Matthieu Protin

Beckett au miroir des interpretations/Interpreting Beckett
Sorbonne Nouvelle University
7-8 June 2012.

On the 7 and 8 of June an international colloquium entitled ‘Beckett au miroir des interprétations/Interpreting Beckett’ was held in Paris, with speakers representing both French and Anglo-Saxon sides of Beckett studies speaking. It was organized by Catherine Naugrette, Carle Bonafous-Murat and Jeanyves Guérin, and Matthieu Protin was in charge of academic coordination.

The first day was divided into two sessions: ‘Unclassifiable Beckett’ and ‘Back to Beckett’s sources: manuscripts, letters and metamorphosis’. The first session opened with Carle Bonafous-Murat (Sorbonne Nouvelle), whose paper, ‘A case study: from Samuel Johnson to Samuel Beckett’, presented Human Wishes as a dramatic fragment which pointed out the importance of Samuel Johnson for Samuel Beckett. Beginning by analyzing Beckett’s ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, Bonafous-Murat then proposed to see Beckett’s interest for Dr Johnson in relationship with the somewhat ambivalent position that Beckett took towards Irish writers in the 1930s. Dr Johnson constituted for Beckett simultaneously the object of a case analysis and a political figure, a double approach which clearly appeared in the notes taken by Beckett on Johnson and which must be analyzed by taking into account the context of the 1930s. Those aspects—political, clinical and poetical—were then studied by Carle Bonafous-Murat in the very text of Human Wishes.

Shane Weller’s (University of Kent, Canterbury) paper, ‘“Au Contraire”: Beckett, World literature and the art of unbelonging’, was inspired by the famous answer made by Beckett to a French journalist’s suggestion: ‘Vous êtes anglais, Monsieur Beckett?’: ‘Au contraire’. Weller considered what it might mean for Beckett’s works to be ‘contrary’ in its national-linguistic affiliations. Focusing on L’Innommable (1953) / The Unnamable (1958), he argued that Beckett’s works were in fact shaped by an art of ‘unbelonging’, which made them an ideal object for the discipline of Comparative Literature. Through a close scrutiny of the evolution of the proper names in the various states of L’Innommable and The Unnamable’s manuscripts, Weller demonstrated that textual genetics is particularly helpful for casting light on the mechanisms that rendered Beckett’s work so ‘contrary’, not only towards various national-linguistic traditions but also towards world literature.

Bruno Clément‘s (Paris 8 University) spoke on ‘Heirs, publishers, rights holders: translators, directors and critics’ obstacle course’, describing how publishers and rights holders entitled themselves with a very important role in the managing of Beckett’s works. Trying to show how a kind of Beckettian Vulgate developed itself, he studied their (mostly bad) influence on the interpreters’ work. Evoking the difficult position in which translators and directors find themselves and how this position contrasts somewhat with the relative freedom given to critics, he then tackled the delicate topic of a bilingual edition of Beckett’s works, permission for which has been repeatedly refused. He argued that it would not only be a valuable resource for critical readers, but would demonstrate a respect for the very nature of Beckett’s bilingual works and, offer to other translators a more comprehensive source text.

The afternoon session opened with Dirk van Hulle’s (Antwerp University) ‘Manuscripts and the mind: the genesis and narrative of Beckett’s L’Innommable’. Grounding his communication in the post-Cartesian or ‘enactive’ models of the mind, which suggest that cognitive processes do not exclusively take place ‘in’ the head, but in constant interaction with an external environment, he examined how genetic criticism could be made operational for narrative analysis against the background of this post-Cartesian cognitive paradigm. The transcription of the early manuscripts for the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project’s second module—a genetic edition of L’Innommable/The Unnamable—served as the research corpus. Examining the interpretive potential of genetic criticism he used these manuscripts as a test case to show how Beckett gradually moved away from a Cartesian model of the mind and how the multiple drafts are a part and parcel of his alternative model, thus prefiguring a post-Cartesian approach to narrative and mind.

Dan Gunn (American University of Paris) evoked Beckett’s correspondence from 1957 to 1967. He sought to indicate some of what is new in these letters, and did so through a selection of letters that highlighted Beckett’s shifting relation to French and Anglophone culture. He insisted on the specificity of this time period, when the public scrutiny of his work required Beckett to elaborate a new series of mechanisms designed to protect his privacy while promoting his writing. Gunn particularly stressed how Ussy-sur-Marne worked as a kind of ‘self banishment’ and functioned in direct opposition to Parisian life. He also analyzed Beckett’s relationship with Robert Pinget, a case that epitomized how Beckett developed an increased sense of responsibility towards fellow writers. But those years were also decisive for Beckett’s own poetics, and his letters reveal that Beckett wrote about his work with greater directness during this period.

In ‘A different Canon: the German Beckett’, Mark Nixon (University of Reading) investigated the way in which Beckett criticism has evolved in Germany within the last twenty years. In particular, he examined the way it had positioned itself against and in dialogue with the predominant Anglo-American and French traditions within Beckett studies. Generally ignored by critical trends working in other linguistic traditions, German Beckett studies has built upon Beckett’s own distinct relationship with German culture. Nixon proposed a close scrutiny of Beckett’s attitude toward German scholarship and theatrical practice, and of the role played by Suhrkamp Verlag, Beckett’s German publishers. He then pointed out the importance of biographical and manuscript studies, and insisted on the fact that Beckett’s German Diaries offer German historians a precious insight into Germany at the end of the 1930s, and that the study of Samuel Beckett therefore reaches a larger field of research: political History.

