Samuel Beckett

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Samuel Beckett's Belief

Samuel Beckett's Belief

I will be discussing how Endgame works in performance, and in the process setting up a dialogue with those for whom it doesn't work, in an attempt to discover why - and how - it does so profoundly for some. Samuel Beckett described it as 'the favourite of my plays' (Gontarski xv), or alternatively as 'the one I dislike least' (McMillan 163). Hugh Kenner calls it Beckett's 'single most remarkable work' (Kenner 165), while Harold Bloom states that 'Endgame is Beckett's masterpiece' (Bloom 8). Katharine Worth recognizes that it 'draws out reactions of dislike' (Worth 9), and reports one theatre critic who describes Katie Mitchell's production as 'Chinese water torture' (Worth 56).1 This is a fairly recent response, and what I think is useful is to go back to much earlier responses to this play. Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan were two British critics who, rather against the tide of contemporary theatre critics, reacted favourably to the British premiere of Waiting for Godot.2 That English audiences did not immediately take to Godot was for Hobson 'hardly surprising,' as they 'notoriously dislik[e] anything not understandable' (Hobson 1955 93). Godot is now considered a classic, and nowadays many may well be surprised at its early reception, and even question whether 'understanding' Beckett's drama is really the issue.

Tynan begins his review of Godot by suggesting that 'a special virtue attaches to plays which remind the drama of how much it can do without and still exist' (Tynan 1995 95). This seems to me remarkably astute. He cares, he tells us, 'for the way it pricked and stimulated my own nervous system,' and the way 'it forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto governed the drama; and, having done so, to pronounce that they are not elastic enough' (Tynan 1955 97). Again, very useful insights are being expressed here: he is recognizing the profound effects upon the individual of this innovative drama, and also appreciating the way Beckett has stretched of the rules of drama through a process of reduction - a remarkable achievement.

If we then turn to their reviews of Fin de Partie (the original version of Endgame, written in French)3 we hear Hobson describe it as 'magnificent' (Hobson 1957 164), and contend that the play

has outraged the Philistines, earned the contempt of half-wits and filled those who are capable of telling the difference between theatre and a bawdy-house with a profound and sombre and paradoxical joy (Hobson 1957 161).

Tynan is neither a Philistine or a half-wit, and his review of Godot makes this perfectly clear. But for Tynan in Godot there was 'a human affirmation' that is missing from Fin de Partie; in this play Beckett is described as 'stamping on the face of mankind' (Tynan 1957 165). Tynan's response has lost the appreciation of dramatic rule-breaking and is much more involved with the content, even 'the message' as he sees it:

For a short time I am prepared to listen in any theatre ...
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