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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Beckett's voice



Like George Orwell before him, Samuel Beckett had a strong aversion to being filmed or even having his voice recorded. Although he was nothing less than magnanimous in his own cantankerous way with his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, he did draw the line:

At this point in our conversation I pulled out a notebook and pencil out of my purse, intending to jot down some of what we were saying. He jumped up and demanded to know what I was doing. Were we not 'just having a friendly conversation, just two people talking?' Didn't I already know that he 'did not give interviews', that he 'never allowed pencil and paper,' and 'the question of the tape recorder is one which must never come up?'– Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p xii


And that is how the two of them proceeded over the next six years, friendly conversations in French cafés which she would endeavour to memorise as best she could and make a record of them as soon as she got back to her hotel room:

I told him at the beginning of these interviews that as soon as I left him, I would return to my hotel and spend the rest of the day … talking our conversation as I remembered it into the tape recorder, trying to capture every inflection of his every remark. He seemed particularly taken by the idea of my voice recording his remarks, and throughout the next several years, he frequently asked questions about it that I can only attribute to an interest in technique. – Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p xiii


You might imagine that Beckett's reluctance to be interviewed came as a result of the overnight fame he achieved after Waiting for Godot but this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an abridged version of the play was first broadcast on French radio. Beckett had the opportunity to say a few words before the play went out but preferred to send a polite note that Roger Blin read out on his behalf. I find it amusing that the opening words of that statement were: "I do not know who Godot is," something he continually had to restate for the rest of his life. (For more details see 'Ruby Cohn on the Godot Circle' in Knowlson, J. & E., (Ed.) Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p 122)

Beckett never gave an inch. He refused to be interviewed on camera and did not permit recordings to be made of any conversations he had. He would tolerate photographers up to a point but most could only catch his serious side, a shame because when you read about his relationships with his friends a completely different man appears.

To the best of my knowledge the only 'official' recording Beckett ever made came about as follows: he had contacted the BBC about making a recording of Lessness and the producer Martin Esslin visited him in Paris to discuss the project. Esslin asked the author how he wanted the piece to be read so Beckett demonstrated reading with a mathematical precision in a voice devoid of colour or stress tapping his finger metronomically as he read: "Grey, everything grey, little body only upright, fallen over", etc. Esslin remembers:

And I said, 'Sam, allow me to record a little bit so that I can tell the actors to pick up the tone.' He said, 'No, no I never record anything'. I said, 'Listen, I swear to you I'll never use this, only to play it to the actors'. And he read a few minutes of it for me and I've got that on tape. – 'Martin Esslin on Beckett the Man' in Knowlson, J. & E., (Ed.) Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p 150,151


Well, he did at the time. He's since donated it to the Archive of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading.

Needless to say Beckett fans have always been curious how he actually spoke. Kenneth Brecher noted that after more than fifty years in Paris he had not lost his Dublin Irish accent. What is interesting though is that when he talked to the actress Billie Whitelaw about working on the radio play All That Fall in 1957 he explained to her that the character Maddy Rooney was ''full of abortive explosiveness,'' and, emphasized that Maddy had an Irish accent. She said, "Like yours," and he said, "No, no, no, an Irish accent." Whitelaw recalls: I realised he didn't know he had an Irish accent, and that was the music he heard in his head.''

Many years later, when he was directing her in Happy Days – a not all that happy experience for either of them as it happens – she talks about him explaining to her how to sing the Waltz from The Merry Widow and says his voice was "quavering, weak [and] reedy". I had always known he was soft-spoken. Alan Mandell describes it as a "wonderfully musical Irish voice with a slight lisp." Bud Thorpe also confirms that he "lisped a bit".

You can imagine my surprise when a friend of mine from India who I ran into onto on Facebook’s underused Beckett forum – told me about a DVD entitled Waiting for Beckett: a portrait of Samuel Beckett (1CV0001243) which included some shots of him directing. I was aware of the film but from what I'd read the dialogue had been erased and there was little else on the tape to interest me, nothing I'd not seen before anyway. So imagine my surprise when on Monday morning I got an e-mail from my friend pointing me to a short clip on YouTube of all places which he believes is from that DVD. It lasts only a few seconds; the quality is not great but the man is. It is a fascinating glimpse of Beckett in conversation. I won't say I've learned anything from it but it does underline so much of what I've read already.

