Just seconds into the opening scene of Dance First, James Marsh’s new Samuel Beckett biopic, a number of problems with the whole enterprise of making a biopic of Samuel Beckett become apparent. The scene, shot in tasteful black and white, depicts the awarding of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature. We see Beckett and his wife, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, played by Gabriel Byrne and Sandrine Bonnaire, sitting in an auditorium in Stockholm, enduring with squirming unease the king of Sweden’s encomium. As the audience applauds, he turns to her and intones, “Quelle catastrophe.”

The problems, tightly compressed in these opening seconds, are as follows. First, it was not in reality Beckett who spoke these words, astringently Beckettian though they are, but rather Suzanne, upon learning over the phone that her husband had been awarded the Nobel. Second, Beckett never went to Stockholm: he was happy to accept the check—most of which he quickly donated (to Trinity College Dublin and, anonymously, to various artists, writers, and theater people)—but not the invitation to his own apotheosis. Arguably, these first two problems might be written off as artistic license. The film, after all, makes an immediate and explicit application for such license in that same opening scene by having Beckett stride up to the stage, snatch the envelope out of the king’s hand, and, rather than deliver the expected lecture, climb a ladder into a loft above the auditorium, where he engages in a confessional dialogue with a second Samuel Beckett (also played by Byrne).

This leads us to the third problem: Samuel Beckett was not the famous actor Gabriel Byrne. This might seem a trivial thing to point out; it is, after all, a cinematic convention of long standing that actors pretend to be people they are not. But I would argue that it is only trivially trivial—that it is, when you think about it, a quite serious problem. To have Beckett show up at the Nobel ceremony and say things he never actually said is one thing. But to have him portrayed by an actor, and for that actor to be the movie star Gabriel Byrne, is entirely another. At the level of pure image, Beckett is about as familiar as it is possible for an artist to be. Shakespeare is certainly more famous, as is Mozart, but both lived and died before the invention of photography, which is one reason it’s less jarring to see, for instance, Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love or Tom Hulce in Amadeus than it is to see Byrne got up in the customary Beckettian turtleneck and tweed jacket in Dance First. Barely a moment of the film passed in which I did not find myself thinking, “There goes Gabriel Byrne, star of such films as The Usual Suspects and Hereditary, pretending to be Samuel Beckett.”

This has to do, I think, with opposing forces of fame: the fame of the actor and of the man he is pretending to be. Far less jarring, for this reason, is Fionn O’Shea’s performance as the pre-fame Beckett. O’Shea is excellent as the morose young writer—morose in Dublin about his cold and domineering mother, then morose in Paris about his frustrated apprenticeship to Joyce and his unhappy relationship with Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, then less morosely in love with Suzanne while working for the Resistance in wartime France. He somehow manages to subtly imbue all that moroseness with a wintry humor and a distinct sense of the south Dublin bourgeoisie that was Beckett’s milieu.

But his job is much easier than Byrne’s. He is playing a less recognizable—which is to say less photographed—version of Beckett, while being himself a relatively unknown actor. The viewer’s disbelief, in this sense, begins closer to suspension than it does with Byrne as the older Beckett. On Aidan Gillen’s performance as James Joyce I will not dwell, other than to say that he fails honorably in pursuit of a futile end. You can throw all the walking sticks and hats and thick circular spectacles you want at the problem of representing Joyce on-screen, but the man is much too famous to be convincingly portrayed in a film—not, certainly, in a realist manner. The thing just cannot be done. (I’m not sure whether it complicates or reinforces this assessment to acknowledge that Bronagh Gallagher’s stern, witty Nora Barnacle is extremely well played.)

One question the film raises (though without quite meaning to) is why, in the first place, you would make a traditional biopic about this most exactingly avant-garde of writers. There is something strange about watching a middlebrow entertainment about, of all people, Samuel Beckett. It’s as perverse, in its way, as listening to a power ballad about the life and work of John Cage. This is one of a number of ways that Dance First ignores the existence of Beckett’s actual work: it conducts itself as though modernism, let alone postmodernism, had never happened. This is how most films conduct themselves, of course; it wouldn’t be worth remarking on were it not for the film’s subject.


And we care about the film’s subject because of the extraordinary plays and prose works Beckett wrote during that time. We care about him because of what resulted from his sitting alone in a room at his desk. The biographical Beckett is really only the desiccated husk of that work, the mortal thing that facilitated its production. Beckett’s creative output constitutes, in the historical sense, an event. And the peculiar thing about a film like Dance First is that it relies on our understanding of the significance of that event while doing nothing with it.

The title itself feels symptomatic of the way the film engages, or half engages, with Beckett’s work. The phrase “dance first” is taken from the scene in Waiting for Godot (1953) in which Pozzo offers to have his slave, Lucky, perform for Vladimir and Estragon—to “have him dance, or sing, or recite, or think.” A brief debate follows over whether Lucky should “think something” for them or dance instead. Estragon suggests that “he could dance first and think afterwards.” Pozzo replies that this is eminently possible, that it is in fact “the natural order.” Lucky’s dance is pathetic and desultory, and completely fails even to pass the time.

One of the ironies surrounding Beckett’s great fame is that small, decontextualized shards of his work have found their way into the bloodstream of the culture, and have been metabolized into “sayings”—some of them even inspirational. “Fail better,” for instance, is now a saying. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” is a saying. “Dance first” has also been granted sayinghood, although at a less exalted level. The full saying, according to the Internet’s many quotation sites, is “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order,” which is stitched together from things said by two different characters. It adheres, in this sense, to the letter of Beckett while diverging wildly from the spirit. Dance First, as a title, creates its own version of this phenomenon. It’s technically a quote from Godot, but one that evokes the “Sing like no one is listening” style much more forcefully than the Beckettian one.

The film does do an efficient job of hitting many of the major notes of Beckett’s biography: his difficult relationship with his mother; his difficult relationship with the Joyce family; his lifelong relationship with and late marriage to Suzanne; their stint in the Resistance; his decades-long affair with the BBC script editor Barbara Bray; the Nobel Prize and the attendant disruptions of fame. But this is all so much desiccated husk; the dark fruit itself—the work—is barely considered. Only once, late in the film, do we see him in a theater—watching, through a side door, a production of his 1963 one-act play Play, in which two women and one man, each confined up to their necks in funeral urns, deliver rapidly alternating monologues about the tragic triangulations of adultery. It is Play we see, rather than the more famous Waiting for Godot or Endgame (1957), because it helps advance the film’s infidelity plot. The case this scene makes for the work’s importance is purely biographical: the man is Beckett, and the women in the urns to either side of him are Barbara and Suzanne.

We see Beckett at a desk once or twice, but never meaningfully engaged in the act of writing. And this is understandable. Who would want to watch a film about a writer writing? Writing, as an activity, is inherently boring for anyone other than the writer. (If Godot is a play in which nothing happens—twice—wait till you see how often nothing happens in a film about the guy writing it.) This, I suspect, is why a disproportionate number of the films about writers that actually succeed as films focus on writers who cannot work. Barton Fink (1991) and Adaptation (2002) spring to mind here as exemplary of a paradox: the best way to make a writer interesting is to have him suffer a crippling bout of writer’s block—to have him cease, in other words, being a writer at all. We don’t want to see Proust sitting in bed in his cork-lined room, writing a masterpiece; we want to see Jack Nicholson churning out endless pages of “all work and no play” and then chasing his family with an axe.


Are we to conclude that the writer biopic is necessarily dead on arrival—that it’s a genre birthed, as it were, astride of a grave? Perhaps, although with certain qualifications. The best film I can think of about the life of an actual writer is Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). I’m tempted to say that the film works not only because of how it incorporates adaptations of Yukio Mishima’s work and draws creative connections between the work and the life, but because Mishima himself was a kind of Paul Schrader character to begin with. Schrader’s films typically feature psychosexually hobbled men sitting at tables writing, and committing acts of explosive violence; Mishima died by hara-kiri, surrounded by muscular young acolytes, having failed to drum up support for a neoimperialist coup. Such spectacular material is rarely to be mined from writers’ lives or deaths. (Beckett died in a hospital in Paris.)

In recent years, the most interesting film about a real-life writer is Josephine Decker’s strange and potent Shirley (2020), which succeeds precisely because of its complete disinterest in observing the conventions of the biopic form. The Shirley Jackson we see in the film is only loosely based on, or inspired by, the real Shirley Jackson. By placing Jackson (played by Elisabeth Moss) at the center of a mostly fabricated plot—she has a fictional affair with a female lodger, and bases her 1951 novel Hangsaman (which of course is real) on the disappearance of one of her husband’s students (which apparently was not its inspiration)—Decker ensures that her film is much more about Shirley Jackson than a film based on her actual biography could ever be. As a means of delivering information about the author’s life, Shirley is completely useless. It’s worse than useless, in fact: it’s art.

