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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine


The centenary of playwright Samuel Beckett's birth is being marked by major festivals in the UK, Ireland, the US, Germany, France and Japan. What's the fuss about a man famous for writing a play where "nothing happened... twice"?

For a man so notoriously uncomfortable about public attention, Samuel Beckett's profile has never been higher, his craggy face appearing on festival billboards around the world.

The centenary of the enigmatic playwright's birth has sparked a wave of Beckettmania, involving performances, television and radio shows, lectures, photography exhibitions, book launches and film festivals. It's been claimed as the biggest ever international event for a modern writer.

But what was the man behind that eagle stare really like? What was the character of the creator of those austere, modernist masterpieces; deadpan comedies about the bleakness of life.

Only interview

Part of the mystique surrounding Beckett, who died in 1989, derives from the fact there are no television interviews, no press cuttings, no chat-circuit clips.

Born 13 April 1906, Foxrock, County Dublin
Moved to Paris in 1937, hung out with James Joyce, Jean-Paul Sartre, assorted Left Bank intellectuals
Stayed in France during war and fought with the Resistance
Most famous play Waiting for Godot, premiered in Paris in 1953
Beckett was only formally interviewed by one person, James Knowlson, a long-standing friend and academic who became his official biographer, who visited the writer in Paris.

"His outward appearance was very formidable, but he was very witty, very friendly, an extremely good listener. Despite all the stories about his silences, there were not many occasions when laughter did not join us," says Mr Knowlson.

"You really looked forward to spending an evening with him. The idea that Beckett was a miserabilist or a nihilist is a myth, he was very funny. He was very loyal to his friends, he liked drinking, he liked beautiful women," he says.

Women also liked him, the biographer discovered, as he researched Beckett's private life. After he had uncovered the first 20 affairs, Mr Knowlson said he "stopped counting".

Resistance fighter

Whatever his private enthusiasms, the writer had a loathing for any kind of public attention. But was this a cultivated image of mystery?

"It wasn't a game, he hated public exposure, it would be torture for him, any public appearances would make him literally run away."

Samuel Beckett
Beckett: a private man now public property

But his reluctance to become a public figure did not mean that Beckett lived in isolation, says Mr Knowlson.

"He was also part of the real world, he didn't stand by during the war when he saw what was happening to his Jewish friends. He was profoundly anti-racist all his life."

Among the footnotes to Beckett's literary career was that he was awarded a croix de guerre, a wartime medal, for his work with the French Resistance.

Another piece of Beckett trivia is that he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for literature to appear in the pages of Wisden - and Mr Knowlson says that his interest in cricket remained undiminished.

"You learned never to call him on a Saturday afternoon, he was listening to the rugby or the cricket or the tennis. He read newspapers beginning with the sports pages.

Light sensitive

"He was also extraordinarily generous. When he won the Nobel Prize, he had given away most of the money within a week," he says. And this generosity, and a certain "unworldliness", made him vulnerable to spongers.

Samuel Beckett
Most famous novels: The trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
Other plays include: Happy Days, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, Not I
Nobel Prize for Literature, 1969
Classic line: 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'
Died 22 December 1989, Paris
Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin which is jointly presenting the Beckett Centenary Festival with the Barbican Arts Centre in London, also knew Beckett, and saw his inability to refuse requests for help.

Mr Colgan recalls Beckett being challenged over why he'd given such a large sum of money to a beggar who was obviously a con-merchant.

"I thought he was, but I just couldn't take the chance," Beckett replied.

Mr Colgan also describes the strange way that in his latter years the author was stalked by the curious and greedy. People would knock on the door of Beckett's Paris apartment and, when he answered, take a photograph and run away.

Or they would follow him to a cafe and take his picture. Beckett would ask how much they would get for the photograph - and when they named a price, he'd offer them a higher figure and would take the roll of film and destroy it.

Brand Beckett

But why has Beckett become such a successfully literary brand?

Mr Colgan produced his first major Beckett festival in 1991 - and rather than a declining interest, he has seen the crowds getting bigger, particularly among younger theatregoers.

Waiting for Godot programme
The programme for the 1955 Godot production in London

This could be because audiences have "caught up" with a style that once seemed difficult and avant garde - and that Beckett, the outsider who once struggled to get published, is now mainstream.

"Audiences once treated Beckett's plays as though they were some kind of crossword puzzle, something to debate as a work of philosophy. Now they can enjoy the humanity," says Mr Colgan.

Mr Knowlson also says the minimalist style of the plays, not specific to any time or place, has helped their international appeal. The dislocated characters could be wandering aimlessly just as easily in modern Asia or South America as in post-war Europe.

And he believes that audiences are now much more aware of the bleak humour in Beckett's work, enjoying its beleaguered playfulness, rather than seeing it as being depressing.

How would Beckett have felt about becoming a tourist attraction - with his face literally flying on the flags in Dublin this week?

"Would Beckett himself have gone to any of these centenary events? Probably not," says Mr Colgan - and he recalls the writer's reaction to celebrity interest.

When Beckett was asked about how he felt about a couple of Hollywood stars wanting to perform in Waiting for Godot, Mr Colgan says the playwright paused and then delivered a one-word response: "Gloomy."

Here are some comments sent in response to this story.

