Artillery Row

Waiting for normal

Why lockdown is the perfect time to read Samuel Beckett

‘The day so near its end at last if it is not compact of a thousand days’ (How It Is). If there is a writer who encapsulates the seemingly unending days of lockdown stretched out ahead of us, it is Samuel Beckett.

Who else has written plays, poems and prose dedicated to the process of waiting – for Godot or God or death or any kind of ending? Lockdown has been bleak in more ways than one. It seems that every celebrity, instagram influencer and half-famous public figure with a phone has been encouraging the country to ‘be positive’ and ‘stay focused’, to try to use this period of isolation to better ourselves mentally and physically. The pressure to come out the other end of this a more toned, mindful, well-rounded person is immense. And while all of that might be good for some, I personally prefer the bleakness of Beckett over star jumps in the sitting room with Joe Wicks.

Like many people out there, I was supposed to be doing something else. I was supposed to be meeting Judy Hegarty Lovett and her husband Conor – also known as the theatre company Gare St Lazare Ireland – to talk to them about their upcoming performance in London. We had planned to meet in a hotel in Victoria, where I was going to ask the Irish couple turned international Beckett acting troupe about staging Beckett in a new decade that was coloured by feelings of political uncertainty. It turned out that the circumstances of living with Covid-19 might provide a much blunter comparison between the work and the experience of a future audience.

Down a crackling line from their house in France, Hegarty told me about how she and Lovett had been exposed to Beckett’s work together in their teens. And so when Lovett decided to start experimenting with acting out Beckett, Hegarty’s work as a director brought the two of them to experiment with pieces of increasingly ambitious prose. Gare St Lazare Ireland are infamous for the stamina and reach of their performances – having staged The Trilogy in one go many times. Before the world came to a standstill, they were planning a production of How It Is, part two, complete with the accompaniment of the Irish Gamelan Orchestra, which will eventually be combined into a performance of the entire work. In this production the group are joined by Stephen Dillane, famous for his role as Stannis Baratheon in Game Of Thrones. Anyone who has had the pleasure of experiencing a Gare St Lazare Ireland performance will know how unique it is – sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying. Lovett and Dillane’s ability to memorise and transfix you with hours of speech is nothing short of genius. How It Is is a particularly onerous piece of Beckett’s late work – his last full-length prose – which blesses the reader with neither recognisable plot nor punctuation. Written in three parts, How It Is loosely follows a journey of a voice through mud with references to violent interactions with several monosyllabic-named others. It’s quite possible that many of us are experiencing a similar kind of existential crisis during the lockdown, journeying through the purgatory between bedroom and kitchen with increasingly violent interactions with family members.

Despite my probing, like all good Beckett enthusiasts Hegarty won’t be drawn into a concrete explanation of what the message is behind How It Is – or what they as players are trying to say with their performance. ‘I don’t know what he’s trying to say, but I think he’s certainly saying’, she tells me. And while How It Is explores different flickers of meaning in terms of human relationships, memory, loneliness, love and so on, it is the very fact that the speaker is compelled to carry on talking that is perhaps the only recognisable meaning in the work. Of course, words themselves can be meaningless – but they never are in Beckett. This process of constantly stripping out language and narrative leaves a powerful focus on what’s left behind: a lone voice. How It Is is a distillation of this obsession with talking that runs throughout Beckett’s work. It’s there in Waiting For Godot when the ‘inexhaustible’ Estragon and Vladimir decided to ‘try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent’. Malone fingers and fiddles with the sucking stones in his pockets in Malone Dies as his ‘way of talking to them and reassuring them’. In Krapp’s Last Tape a dirty old banana-eating man sits listening to the reels of tape he recorded of his own voice talking throughout the years, repeating back his favourite words to the empty stage. Hegarty tells me that, if there is a message in Beckett, this is it: ‘Yes, we do need to express. And yes, there is a voice. The power of communication is a complete necessity and a kind of integral part of being.’

So why read Beckett in lockdown? In one sense his work serves to put your own dismay at not being able to hang out at the local coffee shop into perspective – with many of his crutch-dependent characters having only a variety of rocks, tin cans, sacks, jars and elusive memories to busy themselves with. He’s also, at times, laugh-out-loud funny – using non sequiturs between musings on philosophy to bowel movements. But on a more serious note, it feels like Beckettian characters are closer to us than ever before. We’re living through a time of bizarre contradictions. We’re supposed to show our togetherness by keeping apart. To plan for a future without this virus we must pretend there is no future – staying indoors with the television on hiding away from the rest of society. It’s this constant questioning, uncertainty and inability to determine what’s real and what’s not that makes Beckett’s work feel so relevant. Though Winnie, in Happy Days, has alarming feelings of a lack of control, like being sucked up ‘into the blue, like gossamer’, she remains decidedly cheerful. Even when imbedded up to her neck, unable to move her head, she attempts to make the day normal by demarcating it through sounds or speech. We hope today that the temporary restrictions on our freedom remain that – temporary – and we try to continue as normal though life sometimes feels like we’ve been buried up to the neck. Hegarty tells me that the real power, for her, is that Beckett continuously ‘transcends the particulars’. His work cannot be tied to any place or context – despite the fact that his involvement in the resistance during the Second World War and his experience of living in the shadow of James Joyce tempts you to read all kinds of things into his writing. Beckett works ‘very hard to push everything out of any kind of direct reference to time or place or situation’. Instead, Hegarty says, he prefers ‘to go up and outside of that situation and ask what are the things that surround all of us in all times, at any time’. There’s something in that that rings true for our own experience today. Even the speaker in Not I, the play in which a solitary mouth speaks from a black void, is trying to make sense of some kind of normality or routine – to ‘keep on… trying… not knowing what… what she was trying’.

Hegarty and Lovett are hopeful that How It Is will go on at the end of this year, and so am I. It’s possible that when the lockdown lifts, many people might not want to be in confined dark rooms together – sitting through hours of Beckett is tough even without the fear of contagion. But I hope our desire to return to some form of normality will override any risk-averse feelings we have. Thankfully, Gare St Lazare Ireland plan to return in the autumn. In any case, turning to Beckett in times of coronavirus won’t solve any of your problems – even the voice in How It Is says it’s ‘all balls’. But in this generation-defining moment, there’s something in Beckett’s endless and often infuriating questioning of everything – even when you’re reduced to a voice in a jar. Godot might yet arrive, there is a future, and at the end of the long dark tunnel of this pandemic there will be the question of how we ‘go on’.

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