Frankly I'd be more interested in his rendition of Lessness because I've read in several places how well in fact he performed his own material. Anyway, for those of you interested (and with $49.99 to spare) you can buy the DVD from Global Village. In the meantime, enjoy the clip.





Samuel Beckett talking about What Where, Paris 1987.

30 comments:

Charles Lambert said...

Thanks for pointing me to the Facebook Beckett thing. I'm on my way...

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Charles, I'm just a little puzzled but the "I'm on my way" remark ... could you not see the embedded video?

Dave King said...

Some interesting stuff here, new to me - but what, pray, is "abortive explosiveness"?

Jim Murdoch said...

To be honest, Dave, I think "abortive explosiveness" is probably the equivalent of a man firing blanks or the old "paid a penny and only farted". It's typical Beckett. I guess you'll have to listen to the play to see how Maddy sounds.

I managed to find an audio clip of Mary O'Farrell's performance. Not quite sure how explosively abortive her performance was though.

(I've just realised that Whitelaw didn't play Maddy in 1957 – stupid mistake to make – and I've amended the post accordingly.)

Gondal-girl said...

Did you ever see Barry McGovern doing Beckett, he makes it seem like he is Beckett's voice...

Sassy Mama Bear said...

The quirks of the famous are very intriguing are they not?

Jim Murdoch said...

I see what you mean, Gondal-girl. It's hard to tell based on such a short clip but I'll let people judge for themselves. Here's an audio clip of McGovern reading Text for Nothing #8 , there are three excerpts from Beckett's novels here (they wouldn't play automatically for me but I could listen to them with Real Player) and a video clip from Waiting for Godot - he's the guy without the beard.

And, Mama Bear, I must have watched it a dozen times already. I'm not sure what I expected to see but it is fascinating.

Ken Armstrong said...

The Gate production of 'Waiting for Godot', the one on DVD in the box set, is touring Ireland shortly and arriving at my own wonderful local theatre in September. I have great and warm warm connections with The Linenhall Theatre and am very excited at the prospect of McGovern et al tread the boards there.

I actually played Gogo in a rehearsed reading there, several Easter's ago to celebrate the Beckett anniversary.

'Abortive explosiveness' is the opposite of premature ejaculation, isn't it? We had a PE teacher in our school but I didn't attend the class, it was not a skill I wished to acquire.

Ken Armstrong said...

The Gate production of 'Waiting for Godot', the one on DVD in the box set, is touring Ireland shortly and arriving at my own wonderful local theatre in September. I have great and warm warm connections with The Linenhall Theatre and am very excited at the prospect of McGovern et al tread the boards there.

I actually played Gogo in a rehearsed reading there, several Easter's ago to celebrate the Beckett anniversary.

'Abortive explosiveness' is the opposite of premature ejaculation, isn't it? We had a PE teacher in our school but I didn't attend the class, it was not a skill I wished to acquire.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Ken, if you happen to run into Mr McGovern, and he's wondering what Didi and Gogo did next, point him in my direction and I'll send him a copy of Vladimir and Estragon are Dead. It couldn't hurt.

Ken Armstrong said...

I know this will sound posey but it is true. My links with the Linenhall will mean I can almost surely blag a short meet if I push for it. Would you place any value on a signed poster of the play or any such thing as I would be pleased to try and get it for you. The full Gate cast will be here.

My intuition tells me that such a thing would not really be of interest to you at all :) but I just thought I'd mention it.

As an old cowboy used to say 'not brag just fact'

Or (an afterthought)if you want to send me a copy of the piece, I will place it into his hand. :)

Keith Ridgway said...

Many thanks for posting this. I've taken the liberty of also posting it on my blog, mainly because, as I say there, I find it (for reasons which I don't quite understand but which are no doubt sentimental) very moving.

J. C. said...

Hi Jim, I think that You Tube is blessed - thanks to them I had a chance to see and hear many writers for whom I had always wondered how did they actually sound and look. I did that with Borges, Kis, Kundera, Auster and many more.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ken, thank you for your kind offer. I will write to your separately regarding this.

