Monthly Archives: January 2013

Abe according to Steve

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This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article, here.

 

Abraham Lincoln is America’s most familiar president, as well as the most mysterious. His likeness is, literally, common as a penny – or a $5 bill – while his character continues to confound and elude us even now, nearly a century and a half after his assassination. There are so many Lincolns: the marmoreal figure in whose presence Richard Nixon met with anti-war protesters in May 1970, just a few days after National Guardsmen had shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio; the railroad lawyer and tool of Northern finance capital who had ruthlessly destroyed our Southern way of life – a view held by many in the Virginia Tidewater where I was born and by a strand of Marxist historians in the universities; the “father Abraham” of spiritual and legend, martyred Moses of African Americans. In recent years there has even been a lively debate about the sixteenth President’s sexuality.

Yet the persistently nagging, eventually unshakeable conviction, as I watched Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation, that I had met this man somewhere before, didn’t trace back to any of that. His Lincoln, like the real one, is over-fond of quoting Shakespeare, appears half-asleep when alertness is most required, is driven to distraction by his wife’s increasingly feeble hold on her sanity, and tormented by visions of the slaughter and ruin wrought on his order. This mounting sense of déjà vu didn’t mar my enjoyment of the film, but it was a distraction – almost as much as the tears I couldn’t seem to stop. Those who think of history as a dry business where facts and figures keep emotions firmly in check will find Lincoln distinctly unsatisfying – except, perhaps, as an invitation to pedantry.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is not, in fact, a PhD. thesis, and though Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, may have as deep a grasp of the complexities and conflicts in American history as anyone now writing for a mass audience, his first obligation is to the drama, not the details. Yet as the flurry of fact-checking articles which greeted Lincoln’s American debut attest, it is apparently possible to spend the film’s entire 150 minutes with pad in hand noting down anachronisms and historical elisions.

Most of these are, admittedly, pretty small beer: the Bavarian-born John Nikolay, one of Lincoln’s two secretaries – and later his biographer – probably sounded more like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who actually voiced him in a television documentary) than Jeremy Strong. Nor would the Vermont native Thaddeus Stevens recognize much of himself in the indelibly Texan tones of Tommy Lee Jones. Amusing though it is to watch the film’s scenes of congressional raillery, members of the House of Representatives, though occasionally fighting duels outside the chamber, did not address one another directly from the floor. And it is highly unlikely that W. N. Bilbo, the Tennessee political operator hired to procure the votes Lincoln needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, thus ending slavery, would utter the particular expletive Kushner gives him when the President decides to pay a surprise visit.

The historian does not go to the cinema seeking enlightenment, and those who attend Lincoln looking for something to complain about will not come away empty-handed. The shooting may have stopped in the American Civil War in May 1865 (or June if you were unlucky enough to be aboard one of the ten whalers captured off the Aleutian Islands by the Confederate warship Shenandoah before her captain learned the war was over), but arguments over the war’s precise causes – particularly over the role of slavery – and its legacy continue to rage. Some of the more serious historical criticism of Lincoln has taken issue with Spielberg’s decision to focus on the events of January 1865, when the newly re-elected President, having freed the slaves in the rebel states by the Emancipation Proclamation two years previously, risked his political capital by pushing forward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery altogether. This frame doesn’t exactly deny slaves that agency in their liberation that the work of historians like Barbara Fields, one of the stars of the Burns brothers’ documentary series on the Civil War, has done so much to illuminate – but apart from a brief encounter with a pair of black soldiers in the beginning, and a couple of stagey, improbable conversations between the President and Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who served as his wife’s seamstress and confidante, it is left mostly off-screen.

Yet to complain about such matters, however historically well-intentioned, is to miss a point that should have been obvious from the film’s choice of title. Lincoln is not about the Civil War or the evils of slavery. It isn’t even about the whole of Abraham Lincoln’s life, though it is worth noting that, despite the film’s compressed focus, Day-Lewis takes us far deeper inside the President’s character than such earlier, and iconic, incarnations as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln or Raymond Massey’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois – both of which stopped well short of the White House.

