Beckett Summer School
Trinity College Dublin.
The Second Annual Samuel Beckett Summer School at Trinity College Dublin opened with a joint Sunday lecture shared with University College Dublin’s ‘Beckett and the “State” of Ireland’ conference (reviewed in this issue by Adam Winstanley), to mark both the beginning of the Summer School, and the end of the ‘State of Ireland’ conference. Rodney Sharkey’s jovial ‘“Local” Anaesthetic for a “Public” Birth: Beckett, Parturition and the Porter Period’ was followed, fittingly, with a wine reception in Trinity and drinks in Davy Byrne’s Pub.
Running from 15-20 July, the week’s events comprised nine lectures, three seminars that ran daily, together with evening performances and events. The lectures began on Monday morning with Declan Kiberd’s ‘Samuel Beckett: Mystic?’ and Seán Kennedy’s informed and engaging lecture on ‘Beckett, Yeats, and the Big House, 1933’ from his ongoing work on that theme. This was followed by lunch and the first raft of seminars. Kennedy facilitated the ‘Beckett and Irish Culture, 1929-1949’ seminar in the lush surroundings of the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, where he led a week-long investigation into Beckett’s complex relationship with Irish culture, focusing predominantly on the post-war works so as to examine the enduring relevance of Irish culture to Beckett’s mature writing. Participants spoke warmly throughout the week of his eagerness to engage with students, and of his approachability and generosity as a seminar leader. With roughly seven or eight participants per seminar, students worked closely throughout the week with the facilitators. For younger scholars and Beckett enthusiasts from non-academic backgrounds, this was an unrivalled opportunity to get to know established voices in Beckett studies, both academically through engaging with them in their respective areas of expertise, and informally through the many coffee and lunch breaks where students and participants from backgrounds as varied as psychoanalysis, surgery, and real estate mixed in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. By Wednesday and Thursday many of the seminar groups had decamped to nearby pubs for Guinness and hot whiskeys as Dublin’s inconsistent ‘summer’ had resulted in many head colds.
On Tuesday Andrew Gibson spoke on the ‘Misanthropic tradition in How It Is’. Throughout his discussion of the history of Irish misanthropy, Gibson was deftly aided in the pronunciation of an extensive list of Gaelic names and titles by Feargal Whelan (UCD). This was followed by a screening of Seán Ó Mórdha’s documentary Silence to Silence (1984), introduced by Declan Kiberd (who also wrote the script for the film). Beckett cooperated with RTÉ in the making of this now regrettably hard-to-find documentary. It features appearances by Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Magee and Jack McGowran, along with previously unseen visual material at the time of its first screening. This screening was also the first of a number of Summer School events open to the public, and many were excited about watching the documentary for the first time.
Many of the evening events were also open to the public, notably Pan Pan Theatre’s ‘Behind All That Fall’. Director Gavin Quinn and sound designer Jimmy Eadie lead an extensive discussion on the technicalities of their recent production of All That Fall, displaying an acute awareness of the production history of the play. Eadie in particular spoke engagingly on the creation of a chamber within his recording studio that adequately produced the sound quality required for the production, and he made clear the company’s commitment to rigorous attention to detail in relation to sound production. Eadie drew attention to the central role of the technician in Beckett productions, reflecting Beckett’s own interest in the technological aspect of his works for radio and film. Credit is due to the directors of the Summer School for co-ordinating this unique event.
On Wednesday, deputy-director of the Summer School Nick Johnson delivered Enoch Brater’s ‘Beckett’s Dramatic Forms, Considered and Reconsidered’ in his absence. This was followed by an impromptu discussion with Johnson on the ethics of directing, specifically in relation to the extreme physical and mental demands certain Beckett plays make on actors. Again, the responsibility of directors and the role of the technician in Beckett was highlighted; thus continuing a conversation initiated during Pan Pan’s ‘Behind All That Fall’ and one that was to reemerge throughout the week. Barry McGovern’s lunchtime reading of a selection of Beckett’s poetry and prose was a highly anticipated and well-attended public event. Wednesday afternoon’s ‘No lack of void’—an aptly named afternoon of free time to explore Dublin—provided a welcome break for participants in what was an otherwise busy schedule. The Summer School offered a further public event on Wednesday evening with Anthony Cronin in conversation with Terence Brown. With frequent, often humorous, segues into Brown’s experience of researching and writing his biography of Yeats, the conversation provided insights not just into the mind of Beckett, but the mind of the biographer and the genesis of Cronin’s biography.
Thursday morning saw Ulrika Maude and Emilie Morin present well-received papers on ‘Convulsive Aesthetics: Beckett, Chaplin and Charcot’ and ‘Beckett and Radiophonic Sound’, respectively. Morin’s rigorously researched lecture was particularly engaging as she sought to challenge the perceived singularity of Beckett’s work with sound by drawing attention to Beckett’s close proximity to artistic practices important within the BBC and consonants between Beckett’s utilisation of disembodied voices and musique concrète composer Schaeffer’s acousmatics. Along with Tuesday’s ‘Behind All That Fall’, it added to the sense that, while this year’s Summer School was theme-less (unlike last year’s, which took Deleuze as its guiding force), the radio plays were prominent in the programme of events.
