From a Catastrophe to a Mistake: Beckett and Havel
In a guest post to mark the anniversary of Samuel Beckett’s death, Mary Boland writes on the relationship between the Irish playwright and the man who was in many way’s his Czech counterpart, Václav Havel
AS SAMUEL BECKETT lay dying in a Paris hospital in December 1989, the news that Václav Havel was to be president of Czechoslovakia brought a weak smile to his lips. The Irish author, who died 22 years ago today, shares a lot more with his Czech counterpart, who is to be buried tomorrow, than a proximate anniversary of death.
There was much mutual respect between them, and a shared concern that artists should never be silenced. Beckett, who tended not to mix politics with his art, made an exception by writing his most overtly political play, Catastrophe, and dedicating it to the then jailed dissident in 1982. Havel responded in kind after his release the following year by penning the play Mistake for Beckett.
The one-act Catastrophe, in which a director and his female assistant discuss a mute figure who is degraded and dehumanised as they prepare him for a performance, was written to be performed at the Avignon festival in July 1982 as part of Une Nuit pour Václav Havel (A Night for Václav Havel). It followed an invitation by the International Association for the Defence of Artists to a group of writers, including Beckett, Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel, to support the playwright, who was serving a 4½-year sentence for “subversive activities”. Beckett, horrified that Havel had been forbidden to write while in detention, immediately accepted.
Vaclav Havel, then leader of the Prague opposition (right), and Alexander Dubcek, leader of the ill-fated Prague Spring, toast as they celebrate the resignation of the Czech Polit Bureau on November 24th, 1989. Photograph: Dusan Vrasnic/AP
For a work by a playwright who said the key to much of his art was the word “perhaps”, Catastrophe offers a hard-hitting and clear statement on endurance in the face of torture and suffering. Its ending is startling: the much-prodded and humiliated protagonist raises his head in defiance of his handlers and, in a symbolic gesture of solidarity to anyone subjected to injustice, he fixes the audience with a piercing stare.
Beckett’s biographer James Knowlson, in Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, recounts the author’s reaction to a review that claimed the ending of the play was ambiguous. “There’s no ambiguity at all,” said Beckett. “‘He’s saying: you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet!’”
Contrary to what many might think, Beckett’s work is a call for perseverance, not pessimism. The themes of his writing resonate deeply with people who find themselves in similar predicaments to those of his characters. “You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play, Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps,” wrote a resident of Lüttringhausen penitentiary, near Wuppertal in Germany, in a letter to Beckett in October 1954. Signing off as un prisonnier (a prisoner), he had read Godot over and over, translated it into German, got the go-ahead to stage it in the prison, then had cast it and acted in it himself. There was further correspondence from a prisoner in San Quentin in California, Rick Cluchey, who, with the help of Beckett’s support, is today a renowned theatre director.
In contrast to the initial audiences of his work, those who instantaneously “got” Beckett were not the bourgeois crowds who filled the theatres merely to find out what all the fuss was about, and who wanted everything in the works explained. The playwright once lost patience with the actor Ralph Richardson who, said Beckett, “wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae”. He told Richardson “that if by Godot I meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly.”
Beckett, Knowlson wrote, was deeply moved after the showing of Catastrophe to get a letter from Havel describing how his wife, “on the occasion of one of her one-hour visits allowed four times a year”, told him about the night of solidarity that had taken place at Avignon. “For a long time afterwards there accompanied me in the prison a great joy and emotion,” he wrote to Beckett. The news helped him “to live on amidst all the dirt and baseness”.
His own play, Mistake, in some ways carries on the same theme as Catastrophe: a group of prisoners gang up on a newcomer who has failed to observe the rituals of their imprisonment. Havel wrote to Beckett: “During the dark fifties when I was 16 or 18 years of age, in a country where there were virtually no cultural or other contacts with the outside world, luckily I had the opportunity to read Waiting for Godot … I have been immensely influenced by you as a human being, and in a way as a writer too.”
Waiting for Godot came to symbolise the agony of the Czechoslovak opposition – like the prisoner in Germany, they waited for what felt like an eternity for something that seemed unlikely ever to come. When the communist government fell in 1989, just before Beckett’s death, protesters took to the streets of Prague with posters saying: “Godot is here.” Beckett lived just long enough to learn that his friend’s persistence and defiance had brought him to lead a nation, but not to see him inaugurated on December 29th.