My latest report for Culture File is a discussion with Irish author Kevin Barry, about the role of silence in his work. Kevin joined Sara Maitland (author of ‘A Book of Silence‘) on a panel about silence at the recent Happy Days Beckett festival. He was a joy to talk with, and this discussion became the first of a series Culture File are running where I talk to artists and scientists about how silence impacts their work.
Quantum Physics, synchronicity, English mustachios, it has to be Eugene Ionesco’s ‘The Bald Soprano’ (La Cantatrice Chauve). This is a play for which context is essential: Beckett’s growing reputation in France at the beginning of the 1950’s. The efforts of dramatists who became known as the ‘theatre of the absurd’ to acknowledge the horrors of fascism. The birth of post-modernism with it’s portrayal of the fragmentary nature of subjective reality. And Ionesco’s own inspiration – bizarrely banal English language learning tapes. In attempting to recreate the imaginative truth of these unheimlich lessons, Ionesco engaged with some of the most complex intellectual problems of his time.
The play begins as a parody of urbane English parlour comedies, spearing every convention from obtuse bon-mots to farcical misunderstandings, from trite social commentary to ironic contradictions. Out of this meta-humour, brilliantly trivialising the trivial, develops a slow horror, as identities dissolve, time disappears, life and death become confused and disorder reins.
The Bald Soprano was Ionesco’s first play, originally written in his native Romanian, before being rewritten in French. Since it’s first performance on May 11th 1950, the play has become one of the most performed works in France. We read the 1964 translation by Donal M. Allan.
‘Reading Plays‘ is a discussion show, featuring Gareth Stack and James Van De Waal. Each week we do a close reading of a modern play, discussing it’s merits, themes, issues raised, and so on. You can play along by reading or watching a production of the play before you listen to the show.
My latest report for RTE Lyric FM’s Culture File, took me ‘upstairs’ to the week long ‘Happy Days‘ Samuel Beckett festival in Enniskillen. The festival organisers and tourism board of Northern Ireland were wildly hospitable (many thanks especially to Cathy Kapande, Kirstin Smith, Allie Crehan, and Sean Doran). Little did they know I’m but a lowly scribbler, not some slick skinned journo-critter full of Celtic catnip. The festival was genuinely wonderful, and I hope my brief report goes some way to conveying why. Listen above. Scattered impressions below.
I remember watching a BBC production of Happy Days in the wee hours of the 1980s. Reading Godot in secondary school and finding it hilarious. Finally attending the play in college, only to find the staging dull as dishwater. Beckett’s name evokes the grim surrealness of his imagery, seized upon by Woody Allen, parodied by the manically incongruous Pythons. I haven’t seen nearly enough Beckett, but I’ve seen Beckett in everything. In the savage mysticism of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, in the relentless self dissecting voice of Wallace Shawn’s Fever, in the humane grotesquery of The Singing Detective, in the domineering monsters so beloved of the Mighty Boosh.
Irony, the keen inversion of pain, the honest lie, is somehow key to Irishness, in Beckett’s time as today. Call it rebellious post-colonialism, call it rain-drenched nihilism, few cultures delight more in black comedy. I could say that ‘like Beckett I write for radio’, but that would be ludicrous. No one writes like Beckett, his work is so readily identifiable, so iconic in popular culture, trivial to parody yet impossible to imitate.
I’ve always been quite afraid of Beckett. It’s hard to empathise with a man who helped Joyce finish Finnegan’s Wake. Beckett’s rejection of character in favour of the universal, of narrative in favour of the indeterminate, and of epiphany in favour of negative capability, are all off-putting. But there’s no denying just how emotional the plays are, an aspect sometimes lost in onerously respectful staging.
I’m in Enniskillen, where the annual Happy Days festival has brought hundreds of performers together to celebrate the great man’s work, on stage, through music and readings, in exhibitions, installations, lectures and performances. Somewhere, hidden behind an enormous platinum edifice of craggy cheeked, ice cropped late Beckett, there’s probably a Krapp’s Last Cronut stand. You have to admire the moxy of a festival featuring productions of Godot in French and Yiddish, but none in English. Beckett was educated here, in Portora Royal School, where Oscar Wilde had earlier attended. I’m hoping a little of that learning will wear off on me, as I make my first foray into Beckett Land.
