Samuel Beckett

A prize-winning old fraud

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A good conman needs three key attributes to succeed: swagger, plausibility and commitment to the perpetuation of the con. A great conman, meanwhile, needs one additional factor: the discovery and nurturing of victims who are not only willing to be gulled but who come to actively enjoy that sensation.

Samuel Beckett was one of the twentieth century’s very greatest conmen and even now, decades after his death, his dupes continue to relish being parted from their cash.

That he was plausible in his claims is clear from the fact that his plays are still performed all around the world. His swagger may be witnessed in the endless succession of black and white photographs which accompany most editions of his work: the old fraud gazing grimly out at the reader from his home in France, like some weathered statue come dolefully to life, looking as though he is considering the fundamental inequities of existence or, perhaps, rumours of a forthcoming croissant shortage.

Samuel Beckett was one of the twentieth century’s very greatest conmen and his dupes continue to relish being parted from their cash

As for his commitment to the long con, he had form. In 1930, he gave a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, about a poet (Jean du Chas) and an artistic movement (Le Concentrisme) which he had entirely invented, both fooling and riling up the dons. He learnt well from this, one suspects, never again to allow the mask to slip.

Following his early, glumly unreadable novels, much indebted to James Joyce, the real foundation of Beckett’s reputation is his 1953 play Waiting for Godot. The set-up is vivid and intriguing: in a rural wasteland sit two ravaged, witty tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, who trade barbs and banter while waiting for the arrival of a third individual who, we soon suspect, will never show up. And then, of course, nothing of any consequence happens.

Two additional characters wander on and off stage. The tramps talk and bicker some more. Godot never puts in an appearance. As one of the characters remarks: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

There is no progression or change in the characters, no shift in their situation. Any clear-eyed audience member who has gone into the theatre meaning to judge the thing in as objective a fashion as possible will soon find themselves restless, then bored, then on the cusp of feigning some sort of medical emergency simply to get out of the stalls without causing too much of a fuss.

At this, avid Beckettians are no doubt sprawling on their chaise longues, sucking ferociously on a Gauloise and muttering to themselves that this lack of narrative progression, this absence of change, is the very crux of old Sam’s oeuvre. Confronted with the horrors of the twentieth-century, they say, pointlessness and circularity are the only things which make sense. Laughter in the ruins is all that’s left.

Well, that’s as maybe, but it doesn’t make for a very diverting night out. Besides, if I want to ruminate on the cyclical failures of a species who sink time and again to unchecked levels of greed and savagery, I’ll go to see King Lear, which covers most of these bases, without Shakespeare resorting to the mad monarch and his fool loafing around on the heath for an entire night, chuntering on to one another to no particular purpose.

In a more just world (no such thing! roar the Beckettians), the Irishman would have been found out in the 1950s, after the earliest performances of Godot.

In reality, the reverse happened. He was lionised, held up as a genius and proclaimed to be the inheritor of the modernists’ crown. And so, naturally enough, having got away with the first big con, Beckett decided to push his luck.

By playing the reclusive genius card, he kept getting away with it. A series of plays and dramas, which the generous might call increasingly fractured and elliptical but which the open-minded sceptic can see straight away as rehashed versions of Godot’s single trick, ensued.

In Endgame (1957), a master and a servant bicker whilst two older character stand in dustbins (“I know of no other work of its reverberatory power,” wrote Harold Bloom). In Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), an old man listens to his younger self on tape without shifting from his seat, while in Happy Days (1961), a woman is buried throughout in a mound of earth (“a stunning and simple premise” according to the Guardian). You get the picture.

As time went by, Beckett, presumably unable to believe the sheer credulity of his marks, moved into what would now be called outright trolling. His later works gave us such self-plagiarising delights as Play (three characters standing in funeral urns), Not I (a giant moving mouth on a screen) and That Time (a big floating head and a series of three monologues).

Yet no-one with any power or influence ever seriously took Beckett to task for his industrial levels of gall. On the contrary, they rewarded him with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His plays continue to be performed, in part, one suspects, because actors absolutely love Beckett. His works offer them an unrivalled chance to demonstrate pure technique. Presented with pages of nothing in particular, and relieved of the burden of delivering the nitty-gritty of plot, performers can do little more than show off for entire evenings at a time.

His works offer actors an unrivalled chance to demonstrate pure technique

Big-name actors — from Robin Williams and Steve Martin to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen — adore playing his tramps. Theatres are filled not because of the plays but because of the stars (recognisable from more dynamic projects) and so the long con rolls smoothly forwards. The fact that it’s all taught in schools and university, and that its artistic significance is taken as read, adds further weight to the edifice of Sam’s altogether underserved reputation.

I said at the start that a great conman needs four elements to succeed. I wonder now whether a fifth might be added: that the life-long practitioner of the form should come ultimately to believe in his own con.

Did this happen with Beckett? It’s hard to tell, so carefully did he guard his own enigma. If he did, then I wonder whether he didn’t simply get stuck in a very young man’s view of the world, trapped in a superficially appealing but ultimately adolescent cynicism.

For surely, if any further evidence were needed of the irritating superfluity of the Beckett project, then it’s this: experience shows us that life is not founded in stasis and repetition. Things are, at any given moment, generally getting better or getting worse. Either Godot is going to turn up or he isn’t.

And if the latter is the case, isn’t it high time that we packed up our stuff, wrote him off as a lost cause and simply got on with our lives?

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