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Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett at Riverside Studios
70.8 x 42.8 cm
National Portrait Gallery

Samuel Beckett at Riverside Studios
24.1 x 16.5 cm
National Portrait Gallery

The following appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (USA, Summer 1987 Vol VII No. 2) and was asked for by its guest editor Nick Zurbrugg for a Samuel Beckett Number. It was accompanied in the review by reproductions from the sketchbook I used when drawing Beckett. I made from these drawings two lithographs, one in colour, and an oil painting (Marcus Collection, New York). I reprint the text unchanged except for the restored spelling of 'theatre' which the journal had corrected to 'theater'.

My studio wall takes its motto from a recent work (Worstward Ho) by Samuel Beckett. Together with another similarly spare piece of advice, taken from an interview with Marlene Dietrich ('Es geht auch ohne'), stand the words, 'No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

I've known Beckett's work for thirty years or so, since the first London production of Waiting for Godot, mainly on the stage and (almost by preference) on the radio. I like to hear him filtered through voices like those of the late Jack MacGowran and the late Patrick McGee (even the voices are dying now). I have not read him often on the page except in critical writings where he frequently shows an eccentric loyalty to certain painters.

The only play of any kind that I've ever directed is Come and Go, which I put on at Wolverhampton School of Art in 1970. I left it as enigmatic as I found it. Wolverhampton is a town designed by Samuel Beckett. I used the phrase 'Come and Go' as a title for a series of pictures relating to people on park benches in postcards [produced by the Arnolfini Gallery Bristol. cf Works and Texts to 1974, p. 154].

Beckett writes about people in hells, but they are not hells like Dante's, which has no hope. After the boiling of the miserable bowl there is a hard and irreducible speck of optimism: this is what makes Beckett for me a joyful author.

When Beckett was in London last year [1984], rehearsing the San Quentin group in Waiting for Godot at the Riverside Theatre, I was asked by David Gothard, its director, if I would come along and do some drawings.

I sat in on five or six days of rehearsal. Beckett is a quiet and kind man, and was indulgent to the small group of earnest academics who hovered about and noted down every cough and whisper that came from him: he endured their parasitism with the dignity of a beast on the plain on whom cattle egrets perch and feed.

The atmosphere at Riverside Studios is relaxed and at communal mealtimes there was often good talk. As time went on Beckett grew noticeably tired of being questioned about his work and being treated with inappropriate bonhomie by some of the egrets. He was giving, all the time, both to actors and academics; and there was no one who had anything to offer him.

I talked with him a few times and restricted my conversation to things like cricket and Dante and smoking. He smokes small, cheap cigars, happy with the ones that he could get at the local corner shop. He does not follow cricket these days and hasn't admired a batsman since Woolley. If he was as penetrating a slow left arm bowler as he was a critic of parts of my translation of Dante's Inferno, he must have been formidable. He is of course the only Nobel Prize winner to appear in Wisden.

The best bits of these London days were for him the solitary tube journeys to and from the theatre.

At the beginning I did not know quite how to set about drawing him. I'm not a very good lightning sketcher. To move up in front of him would evidently have been an intrusion on his work there. Sitting behind, trying to form a strategy, I gradually realized that the back of his head was as eloquent as the front, and as recognizable. Beyond the head from this viewpoint was of course the stage and his play. Beckett's privateness as a person would be both respected by the unobtrusive artist at his back and reflected in the picture which would emphasize, as he would, the work in favour of the man. Beckett has a half-military, half-monastic stillness which was helpful to my task. Mirroring this on the stage was a charcter who is condemned to remain still for large slice of the action, Lucky. After a few false starts, this seemed the ideal combination for an image which corresponded to physical and moral aspects of the event, an image which might have 'theatre'.

Initially I positioned myself so that I caught some of the side view of his face but settled in the end, in doing the most finished of the drawings, for a full back view in which each of Beckett's majestic ears is seen to good advantage: they are after all the most sensitive ears for language alive.

I tried in the final work to echo Beckett's own simplicity (his voice has taken up a thread first found in Britain in the sparse verbal commentary of the Bayeux Tapestry.) Of course I have not fully succeeded. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Work and Texts (1992),  pp. 192-193

The Portrait Works (1989),  p. 50-51