Original Sin and Dog Biscuits

Collected Works of Samuel Beckett

by Samuel Beckett
Grove Press, 16 volumes pp., $9.50

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

A member of the Swedish Academy said of Samuel Beckett’s winning the Nobel Prize: “In the realms of annihilation, the writing of Samuel Beckett rises like a Miserere from all mankind, its muffled minor key sounding liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.”

Grove Press has made this benison the signature tune of their Collected Works of Samuel Beckett: sixteen times it sings to the reader from as many blurbs. “Important, if true,” said Kinglake of the Christian religion, and this is rather the sentiment that is stirred up in us as we ponder the Swedish call to faith for the sixteenth time. Certainly, at first glance, it seems preposterous, for surely Beckett has never come even to one conclusion that could excite a spirit of liberation or comfort in anyone at all. Surely, even the wonderfully funny music-hall lines that flash like UFOs across his bogs are only intended to show that there is nothing like a little cheerfulness to enhance the misery of things, and that no suffering can look really poignant if the victim does not take to malarkey for refuge?

Chekhov, who dealt with much the same material as Beckett, felt so strongly in this matter about his own plays that he left emphatic orders as to the need for cheerfulness in the presentation of despair: “Don’t make a mournful face in a single act. People who have borne a grief in their hearts for a long time, and are used to it, only whistle and often sink into thought….”

No director of Chekhov has ever paid any attention to these instructions. They are too difficult to digest and even more difficult to direct; they ask that the characters play in apparent contradiction to their condition, that they show in real lightheartedness the full gravity of their sorrow. And most of us take the same line as Chekhov’s directors; we hate to spoil what seems a perfect agony by dousing it with splashes of fun. We like our sorrows straight: to cry “Lord, why hast Thou given me this cup to drink?” and only find that some joker has dropped a frog in it spoils the whole booze-up for us.

But the poor artist, who has made tragicomedy his precious medium and knows it to be the subtlest of art forms, is bound to deplore such insensitivity. The happiness he obtains from spicing wretchedness with dashes of happy poison is willful, perverse, and even morbid, but it is perfectly genuine and full of wonderful dramatic possibilities. For tragicomedy is not just a temperamental kink, it is the result of many years’ hard work, and if the work is not presented properly, the whole point of it is lost. If the tragedy is stressed too lugubriously (as it always is in productions of Chekhov), the result is commonplace and ponderous. If the comedy is allowed…

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