Mel Gussow: Uproarious Pessimism
In the late 1940s, over a period of a little more than a year, Samuel Beckett wrote Molloy and Malone Dies, the first two parts of his trilogy of novels, and Waiting for Godot. It was for him and for us a miraculous year. He had turned to theater, he later told me, as relief from the blackness of prose. The play was written quickly—in four months—and when it was finished, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, not yet his wife, took it and his earlier play, Eleutheria, around to producers, all of whom rejected them. It was, Beckett said, like giving them to the concierge.
Finally, Roger Blin decided to stage Godot, and in Paris on January 5, 1953, it was performed for the first time. Beckett did not attend the opening, beginning a lifelong habit of not watching his plays in the presence of an audience. The first review in Paris welcomed Beckett as one of today’s best playwrights, a fact that at the time was not universally acknowledged. Now, almost fifty years later, Godot is accepted as the cornerstone of contemporary theater, and Beckett himself remains a towering figure in the world of theater and literature.
I first met Beckett in 1978, and came to know him during the subsequent decade. In our conversations he would never talk about the meaning of his work, and one would never ask. But he did speak about how he wrote or about productions of his plays, and we would talk about tennis, painting, politics, and other playwrights. On occasion, he would look back on his life and on his work with the French Resistance during World War II. Always there was his passionate commitment on questions of censorship and artistic freedom.
In 1986, in anticipation of his eightieth birthday, I sent him a letter asking if he might have something to say for a piece I was going to write. In response he wrote, “I have nothing to say about the sad unevent and its sad effects for publication or otherwise. Forgive.” To have said anything else would not have been Beckettian.
Our last meeting was in 1989, in a small, unadorned room, almost as bare as a cell, or a setting for a Beckett play. He was living out the last months of his life in a Paris nursing home, rereading his schoolboy copy of The Divine Comedy in Italian. We each had a glass of Irish whiskey and as we talked, he suddenly rose from his chair and began walking around the room, like the character in Footfalls, pacing out his days with no end yet in sight. This was the final image I had of Beckett, but I am filled with thoughts about his dedication to his work, his persistence, and his insistence that, despite all obstacles, an artist should try again, fail better.
I’m also filled with memories of his openness, and his willingness to meet people, even critics, on their own terms, and to enjoy their company. And of his humor, his love of clowns, and his gift for creating moments of uproarious pessimism.
After Beckett died, his nephew Edward arranged for me to visit his uncle’s apartment in Paris. Beckett’s home, in common with so much else in his life, was kept private. His study was as he had left it, lined with his favorite books, some of them inscribed to him, and his own complete works, in English, French, German, and Japanese. Perched outside on the sill of a single window was a metal figure of a man, a sculpture titled Invalide, and in all seasons it remained exposed to the weather of the world. Although one might be tempted to draw a parallel between the sculpture and its stoical owner, I could feel Beckett admonishing: no symbols where none are intended.
The view from the window looking toward La Sante Prison was bleak. One could imagine him sitting here, composing his dead-of-night soliloquies, and in his last year, “What Is the Word,” his final expression of the folly of trying to use language to account for life.