That is because whatever else he was – railsplitter, country lawyer, teller of tall stories – Lincoln was above all else a politician. Lincoln is a film about politics – the most intelligent, least deluded film about American politics since Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949). And while that film, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel inspired by the career of the Louisiana politician Huey Long, is both an anatomy of corruption and a renunciation of politics, Lincoln attempts something far more difficult: to show, as Thaddeus Stevens put it (repeated, slightly out of context, by Tommy Lee Jones), how “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”.

By January 1865 Lincoln had finally found, in Ulysses S. Grant, a commanding general who could actually fight. He’d also ditched the “team of rivals” that made up his first cabinet in favour of an election cabinet that pledged loyalty not only to the President himself but, in the event of an electoral defeat that most thought likely, to Lincoln’s plan to secure victory in the war before the inauguration of his Democratic rival, the feckless (but popular) General George McClellan. And as the film shows, he’d also undergone a kind of revolution in his own attitudes. Though Lincoln always hated slavery, when he’d written, early in his presidency, that “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it” he’d meant it. He also long favoured colonization – shipping freed slaves to Africa, or Central America – as a solution to the problems posed by emancipation. William Seward, the former governor of New York who began as first among the rivals in Lincoln’s cabinet, but by 1865 had become a ferociously loyal Secretary of State, warns him he can either have a speedily negotiated end to the war or the Thirteenth Amendment. But Lincoln wants both.

David Strathairn’s Seward initially baulks at the political machinations needed to keep the fractious Republican Party in line and to persuade a sufficient number of lame- duck Democrats to back the amendment. In a way, Lincoln is really a “caper” film, with votes being merely so much loot. As Seward assembles his gang, and Bilbo and his crew use threats, cajolery, the offer of patronage posts and, when all else fails, outright bribes to round up the votes, Spielberg heightens the suspense by cutting to scenes of Lincoln’s home life, his spirits crushed between a wife, Mary (played with remarkable restraint by Sally Fields), driven mad with grief by the death of one son from typhoid, and an older son desperate to enlist in the army before the war’s end deprives him of his chance.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a President whose seeming indolence masks a watchful, preternaturally determined manipulator of men and events, easily credible as the strategist who snookered the South into firing first at Fort Sumter. With his high, reedy voice, paternal indulgence towards his youngest son Tad (whose cleft palate seems to have been cinematically corrected) and incontinent fondness for barnyard humour, this Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect.

This Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect

There is an extra element of suspense in all Spielberg’s historical epics: will he, we wonder, resist the sentimentality that has brought him so much success in Hollywood? By now it should be clear that Spielberg can do whatever he wants with his medium. In Munich, his last collaboration with Kushner, he even managed to withhold a happy ending. In Lincoln he doesn’t hold out quite so long; viewers who miss the last ten minutes will see a better film.

Yet it was during that final swerve for edification that I finally remembered where I’d met this particular Lincoln before: in the pages of Gore Vidal’s novel. Not literally, of course – the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is barely mentioned in that book’s 700-odd pages (a Derridean might call this an “absent presence”). But the sense that here, finally, walked a man of flesh and blood and passion and intellect. Historians, naturally, hated Vidal’s Lincoln. But I suspect it will be read long after Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, now enjoying a spike in sales thanks to its credit as Kushner’s inspiration, is forgotten. And for those who want more, there will be this splendid film. As the credits rolled, the audience in Brattleboro, Vermont burst into applause. The only state in the union where slavery was never legal, Vermont sent a tenth of its citizenry to fight in the Civil War. It was the Second Vermonters who broke Pickett’s charge, turning the tide at Gettysburg. I don’t know if any of their descendants were in the theatre; but as the lights came up, there were few people left unmoved.

D. D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for the Nation, is the author of American Radical: The life and times of I. F. Stone, 2011, and the producer of Edward Said: The last interview, 2004.

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Interview: Olwyn Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s literary executor

Ted Hughes’s sister tells Sam Jordison how misrepresented she feels the story of her sister-in-law’s death has been


The following post is reblogged entirely from the Guardian online.

I spoke to a number of Plath biographers and friends after speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund (including Al Alvarez, Carl Rollyson and Ronald Hyme). They confirmed the substance of what she said – in particular, that Plath had not wanted The Bell Jar to go out under her own name while her mother was still alive. Elizabeth also produced a scan of the letter from Charles Monteith explaining that Faber was unaware that those were Sylvia’s wishes.

