Tag Archives: entertainment

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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Maureen Fox: Memories & Articles

 

Maureen Fox was a journalist with the – then – Cork Examiner, now the Irish Examiner. At 15 she was expelled from school, her headmistress predicting that she would come to no good in life. After she joined the Examiner, in 1970, she became within a few years one of the most popular journalists in the South of Ireland, imaginative, creative and with great skills of communication.

She was glamorous, perfectly made up, wearing beautiful silk suits and towering high heels and often drove around in a bright yellow Triumph Spitfire sports car. In her writing she was open, direct, often controversial. She supported feminism and staunchly defended peace in Ireland and in the wider world.  She cared for the needy, the disabled, the elderly and many more. Animals were her dearest friends. She died in December 2010 in France. After her death one of her readers wrote to the Examiner, “There must be very few people who did so much good in their lives and left such a legacy of love and goodness to those in need.”

This book contains chapters about her exciting life and her journalism and offers a selection of her most characteristic and often controversial articles, written between 1971 and 1995. A special chapter deals with her immensely popular columns Paws Awhile, allegedly written by her dog Ponsonby.

The book has been compiled and written by Jan van Putten. He was an award winning journalist in The Hague before becoming a professor of political science in Amsterdam. Jan and Maureen met in Moscow in 1987 and married two years later. Jan moved to Ireland in 1990. Between 1991 and 2006 the couple lived near Lismore, Co. Waterford. As “Himself”, Jan figured in many of Maureen’s columns.

Maureen Fox: Memories & Articles is printed by Lettertec, Carrigtwohill, Co. Cork and is published on a self-publishing basis.

 

The book can be purchased on-line through www.amazon.co.uk

or

by sending your order with your cheque to: “Puttenfox”, 9 Rue Haute Notre Dame, 56130 La Roche Bernard, France.

or

by sending an e-mail to puttenfox@orange.fr and setting up an electronic transfer. The price of the book, if ordered through “Puttenfox” is €11.95 including postage and packaging.

“Maureen’s writing, the issues she dealt with and the sincerity of her opinions touched a chord with many thousands of daily readers in a way that was entirely exceptional. In these Memories and Articles Jan van Putten savours a selection of her output and deals with her life in a way that reflects the honesty with which Maureen always approached her subject. There is joy and sorrow, triumph and failure, lightness and, above all, Maureen’s inimitable laughter and deep appreciation of life and everything that goes with it.”
Des O’Sullivan, Journalist.

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Wolf Hall to be BBC2 Drama


After the success of the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning ITV show Downton Abbey, it seems BBC2 is following suit with the promise of a new production of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and her new novel Bring Up the Bodies.

It will be adapted by Peter Straughan, the man who brought Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the big screen. Wolf Hall, a novel charting the rise of Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell, will become a six-part series for BBC2. It is expected to be broadcast in late 2013.

As reported yesterday by the Guardian, the third part of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light, might form a standalone drama at a later date.

Stressing the channel’s commitment to drama in the face of cuts that from the new year will ravage the daytime schedule, BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow – who named Wolf Hall as among her favourite books of recent years – said the novels were “right in the cross hairs of what BBC2 viewers will enjoy”.

“I think there is a cumulative, mounting hunger for the [dramas] that we do,” said Hadlow. “That doesn’t mean that all of them will be massive audience drivers but I think what drama injects into the channel is of such value … something so powerful that you’d want to protect that at all costs.”

Other new dramas for BBC2, which will air Tom Stoppard’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch tonight at 9pm, include spy thriller The Honourable Woman by Hugo Blick, who wrote and directed the channel’s recent opinion-splitting drama “The Shadow Line”.

Hadlow also spoke about BBC adaptations of Shakespeare and French and Russian classics — for more, see here.

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Extracts from titles on Man Booker Longlist

GalleyCat has provided online extracts from the 12 Man Booker Longlist titles, so for all of you who haven’t heard of these authors or know what they’re about, simply click the links below!

 

Free Samples of the 2012 Man Booker Prize Longlist

Nicola Barker for The Yips

Ned Beauman for The Teleportation Accident

Andre Brink for Philida (No sample available online)

Tan Twan Eng for The Garden of Evening Mists 

Michael Frayn for Skios 

Rachel Joyce for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry 

Deborah Levy for Swimming Home 

Hilary Mantel for Bring up the Bodies 

Alison Moore for The Lighthouse (PDF link)

Will Self for Umbrella

Jeet Thayil for Narcopolis

Sam Thompson for Communion Town

 

The shortlist will be announced on the 11th of September, and the lucky winner(s?) will be named on the 16th of October.

 

Courtesy of GalleyCat.

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The 53rd Annual Yeats’ Summer School: July 29th-August 10th 2012

On July 29th this year, the 53rd Annual Yeats’ International Summer School will commence with 11 days of workshops, lectures, readings, visits to Yeats’ country, with music and drama to carry the lucky few along. The Summer School is run by the Yeats Society Sligo, to promote the work of WB Yeats and to foster young talent.

The daily programme of events begins with a lecture in Hawk’s Well Theatre, on to lunch-hour events or outings and ending with a seminar in the Yeats’ Memorial Building.

The lectures which will be given during the Summer School include “Yeats and the loss of Coole” by the Director of the School, James Pethica, “Sligo Homecoming” by the Associate Director, Anne Margaret Daniel, “Yeats as Critic” by Edna Longley, “Yeats and the Act of Dying” by Kevin Barry, NUIG, as well such interesting titles as “The Wanderings of Yeats and Oisin”, “Swedenborg, Yeats, and Jacobite Freemasonry” and “Yeats’ shaping of The Tower and The Winding Stair”.

The lunch-hour events vary from visits to Sligo’s Masonic Temple, a walking tour of Sligo, a reading by Belinda McKeon, and outings to Knocknarea and Carrowmore.

Seminars run every evening, with content and discussion revolving around prescribed texts of Yeats, and can be viewed in full here. Evening events for this year’s school include a reading from Seamus Heaney, another from Harry Clifton, Ireland Chair of Poetry, Irish dancing, drama performances, and a coach trip to Glencar Waterfall, Lough Gill and Yeats’ Grave.

However, one of the highlights of the School is its writing courses. A drama workshop runs every afternoon throughout the week, and a poetry workshop (€100 extra) will run from 4th-5th August.

Why is there so much excitement around this? Because the aim of the Yeats Society is, over time, “to develop Yeats’ stature in Sligo in a similar manner to that afforded other literary giants, such as Shakespeare in Stratford-on-Avon and the Bronte Sisters in Yorkshire.” The Society work tirelessly to promote Yeats and his work, and especially in this tired economic climate, their reach to writers and groups across the world to visit a remote place in Ireland attests to the excellence of their School. They don’t neglect those at home, either — as part of the School, they are offering anyone to join in the guided tour of Sligo for free — more details here.

During the festival, July 29th – August 10th, this blog will have daily updates on what is happening during the School, thanks to the wonderful Anne Daniel.

The full programme (Part 1 and Part 2) is available here.

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