What Decker understands and exploits is that a biopic is already a kind of fan fiction: a fiction based on a fiction. Even as Marsh’s Beckett film exemplifies this principle, it never really acknowledges it. Consider again those first words that Byrne’s Beckett speaks on-screen: Quelle catastrophe! There’s an ironic appropriateness to the way the film takes the words out of Suzanne’s mouth and puts them in her husband’s. The story of her dramatic response to the Nobel news has passed into legend as a kind of shorthand for Beckett’s profound discomfort with his increased prominence as a public figure. But as Stephen John Dilks argues in his book Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace (2011), the reason we know about it at all is that Beckett disseminated the story after receiving the award, as part of his careful curation—rather than reclusive rejection—of his own fame.

“There had always been an unusual mixture of perfectly genuine humility and concealed pride in Beckett,” writes his biographer James Knowlson of the author’s response to the Nobel. “He had, after all, invested almost everything in his work, knew what it had cost him in terms of effort and sacrifice, and could not lightly reject an acknowledgement of his achievement at such a high level.” And so the Beckett we see in Dance First is a fiction based not on the actual Samuel Beckett but on the legend that surrounded that person—a fiction with many authors, not the least of whom was Beckett himself (whoever he might have been).

Waiting for Godot plays a part in the film very similar to that of Play—as a device in the infidelity plot. It’s when Beckett goes to London to discuss making a radio version of Godot at the BBC that he meets Bray. There is a brief scene in which the pair, whom we understand have just made love, are lounging on a bed; Bray, played by Maxine Peake, leafs through a manuscript of the play while Beckett looks on. “Nothing happens,” she says. “Twice,” he corrects her. “Nothing happens twice.” She confirms that it is a “masterpiece.” Scene.

There is, to be fair, a lightly Beckettian feel to the film’s framing device, in which the older Beckett and his doppelgänger work their way through his major relationships and their attendant guilts. (“You might name your scars after her,” says the doppelgänger about Beckett’s mother. “I might name my joys as well,” replies Beckett.) This pastiche works nicely as a means of structuring the film’s biographical material and evading what would otherwise be awkward narrative transitions. But we already have a very great work in which older and younger versions of a man look back on the losses and disillusionments of a life dedicated to art, and it’s called Krapps Last Tape, Beckett’s one-act play from 1958. This is an unfair comparison, but the film seems to invite it by ignoring the play.

As I watched Dance First and struggled with the cognitive dissonance of famous actors pretending to be Beckett and Joyce, I found myself thinking about a play called Beckett’s Room, produced in 2019 by the ambitious and innovative Dublin theater company Dead Centre. The play is in one sense a realist depiction of an episode in the lives of Beckett and Dechevaux-Dumesnil. We see them hiding from the Nazis in their Paris apartment: they talk; they make love with charming clumsiness; they work on their encrypted messages for the Resistance; they endure the intrusive attentions of a viciously antisemitic neighbor. But also, in an audacious conceit, we don’t “see” them at all. We see only the visual epiphenomena of their presence: a typewriter clacking on a desk; papers moving around; cigarettes hovering in midair and emitting plumes of smoke; an indentation of a body as it eases itself with a sigh onto a leather couch. The audience hears, through headphones, a binaural recording of the voices of Beckett, Suzanne, and the other characters as the elaborate marionette show unfolds onstage. This spectacle of absence is one playfully radical way of addressing the problem of representing the life and physical presence of Samuel Beckett; its very playfulness is a mark of its seriousness.

The appeal of the biopic genre, its shallow but enduring prestige, derives from the dual promise of significance and authenticity. We watch these films because we know that their subjects were important, and want to know what they were like. Is it possible to know what Samuel Beckett was like and to represent that in a film? Perhaps, though with Beckett in particular it seems a bit much to take the conclusion for granted. His work dwells in ontological ambiguity. The novels of his trilogy—Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953)—can be read as an ongoing, beautifully thwarted search for a stable core of selfhood. The famous final lines of The Unnamable leave the narrator simultaneously trembling on the verge of self-expression and yearning for silence. “You must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me,” he says. Dance First is not The Unnamable, of course, nor does it make any attempt to be. But in its slick, Hollywood-style confidence that it has found Samuel Beckett—that it is somehow saying him—and in its refusal to even acknowledge that such a task might present a challenge, it fails to say much of anything.