However, since it was almost 50 years after the event, and Faber were consequently unable to supply any further information, it became clear that the only person who really knew about the omission of the dedication to Elizabeth and her husband from the 1966 edition was Olwyn Hughes. Fortunately, she agreed to speak to me and set down her side of the story.

The following conversation comes verbatim, from my notes. I would just like to add that in spite of the force of many of her words, that Olwyn seemed good-humoured and peculiarly charming. It might help if you imagine the following spoken in a warm Yorkshire accent:

I want to ask about the name change on The Bell Jar?
She [Plath] was very worried about it because she thought it was going to upset her mother. It was a nightmare for her, actually. She got quite paranoid about it towards the end. And then she was disappointed when it came out and it didn’t have a very good press.

Sorry, I meant the decision to actually use her name?
The decision to use her name was taken after her death, when everybody really seemed to know it was by her. Her friends all knew. There seemed no point in not publishing under her own name.

I’ve been speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund …
Oh God, have you? I mean gabble, gabble, gabble, gabble … Has she some new stories for you?

She was telling me about the dedication.
She [Plath] dedicated it to Elizabeth and her husband, because she didn’t want the London lot to know – you know, her real friends. She didn’t know Elizabeth very well, you know. Although according to Elizabeth … Anyway, we’ve had enough of Elizabeth … [Goes on to suggest that Elizabeth Sigmund’s accounts of events were not always reliable.] What has she told you?

She was saying she was left off the 1966 edition …
Oh yes, that was a Faber error. She thought that was a terrible plot of Ted’s. I don’t know what that was about. It was just Faber left it off. These things happen in publishing.

She also said that she was sure that Sylvia Plath never wanted it published under her own name.
Well, yes. She didn’t want to upset her mother. What it tells, The Bell Jar, is a watered down version of her own breakdown. And that was also very painful to her – quite apart from the fact that there’s a passage in the book that’s rather unpleasant for her mother to read, about the mother’s snoring or something. Sylvia got very het up about the book because I think it was so self-revelatory. In a way she liked that – and in a way she didn’t.

That’s certainly what I think happened with Ariel – her whole trauma, her father’s death upsurged. I think writing The Bell Jar provoked that … And all that traumatic material that came up in Ariel. I think it caused her a lot of aggro. She was a very agonised lady. She had to battle to live every day – as you might glean from The Bell Jar. When I read it after she died, I just wept.

But people don’t realise. They didn’t then, even. She didn’t always show how troubled she was – but she had no inner calm at all. The Bell Jar deals with the beginnings of the trouble. Then she spent the rest of her life dreading its return.

Oh God.

The nonsense that has continued to be written about the story is shocking to me. Sylvia wasn’t the innocent victim, or half so helpless as she’s been made out to be. You just have to look at some of her poetry. She was just nasty in the last poem about her husband and father [“Daddy”]. She was vicious and I think a bit crazy. I watched her going through her torment and it was agony. But Ted was so taken with her. I don’t know why. I don’t know how she did it … Especially because I don’t think that she could control the negativity in herself. You’ve got to remember the venom that Sylvia dished out.

I don’t think anyone has taken into account how injurious the rubbish that’s been written about her has been. What the feminists don’t take into account was how much psychological trouble she was in. She was a very difficult woman with a very difficult personality. She was horribly unjust both to her mother and to Ted. And I’m sick of reading that he left her for Assia – that’s all you get whenever his name is mentioned. Assia. But Ted didn’t walk out.

It was actually a friend of Assia’s who told Sylvia. She rang her up and thought maybe she was helping her, or wanted to warn her, or something, I don’t know. But this person had no idea how on edge Sylvia was. That she wouldn’t be able to cope with this information. And so when Ted next went down [to their house in Devon] she was in a rage and threw him out.

I wish the newspapers would get it right. He didn’t even know that Sylvia would find out about Assia. He’d done everything he could to be very discreet. It was just one of those things … And of course Sylvia, when she did hear about it, it reminded her of all her terrors about abandonment and everything else. She wouldn’t listen to anything but separation and divorce. But he didn’t leave her for Assia. That’s just not true. He was actually staying on friends’ floors in London until he got a little place by himself. He certainly wasn’t living with Assia.

Oh and she took all the money out of their bank account. She was a monster actually.

So what about changing the byline. How was that decision taken?
What people want after they’re dead. That just goes. And nobody was going to be able to keep the secret about who wrote the book for decades. Besides it was a very good little novel.

