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Beckett's Discovery of Theater: Human Wishes, and the Dramaturgical Contexts of Eleutheria

Michael J. Sidnell
Affiliation:
University of Toronto
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Summary

The great discovery of Samuel Beckett's artistic career was theater. Above all, theater was artistically enabling, not just as a means of turning certain writing blocks into building-blocks for the stage, but also in buttressing his non-dramatic writing. Moreover, theater was existentially enabling for Beckett since engagement with its other artists offered him more satisfying ways of living in the world as a social being. In the same year that Beckett turned actively to the theater as a medium, Louis MacNeice remarked that the “modern writer—at any rate the modern poet…cannot but envy playwrights, actors or musical executors…their group experience” (MacNeice, Dark Tower 14). MacNeiece the dramatist had, by this time, turned from stage to radio, for which he was not only a writer but involved in the production of his work. Beckett, also, would be propelled beyond writing into an auteurship whereby he made scenography, stage-lighting and sound, as well as words, instruments of his artistic will. To add to all this, the recognition of his work in theater resonated in the reception of his non-theatrical writing so as to amplify its force as a series of distinctively Beckettian performances, utterly distinct from those of Joyce, yet commensurate. The effects of theater on Beckett were reciprocal to Beckett's effect on theater.

So it is striking that Beckett's first serious effort as a dramatist should have been so halting, even commonplace and certainly less purposeful than his other writing of the time. In the 1930s, Beckett took some interest in what was going on in theater but had no ambition for the stage; and he was probably more often drawn to concerts than to plays. His cousin and close friend, Peggy Sinclair, studied dance and music and Beckett sought her company but his remark that she “cannot be persuaded that literacy is not a crime” (LSB1 12) suggests that her high valuation of the corporeal arts of performance rang hollow with him. Later, he would develop a profound interest in all aspects of theater, including its aptitude for wringing the neck of literature, but as he turned for the first time to the making of a play, he was decidedly a writer engaged in a dual exploration of a biographical subject and dramatic form, hardly concerned with theater as such, let alone contemporary or avant-garde work.

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Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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