I received lectures on Beckett at university. She handed it to me, folded so that the photograph was foregrounded ‘He reminds me of you’ she said…
I was a little bemused, the photograph was of a middle aged man or older, now deceased, dressed in black-tie but for a pair of sneakers. Initially quite how my mum saw ‘me’ in ‘him’, was a mystery. But I read the obituary, and became fascinated by his role as ‘interpreter’ of Beckett. Yes an actor and performer, but also something between translator or musician.
In addition, the image had a particular look, of time-worn grandeur. The age of Warrilow and his surroundings was offset by the beauty of his posture and pose, his formalwear offset by their condition, and his trainers. I liked this very much, but didn’t have a language to describe what I would later learn are the Aesthetics of Failure.
These features peaked my interest, and so was looking forward to a class on Beckett delivered by David Jones, one of my lecturers. What I hadn’t expected was to receive a full education in Existentialism alongside Beckett. The philosophy resonated me personally, and so the lecture was the start of an engagement with that and related philosophies, that continues through to this day. Yet on that day, what I was most taken with was that that a philosophy could find itself expressed and embodied within a work so seamlessly.
So, those three features, of how work could so clearly and holistically embody a philosophy, have its own aesthetic, and require ‘interpretation’ through performance became the foundation of my love for Beckett’s work. They also prompted a desire to find those features, or an expression of some similar constellation, in the work of others: Philosophy/Aesthetic/Interpretation.
Later I had the challenge/opportunity/privilege to teach Beckett to students. You often discover things through teaching and in practice, that you never really know by just reading. A student up a ladder in Endgame, showed me how this austere, serious work, was as funny as hell. Students trying ‘Not I’ reveal that the demands of how to perform the work, are the key to unlocking its meaning. Four bodies running at high speed past each other in a version of Quad exploring how much Beckett’s work rests on the balance between the precision and failure of the body. I’ve been seeing echoes of Beckett in everyone’s work ever since.
The myth of Beckett is part of my appreciation too. I generally counsel against having heroes, often life is too messy and complex to hold people in such a light. However, Beckett comes with a suitable amount of distance, privacy, and rumour to make him accessible in this way. What’s not to like about a man who got married in secret, stabbed in the chest by a man he later befriended, and worked with the French resistance?
He has also become a figure who is widely known. A friend of mine once sat down for a haircut, and when responding to a question indicated that they were studying theatre. Without missing a beat the hairdresser replied ‘Must be hard making work after Beckett’… Quite.
On the note, thats also why Beckett is so important, not just for the experimentation in his work, which some can take or leave; but for the benchmark of quality set. The work, in practice is always about the relation between precision and failure: An idea, a form, and its execution. Theatre/Performance at its highest level. Beckett once wrote ‘Ever tried, ever failed. Fail, fail again, fail better’ I had this transcribed onto a poster. It hangs in the studios of Winchester University, it is there as advice, and as a challenge.
He also wrote that the purpose of Art is ‘To find a form to contain the mess’ the mess, I presume, is us. I think about that idea a great deal.
His work is often framed as Universal or Timeless, but I don’t believe in those notions, not exactly. They are constructs for a time, not permanent truths. What we imagine is timeless or universal won’t stay that way. But they do signpost us to things we take for granted. The kinds of things that can either be relied on, or, that need to be challenged. Beckett’s works can genuinely take the weight of those terms, as much as I doubt them, his works are some of the few that approach a condition of permanence.
Perhaps permanence is what we should say instead, something we can see enduring across time, something that can survive time, not transcend it. This might be what Beckett was trying to do, and what makes his work so significant to me. It might also be what my mum was able to see in that photograph of David Warrilow; an echo of a future version of her son, glimpsed through the past of another man’s life.
Now as a 41 year old man, I’m a lot closer to David Warrilow, my hair is thinning and receding, lines are showing in my face, a tooth has been giving me some existential warnings of my mortality… I’m much more aware of the notion that Beckett becomes more relevant, more tragic, and funnier as you get older…
Now I can look at my students now and be reminded of a mouth perfect for Not I, a face made for Clov, a sense of timing for Vladimir or Estragon, but not yet, maybe in 20 years or more…