She was disappointed when she was alive – she was worried about the Jennifer Dawson’s novel The Ha-Ha – which was similar and got a lot more attention at the time. She hadn’t the calm in her necessary to cope with it.

There was all that martyr talk, even after Ted’s death … in America there were a couple of biographies that were terribly bad. They didn’t take account of the fact that Ted had nursed the bloody woman for seven years. The patience that he had with her!

Of course, I didn’t quite understand or realise that she was quite sick. We didn’t know as much about psychology in those days. But let me tell you about one thing. Ted was meeting an old teacher once – and she just ran off. He had to run out onto the moors after her. She did that in front of his old teacher. Can you imagine? And he lived with it.

And when you read her journals – there were some very dark things in there … And there was a furore when they first came out that they were cut. And a few things were taken out – mainly at the request of her mother, but otherwise he did nothing. But there was this great furore and suggestion that there was an attempt to hide things. But what were the secrets?

Of course, nobody actually read the journals! They were too busy focusing on what they thought wasn’t there. And if they did read it properly they’d have found a very damaged girl. A very mixed-up girl. You just had to look at the dreams she described. Her dreams were bad enough to spoil your own.

I understood then how powerful a grouping the feminists can be. And how it still goes on. This crap. No matter what goes on, you can’t counter it. They just lie, and if they find themselves in the wrong, they just ignore it.

I’m collecting all the press I’ve got and giving it to Pembroke College. There was one thing, by someone from the Guardian that I found really upsetting … Katherine … I can’t remember her name. All that martyr stuff. It was just a few days after Ted died that it came out and I thought aren’t The Guardian ashamed of themselves? [We’re unable to pin down the piece to which she’s referring. There’s an article by Katharine Viner on the Plath diaries from 2000, but this was 18 months after Hughes’ death.]

I don’t have any time for them, really the press. I don’t normally talk to journalists.

I must be very fortunate …
Hmm. Well. I wish you’d print what I actually say. You know I would love to talk to some journalist and they could take me seriously – and actually put down what I say. That would be the first time.

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Print Irish

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In this difficult economy, governments are putting ever more emphasis on supporting local business as a means to overall recovery. But that is not the only reason the Print Irish campaign is running.

The Print Irish Objectives

  •  Secure local industry and jobs in the print and packaging sector.
  •  Inform the general public that a product has been printed in Ireland.
  • Combat the issue of print being produced non-domestically.
  • Generate awareness that Irish print is focused on service and quality.
  • Create a value system so customers in Ireland are supportive of the Irish print industry going forward.
  • Promote jobs within the industry and encourage new consumers of print, to support Irish industry.

This campaign is a brand new initiative that aims towards putting a public face on the Irish printing industry. Printing in more recent years has become to be viewed as a somewhat generic service. Little thought is given to the thousands of jobs the printing industry supports and the high quality, good value service provided by a technology driven, high skilled indigenous workforce.

Just as the Intel Inside campaign transformed Intel from yet another semi-conductor manufacturer to a criteria of selection for computer hardware, the Print Irish campaign aims to encourage the Irish marketplace to support their own fellow workers and identify print that has originated on home soil.

What does Print Irish do for the Irish publishing sector?

It unites the Irish printing industry under one common flag. It also contributes to an industry war chest, enabling the Irish print and packaging sector to market itself more effectively and pool its collective resources for the greater good. It carries the Print Irish identity on your goods in order to demonstrate your commitment to Irish goods, services and manufacturing. It clearly differentiates between domestic suppliers of print and non-domestic suppliers of print. More to the point, it enables the 19,000 employees in 700 printing companies throughout Ireland to demonstrate their commitment to those companies who buy Irish print.

How does Selfpublishbooks.ie fit in?

As an independent publisher based in Cork, Ireland, Selfpublishbooks.ie offers a simple and cost effective means for authors to make the leap from file to printed book. With high standards of production and keen attention to detail, Selfpublishbooks.ie guarantees a high-quality product that is reliable, practical and local.

Print quality, print Irish.

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“Finest Production”

Frank, Sharon, Shelley and Justin,

I just wanted to thank you all so sincerely for doing such a great job on Lonely Little God’s Acre.  At the launch before Christmas, everyone was telling me how fantastic the book looked.  Thank goodness, I also got good feedback after they had read it!

It did look great and of the few books I have done to date, it is the finest production. The hard-covers were so beautiful I was reluctant to sell them. I wanted to open the boxes occasionally and take a few out just to look at them

Many thanks for everything and all best for 2013.

I’ll definitely be recommending Lettertec and Shelley to anyone who asks.

Ed O’Riordan

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Lost Robert Burns Manuscripts Discovered


Robert Burns statue in Leith. Photograph: Jason Baxter/Alamy

The following article is reblogged in full from The Guardian website

 

Three long-lost manuscripts by Robert Burns – as well as correspondence between the beloved Scottish author and his friends – have been discovered by a researcher in what is being described as one of the most important Burns discoveries in years.

One of the texts is a letter from “Clarinda”, the pen name taken by the woman Burns loved, Agnes McLehose, following the poet’s death. Clarinda, who in life Burns had addressed variously in his poems as the“mistress of my soul” and “Queen of Poetesses”, was writing to Burns’s friend and doctor William Maxwell, three months after his death in 1796. Maxwell had been at Burns’s side when he died, and after asking for the return of the intimate letters she had written to Burns – whom she knew as “Sylvander” – she also wrote in a postscript that “an account of our late friend’s final scene, if it is not too bold to ask for, would be considered a singular favour”.

“It’s right at the end of a very businesslike letter, as though she couldn’t help herself,” said Chris Rollie, the researcher who discovered the manuscripts. Rollie was contacted by an old friend about the material, but originally dismissed her belief that she had stumbled across something important inside an Extra Illustrated W Scott Douglas edition of The Works of Robert Burns, dating from 1877-79, which belonged to Burns’s publisher, William Paterson.

“I get quite a few calls like this, and I tried to let her down gently,” he said. “But she said she still thought I should have a look. Within 15 minutes of looking at them I could see there was some very important and original material.”

Also unearthed were a handwritten manuscript by Burns himself of the song “Phillis the fair”, with minor textual variations, a pencil manuscript by Burns of an early draft of “Ode to a Woodlark”, lost since 1877-1879, and a handwritten letter from Burns “to Robert Muir, Kilmarnock”. The treasure trove also contained a letter from Clarinda to Burns, dated 2 August 1791 and containing for the first time her complete poetic response to Burns’s poem “On Sensibility”.

“‘The finding of the Clarinda letter in full is very timely as we move towards a new edition of Burns’s correspondence, and the other new manuscript findings of letters will also similarly help,” said Professor Gerry Carruthers, co-director of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which is hosting a Burns conference on 12 January where the findings will be presented in full. “It is very exciting that such lost manuscript material continues to emerge in the 21st century.”

The manuscripts have now been sold to a collector.

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Samuel Beckett’s funny turns

This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article by Kate Womersley

 

Winnie (Natasha Parry) in Happy Days, London, 1997

The winter of 1925 in Dublin was a rather cheerless one. At least that is the picture the papers give: workers’ strikes, a general depression in trade and widespread unemployment. The Irish Times forecast a particularly cold Christmas, adding the small consolation that “if all goes according to plan, England and Scotland will be swept by Polar winds with an icy chill in them”. The “Public Amusements” page suggested some distractions for gloomy Dubliners. Humpty Dumpty: The Pantomime was doing a run at the Gaiety Theatre, “the famous Dixie Minstrels” were in town, and La Scala was showing Charlie Chaplin in The Pawnshop.

Meanwhile, a music hall revue called Happy Days was on at the Olympia. Scant information survives about the show, where it came from or where it went. The listing appeared from December 21 until Christmas Eve, leaving a few tantalizing clues about what the spectacle might have been like. A revue, the descendant of music hall proper and cousin to American vaudeville, tended to have a loose plot but still remained loyal to the traditional format of a series of showpiece fragments and cameo turns.

In 1925 Samuel Beckett was reading modern languages at Trinity College. Is this Happy Days a lost source for his own play of the same title? It has always been assumed that Beckett named his 1960 drama after the hit song of 1929, “Happy Days are Here Again”. But the dates and location lend weight to the earlier entertainment as well. Might Winnie in her faltering performance of optimism be a grim reworking of those “happy-go-lucky girls”? After all, one of Beckett’s abortive titles for his Happy Days was “A Low Comedy”.

