The Beckett letters
A newly published collection of Samuel Beckett’s letters reveals the warmth and the personality of a playwright better known for his austerity and seriousness, writes GERRY SMYTH
These six letters that Samuel Beckett wrote between 1946 and 1956 are mostly about topics related to Ireland and his relationship to the homeplace. The tantalising notion of the great playwright taking up employment with RGDATA – the Retail, Grocery, Dairy Allied Trades Association – is hinted at in the first letter. Much of the remainder of the correspondence in these extracts from the newly published second volume of Beckett’s letters has to do with the Dublin production of Waiting for Godotin 1955 at the tiny Pike Theatre, founded by Alan Simpson and his wife, Carolyn Swift (later a dance critic for this newspaper), who, after the success of En Attendant Godotin Paris, where the play had opened in 1952, were clearly attempting one-upmanship by seeking to have a run in Dublin before the English-language version opened in London.
In April 1946 Beckett wrote to his friend George Reavey after stopping over with him in London on his way from Paris to Dublin. His novel Watt had been sent to A P Watt Son, a literary agency, by another friend, the Dublin writer Leslie Daiken. Reavey, who was born in Russia to a Belfast father and Russian mother, was part of a circle of writers that included many of Beckett’s closest literary associates, Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and James Joyce. After Reavey’s father was arrested in 1919, his mother took him to Belfast at the age of 12. He spent much of the 1930s in Paris, where he established the Europa Press, which published the poems of Beckett and other modernist writers.
April 25th 1946 Dublin
I want to thank you again for your kindness to me while I was in London. I got a taxi and the train all right, but was nearly left behind at Holyhead, with a number of unfortunates. There were 1500 on board, the limit being 1000.
I am taking things very easy here, writing a little and walking a lot.
The place is lousy with guzzling tourists. I haven’t seen Tom or anyone else so far.
I had a note from Watt (which?) regretting that he had not seen me and acknowledging my remarks on the Chatto-Cape-Routledge etc.caucus.
I see advertised in to-day’s Irish Times an editorial vacancy on the staff of the RGDATA (Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades-Association) Review at £300 per an. I think seriously of applying. Any experience of trade journalism would be so useful.
In November 1953 Beckett wrote to his friend AJ (Con) Leventhal, who had succeeded him as lecturer in French at Trinity College Dublin. Alan Simpson of the Pike Theatre in Dublin was seeking to put on his production of Waiting for Godot. Leventhal reviewed Godot in Dublin Magazine, calling it the most important drama of the century. The Ethna referred to is Ethna McCarthy, a doctor and fellow Trinity College student reputed to have been Beckett’s first love. She was then in Paris to complete exams for a position with the World Health Organisation. She later married Leventhal. Jean Martin was the French actor who played Lucky in the original Paris production; he died in 2009.
A. J. LEVENTHAL
17/11/53 Rue des Favorites
My dear Con
I have received a letter from one Alan Simpson representing the Pike Theatre Club, 18A Herbert Lane, asking for permission to present Godot. Before committing myself I should very much like to know what you think of them and also if you would eventually consent to supervise the production. I would not come over myself and it would be a great relief to feel you were there with your knowledge of the theatre and understanding of the play. I have translated the text myself, pretty literally, and am now beginning to revise it for publication in New York next Spring. Shall send you the MS as soon as ready if you are interested in taking on this probably thankless job.
Ethna is still here with the Précigout and having a pretty wretched time. We had dinner together yesterday. If she can stick it out here long enough I think there is a good chance that things will straighten themselves or something else turn up. But it is likely to drag on for a long time.
Shall write a longer letter when I get your reply to this.
Yours ever s/ Sam
Ethna tells me you are preparing a lecture on the modern French theatre. I suggest you should write to Roger Blin (metteur en scène et Pozzo de Godot), saying you are an old friend of mine and asking him whatever you feel like asking him. Address: 264 Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris 1er. You should not omit Adamov and Ionesco, especially the latter, the first volume of whose theatre is now available in book form.
I can have him send it to you if you wish. When is your lecture? Martin (Lucky) may be going to Dublin next month and would give you the lowdown on the whole situation. A very nice fellow into the bargain.
In July 1954 Beckett wrote to Donald Albery, the impresario who a year later would stage the London production of Waiting for Godot that, even without the hoped-for Alec Guinness in its cast, established the playwright’s name. Beckett sent the letter from the Killiney home of his dying brother, Frank, during Beckett’s final trip to Ireland.
July 4th 1954 Shottery,
Dear Mr. Albery,
Thank you for your letter of June 28th. I have seen the Pike Theatre people and explained our point of view. They now seek permission to put on the play in their tiny theatre here one week after London opening.
I do not think there can be any objection to this. But I await your assent – at your earliest convenience – before giving them mine.
I have been thinking over your project of a pre-London showing in Dublin. My feeling is that this would be ill-advised. I am very poorly thought of in this town and even a first-class performance of Godot here is likely to provoke very hostile reactions. Indeed I find myself wondering if it would not be preferable, in the case of this play, to forget any form of provincial tour and present it directly in London.
If Alec Guinness’s uncertainty as to his commitments is to hold us up much longer, I think we should decide to look for someone else.