A highlight of the week was Thursday evening’s performance of Rockaby/ Berceuse and Footfalls by Rosemary Pountney. The incorporation of the final section of Berceuse into the performance of Rockaby provided a welcome change of tongue in a programme of events that was otherwise exclusively Anglophonic. Pountney was largely absent from the stage throughout the performance of Footfalls. With the exception of scene three, which Pountney performed on stage, the footfalls were otherwise indicated by the movement of a spotlight along a narrow strip of lighted stage. Pountney’s absence from the stage throughout the first two acts was left unexplained until the subsequent Q&A, moderated with sensitivity and genuine warmth by Jonathan Heron. However, by this stage the audience had largely figured this out for themselves as, midway through the second act, what had begun as a collective confusion (where is May?!) gave way to an understanding that seemed to ripple through the theatre that Pountney herself was unable (due to osteoporosis) to follow May’s movement’s the first two acts. Therein lay the emotional force of her performance in act three, the audience were riveted and many were visibly moved. Technicians Marc Atkinson and Jennifer Schnarr deserve mention here, as they operated the spotlight and sound during the performance; again, highlighting the key role of the technician in Beckett productions. Given the tendency for contemporary Beckett theatre practitioners to stage alternative productions of Beckett for experimental reasons, Pountney’s modification of the play—one that was enacted out of physical necessity as opposed to a desire to be experimental or avant-garde—was refreshing. This was a powerful and deeply moving performance; one that will stay firmly in the minds of the audience; indeed, many could be heard commenting afterwards that they had undoubtedly witnessed something very special. The modification of the first two acts, coupled with Pountney’s presence onstage during the third act, testify to her profound engagement with a character whose footfalls Beckett himself originally demonstrated to her in a Paris café.
Mark Nixon and Dirk Van Hulle returned this year to facilitate the Manuscripts seminar. The seminar was well attended and students spoke with much enthusiasm of the organised manner in which it was presented, and the eagerness of both facilitators to engage with participants and introduce them to genetic criticism and the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Whereas last year’s seminar focused on the manuscript of the Not I forerunner Kilcool, this year saw the introduction of a more explicitly digital approach; with students actively engaging with the BDMP software to transcribe and encode text from a draft of the short prose text Ceiling. Not only does this seminar offer participants the opportunity to work closely with Van Hulle and Nixon, participants acquire valuable and transferable skills in orthography, which no doubt explains the high level of students in the early stages of doctoral research on Beckett (and Joyce) who signed up to this particular seminar; eager, no doubt, for a crash course in the transcription of tricky orthography. The seminar enabled participants to debate the positive and negative aspects of the archival turn in Beckett studies, together with the pros and cons of digitizing Beckett’s manuscripts. This year, unfortunately, TCD did not make manuscripts available to participants in the seminar and participants lamented the lack of physical contact with manuscripts with many expressing regret that their sole contact with the manuscripts had been through plated glass at the exhibition organised to coincide with Monday’s official opening. Despite this setback, Van Hulle and Nixon utilised their own digitised scans to excellent effect, and by the end of the week students were not only transcribing extended sections of text, but also actively formulating arguments relating to the genesis of the draft in question. Much like last year’s exploration of Not I through the Kilcool manuscript, the text of Ceiling was opened up and made more accessible to scholars. Working with the Ceiling draft was also a practical and effective method for making comprehensible the theories of genetic criticism Van Hulle introduced to the students early in the week. For many participants this seminar is their first extended contact with Beckett’s manuscripts, and so the value of this week-long induction cannot be overemphasised. The excitement such contact with manuscripts generates in these enthusiastic scholars demonstrates a positive aspect of encouraging the use of digital technologies on Beckett’s work and its potential to inspire younger scholars. Over the past two years this seminar has introduced a number of students to the BDMP; a strong indication of the success of the seminar.
On Friday morning Terence Brown delivered his enthusiastic, semi-autobiographical lecture ‘Beckett: Memories and Sounds’. Brown spoke on his relationship with Alec Reid, founder of the TCD student literary magazine Icarus, and author of All I can manage, more than I could: an approach to the plays of Samuel Beckett (1969). Drawn from Reid’s notes on Beckett, bequeathed to Brown in Reid’s will, the lecture moved seamlessly from an intimate portrait of Reid and his relationship with Beckett, to a rigorous discussion on the proliferation of stage directions relating to the tonality of the human voice in Waiting for Godot. This was followed by Heron who spoke, among other things, on the contentious space between performance rights and performance territory and on Beckett’s employment of the rehearsal space as a performance laboratory. Heron’s lecture served as a fitting introduction to the Friday evening showcase by his Performance Workshop. During the week, Heron facilitated a workshop that focused on the body and encouraged participation from performers of all ages, experience, and physical ability. Their performance during Friday’s showcase was a testament to how actively they responded to Heron’s guidance throughout the week.
The Summer School offered a sensitively designed, busy programme with many complementary strains. Participants demonstrated an eagerness to continue conversations begun elsewhere, and made frequent references back to earlier lectures, performances, and to events in UCD. This greatly added to the atmosphere of the Summer School where, unlike a conference or symposium, the emphasis was on praxis—from Heron’s practice based learning, to the development of technical skills for transcribing in the manuscripts seminar. The directors of the Summer School and the ‘“State” of Ireland’ conference should also be particularly commended for bringing the two events together, as they did on Sunday, and for encouraging an active dialogue throughout the week, both during the daily lectures and seminars and in the optional evening dinners, allowing participants the opportunity to continue conversation well into the night and, often, the early morning. By the end of the week, somewhere between exhaustion and elation, Friday’s banquet provided an enjoyable and very tasty end to the week’s activities. This year’s Summer School is a testament to the many die-hard Beckett enthusiasts who eagerly participated in what was a marathon week in Dublin.
Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.