Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978
ISBN: 0156792419 (Trade)
biography is an account of the journey of someones life.
Deirdre Bairs Samuel Beckett, however, is nearly
a dramatization of one playwrights journey with the creative
process. Through its haunting sense of loneliness, encounter,
and loss, and through its careful use of spare language to show,
in the fashion of Aristotle, events of Becketts life "as
they were or are," Ms. Bairs biography convinces the
reader to believe in each Beckett situation. It satisfies the
readers need to know and understand. Like an Aristotelian
tragedy, Samuel Beckett is an "imitation of an action
that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude."
It is a rendition of Becketts life and art.
covers Becketts growth as an artist beginning with his early
childhood in Dublin. At first, he was a typical child passing
summer afternoons painting with his brother and mother, taking
piano lessons, and having more boisterous times with his father.
In his late childhood, Beckett, the only one in his family who
loved books, began a careful keeping of them in his own uncluttered
section of his shared bedroom. As a young man at Trinity, Beckett
majored in Romance languages and contemporary literature, and
disliking crowds, he entered a self-imposed period of isolation.
friendships with James, Nora, and Lucia Joyce are covered throughout
most of the book, as are Becketts nervous breakdowns and
depressions. The first twenty writing years of Becketts
adult life, years of writing mostly unsuccessful poetry and prose,
are portrayed as ones filled with poverty, debt, and a troubled
relationship with his possessive mother. But from this bleakness
comes his writingthe people he knows, the streets he walks,
the lack of light in his life (this lack of light in his later
years was caused by cataracts, and only after his cataract operation
did Beckett realize how dark his world had been compared to everyone
elses), his obsession with parts of the human face (mouth,
ear, and eye) twist into his days spent lying in bed, where he
mulled over a few lines, emotionally unable to rise and leave
his dwelling. Beckett began finding himself eventually in Jungs
central creative theory: characters are unrecognized sections
of the writer living their own lives. This appealing theory caused
Beckett to begin curbing his sloppiness, alcoholism, filth, and
hours and hours of sleeping in the fetal position. He cut free
of his emotionally-suffocating mother (whom he visited frequently
to assuage feelings of guilt) and went to Paris. "To relieve
myself of the awful depression the prose led me into," Beckett
turned to writing plays. Finally his breakthrough came in his
early forties (after World War II, people were ready for a new
vision in literature) with international recognition for Waiting
professional relationships with actors and directors are interestingly
probed along with his intellectual (and sexual) relationship with
Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. Sam eventually married Suzanne when
she was 61 and he was 55 so she could be his heir and executor.
Despite Becketts aversion to the invasion of his privacy,
Bair adheres closely, in the last third of the book, to the accustomed
routine of a solitary and well-known playwright, a Nobel Prize
for Literature winner, and a representative intellectual of the
use to which Beckett applied his lifes experiences to his
art is tangiblyrather than intellectuallyfelt by the
reader. This is due to the actual snippets of Beckett conversation
(interspersed throughout the biography) which found their way
into his works. Allow me to cite some examples:
her nightwalks," said Beckett, "[my mother] removed
the carpets from her bedroom floor because
she must hear
the feet, however faint they fall." This auditory childhood
memory appears in Footfalls and is spoken by May.
thing called love, theres none of it, you know, its
only fucking," said Beckett. "Thats all there
is, just fucking." But Becketts despair is tinged more
with sadness than with hostility, for in Krapps Last
Tape, Beckett achingly remembers when he was 23 years old
and in love with Peggy Sinclair one summer near the Baltic Sea.
"I asked her to look at me
and after a few moments
Let me in
We drifted in among the flags and
I lay down across her with my face in her breasts
We lay there without moving
But under us all moved, and
moved us, up and down, and from side to side," Beckett reflected,
and entered his reflection, too, in Krapp. "Perhaps
my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness
But I wouldnt want them back. Not with the fire in me now."
the first postwar playwright to write dialogue in everyday café
French, to apply conversation from his personal life directly
to his plays. In Godot, Vladimir and Estragon use the same
cajoling and pleading dialogue that Beckett and Suzanne used with
each other on their trek into Roussillon from Paris during World
Vladimir: Come here till I embrace you.
Dont touch me!
Do you want me to go away?
Dont touch me! Dont question me! Dont speak
to me! Stay with me!
appealing in this biography are the small stories of actors and
their attempts to deliver Beckett material. My favorite story
was of Jessica Tandys delivery of her role of the mouth
in Not I. Tandy was strapped against a backdrop so there
would be no movement on stage against her mouth. She was black
all over, and only her mouth showed. She played the role standing
and clung to two iron bars at her sides for stability and was
to speak her lines as fast as possible and so appeal to the audiences
emotions rather than their intellects. Too, this story highlights
Becketts preference for the double use of drama as language
and visual image. Becketts awareness of the visual dimension
of drama stemming from language was a favorite topic about which
he and Joyce discoursed.
Beckett is a lengthy work. Each chapter is supplemented by
an abundance of end notes which enhance the serious readers
pleasure. Certainly Samuel Beckett is not for everyone.
But it is required reading for anyone who loves Beckett theater
and wishes to learn of both the horrendous and the admirable qualities
of Becketts life. Like Aristotles Poetics,
Bairs biography should be read slowly and savored as "an
aid to reflection."