On a website “filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists” (the kind of place you can’t quite summon how you found afterwards and have trouble locating again, as though you dreamt it) there’s a wonderful hunk of little-heard pieces for radio, written by Samuel Beckett. Among them is a 1957 BBC recording of From An Abandoned Work – a monologue (that started in 1954 as a bit of prose) delivered by an old man remembering his youth. It’s unbelievably well acted, by the Armagh-born Patrick Magee, a presence so full of strangeness and charisma and difference and power, the whole thing made me feel like I’d been blindfolded.
“That is perhaps how I shall die if they don’t catch me – drowned, or in fire,” goes Magee in a supremely Becketty way, conjuring, among other things, passing ducks. At first I thought this was just (yet) another piece of genius – Beckett is like Bob Dylan, a bottomless pit of good stuff, very little of it second rate, pretty much all of it dramatic and emotional. And let’s face it, who else are you going to trust writing about two people standing in dirt or on stone pots, or an old man recalling his mother “waving in sad helpless love” by a window.
But it seems this specific recording is very important. Beckett heard the original broadcast himself, and was so impressed by Magee, and the world-weary déclasséness of it all, he got writing Krapp’s Last Tape. Please do take a listen – the cracked, meandering way Magee goes at it; hard to articulate quite how unusual. The guy really does sound like he’s making it up and responding to memory in real time. It is uber-Beckett. Not least the incredibly demotic turns of phrase (“Let me get in with now the day I’ve hit upon”).
Beckett liked certain kinds of characters, and two actors in particular. He liked his collaborator, Billie Whitelaw, because she gave forth a feeling of a certain type of fierce, unfakeable British woman. And he liked Magee (who would come to be Beckett’s Philip Seymour Hoffman) because he really did come over like an old guy in a pub, or on the side of the road, head full of ancient, dusty phraseology, mouth floating unstoppably along on a whole lot of mad locutions, so fluent. I’ve listened to nothing else all week.
From An Abandoned Work
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran