When Maeve Binchy met Samuel Beckett: ‘He thinks the play is a song, or a long rhythmic poem’

From the archive, May 14th, 1980: the author sits in on a rehearsal of Endgame in London

Samuel Beckett has consistently refused to give interviews to journalists so, when Maeve Binchy got permission to watch him directing a rehearsal of Endgame, it was on the understanding that she would sit there silently and ask no questions. But then Beckett came over to talk to her

Beckett looks 54 not 74; he looks like a Frenchman, not an Irishman, and he certainly looks more like a man about to go off and do a day’s hard manual work rather than direct one of his own plays for a cast which looks on him as a messiah come to rehearsal.

He has spikey hair which looks as if he had just washed it or had made an unsuccessful attempt to do a Brylcreem job on it and given up half way through. He has long narrow fingers, and the lines around his eyes go out in a fan, from years of smiling rather than years of intense brooding.

He is in London to direct the San Quentin Workshop production of Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape for Dublin’s Peacock Theatre. It will open in Dublin on May 26th.

Beckett has become very involved with this San Quentin group since the early ’60s when he heard what was happening in the big American jail. One of the convicts. Rick Cluchey, who was serving what might have been a life sentence for a kidnap and robbery but which turned out to be only 11 years, persuaded the authorities to let the prisoners do Beckett plays and they performed them in a studio theatre in what used to be the prison’s gallows room.

Rick Cluchey knows nearly every word that Beckett has written but, when he is in a position of actor with Beckett as director, he says he tries to forget everything he ever thought himself, tries to strip his mind and memory of actors’ tricks and his own interpretations, and just wait like a blank sheet of paper for Beckett to tell him what to do.

The plays made such an impact on the prisoners who immediately saw similarities between the imprisonment felt by Beckett’s characters and themselves that they were repeated over and over. The word got out and it even got as far as Beckett in Europe.

Nowadays, Cluchey and Beckett are friends, something that the convict in San Quentin would have thoug ht impossible. Cluchey and his wife, Teresita Garcia Suro, have called their two young children after Beckett and his wife, Suzanne.

This is what was happening down at the Riverside Studios in London where they were getting the rather minimal set ready for a rehearsal of Endgame. They needed a chair for Hamm to sit in, a ladder for Clov to run up and down, and a dustbin for Nagg. Nell, the other dustbin inhabitant, hadn’t arrived yet, (she is Teresita and was coming over from America the next day), so this day Beckett played Nell.

He was endlessly finicky and pernickety about the height and shape of the props , he ran up and down Clov’s ladder a dozen times to see was it the right kind of ladder, and if it gave Clov space to turn around and deliver his lines.

He sat in Hamm’s chair another dozen times raising it and lowering it so that it would be at the right angle when Clov came over to whisper in his ear. I thought I was going to die with irritation and impatience but the American actors, Bud Thorpe, Alan Mandell and Rick Cluchey, hung on every instruction and rushed to carry it out.

Douglas Kennedy from the Peacock Theatre in Dublin sat with his notebook, taking heed of all the requirements that would be needed in Dublin. Finally, Beckett got down to words.

The main thing you’d notice is that he thinks the play is a song, or a long rhythmic poem. He can hear the rhythm, he can hear it quite clearly in his head and his work as a director is to get the actors to hear it too. That’s why he goes over and over each line, saying it not all that much differently to the actor (in fact you’d have to strain to hear the difference), but it has a beat the way he says it and, once that beat is caught by the actors, it sounds quite different.

He stands there in front of them, mouthing the lines they say wordperfect in his own play, up to the pauses and the half pauses, quite confident th at this conversation between wretched imprisoned people is almost the obvious definition of the human condition. He doesn’t ever apolog ise for his own work, excuse it or say, “What I’m trying to say here is this . . .”

In fact, it seems to stand there beside him, this play, as if it was an important statement, and he is just helping the actors to unveil it.

Beckett is courteous, he never raises his voice. “Bud , may I suggest something here?” he says to a young American actor, Bud Thorpe, who thinks that, when he has grandchildren, they’ll never believe this, not in a million years.

“Alan, Alan, take the rhythm. You have to knock on the bin, the rhythm comes in the knocks, it sets the speed for the conversation. Come, no, I’ll get into my bin . . .”