In February 1955 Beckett wrote to Alan Simpson to tell him that he could not give permission for the Pike Theatre to stage Godot before its London run. Peter Glenville was the producer who hoped to convince Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson to appear in that London production. “The Q. F.” isThe Quare Fellow, by Brendan Behan (referred to here as the new O’Casey), which had premiered at the Pike Theatre in late 1954.
February 7th 1955 Rue des Favorites
My dear Alan Simpson
Thank you for your letter. Donald Albery has now got rid of the star-obsessed Glenville and acquired for himself exclusively a further six months option on Godot. He says, as usual, that he will now press forward with production, and perhaps he will, with only himself to please. In any case I am afraid we must stick to our agreement with him not to produce in Dublin before the London opening. In other words I cannot give you formally permission at this stage to open at the Pike on April 23rd, though it is quite possible you may be able to do so. I think your best course would be to hold your horses until we get a definite date from Albery and in the meantime get on with something else. Sorry for all this mess.
Glad to hear of your success with “The Q.F.” Remember me to the new O’Casey.
Yours sincerely s/ Sam. Beckett
In November 1955, after the first London and Dublin productions of Godot, Beckett wrote to his friend Niall Montgomery, whom he had met through Leventhal. Montgomery was an architect, partly involved in the design of the Dublin airport buildings constructed in the 1930s. He was also a sculptor and poet and wrote essays on Joyce and Beckett, including the first published critical study of Beckett’s work, No Symbols Where None Intended – the title taken from this letter. Giorgio Joyce, mentioned in this letter, was the son of James Joyce. The Scholards’ dinner was the Trinity College scholars’ dinner; “toothless tyminds” is a wordplay on “twosome twiminds” (Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) and “Laburnum tendrils” is a phrase from Joyce’s poem Alone, from Pomes Penyeach. The O’Briens are Conor Cruise O’Brien (then a counsellor in the Irish Embassy in Paris) and his wife, Christine. John Beckett was the playwright’s cousin, and a composer, musician and teacher at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Several of his compositions were to accompany works by Beckett, including a BBC reading of Molloy by Patrick Magee and a Claddagh Records reading by Jack MacGowran, with Beckett on the gong. Robert Pinget was the Geneva-born writer who became one of Beckett’s closest friends and a literary soulmate. Pinget translatedAll That Fall into French and Beckett translated Pinget’sLa Manivelle into English, asThe Old Tune .
November 2nd 1955 6 Rue des Favorites Paris 15me
It did my old pinking heart a power of good to have your warm and affectionate letter. They seem to have done a good job in the Pike, though Simpson writes that he is not pleased with his Estragon and confessing to having made minor improvements in the text. The reviews I have seen seem hardly less foolish if less venomous than usual. The whole affair is so simple, no symbols where none intended.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to get over to see it and you all, you all and it.
But perhaps next year, Con has his hooks in me for the Scholard’s Dinner, our last chance probably. If I do, and the family dying dead, it’s the quare times we’ll be having. I’m in toothless twyminds at the moment about proceeding to Broadway where it opens in January and this old hag invited expenses paid. Looking forward rather to assisting at a revival in a Rhineland penitentiary by a group of thieves, embezzlers, assassins and sexual aberrants, I’m told they had the gaolers in tears. I had a good week in Zurich with Giorgio Joyce seeing the ways the father went and where they ended. Laburnum tendrils how are you. No I have not yet meet [sic] the O’Briens, Desmond Ryan has great accounts of them and wants to arrange it, but I have a phobia about Irish officials. I’m glad Curran went and admitted there might be something, remember me warmly to him. John Beckett is here for a week, we are trying to do something together, tell you about it another time, I’ll be sorry to see him go. No news of Deirdre. Morris very prosperous at WHO, hardly ever see him now. I met Sheila Murphy at a party at Ryan’s, depressed at the thought of going home. Enclosed a letter might divert you, typical of many, tear it up and keep the stamps. I saw some of Mercier’s stuff, very gratifying I’ll be bound.What about your own play, don’t mind its going yellow, my first is mahogany, do another. Have a little book coming out here very soon, first and last gasps in French, 1945 and 1950, if I forget to send it write demanding, but I won’t. Very tired, stupid, dirty, old and willless, all systems capital S, and somewhere the vague wish I could mind.
Affectionately to you all.
Tante belle Pinget seems to have got bogged in
cose to London, he’ll probably be over
JBY.14in Dublin later on.15
In January 1956 Beckett wrote to Seumas O’Sullivan, a poet and editor of Dublin Magazine. Stella, his wife, was Estella Solomons, an artist. Not only did Beckett refuse membership of the academy; he did return to Dublin to attend the Trinity College scholars’ dinner.
January 21st 1956 6 Rue des Favorites
I am very touched and flattered by your wishing to propose me for election to the Irish Academy of Letters.
To my deep regret I have to tell you that I could not accept membership.
I should be distressed if you were to think of me, because of this, as unfriendly or systematically aloof.
I could not belong and I could not be a credit to any academy.
It is not with a light heart that I forgo the honour, or the chance of the honour, of joining a company of writers presided by you.
Please give my very warm regards to Stella.
With best wishes
Your friend s/ Sam
These letters, each introduced here by Gerry Smyth, are from The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck and published by Cambridge University Press, £30