Lea Sinoimeri’s (Havre University) paper ‘Theatre, radio, archives: Beckett’s voices of memory’ proposed a study of the radio plays. Setting her analysis against common assumptions held about radio theatre, she showed that body plays a very important part. She then described the influence of Cascando on Not I and That Time, where the voice is thought of as belonging to the exteriority and not as something which was embodied: a scission directly experimented with by Beckett when working on radio plays. She then argued that this technology’s influence could be considered as a change of focus from split interiority to the exteriority of the technological support and the materializing qualities of the recorded voice. She proposed to see this influence as decisive in the shift made by Beckett from an interest in schizophrenia to ‘schizophonia’; a concept coined by Murray Schafer to denote the split between the sound and its source.

The morning session of the second day was entitled ‘Beckett’s theatres’ and the afternoon session ‘Beckett on stage: traditions, innovations, transgressions’.

The day opened with Jeanyves Guérin’s (Sorbonne Nouvelle) paper ‘En attendant Godot’s political readings’. He presented the evolution of the political readings of this play, starting with its specific reception within the French literary field of the 1950s. He insisted on the discrepancy between the reserved reception of some famous critics towards this play, such as Sartre, Lukács or more generally the French review Théâtre Public, on the grounds that it was an apolitical and metaphysical theatre, and therefore ‘bourgeois’, and the fact that the text itself pointed out to a political reading. Guérin established a link between French Holocaust literature and En attendant Godot, and reviewed the various political connotations given to this play throughout stagings from Blin’s to Jouanneau’s, and he stressed the fertile ground that political readings have found in Eastern Europe.

Marie-Claude Hubert (Aix-Marseille University) presented research on ‘Space’s representations in Beckett’s drama’. She showed how the representation of scenic and off-stage spaces evolved throughout Beckett’s dramatic works. She defined three turning points in this evolution from abstraction to geometry: in Waiting for Godot, space is an abstract notion; with Play, it becomes non-referential; and, eventually, in Beckett’s last works, space becomes purely geometrical. This evolution was studied in two perspectives: one where she considered this evolution as responding to an inner logic in Beckett’s theatrical works, while with the second viewpoint she linked the various spaces to other plays by other playwrights or to other theatrical traditions. For instance, she established a parallel between Come and Go and its three protagonists and the archetypal form of the theatre in Aeschylus’ tragedies, and deciphered the influence of Pirandello’s La Jarre on Play.

Stanley Gontarski’s (Florida State University) address, ‘A Tale of Two Becketts: Samuel Beckett in His Time/Samuel Beckett in Our Time’, presented an extensive review of the various transformations undergone by Beckett’s plays throughout time and assessed what was gained and what was lost in the transition. Analyzing the most recent staging of Waiting for Godot on Broadway, he showed that what could be seen as a global triumph of the avant-garde could also be perceived as its reduction to nostalgia or its assimilation into commerce. But he also demonstrated through several examples that the initial strength of Beckett’s plays was still present. He analyzed and presented the work of a Harlem based company ‘The Classic Theater of Harlem’ and also defended the artistic dialogue with Beckett’s works maintained by a pair of visual artists based in Brazil, Adriano and Fernando Guimarães.

The last session opened with Jean-Pierre Ryngaert (Sorbonne Nouvelle). In ‘Samuel Beckett and the institution of a “French” way of acting’ he proposed to tackle Bernard Dort’s query, ‘is there a Beckettian way of acting?’ from a new viewpoint, by studying French actors, Lucien Raimbourg and Madeleine Renaud. He examined their careers, their roles, on stage and on screen, before and after they played in Beckett’s works. Analyzing photographs and audio and video excerpts from the shows, he insisted on the main characteristic for each actor: a popular tone of voice and a bad boy dimension for Raimbourg, and the importance of her career as ‘jeune première’ in the case of Madeleine Renaud. He then showed that both actors were distorting this image when performing in Beckett’s plays, as if the Beckettian stage was a means for them of deconstructing their previous roles.

Matthieu Protin, (Sorbonne Nouvelle) in his ‘Beckett, stage and national traditions’ showed how the changes undergone in the production of Beckett’s plays can be read as the result of an interaction between their specific cultural references and the national traditions of their performers. He analyzed productions made in France, in England, in the USA and in Germany. For instance, he showed how the very organization of the theatre in North America and the importance of the star in order to be economically viable had a direct influence on the American creation of Waiting for Godot. He also dwelt on the specific affinities that existed between Germany and Beckett. The importance of German State Theatre, a tradition that reaches back to Goethe and Schiller, built an artistic context which favoured scenic experimentation. Then, in a third part, he turned to the contemporaneous stagings of Beckett in which national traditions are also to be seen.

Catherine Naugrette’s (Sorbonne Nouvelle) ‘The puppet’s figure’, began with an analysis of ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ by Heinrich von Kleist. She then studied the puppet as an important figure in Beckett’s works. For instance, Pozzo can be seen as a puppeteer to Lucky’s puppet, and a similar relationship is to be found between Hamm and Clov. But puppet also defines a theatrical aesthetics, offering a model or a temptation: a play without actors, developing itself in a poetic way, without the body’s limitations. This temptation was particularly evident in Beckett’s last plays, where the character is reduced to a mouth in Pas Moi, or to a face in Cette fois. She argued that the fact that many puppeteers worked on Beckett’s plays is quite revealing of this affinity and ended by studying two productions: Beckett and Bacon by Dino Arru and Acte Sans Paroles I by François Lazaro and Aurelia Ivan.

This colloquium ended with a roundtable with François Lazaro from the Clastic Theatre Company and Aurelia Ivan from the Tsar Company. Those two directors offered a very rich insight on what working on Beckett means from a practical viewpoint. This interview marked the culmination of a colloquium that began with an unclassifiable Beckett and an abandoned dramatic text, and concluded with the posterity of Beckett’s theatrical works which still question theatrical practitioners nowadays.

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

» Back to Contents

Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s