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Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett

Jennifer Birkett
Publisher
Irish Academic Press
Price
€24.99
ISBN
9780716532903


EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Introduction

A Life in Time

For Samuel Beckett, hindsight was the mode of true insight. That Time, written in English between June 1974 and August 1975, and first performed at the Royal Court on 20 May 1976, is one of the best dramatisations of his vision of being human. Like all his work, the play is founded, at some distance, in his own life experience, but it is framed, in every sense, in the language of the creative process. This time, unusually, the vision is a happy one, and its representation goes forward with pleasing ease. For Beckett, life was a matter of doing time, while writing was a way of undoing it - a process of transformation by which writer, written, and listeners enter together into a different understanding of not what, but how it is to be human.

Mid-stage, high up, off-centre, is the old white face of the Listener, who is also his own Author, surrounded by a flare of long white hair. His eyes are open, and his breathing is steady and audible. Three voices, all his own, address him in turn, as 'you', coming from both sides and above. He makes no response, except that his eyes close three times, and open three times. His part is to hear and to see, and shape what he sees by the rhythms of his breathing. When the voices finally fall silent, he gives a toothless smile.

The voices speak of and from three different moments in time and space, but their focus on the Listener creates a continuum. The stage directions say that the speech must be continuous, but the switching between voices must be perceptible. In other works, the voices (and the music) of inspiration invoked by the listening author, require his repeated intervention and evaluation to be urged, at last, into a synthesis that he can deem complete.

The emphasis is on the difficulty of the process. In What Where, for instance, Beckett's last play for the stage, the raw material has to be tortured and threatened into communicative form.1 In That Time, the artwork shapes itself smoothly to a perfect end, through the medium of an attentive Seer and Listener who has grown old in experience and the skills of his craft. Three evolving narratives cross-cut one another in four sequences, each time in a different order, moving chronologically forward. As stage time advances, different narratives take priority, but all three leach into one another; and they are unified by the artist who, looking inwards and outwards as the words flow by, acknowledges the themes, the insights and the patterns out of which he has repeatedly made himself, in a variety of other productions, and who can now smile at the sense of it all coming together, not in closure, but in the evanescent, moving forms which are those of Everyman's short life. Starting in 'that time', this speaking is 'gone in no time'.2

Voice A invokes the child shaped by a desolate Ireland, hiding from the authority of the adults with his picture books and his own imaginary conversations, sitting on a stone in the ruins of the old tower beyond the end of the tram line, caught between tradition and modernity. This moment of first escape is doubled by the moment of final escape, when he went back to see it again, and found only the rusty rails left, and the rail station all boarded up and closed down. The old man returning cannot make his way back to the old refuge, but that was in any case only a trap, one of many to come. Now he can relive the scene in his own story, sitting on a doorstep and talking to himself, and finally fleeing Ireland by the ferry, taking with him only the best of that beginning: the old green greatcoat that was his father's legacy.3

Voice B speaks for the lover, channelling the memory of a couple sitting on a long stone in the sun, with a little wood behind and a wheat field before them. It's hard to believe, says the voice, that you ever told anyone that you loved them, it was 'just another of those old tales to keep the void from pouring in on top of you the shroud'.4 There was no bodily closeness. Standing stock still, the couple played over and over the same old scene. In the end, this lover declares he gave up love, because his body was unresponsive, and there were no words left.

Voice C is the artist, the creative mind that was shaped by the institutions of his cultural heritage. In the Portrait Gallery, coming in out of the cold and the rain, sitting on a marble slab in the old green greatcoat, surrounded by the portraits of the antique dead, staring at one black old picture, a face appeared, which was perhaps, or perhaps not, the viewer's own reflection. This was one of many turning points, generating the questioning about self-knowledge and self-definition ('could you ever say I to yourself'),5 which went on until the words dried up. There was more free culture in the Public Library, and yet more free culture to be found far away from home, and through the medium of the Post Office. The Library is where this voice finally ends, round a table with all the other old ones, and the room suddenly filled with dust.