Jasko, you're so right there. And UbuWeb is also well worth checking else if your tastes are a bit more esoteric.

And, Keith, I have no problems at all having this reach the widest audience. I've let several people know about it myself and I saved a copy onto my own PC for safekeeping. I cannot pretend I wasn't moved immensely by it. I played it over and over when I first found out about it. Like someone playing a phone message from a dead loved one.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Always fascinating to see an author talking about work, Jim, thanks for the post and the link. I've never seen/heard an author and had them be the way I'd thought they'd be in my imagination after reading their works.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know what you mean, Conda, but I've never tended to have any great expectations or even that much of an interest in either the writer, how they look or how they talk. If there's a photo and a bit of a bio then fine. Beckett was a bit different because he went to such great pains to keep his voice a secret. Maybe it was simply the lisp. I was more taken by the video to see him gesture and get excited over his work. His hand was so expressive.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Very interesting. Thanks for stopping by. I also added you to my blog roll under personal and general blogs, since your blog is well...

genre defying...

lol

Keep up the good work

khaye said...

Thanks for this post... It's good. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks Vegas Art Guy for popping by and for the add - always appreciated and Khaye, you're very kind.

Dick said...

Absolutely fascinating, Jim. What curious hand movements. Almost like a dancer's. How sad that no other film or recording remains. I have a book of Beckett photographs (title unremembered and it's hacking down with rain between house and garden office where the book is so I'm not going to check!) and most of them do little more than capture the man's elusiveness.

Jim Murdoch said...

I expect the book of photographs you have, Dick, is the one by John Minihan which I also have. My daughter bought me a print of the famous one of him walking away from the camera with his bag over his shoulder. It's on the wall above the couch as I write. He does look so sad in some of the posed ones.

Todd Colby said...

Wonderful. Thanks for posting this. Watch Beckett's right hand with the volume off--it's a delightful dance, of the hand!

Ken Armstrong said...

Stumbleupon put me here at random this morning. Small world eh? Good to know it works so well.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that bit of information, Ken. So far about 750 people have found that blog from a huge variety of sources. It pleases me no end I can tell you.

holgate said...

I just discovered this, nearly three years after asking about it. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be of service, holgate. Please feel free to pass the word on. I have little doubt that this is my most popular post by far and a good number of other sites linked to it at the time. It's a shame it's quite so short but I was so delighted when I myslef was pointed to it. I also made a point of saving a copy onto my own PC just in case the one on YouTube ever gets lost.

C Duffy said...

This might interest you if you've not already come over it.
It reputes to be Beckett reading from Watt. The musical frame is pure slush,however the voice is irish
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FesxLZOTHXc
the picture is real for certain!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the link, Clifford. Sorry not to respond sooner but your comment was awaiting moderation and I missed it. Yes, I've heard that before. It's most likely him but I'd hate to hear the whole book read that way.

tom said...

from the few audio recordings in existence and that i have heard, becketts voice sounds like an ordinary irish voice, though his writing is of course anything but ordinary.
i am interested in the extent that beckett was mentally ill....i know that he was prescribed lithim by his doctor.
all the best, tom.

Jim Murdoch said...

Beckett’s various health problems are well documented, Tom, his heart palpitations, indigestion, dripping neck cysts, anal distress and black moods. “I’m depressed the way a slug-ridden cabbage might be expected to be,” he wrote once. Although nowhere near as dreary a fellow in real life as one might imagine from his works or from the many unsmiling photographs that exist there is no doubt he suffered from depression all his life as well as crippling self-doubt; he seemed quite incapable of acknowledging the genius in his own writing. He had a troubled relationship with his possessive mother and many of his early physical problems seem likely to have been psychosomatic. Only once he cut ties with her—although he continued to visit to assuage feelings of guilt—did he start to show improvement. He was a heavy drinker especially as a young man and that can have done nothing to help his depressions. He did undergo some psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion. There is a book on the subject but you might find this article useful and this. Really the best you could do is pick up one of the biographies on Beckett. James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame is the best of the three I’ve read.

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