But what is the likelihood that Beckett joined the Olympia’s boisterous audience, or even saw the listing in the Times? When James Joyce said in 1903 that “the music hall, not Poetry, [is] a criticism of life”, Dublin was awash with musical farces and other variety entertainments. Twenty-odd years later, music hall was a dying art. Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s first biographer, nevertheless writes that he made a habit of frequenting the Olympia and the Gaiety, as well as the more genteel Theatre Royal, a taste he did not outgrow when living in Paris after he had graduated from Trinity. He discovered the French strain of music hall, which derived from café concert, at the Bobino, attending “frequently, even in the afternoons, and nearly always by himself”.

Noting Beckett’s enthusiasm for these entertainments is not new; neither is spotting how they colour his work. Comedy collides with sobriety again and again in his drama. In a notebook for Human Wishes (1936), an early play, later abandoned, about the life of Dr Johnson, Beckett jotted down a line from a letter Mrs Thrale sent to a friend in 1750. Here she asks, “Did not Dr J say once that MacBeth wd make a good pantomime?”. If Johnson is right, why shouldn’t pantomime and its kind be fair game for good tragedy? Given how Beckett went on to develop these early ideas and influences, we should hear curiosity as well as caution in his remark that “If we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct . . . we might as well go home and lie down”.

A question repeatedly hangs in the air: “What do we do now?”

The contrasts of pace and modulations of tone in Beckett’s drama can indeed be dizzying, and are integral to its interest. Two popular performers from the 1920s, the Swanson Sisters, were lauded by the Irish Times as “almost a complete variety programme in themselves”, and the same could be said of Waiting for Godot’s double act. Whether they are swapping hats (in tribute to the Marx Brothers) or swapping insults, Vladimir and Estragon draw on a long stage tradition of clowning, minstrelsy and knockabout. Lucky and Pozzo could also be plausible extras on a comic bill. Each crescendo of action subsides with the rise of a niggling anxiety about endings and beginnings. A question repeatedly hangs in the air: “What do we do now?”.

Happy Days owes even greater debts to the illegitimate theatre. Winnie, with her capacious bag and garrulous tongue, recalls the halls’ grande dame, Marie Lloyd (immortalized in a famous essay by T. S. Eliot), and the later parleuse, Joyce Grenfell. Another of Beckett’s jettisoned titles for his play was “Female Solo”, which at once points up Winnie’s near-solitariness, her chattering monologue, and climactic swansong at the end of Act Two. Like Marie Lloyd, Winnie makes a routine out of routine: the morning rigmarole of readying herself for the day (saying her prayers, brushing her teeth, rouging her lips) is undertaken in the vein of a skit. And just in case the audience needs a further nudge, Beckett prescribes a “Very pompier trompe-l’oeil backcloth” to suggest “the kind of tawdriness you get in 3rd rate musical or pantomime, that quality of . . . laughably earnest bad imitation”.

This travesty of staginess and Winnie’s “desirable fleshiness” (low bodice and heaving bosom at Beckett’s request) are not there just for a cheap laugh. While critics have concentrated on important affinities in content, little has been said about the formal influence that music hall had on Beckett’s play. Indeed, the twice-nightly bill of turns in the 1925 Happy Days is a fruitful way to think about Winnie’s two acts with their repeating patter and increasingly restrictive routines.

There are more subtle divisions too. Instead of scenes, entrances and exits, Beckett uses the unit of a “turn” to organize stage space and partition stage time. Like turns on the bill, the play feels bitty to watch. When trying to map the “action”, “that bit with the postcard”, “that bit when the umbrella catches fire”, “that bit with the music box” are useful landmarks.

The discontinuity of the “bits” is reinforced through movement. They often begin and end with the physical action of turning away or turning around. Stage directions which prompt a turn are the most frequent after “pause” and “silence” in Happy Days (indeed in Beckett’s entire oeuvre). The mutual reliance of dramatic structure and bodily gesture is particularly prominent when watching Winnie, trapped as she is from the waist down in a mound of earth for the duration of the play. Every few minutes she twists and bends to look at Willie behind her (obscured to the audience except for his boater, which is just visible). Writing in 1961 to Alan Schneider, the first director of Happy Days, Beckett was at pains to emphasize that “all this leaning and turning and motion of arms and bust in Act I should be as ample and graceful (memorable) as possible, in order that its absence in Act II may have maximum effect”. By the second act, of course, Winnie is buried up to her neck, capable of turning only her head.

