What Where: Samuel Beckett, 30 years on
The fourth and final volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters – running up to his death in December 1989 – reveals his notorious reticence about his work. ‘My only contact with it is from the inside and I understand very imperfectly the effect it has on readers and critics’, he replies to an obsessive follower who had memorised huge chunks of his trilogy. Writing about Footfalls in 1976, he notes that it is ‘indeed a strange affair, perhaps unduly elliptic and elusive. But it is not aimed at the intelligence’, suggesting he had good reasons to resist analysis. Writing to a poet he was helping, he demurs: ‘Of me nothing tellable to tell, I fare slowly on, in the long farewelling.’
A recent exhibition, What Where, examines the relationship between Catalan theatre company Sala Beckett and Flores & Prats, the Barcelona-based architects who redesigned a derelict building to create a ‘house of writers’ while preserving features from the building’s past life as a workers’ cooperative until the 1980s. With its features reordered in innovative and surprising ways, and a deliberately ‘unfinished’ feel to the theatre workshop spaces, the architectural project suggests a work in progress, fitting well with Beckett’s legacy, which still resists interpretation after decades of scholarship to rival that of his mentor James Joyce.
The Observer reviewer of the exhibition wrote: ‘In an era of ossifying political mindsets, borders and national identities, Beckett, an Irishman who wrote in French, spent time in London and Paris and gave his name to a Catalan theatre company, still stands for confrontational modernity and the persistence of fluidly transnational culture.’
Sala Beckett also works in the modernist theatre tradition, with audiences invited to intervene in rehearsals to break the ‘fourth wall’ and actors sitting on chairs in full sight of the stage, waiting to play their parts.
What Where was one of a number of short and increasingly minimalist plays Beckett wrote in the last decade of his life, exploring his familiar themes of mortality and time, but it is also distinctive in its treatment of torture and interrogation.
Are the boundaries between disciplines such as architecture and theatre worth maintaining or does interdisciplinarity encourage a proliferation of meaning? What is Beckett’s legacy and how does it relate to the aspirations of universalism and solidarity among the working-class communities who used the ‘house of writers’ before it was rescued from dereliction? How does the great innovation and disruption of Modernism, personified by Beckett, speak to us today?