Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Beckett’

Maximianus dropped down the memory hole – but now he’s back in time for the holidays.

Sunday, December 16th, 2018

Bravo, Mike Juster!

A few days ago, we wrote about a new translation of Theophrastus. Today we write about another ancient you may not have heard of: Maximianus, the last breath from Roman poetry. The complete Elegies of Maximianus is newly translated into English by A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here). John Talbot’s review appears in The Weekly Standard – one of the few print venues left for those writing about books (and who wish to be paid decently for it), and it’s now about to go belly-up.

An excerpt:

The very last great moment in all of ancient literature comes as a surprise twist—a single line of Latin poetry that transforms a bawdy comic scene into a strange, tragic vision of the end of the cosmos. There then follow just 54 more lines of verse, after which Roman poetry itself comes to an end. You’d think that this last remarkable flicker from the ashes of antiquity would be famous. But both the author, the 6th-century Roman poet known to us as Maximianus, and his Elegies—just 686 lines of verse traditionally divided into six interrelated poems—have dropped almost completely from memory. Who has even heard of him?

This needs to change, starting with the remarkable passage I mentioned. The scene: Our poet, Maximianus, on a diplomatic mission from Italy to Byzantium, finds himself alone with a bright young Greek thing. He falls for her, and she’s willing, but he is not the young stallion he once was. When she bewails his repeated failure to rise to the occasion, he naturally takes it personally. Whereupon she delivers a startling retort: Nescis / Non fleo privatum set generale chaos. That is (in my own translation): “You’ve missed the point. It’s not your particular condition I’m bewailing—it’s the progressive dissolution of the universe as a whole.” What for Maximianus is simply one humiliating instance of later-life detumescence is, for the rather more alert and intelligent girl, something else altogether: a moral and intellectual apprehension of universal entropy. From the failure of Maximianus’ virility she generalizes on a cosmic scale and goes on to envision, in a speech that reads like a bleak parody of Lucretius, the eventual extinction of “the human race, the herds, the birds, the beasts / and everything that breathes throughout the world,” all of which depend on the procreative impulse.

Her sudden realization surprises her as much as it does us. It’s the moment when youth comes “for the first time,” as one critic puts it, “face to face with…the blankness of annihilation.” Yet this stark vision arises from a low comic situation, and that’s a key to its power. I doubt that Maximianus is a greater writer than Swift or even Samuel Beckett, but the satire is Swiftian and the Greek girl’s laconic observation, compacting mundane human irritation with cosmic existential despair, could have been uttered by an Estragon or Vladimir.

Read the whole thing here.

Getting ready for the Nobel in literature. And where better to do it than Stockholm?

Monday, October 5th, 2015
Concert Hall with nobel program. Stockholm 8/2015

Laureates are seated onstage at the Concert Hall during the ceremony. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded this Thursday in Stockholm. While we await the announcement, our New York City-based  correspondent, roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski, reports on his recent visit to the Nobel Empire in Stockholm…

During last summer’s visit to Gdańsk for the opening of European Solidarity Center (read about it here), I found a nearby harbor with ferry to Sweden. I remembered a well-known photograph of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dressed up in a tuxedo receiving his diploma from the king of Sweden, and I wondered what traces his visit to Stockholm might have left.

8 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Stockholm City Hall for the Nobel banquet (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A journey without the usual hustle of airports and cramped airplanes makes a ship seem more natural way to travel. Even though the ferry was spartan in its accommodations, it felt spacious (except for the usual closet-sized sleeping cabin). In the evening at the large cafeteria with panoramic windows, time passes slowly. One can order a coffee or something stronger and gaze at the grayish Baltic Sea and the semi-circular, unending horizon, where the distant water edge never seems to get any closer.

After about 19 hours, we arrived at the port city of Ninanshamn. From there, it’s a short rail ride on a comfortable train to Stockholm. Stockholm consists of interconnected islands; its many bridges and water taxis efficiently transport passengers on its clean waterways and canals. The historic old town (Gamla Stan) with the narrow cobbled streets and shops, restaurants, and cafés, dates back to 13th century. The neoclassical Nobel Museum, home of the Swedish Academy that nominates the literature award, is pretty much in the center of it.