I descend into the Marble arch caves, where an octophonic John Cage piece has been set up on hidden speakers, winding it’s way through the rocky depths. Around us stalagmites rear up like molten candles. We pass under honey glazed ceilings dripping deliciously onto the puckered dragon hide skins of chitinous crenellated monstrosities. Walk through monument valley, boulders piled above us threatening to tumble. Cross foot bridges above blood red streams, fringed by dunes of dun sand, where our contorted shadows pour over whalebone walls. Roaratorio follows a method Cage devised for creating music from any book. These fright noises, snatches of music and voice, fusing with the caves own eerie song, were composed from Finnegan’s Wake.
Early morning Saturday and I’m off across the loch a schoolboy Beckett would have rowed, to hear Donal O’Kelly read on a golf course by the waters edge. Later Donal tells me how fracking threatens to split this community once again along sectarian lines. At the centre of Enniskillan is a memorial to those who fought in the Great War: Impossible to pass without being reminded of the Remembrance Day Bombing. It’s a hundred years now since that war, and the rebellion it sparked. This square remains a reminder of the wanton violence spilling down through this countries history ever since.
I encounter a freelance reporter Ian Patterson, who writes for the Belfast Telegraph and a host of other publications. Ian tells me about his journalistic travels. Visiting Loas, writing about Laotian minority Hmong people. During the Vietnam war the Hmong fought a proxy war in Laos for the Americans on the promise of a homeland secured by the CIA. After the Americans lost in Vietnam, the Hmong were persecuted. The Laotian government promised genocide and many fled, to the forests, to the united state. Today, in exchange for foreign aid, the Laotians have built towns for the Hmong to encourage them to return from jungle and reintegrate into society. Some of those who travelled to the US suffered from a ‘culture bound syndrome’ of unexplained adult deaths. They were visited by the spirits of their ancestors sitting on their chests as they slept: The dead pursuing the living into the new world.
Beckett’s school is Wes Anderson nostalgic. We sit in the parish hall style school gymnasium. Around us are blackboards embossed with the names of sporting heroes, patrician busts of headmasters, turning their noses up to meet stray basketballs. Dressed like gypsy geniuses in odd assorted hats, Yurodny appear. Sweet melancholic scratches of divine fiddles, mysterious and plaintive, klezmer somewhere between Turkish & trad.
We’re here to see the New Yiddish Rep and their earthy human Yiddish Godot. There’s so much weight of humor and history in this performance. Vladamir & Estragon are Laurel and Hardy, a tragi-comic vaudevillian duo, almost romantically doomed. The text, translated from French, German and English translations, almost inevitably evokes the Shoah.
This is a production that says – we can each let go of our bonds and yet we continue to hold them, drawn towards our own nature, irredeemably, hilariously, tragically. Moche Yassur, the company’s artistic director, laments the dying of Yiddish, his native language, even as he works to give it new life.
After the interval, Yurodny return. We wait in pregnant silence for them to begin. A minute passes, two… I’ve never seen Cage’s 4’33’ performed like this. So as to emphasise not the noise of silence, but the music lost.
Through Tattygare roiled with union jacks. Over hills past window scratching branches to a mysterious location. I’ve travelled through the Fermanagh countryside to Adrian Dunbar’s production of Beckett’s catastrophe. Dusty pews and damp flaked green walled alter form a stage. Three figures – a capo / bossman / king some tyrant anyway (the director), his nurse / wife / lacky (the assistant) constantly reigniting his cigar and manipulating a figure posed on a plinth (the protagonist). Under his guidance she moves the figure, making notes to whiten the limbs, expose the flesh. Perhaps we are observing the subject of an experiment, perhaps their child, a living statue anyway, an exhibit. At one point horror strikes the director. Something is wrong with his subject, something awful. He flees to the stalls to inspect the scene. They’re preparing a play.
The morning before I leave two communities audibly collide – the Enniskillan of literary festivals and the prosperous working class town still riven by sectarian conflict. An enormous flotilla of tractors trundle through, some driven by rascal boys honking horns and making heavy-metal hand signs. The mass conspiring against capital.
Perhaps what appeals today about Beckett is his tasteful reserve. Modern concerns framed with a restraint that feels classical, universal and terse. Theatre emerging from silence and darkness. As our world becomes more noisy, and confused, we’re drawn towards Beckett’s quiet, his ambiguities, his acceptance of impossible contradictions.