Even Beckett’s playing the game of thrones

HBO’s bloody, pervy fantasy series has begun tapping some unlikely literary sources

End Game: Arya Stark and the Dying Man (Barry McGovern) in Game of Thrones

End Game: Arya Stark and the Dying Man (Barry McGovern) in Game of Thrones

Fri, Jun 6, 2014, 00:00

Two tired, wandering figures arrive at a desolate place. Here they find a man, slumped outside his ransacked home, slowly bleeding to death. To judge from his expression, he seems reasonably put out by the whole thing. “You shouldn’t be sitting out here like this,” one visitor advises. “Where else to sit?” he responds.

And so begins one of the most unlikely juxtapositions (and loving in-jokes) in must-see TV: an episode of Game of Thrones with guest writing by Samuel Beckett.

At least, that’s the tone. Broadcast in the US a couple of weeks ago, these three minutes of the famously bloody, regularly pervy fantasy show took what must have seemed to many viewers like a bizarre detour. Over the course of four increasingly sadistic series, major characters have been abruptly dispatched with a sudden swoop of a blade or the gurgle of poison. Here was the meditative death of a cameo.

The Dying Man was played by Barry McGovern, our pre-eminent Beckett performer, grave and gravelly, and gamely retained to talk about pointlessness and persistence. Those are qualities that anyone this far into GoT really ought to consider.

“So, why go on?” asks Arya Stark. “Habit,” the Dying Man says. That’s as neat an explanation of living as it is for box-set compulsiveness. Sure, it’s a lift (“Habit is a great deadener,” says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot), but nothing in GoT is likely to surpass it. McGovern’s delivery, meanwhile – throwaway yet freighted – brought a lightness of touch and depth of thought that has otherwise eluded the programme.

There are other echoes of theatre: Arya – brutally orphaned, disguised (badly) as a boy and out to avenge her murdered family – could be a nod to the complete works of Shakespeare. Her double- act with the Hound, a fearsome mercenary, is characterised by so much waiting and bitter rejoinders you could already call it Beckettian. But does GoT deserve the association?

There’s probably real affection in the grab. The show’s creators, Dan Weiss and David Benioff, met as graduate students at TCD, where Benioff wrote his thesis on Beckett. (Spoiler: Weiss’s subject was Joyce; the final series will be told as a stream-of-consciousness monologue.) “Nothing could be worse than this,” counsels Arya. “Maybe nothing is worse than this,” says the Dying Man and, for a while, Beckett makes for good television.

Oddly, that’s rarely the case with Beckett’s own TV writing, whose severity never led any TV network to a significant ratings boost. Last week, Pan Pan and IMDT presented a brilliant workshop performance of Quad, Beckett’s movement system for four performers pursuing a mathematical course through a square structure, approaching – but never meeting – each other at its centre (“a danger zone”).

The Dublin Dance Festival performance was illuminating in every field, but one animation reminded you of an existential version of Pacman. And it may have been deliberate: The high culture of Beckett has often found easy purchase in mass culture. Think of Sesame Street’s Waiting for Elmo (“A play so brilliant it makes absolutely no sense”)or the scholarly exegesis, Quad I and Teletubbies or: “Aisthetic” Panopticism Versus Reading Beckett.

You think this can’t go on? It will go on. (The Happy Days Festival is right around the corner.) Beckett, it seems, is everywhere: perhaps it’s a good habit.

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