Nobel Ice Cream at Bistro Nobel, Nobel Museum. Stockholm. 8/2015

Nobel ice cream at Bistro Nobel (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

I took advantage of a guided tour offered in English. As a young man, Alfred Nobel wanted to be a poet. Inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, he wrote all his poems in English. His father dissuaded him, saying that it was not a real job, so Alfred Nobel is remembered for inventing dynamite instead.

He also wrote several plays, but his family destroyed most of these papers, since they wanted him to be remembered for chemistry and inventions. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, never married, and had no children. His last will and testament gave away most of his fortune as annual prize. According to the museum, “Nobel was against inherited fortunes that he believed contributed to the laziness of humanity. The will was an ingenuous way of solving this dilemma. The inheritance, in the form of a prize, would reward those who have made themselves worthy by way of their work.”

Nobel had over 350 patents and made a fortune, but his idea of ideas was establishing the Nobel award in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace (later a prize for economy was added). The peace prize is awarded in Norway. Nobel met Victor Hugo in Paris, and throughout his life corresponded with Countess Bertha Von Sutter, founder of Austrian peace movement and author of Lay Down Your Arms. The latter influenced the formation of a peace prize, which she won in 1905.

The Nobel nominating process begins in September of the previous year, when the Swedish Academy committee responsible for the literature award sends out hundreds of letters to universities, institutions, and individuals qualified to nominate Nobel laureates. By the following April, the list that’s been gathered is whittled down to about 20 candidates. In May, the selection is narrowed to five candidates. The Academy becomes familiar with the proposed authors and their work. In September, the Academy finally makes a decision and the winner is announced in October. On December 10, laureates receive their prizes. The decision process remains a secret for fifty years – only now can we learn who nominated the winner from 1965.

6 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Would you sign my chair, please? (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The ceremony takes place in three separate locations. The laureates are invited to the Academy for lunch, on December 9, and afterwards a rehearsal. On December 10, during a ceremony at the Concert Hall they receive an elaborate calligraphy diploma and medal from the King of Sweden, in addition to a check. Attendance is by invitation only. Limos line up to take the 1,300 guests to City Hall for the banquet, first walking through the Golden Hall down marble staircase to the spacious Blue Room. In Sweden, the event is almost a holiday; it’s followed closely on TV throughout the day.

One of the highlights while visiting the museum is having lunch and Nobel ice cream with chocolate Nobel medal at the Vienna-style ‘Bistro Nobel.’ Yes, the ice cream tastes as good as it looks, and it’s actually the same dessert that was served for many years at the Nobel Banquet. Another tradition started in recent years is signing the back seat of bistro chairs. One can turn over a chair to see which laureate signed it. Signatures started after Miłosz’s visit, but I located Mario Vargas Llosa on chair #26 and Seamus Heaney, chair #23.

So where was Miłosz? See the photo below, from the central area of the museum. Also, all Nobel winners are featured on a ceiling display (also pictured below), but it would take hours to find a specific person since they are not in any particular order. I know, I waited as Samuel Beckett, Wisława Szymborska, and Madame Curie-Sklodowska, the first woman to receive Nobel Prize and first to receive it twice, rolled past, before heading for the ice cream.


2 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Miłosz at last. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

9 © Zygmunt Malinowski

After the feast, the ball – and it takes place at the gorgeous Golden Hall. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

3 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Previous winner Wisława Szymborska in a rotating ceiling display at the museum. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

1 © Zygmunt Malinowski

The august Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

4 © Zygmunt Malinowski (1)

In my end is my beginning. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A minute’s silence? Try an hour: Billie Whitelaw and Beckett

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Ta very much, Billie.

One among the many attractions of living in London is getting a chance to see some of the world’s leading actors onstage – and so I was introduced to the legendary Billie Whitelaw as Andromache in a brilliant 3-night Sir Peter Hall/John Barton Royal Shakespeare Company production, The Greeks. Her powerful performance seemed rooted to the center of the earth. Whitelaw, best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, who wrote several roles for her, remained my favorite actress. She  was too little-known and appreciated in the U.S., so my chances to see her again were few (she appeared in The Omen and Hitchcock‘s Frenzy, but I don’t do horror films – the daily news is bad enough).

