An Irishman's Diary
SOMEHOW the phrase “Samuel Beckett Summer School” does not trip lightly off the tongue. Some would suggest the current Irish summer is quite Beckettian enough without going the whole hog, but the word “summer” contains residual associations of relaxation, mild hedonism, open air enjoyment, etc, that do not seem quite to fit with the general ambience of S Beckett.
The master himself is not very encouraging in this regard: “For if there were two things that Watt disliked, one was the moon, and the other was the sun” – not, perhaps, a slogan to hang over the entrance to any summer school.
Moreover, the Beckett tourism potential remains much more problematic than that of Joyce, despite the 2006 birthday centenary events. He is in fact a very Dublin writer – “there was never any city but the one” – but not in ways that are so easily available for marketing purposes.
It is therefore all the more welcome that TCD has at last decided to honour the memory of one of its most famous graduates and staff members with such a school, this being its second year in existence. Despite the drawbacks mentioned above, one advantage possessed by a Beckett school, as contrasted with a Joyce one, is the multiplicity of media in which Beckett successfully failed to express his vision, including of course theatre, film, radio and television.
This makes for considerable variety in approaches to the work: any school which would confine itself to lectures and conventional seminars would be selling Beckett’s achievement very short.
The TCD event, which ran this year from July 15th to July 20th, directed again by Sam Slote and Stephen Wilmer of TCD, does indeed take in all aspects of Beckett’s surprisingly multifarious oeuvre. One of the seminars this year, directed by Jonathan Heron of Warwick University, was devoted to performance and the participants demonstrated the outcome of their explorations at the end of the school. This seminar was linked to an actual staging of Beckett’s drama by Rosemary Pountney, who had given the Irish premieres of Footfalls and Not I in 1978.
There was also a reading of Beckett’s poetry and prose by Barry McGovern and a discussion by members of the Pan Pan theatre group of their very innovative production of Beckett’s radio play All That Fall.
A benefit of holding a summer school on Beckett in his native Dublin is that people with important links to the writer are available who might not otherwise be in a position to appear. One such is Anthony Cronin, who is both Beckett’s biographer and an important link to the literary and artistic world in which he moved. Cronin is now 84 and not in a condition to travel abroad, so it was a special opportunity for non-Irish resident students to hear him comment and reminisce in conversation with Terence Brown.
Exploration of Beckett’s work has by now branched out in many directions, and most of these have been represented at the summer school. Among the more evident (and controversial) this year was the postcolonialist (the school followed a gathering in UCD where this was also the major theme), and also what could be called the “bodily” Beckett, focusing on his interest in involuntary physical actions, medical conditions, various curbs on expression, and how expression of a sort still happens.
A matter of most immediate relevance to Beckett’s work is his manuscripts, of which TCD has important holdings. These were studied in a manuscripts seminar co-directed by the major textual scholar Dirk van Hulle, along with Dr Mark Nixon. Participants were able to gain a fascinating insight into Beckett’s creative processes – the false starts, the illuminations, the crucial turning points.
Beckett’s work is now the focus of intense academic interest and there is definitely a risk that he will drown in a sea of analysis (this is not to say that all such analysis is invalid, but not all of it is valid either). Last year’s school could be perceived as over-academic; this year there was a determined attempt to make the occasion more open to more people.
In addition to the events already mentioned, there was a screening of Sean O Mordha’s documentary Silence to Silence. There is particular reason to be grateful that Beckett produced such a distinguished dramatic oeuvre, a body of work that cannot finally be abstracted away.
That became very evident in Rosemary Pountney’s performance of Rockaby (due, ironically, to some physical problems of the actress herself, Footfalls did not work properly). But when the voice that “narrates” Rockaby began (“till in the end/the day came”) one could sense the external world, the debates and distractions, drop away and the underlying “fundamental sounds”, as Beckett called them, quietly become audible again. Even if the summer school generated nothing more – and in fact it generated a great deal more – this alone would have justified it.
And, moving even further away from the academic ambience, there is the upcoming Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, called, with apt irony, “Happy Days”. Enniskillen is the town where Beckett went to school, at Portora Royal School, and the organisers of this event, which runs from August 23rd to 27th, (see www.happy-days-enniskillen.com) have assembled an outstanding programme, including among many other items a recital of Schubert’s Winterreise, one of Beckett’s favourite pieces, with the tenor Ian Bostridge, and an interview with Beckett’s other biographer, James Knowlson. Maybe there is something to be said for the summer after all.
See website beckettsummerschool.com