And Beckett sits down beside Alan Mandell to play the loving scene between the two dustbin-imprisoned folk who can only remember wish and regret. Alan Mandell says he’ll never forget it to his dying day.

He has ludicrous energy, Beckett. When the actors, all decades younger than him, were tiring, needing a break, a coffee, he was still as fresh as when he started, the tones, the rhythms were running thr ough him; his spare body, in its almost traditional uniform of two thin polonecked sweaters, moved from side to side of the stage, bending, crouching, stretching. Even I, sitting silently on my chair, began to feel weary and wish he’d stop for a few minutes.

He did. He lit another of the small cheroots he smoked and came over to me. I looked behind me nervously, assuming he was going to talk to someone else.

It had been a very firm arrangement. I could watch but not talk. Write but not interview. I assumed he was going to ask me to leave.

He introduced himself to me as formally as if I might have had no idea who he was and assumed he was someone who came in off the street to direct the play. He asked how The Irish Times was gett ing on and I gave him the usual loyal craven tale about it being the best newspaper in the world. He only saw it from time to time, he said, but he seemed to go along with my opinion of its excellence.

“I remember it more in the days of Bertie Symllie,” he said. “Did you know him?”

“No, but I believe he was a bit of a personality,” I said, helpfully wishing that, when Beckett had decided to talk to me, that I could find something entertaining to say to him.

“My memory of him was that he ran his newspaper from the pubs and that there were circles around him, listening to what he wanted to do and running away to do it. He used to drink in the Palace. Is the Pearl still there?”

“No, it’s been bought by the Bank,” I said. “The bank,” said Beckett thoughtfully, “the bank. How extraordinary.”

It seemed to upset him deeply. I wondered should I tell him about all the alternative drinking places we had found, but I decided that he was more brought down by the notion of the bank owning the Pearl than the actual deprivation of the drink in it.

“And I believe the Ballast Office clock has gone,” he said gloomily. I agreed and hoped that he might hit on something that was still there in Dublin.

“How do people know what time it is?” he asked.

“I think they sort of strain and look down the river at the Custom House,” I said.

“It’s the wrong angle,” he said.

He was silent then, and I wondered was he really concerned about the people not knowing what time it was, or had he gone off on a different train of thought.

“Will you come to Dublin yourself to see this?” I asked.

“Not this time, no, I shan’t be coming this time,” he said.

His accent is sibilant French with a lot of Dublin in it. Not as lispy as Sean MacBride but not unlike it, either. I was afraid I had given him a bum steer by letting him dwell on the Ballast Office and the Pearl.

“There’s a lot of it left, you know,” I said.

He smiled. “I’m sure there is, but I must get back to France and Germany . . . that’s where my work is . . .”

“What are you working on next?” I asked him.

“A television play, it will be done for German television in Stuttgart. I like Stuttgart, not the town itself, it’s down in a hole, a deep hole, but I like when you go up on the hills outside Stuttgart. And I like the peop le there that I work with . . . I am looking forward to it.”

“Does it have a name?” I wondered.

“No name, and no dialogue, no words.”

“That’s a pity,” I said. After a morning of listening to his words I could have done with more. Anyway, I’m rigid enough to think that a play should have words, for God’s sake.

He saw this on my face, and he smiled a bit. “It will be very satisfactory,” he assured me. “It’s all movement , activity, percussion, cohesion . . .”

“Why do you like working with the people in Germany on this sort of thing ?” I asked, the tinge of jealousy evident in my tone.

“Oh, they understand, we understand the rhythm of it . . .” he said.

He picked up the issue of The Irish Times that was on my lap, and looked at it for a while, not really reading, more remembering.

He had liked Alec Newman, he said, a very gentle man. He had admired Myles na Gopaleen and laughed so much at everything he had written but had been a bit disappointed when he met him because he had expected too much.

There were a lot of things he thought of about Dublin from time to time.

Niall Montgomery. Had I known him? He was a good man.

He decided that those young actors had had enough rest. He went back to them.

They took up at a part of the play where Hamm has to say, “This is not much fun.” Rick Cluchey as Hamm said his line, giving it all the weight it deserved.

“I think,” said Beckett , “I think that it would be dangerous to have any pause at all after that line. We don’t want to give people time to agree with you. You must move and reply to him before the audience start to agree with him.”

And Beckett laughed and lit another cheroot and settled in for hours’ more work.

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