In the lead-up to Christmas, I hadn’t noticed that she quietly passed away in London on December 21. From The Guardian obituary:

Speaking in 1997, she said that death held no fear for her. “Death’s not one of those things that frighten the life out of me. Getting up on stage with the curtain going up frightens me more. I very often wake up at two in the morning with my stomach going over. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out why – it’s all the things you’ve put to one side during the day,” she told the Independent.


Ashamed of the good life.

During the war, her family moved from her native Coventry to Bradford to escape German bombing of the latter. Her father died of lung cancer when she was aged 10 and the family struggled for money at times.

Speaking about the stark difference between her relatively comfortable later life and her childhood, she said: “It’s something I haven’t come to terms with – I’m rather ashamed of having the good life I have.”

“Sad to see Billie Whitelaw has died,” tweeted comedian Robin Ince. “I’d suggest a minute’s silence, but I imagine Beckett would suggest it should be much longer than that.”

Below, her landmark performance in Beckett’s Happy Days (read about the Stanford performance here). This grainy video is taken from a production directed by Beckett himself, with Leonard Fenton as Willie.  Act II is here.  And thanks to George Szirtes for alerting me to this video.


For Beckett, this is what a “happy” play looks like…

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Courtney Walsh as Winnie … I’d go into a tunnel, too.

After Samuel Beckett wrote his play KrappMaureen Cusack, wife of the leading actor Cyril Cusack, suggested that he “write a  happy play.”  Happy Days is the Irish playwright’s idea of a happy play.  “But what is the play about?” Stanford Summer Theater Artistic Director Rush Rehm asks.  “A marriage?  The onslaught of old age and physical limitation? The strength of a female psyche in the face of the inevitable?  The humor (and hell) of habit?”


“Krapp” … definitely not a happy play

Come to the Nitery for the final performance tomorrow afternoon.  Or rather don’t come, because the tickets are gone.  Or rather do come, and take your chances – doors shut promptly at 2 p.m., and no latecomers are seated, so that provides a few unexpected opportunities.  There were a few empty seats around me today.

In any case, here’s the story, in Rush’s words: “Winnie finds herself buried to her waist in a mound of earth, but she carries on with irrepressible energy, winning zest, and that ‘deriding smile’ for which Beckett is famous.”  Spoiler:  By Act II, she’s up to her neck. Her husband Willie grunts, hacks, harrumphs, and eventually emerges (in Act II) from behind the mound of sand.  Not much to go on, yes?  Here’s what Beckett thought it was about, as related by Brenda Bruce, the first Winnie in 1962:

He said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’s be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

When the play was performed in 1962, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that it was “a metaphor extended beyond its capacity” – then urged his readers to buy tickets.

Courtney Walsh‘s 80-minute uninterrupted monologue – uninterrupted except for a few brief interruptions from Don DeMico’s “Willie” – is a tour-de-force, a restless, chirpy show of indefatigable brightness that would drive just about any thoughtful, introspective soul into a tunnel.  Rush rightly calls it “the Mt. Everest of female roles,” so it’s perhaps the most impressive achievement of her long association with Stanford Summer Theater.

UPDATE:  For the official wait list go here.


Maureen’s hubby

UPDATE on 4/2/2014:  Sometimes an error produces interesting mail.  We received this email from Paul Cusack:

Firstly, I suspect that S. Beckett would have been amused by the mis-conjugation, my mother was not his wife! My father Cyril was my mother’s wife. I was there, in Paris in 1960, aged 14, when my father played Krapp at the Theatre des Nations and won Critics Award Best Actor. I was not allowed to see it. It was then, that my mum said, ‘Sam, would you ever write a happy play?’.

I am told, that around about the same time, Sam asked my father what he thought of Krapp, and he said, ‘I think it is a load of Protestant guilt’, to which (I imagine after a ‘significant’ pause) Sam responded, ‘I think you’re probably right!’

Thanks for the correction.

“Age has nothing to do with the template that Beckett has pressed into my soul.”

Friday, May 17th, 2013

It changed him for the better. Really it did.

Occasionally, you hear someone blather on about how art can change your soul.  And far more rarely, you run across someone for whom it’s actually true.

