Samuel Beckett, grandad and me

Drawing of Samuel Beckett by the author’s grandmother.

This is the first in our planned series of guests posts authored by students of Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing, who took part in a unique programme which gave them unusual access to the Library Beckett manuscripts. Leah Kenny kindly provided the following text which she dedicates to her ‘Nanny and Grandad, who have always inspired me to create and follow my dreams’:

When I chose to take up the ‘Samuel Beckett: Afterlives’ module this year I did so with intense trepidation. I had only read two of Beckett’s plays at the time – Krapp’s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot – and had struggled to comprehend and enjoy either one. As I began to read Beckett’s complete dramatic works, my anxiety only intensified – I could not comprehend the meaning behind the texts and so I began to despise Beckett and everything he had ever written. However, this all changed after my visit to view Beckett’s original manuscripts and letters. You see, up until this point I had placed Beckett on a pedestal. He was not human to me – he was a literary God, with status akin to Zeus as he sits upon Mount Olympus. Viewing the manuscripts that first day, reading his correspondence and viewing the cheap copybooks in which he wrote showed me what Beckett was – a man – flawed and human. That first visit sparked an interest in me, and so I booked in a second visit to the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, this time to view the prompt copy of En attendant Godot. The prompt copy is fascinating, it is a mix of published words and on-the-spot editing that is awe inspiring, even if you don’t speak French. Beckett edited both large swaths of text and minute details between the play’s publication and the first staging – cutting out whole pages of dialogue while also changing specific words within the stage direction – culminating in a play being staged that was vastly different to the one he published. What struck me most was, again, how human Beckett felt when you read his plays in his own flawed handwriting. The man I once viewed as a literary God, was now just a man writing and rewriting, tweaking and editing out mistakes until the last second. The work grew more accessible and Beckett himself was now held in higher esteem in my mind. The illusion I held of Beckett as an impenetrable literary God no longer existed. It was after this visit that I spoke to my Grandad about Beckett for the first time.

For context, my Grandad’s name is John, he is ninety-two years of age and has a love of the arts – opera and literature specifically – that he graciously passed down to my two brothers and me. My Grandad and I discussed Beckett – specifically Waiting for Godot – and he told me that he found Beckett’s work difficult to understand, he felt as if there was an ‘intellectual curtain’ between him and the play, a hidden meaning that he could not see no matter how he tried. This is when an idea struck me, I hoped to explain to my Grandad how I had learned to read Beckett’s work in a new light and then watch Waiting for Godot alongside him, and hopefully, pass on the insight I had learned to someone who thought Beckett out of his grasp.

Before we began watching Waiting for Godot, Grandad relayed his fears about not being able to comprehend the meaning behind the play – he said the meaning was important to him as the play had to evoke a response within him to be worthwhile. His fear that he would not be able to comprehend the play resonated with me and it was this fear of misunderstanding that I wanted to dispel within him. Throughout the first act my Grandad watched intently, I perceive in fear of missing something and letting me down. I was not let down, however, as when Act One ended we had a lengthy discussion and toyed with the idea that Vladimir and Estragon represented the thieves crucified with Jesus and that they exist in a Purgatory-like space. This struck home with him, and with a gasp of delight, he expressed that he now understood everything. Grandad described it as a ‘key being turned in a lock’, the intellectual curtain he spoke of had been lifted.

The author and her grandfather

After watching the second act, Grandad expressed how much clearer he viewed the play. It appeared to me that Grandad had found the second act funnier than the first, and we discussed how the play may have become more entertaining now that he wasn’t trying so hard to find the hidden meaning behind every action. I told Grandad how, when viewing the prompt copy, I learned that Beckett had added in the insult exchange between Vladimir and Estragon during the stage rehearsals. I found this interesting as it changes the play dramatically, providing obvious comic relief, Grandad agreed and appreciated me relaying facts that he would never learn from watching the play. In summary, after watching the play and conversing with my Grandad for a few hours he expressed gratitude at having access to a field of literature that until now had been closed to him. Like me, he did not believe he had the intellect or capacity to comprehend a play by the great Samuel Beckett. He thought Waiting for Godot pointless as it did not evoke any emotional or intellectual response within him. However, Grandad says that Beckett now holds a higher status to him as he can now find the humour in his work.

I found a way into understanding Beckett’s plays through viewing his original manuscripts. By studying the copybooks in which he wrote I witnessed his penchant for procrastination, always doodling on the left-hand page while he wrote on the right, and the difficulty with which he wrote, scratching out lines and writing off entire pages at the time. Writing was not easy for Beckett, though he said that the magic moment of writing is found when you stare at a blank page, he struggled to delve to the depths he had to travel within himself to create something he deemed worthwhile. I learned that he was an ordinary man and so gave myself the license to interpret his plays at my own level rather than attempting to thrust a grand level of intellectual scrutiny upon his work. My Grandad can now approach Beckett’s work with new insight – he no longer feels like he is climbing the literary version of Mount Everest when someone mentions Beckett. In short, the manuscripts worked as a catalyst, allowing me to view Beckett’s work in a different light, but also allowing me to pass on my new level of understanding to someone who would also value it.

Leah Kenny