A sporting chance for Beckett fans

Wed, Jul 25, 2012, 01:00

The writer would have been amused by the ‘Bend it Like Beckett’ section of an upcoming festival in his honour in Enniskillen, writes GERRY MORIARTY

PROF JAMES Knowlson, the friend and authorised biographer of Samuel Beckett, was careful when he came calling on the writer. “For instance I learned never to make an appointment with him on Saturday afternoons when the international rugby games were on, particularly when Ireland and France were playing,” he says.

That love of sport was illustrated in the physicality of some of Beckett’s theatrical work, says the 78-year-old emeritus professor who is founder of and adviser to the Beckett International Archive at the University of Reading. It is likely to be evident in the production of Krapp’s Last Tape by Beckett, performed by the American avant-garde actor and director Robert Wilson, one of the highlights of the first annual Happy Days Samuel Beckett festival, in Enniskillen, from August 23rd-27th.

The festival, founded and directed by Seán Doran, who has organised similar arts events around the world, is being held in the Fermanagh town on the back of Beckett’s connection with Portora Royal school, where he was a boarder from 1920-1923.

Beckett had ambivalent views about his second-level Enniskillen alma mater. Despite several invitations as a Nobel Laureate and distinguished alumnus, he never returned there, says Knowlson. Beckett would have been taken with the impressive theatrical, literary, musical and artistic programme for the event, says Knowlson, who will speak at the festival.

He would probably also have been amused by the Bend it Like Beckett section of the festival, which involves sports such as rugby, rowing, cycling, cricket and athletics.

Of course with Beckett it might have been a mirthless sort of amusement because, as is clear from Prof Knowlson and from his Beckett biography, Damned to Fame, even as a student in Portora he was subject to the gloom and despondency that was such a feature of his novels, plays and poetry.

Beckett arrived at Portora in 1920, three years after his brother Frank. Knowlson says the sense of Portora being relatively safe from the political tumult in Ireland at the time was a factor in their Dublin parents sending the brothers to the school, although it was also a “traditional place for reasonably well-to-do Irish businessmen to send their sons to be educated”.

At Portora he was taciturn and detached, yet could also be a team player, a facility that served him well when working with directors and actors. He was an all-rounder at sports, excelling at cricket, rugby and boxing, making the first 11 and first 15 from his early days at the school and becoming Portora light heavyweight champion.

Beckett was bullied in his first term but he put his boxing skills to early use to give a “terrible hiding” to the ringleader of his tormentors, ensuring thereafter that there was no more persecution. Boxing remained an interest throughout his life, Knowlson says, recalling Beckett’s particular appreciation of the skills of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Knowlson is certain Portora was not the making of Beckett as a writer; that sense of literary vocation came later. But his humanity – he joined the French Resistance in Paris – and wit, “which are also characteristics of his writing”, were sharpened at the school, he says.

Knowlson recounts how in his early 20s, as Beckett was finding himself, so to speak, he taught for two terms at Campbell College near Stormont in Belfast. He made some cutting comments in end-of-term reports for some of the boys, for which the headmaster reminded him he was teaching the “cream of Ulster”. “Yes, I know,” Beckett replied, “rich and thick”. His view of Belfast at the time was that it was “a dreary place” and had “no grace”.

At Portora the writers he liked were Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley. He was also an enthusiast for the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Knowlson suspects an important influence here and that the irreverence and gentle surrealism of Leacock and Gilbert played into some of his writing, although in darker form.

He was also an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes and other stories of Arthur Conan Doyle – a love of detective novels that lasted throughout his adult life – and once in Portora took six-of-the-best from a teacher who discovered him in the bed of another boy after lights out. He was 14 at the time and knew nothing about sex, says Knowlson – he was merely outlining the plot to his friend.

Overall, he regarded Portora as a tough school, but despite his refusal to return he realised full well its place in helping form the man. “When I talked to him about it, he had a real kind of appreciation of what he owed to Portora, but I think that for him it was something that was in the past,” says Knowlson.