Walking through a Paris park on a fine summer morning with a companion, Beckett was asked if it was a beautiful day. He agreed that indeed it was a beautiful day. "Makes you feel glad to be alive, doesn't it," pursued the companion. Beckett pondered. "I wouldn't go that far," he eventually replied.
Mike Collins, London

My father once stood next to Samuel Beckett in a pub urinal - Beckett was drinking a glass of wine as he peed. He turned to my father and said, "instant evacuation" and then turned away again.
Richard, Jordans

A little story of Beckettian irony perhaps? I sent him a copy of my first book of poems and got a personal note back from him, thanking me for the gift. I had no fixed address at that time and, despite offers from professors who wanted to buy it, kept it close in my wallet. Years later, visiting Paris, I was mugged by a gang of youths. The wallet and the note probably ended up in a dustbin.
William Corner Clarke, Staunton, Virginia, USA

Can anyone else remember a British TV series having one episode which was basically a "homage" to Endgame? If so, what programme was it, as it's driving me insane trying to remember!
Silas, London

Beckett is the finest of all writers for the human condition. He rivals Shakespeare. Footfalls is a play of sheer beauty and depth - what he manages to say in four or five short pages is beyond most writers. He is a comedian, a tragedian and a writer who never compromised himself or his work. He never compromised the truth. His work is truthful. His work is beautiful. I wish I'd drunk with him.
Adam, London

Waiting for Godot was staged in Bangkok, Thailand about six years ago. Through translation, the play lost bits of its intricacies but I still recall how it had magnetised the audiences. Only a number of plays written in the west deliver a universal social force as much as Beckett's. This is a major achievement.
Sawarin Suwichakornpong, Oxford

We planned a production of Waiting for Godot at the village arts centre. A week before production it became evident that the guy playing Estragon would never manage to learn his lines so we cancelled. The village was thus waiting for Waiting for Godot. A couple of years later the actor died tragically. At his memorial celebration, me and the guy set to play Vladimir read a section from the play about the leaves falling, in the same arts centre hall. Godot had arrived.
Andy Wistreich, South Petherton

The only way to celebrate Beckett is alone with a book. Forget the centenary festivals and exhibitions, they're strictly for tourists. Get a hold of anything Sam wrote, say Texts for Nothing or any of the four novellas for example, and start seeing for yourself what this guy can do. Believe me, if you're unimpressed the problem is you, not Samuel Beckett.
Noddy, New York, USA

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Best opening line in English literature, or what. Go on yersel, Murphy.
Tam Campbell, Glasgow

In my opinion the novel trilogy Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnambeable is the finest thing he wrote, better even than Waiting for Godot. I would certainly urge anyone who likes Beckett but has not read it to give it a go even if initially it may seem a little hard going.
Paul Johnston, London

Endgame hurt my mind... in the way that a really good stretch hurts one's back. It and Waiting for Godot deserve several re-reads, performances, and other celebrations on my part. I'll be at the centenaries in spirit.
JF, Asheville, NC, United States

Waiting for Godot at the Barbican is excellent ... go see it and understand the fuss.
Owen Williams, London

He made less so much much more. What can better distil the struggle of human existence than Endgame's close: "I can't go on. But I must. So I will." 10 words to never forget.
Domingo, Little Oakley

Beckett is one of the key writers of the 20th Century and was brilliant whatever mode he chose to write in. I like the fact his work became more and more pared down - leading to those minimal short-stories and a play like Breath. He is one of those writers who you could easily devote yourself to, as well as writing such great plays as Krapp's Last Tape, Eh Joe and Waiting for Godot his novels were equally brilliant. The Trilogy Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable, Watt, and Murphy are as great as anything he produced. I'm about to re-read More Pricks Than Kicks and'Murphy since Beckett is in the air...
Jason Parkes, Worcester

I once acted in a youth theatre production of Waiting for Godot. What a nightmare! There are so many repetitions of lines that it's easy (as we did) to forget where you are in the play and to 'jump about' the script as a result. On one night we did the same section of play twice in its entirety (my fault) because of this. On another night we jumped forward and missed a big section of the play out entirely (his fault). Thing is, the audience didn't notice on either occasion (although our director went nuts both times)
Phil Broeders, Manchester

Endgame is without a doubt one of the most intriguing chess games I have ever watched. Beckett truly was the epitome of a genius.
Lucy, London

I suffered Waiting for Godot at school. Why do we venerate such pointless dross?

What was it he said about the prospect of raising a child? "Neither I nor my wife can bear the thought of committing a child to death." Brilliant.
Matthew Christopher, London

I believe Beckett was the best, better than Shakespeare.
Matthew, S Wales

I've always regarded myself as pretty intelligent but I can't make head nor tail of his plays and personally, I don't think anyone else can either. They're just too scared of looking stupid to say so - echoes of 'the emperor's new clothes' methinks! I bet he was having a laugh.
Liza, Belfast

More people should read Beckett's novel, Watt - the funniest thing he (or anyone) ever wrote ...
Philip de Bary, Bristol

The word genius is bandied about liberally nowadays....Samuel Beckett almost defines the word......
Keith Hart, Cardiff

Waiting for Godot - the finest play of the twentieth century. Possibly, just the finest play.
Brian, Bradford, W Yorks

Beckett the comedian: "I cursed the day I was born, and, in a bold flashback, the night I was conceived."
Daniel Roy Connelly, Cambridge

John, n/a

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