The visual and semantic richness of a turn on the Beckettian stage cannot be dismissed as a mere happy accident. The complexity of the word and its gestural weight is supported through instances of turning in his prose. Arsene, in the novel Watt (1953), recounts an estranging episode. While walking outdoors, “something slipped” and he experiences a “reversed metamorphosis”. The incident is likened to the transformation as told by Ovid, but instead of Apollo turning a woman to foliage, here Arsene says it is rather “the Laurel into Daphne”. This moment is taken up later: “Took a turn in the garden . . . . Made merry with the hardy laurel”. The wordplay showcases various definitions of a turn: rotation as well as transformation; a performance; a “go” in a sequence; a short walk; a spell of confusion or distress; all finished off with a nod to the short sketches of two of Beckett’s favourite performers, Laurel and Hardy.

Once you start looking, turns crop up all over the place. In the short story “Ding-Dong” from More Pricks than Kicks (1934), our anti-hero Belacqua makes a habit of taking numerous short strolls as if he were tracing the path of a “boomerang, out and back”. After “these little acts of motion”, if only “from the ingle to the window”, he always “returned, transfigured and transformed”: “Exempt from destination, [he] had not to shun the unforeseen nor turn aside from the agreeable odds and ends of vaudeville that are liable to crop up”. A charge can be felt between “turn aside” and “vaudeville”, spotlighting the familiar notion that all the world’s a stage. Circular and mundane activities performed in solitude are reframed as a one-man comedy show.

Turns on the stage and on the page meet again in From an Abandoned Work (1954). The nameless narrator imagines a future when “it will not be as now, day after day, out, on, round, back, in, like leaves turning, or torn out and thrown crumpled away, but a long unbroken time without before or after”. Turning leaves put us in mind of the pages of a book or script, spirals of foliage swept up on windy days and perhaps a fleeting momento mori as their greenness fades to brown. Life is cast as a succession of circuits, predictable as clockwork. The tedious imperative to go through the same motions “day after day” has its most famous expression at the end of The Unnameable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. A consummate performer must continue in the face of exhaustion.

The frequency with which these verbal contortions and physical turns occur points towards a principle at the centre of Beckett’s practice: expression within limitation. The “dramaticule”, Come and Go (1965), is its purest distillation, again not quite casting off affinities with music hall. Three women, Flo, Vi and Ru, dressed head-to-toe in block colour and seated in a row, perform a round of permutations. Each takes her turn to rise, rotate and exit, while the remaining pair share a whispered secret (inaudible to the audience). Beckett wanted the trio’s choreographed movements to be “stiff, slow, puppet-like”. The first line of the playlet, “When did we three last meet?”, recalls Macbeth’s weird sisters. This turn seems to be Beckett’s belated answer to Dr Johnson’s challenge, pitched between a funny skit and a tragic window on to a purgatorial existence.

It is intriguing, then, that Beckett should repeatedly describe his own vocation as if he were one of these trapped entertainers. Writing in 1954 to an inmate of a German prison who had staged a production of Godot, Beckett felt indebted to the performers.

“I am no longer the same, and will never again be able to be the same, after what you have done, all of you. In the place where I have always found myself, where I will always find myself, turning round and round, falling over, getting up again, it is no longer wholly dark nor wholly silent.”

This stumbling, disorientated and troublingly comic figure combines the persistence of Sisyphus with the clumsiness of a clown. To see the writer’s condition as a turn is simultaneously showy and modest, suggesting both singularity and sequential reliance. Beckett’s sense of his own art seems to equivocate between an individual moment and a humble episode in a line of artistic and cultural inheritance.

In his final prose work, Stirrings Still, such an awareness of predecessors and aftercomers is especially pronounced: “This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out . . . . As when others too in their turn before and since. As when others would too in their turn and leave him till he too in his turn”. Another possibility is heard through the repetitions. Being “on the turn”, passing one’s prime, is inevitable. As this “outer light”, the limelight, fades, there is a lingering fear for Beckett that his work might, like the music hall shows of which he was so fond, become a dying form.

Kate Womersley is a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard University.

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