Over at “A Piece of Monologue,” Rhys Trantor interviews 79-year-old actor and former felon Rick Cluchey, founding director of San Quentin Drama Workshop. Cluchey discovered Samuel Beckett and theater at the same time, while serving a sentence for armed robbery.  It’s a moving and powerful story, and it’s here.

The occasion for the article:  this month Cluchey was performing in one of Beckett’s very last plays, Krapp’s Last Tape, in Chicago.  It’s a role Cluchey has put his stamp on.  Even Beckett himself approved of the portrayal: “Rick is an impressive Krapp,” he confided in a letter.  And he repeated variants of the same thought to others before his death in 1989.

Cluchey was paroled in 1966, and finally met his mentor in Berlin, 1975.  He worked with the Irish playwright, and performed Krapp for the first time in 1977.

From the interview:

Since Cluchey’s first encounter with Beckett’s work in 1957, some fifty-six years have elapsed. I ask whether age has changed the way he performs the plays, or whether it’s changed what the texts mean to him. ‘No. Age has nothing to do with the template that Beckett has pressed into my soul. Beckett is the architect of the play, I follow his blue lines.’ Of Krapp’s Last Tape, he says: ‘I have played this part in three generations: prior to the age of Krapp in the play, whilst I was his age, and for many years after.’ Does the play, then, seem to remain relevant over the course of a whole lifetime? ‘Based on Beckett’s writing and direction, age shouldn’t be a factor.’

 Apparently, Chicago agrees. According to Lawrence B. Johnson writing in Chicago on the Aisle:  “Samuel Beckett died in 1989 at age 83, which gives one pause upon seeing that the current staging of his monodrama Krapp’s Last Tape produced by Shattered Globe Theatre is directed by Beckett himself. The answer is that the masterly impersonator of Krapp before us, Rick Cluchey, acquired the ticks, wrinkles and regrets of this hermetically sealed old man while working with Beckett late in the playwright’s life.

Curiously enough, we found a video of Cluchey performing the same role, also in Chicago, in 1981.  It’s below.

Joshua Landy: “Literary texts are not cudgels but weight machines.”

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

"Literature as Rorschach test, simulation space, participatory wrestling match" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Why read hard books? the Guardian‘s Stephen Abell asks.

Joshua Landy rushes to the rescue with equally hard answers in his new book, How to Do Things with Fictions.  Josh is nothing if not a lively thinker.  Abell writes:  “His answer, when shorn of its sometimes uncomfortably scratchy fleece of critical theory, is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity: ‘each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.'”

Frankly, I like the even more simple answer he gave me in his Stanford office, nearly two years ago: “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life.”  In fact, I think the article I wrote goes some way towards answering the questions I posed last week about defending the humanities:  “The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works ‘enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves.’ He offered ‘literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match.’ He advocated moving away from the ‘stranglehold of narrativity,’ which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to ‘a more lyrical mode of thinking.'”

The case studies from his new book range across five countries and 2,500 years: Plato‘s Gorgias and Symposium, St. Mark‘s gospel, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé, and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.  Abell writes:

Before we get to the evidence, we receive a breathless summary of various other literary theories that seek to explain the purpose of fiction. Landy is fond of lists and numbers, and posits “13 ways of looking at fiction”, which include three main schools of thought: the “exemplary” (novels as morals; read Clarissa and become a better person); the “affective” (freeing our emotions; see Kafka‘s wonderful observation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”); and the “cognitive”. Landy spends most time on the “cognitive”, subdividing it – I think – into four other sections, but basically categorising it as the view that novels are “directly educational”.

Landy’s own theory, of fiction as a thought-trainer, comes close to this notion, but he exerts himself considerably to condemn those “meaning-mongers” who insist that fictions provide the key to straightforward verities. He is also dismissive of those of us who only want to dwell on the enjoyment of being told a story, or what he calls “the glorious uselessness of fiction, its ostensible inability to yield anything beyond pleasure”.

Abell hints strongly at the end of the piece that he reads books for the plots.  But Josh Landy’s description of one case study, the Gospel of St. Mark, during a colloquium two years ago, was downright spellbinding:

Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus’ parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: “The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what’s on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train.”

The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark’s texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that “implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience.”

“To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit,” Landy said.

“Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission,” Landy said. “They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable.”

Read the rest of Abell’s interesting article here.  Or read my story here.