Playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) embracing actor Jack McGowan at a first night performance, 1970. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Mark Lawson: Happy days in the town of Samuel Beckett’s childhood

For the past three years, an international Beckett festival in Enniskillen has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing at the town’s cenotaph in 1987.

The three most obvious locations for a festival devoted to Samuel Beckett (1906-89) would be Dublin (his birthplace), Paris (where he lived for most of his adult life) and Nowhere, which is broadly the setting for plays such as Waiting for Godot and Happy Days. However, the writer attended Portora Royal School in the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen and, for the past three years, an international Beckett festival there has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing massacre at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in 1987.

The Nobel Prize-winner’s ghost might be bemused by barbershops offering “Beckett haircuts” – a tight crop, ideally steel-grey – but he would surely have enjoyed a rare ironic and allusive use of the words “Happy Days” on the front of a tourist brochure. And the festival, directed by Sean Doran, a former artistic director of English National Opera, attends inventively to his legacy, with the addition of some new elements – an imported international star, an irregular venue – to work that is likely to be familiar to the target clientele.

This year, Klaus Maria Brandauer made his Irish stage debut in Krapp’s Last Tape. His use of a German text (with English surtitles) had the effect, for an anglophone audience, of directing attention away from the two sets of words – the 69-year-old Krapp in his den, listening to a diary he recorded as a love-struck young man – and towards Beckett’s vivid visual sense, emphasised by Brandauer’s startling, clown-like appearance, with wings of fly­away hair, a swollen drinker’s nose and oversize boots.

My initial reaction was that the actor had sartorially elided Krapp with the dress sense of the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot but a later check of the text revealed that he was dressed exactly as specified: perhaps a sensible precaution, as the author’s nephew and executor, Edward Beckett, was in town and the estate has been known to block productions that subvert the words even slightly.

Brandauer also makes the greatest verbal distinction I have heard between the older voice – a high, second-childhood whine – and the strutting younger one. Under the direction of Peter Stein, this was probably the most surprising revelation to come out of Northern Ireland since Rory McIlroy.

The minimalism of late Beckett necessitates some cunning extension of running times. The hour allocated to the world premiere of the English-language version of Catastrophe included a mystery coach tour, winding high through the hills of County Fermanagh, passing through villages where Union flags were punctuated by Irish tricolours. A local told me that Israeli and Palestinian flags have also been flown, the loyalist and republican communities respectively siding with what they see as tribes whose plight echoes their own.

Eventually we arrived at Pubble Church, a disused place of worship dating back more than 1,000 years. On the abandoned altar, a cast under the direction of the Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar (best known, perhaps, for Line of Duty) played the slight but resonant Catastrophe, which involves the final touches to a human sculpture.

As The Complete Dramatic Works contains only 32 pieces, some barely a minute long, a festival entirely dedicated to Beckett would soon run out of material, so Doran has broadened the programme with works such as Roaratorio, a sound-and-dance piece by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, which was suggested by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book also echoed in Beckett.

In future years, I would like to see some exploration of Beckett’s perhaps surprising level of influence on British TV sitcoms. The writer David Renwick has acknowledged that the dramatist was an inspiration for the fascination with the boredom of daily existence that underlies One Foot in the Grave and specifically for an episode in which Victor Meldrew is, like Winnie in Happy Days, buried up to his neck.

Happy Days is also the name of the American TV comedy series but that title is non-ironic and can’t be attributed to the former Enniskillen student.

 

Quick suffix

Reports on both the Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and the so-called Trojan Horse plot to impose hardline Muslim teaching in Birmingham schools have featured much use of the word “Islamist” to describe the ideology of the agitators. The term suggests that their behaviour and beliefs are a perversion of the Islamic faith.

Linguistically, though, the usage seems confused. A Marxist is someone who follows the teachings of Marx and a feminist believes in female equality but an Islamist is someone who has deviated from Islam.

What the linguistic police mean is “Islam-ish” but that sounds comically reductive, recalling Jonathan Miller’s joke about being “Jew-ish”. However, the problems of avoiding offence were shown when a BBC reporter recently referred to “Islamist fundamentalists”, a construction in which the same suffix is employed to suggest that they aren’t the former but are the latter. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

G
Show Hide image

Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge