Beckett Smackdown

The New York Times has published a piece on the 100th birthday of Samuel Beckett. In the piece, they solicit comments from a number of playwrights about Beckett’s influence on their works.

One of the playwrights contributing to the piece is Will Eno, who nearly won the Pulitzer last year for his somewhat Beckettian monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), which vaulted to legendary status with the help of Mr. James Urbaniak’s volcanic performance.

Indeed, the Times referred to Mr. Eno as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”

Will Eno is a wonderful writer deserving of all the success that he’s had. But I just want to point out that I was influenced by Beckett when Mr. Eno was in short pants. I yield to no man in my being influenced by Beckett, and yet somehow the New York Times never got around to asking me about it. That might have something to do with me not having a play run off-Broadway for fourteen years (and unsuccessfully at that), but I prefer to see it as blatant favoritism. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that payoffs were made.

I can hear the discussions at the Theater desk:

EDITOR: So who are you gonna ask about the Beckett piece?
WRITER: Oh, the usual suspects. Mamet, Vogel, Durang, Guare, Eno.
EDITOR: What about that guy who co-wrote Antz? Isn’t he a playwright?
WRITER: Chris Weitz?
EDITOR: No, the other one.
WRITER: Paul Weitz?
EDITOR: No, the OTHER one.
WRITER: Oh, you mean that Alcott guy?
EDITOR: Yeah, didn’t he used to write plays with a heavy Beckettian influence?
WRITER: Yeah, but I didn’t get a check from him.
EDITOR: Understood.

Here are some indications of the depth and breadth of Beckett’s influence on me and my work:

1. I have read everything that Beckett has written, usually more than once, and own at least one copy of each work, in English and in French (or whichever language the piece was originally written in).

2. I have a picture of myself standing in front of Beckett’s house in Paris, as well as pictures of the front door of Les Editions du Minuit, his publishers (the door reads, in French, Please Enter, Do Not Ring).

3. I have seen productions of all of Beckett’s plays, some of them many times, including many weird, distaff productions of prose works adapted awkwardly to the stage.

4. I own a copy of the Beckett On Film DVD set (my favorite is Anthony Mingella’s film of Play).

5. I have a little metal bust of Samuel Beckett on top of my computer monitor. It features Beckett’s head on top of an open book. I got it on Ebay.

6. I have three cats, named Didi, Gogo and Lucky.

7. My son’s name is Samuel Alcott.

Your move, Mr. Eno.
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21 Responses to “Beckett Smackdown”
  1. mitdasein says:

    If your feet are bigger than Beckett’s, but you get footwear in his size anyway, then you’ll be a…no, that pun is too bad even for me.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I once wrote and performed in a ten-minute play called At Beckett’s Call. It takes place during the interval between Beckett’s Footfalls and Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano at a short play festival (i.e. it begins with the sound of wind chimes and ends with a clock being struck 17 times). In between, I have the two characters discuss the play they’ve just seen and one of them names every single one of Beckett’s plays. When it was produced, I was that one.

    As far as I can tell, the New York Times didn’t contact me, either.

  3. urbaniak says:

    I may add that the biggest, longest laugh I have ever gotten on stage was in the early nineties in a sketch you wrote in which I played Samuel Beckett.

  4. toliverchap says:


    So what makes something “Beckettian”? Is it the Theatre of the Absurd? Or is that Beckettesque?

    • urbaniak says:

      Re: terms

      Theatre of the Absurd tends to explore society. Beckett is more interested in the human condition.

      A Theatre of the Absurd play, like Eugene Ionesco’s great “The Bald Soprano,” presents a topsy-turvy looking-glass world to make a point about the real world. In “The Bald Soprano” a group of bourgeois couples get together for a party. They talk in nonsense. A long-married couple don’t realize they know each other. A fireman comes in and acts crazy. There is no fire. Ionesco, in his original and entertaining way, is saying that the language we use every day is often meaningless. Middle class mores are inventions. Society is “crazy.”

      Beckett is much more stripped down. He reduces the set to its absolute minimum. His plays are usually set in empty fields or exremely spare rooms. Ionesco presents a realistic world which he uses to send up realism. But Beckett chucks realism from the get go. His characters exist in a “void” where we can focus on them as human beings, without the distraction of societal trappings. The quintessential Beckett character is a little man alone on an empty stage taking stock of his life and thinking about the future, which usually means his death. This is actually enjoyable to watch because while Beckett is a great poet, he’s foremost a dramatist and, frankly, a first-class showman and joke writer. As he got older, he pushed his stripped-down aesthetic to such extremes that his play “Not I” stars a mouth.

      The thing with Beckett is that all of characters have rich histories that they reveal through the course of the plays. One of the main themes of his writing is memory. His characters are always looking back on their lives and their reminiscences are full of funny, touching, real-life details. The onstage world of his plays is not “realistic,” but his characters are real people.

      So to answer your question, Beckettian means something darly comic with existential overtones.

      Beckett’s last great joke was that he was born on Easter and died on Christmas. Happy Birthday, Beckett.

      • urbaniak says:

        Re: terms

        In that sentence at the end, darly s/b darkly, obviously.

      • Todd says:

        Re: terms

        To be strictly honest, he was born on the Friday before Easter and died on the Friday before Christmas.

        In other news, the piece in the Times states the case well: people tend to confuse the surface of Beckett with its structure and content. They see a bare stage with a couple of guys and a tree, or a hovering mouth, and they think “Oh, it’s arty,” and either they congratulate themselves for getting through it or they shut down and refuse to listen.

        Mr. Urbaniak is correct when he mentions Beckett being foremost a dramatist, but Beckett’s sense of drama is so stripped down and compacted that, at first glance, there isn’t anything going on in his plays. Oftentimes, the text of the play is also the action of the play. For instance, in “Not I” the mouth talks and talks and talks and can’t stop talking, and it seems like a long stream of gibberish, but as it goes on we begin to gather that the mouth is talking first about her life and second about the situation that she is in right now (meaning, hovering in blackness, talking to someone who may or may not be listening, and if he or she is listening, can do nothing to comfort the agonized mouth). So the “plot” of the play is something like this: There was this old woman, see, and she never talked. And she lived in Ireland and she bore all manner of hardship and pain and insult, but she never talked. Then one day she died and she found herself in this black void, where there was some sort of audience listening to her and she found that, as silent as she was during her life, now she can’t stop talking, and it doesn’t seem as though she’ll ever be able to stop talking, and that is either the fault of or the burden upon the listening audience.

        (This idea, of souls in some kind of formless purgatory, being forced to tell their stories over and over to some kind of remote, unfeeling audience is the basis of most of Beckett’s late work, including “Play,” “Ohio Impromptu” and “What Where.”)

        So the play can be weird and disorienting and confusing to someone used to, say, Neil Simon, but Beckett is simply obeying one of the cardinal rules of drama: Get into the scene as late as possible.

        The key Beckett quote regarding his writing is something like “Nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no one to express to, nothing to express from, together with an obligation to express.”

        He felt that the ambition of a great writer should be to produce writing which is not “about something,” but which actually “IS something.”

        For him, the perfect existence was one of silence. Silence was perfection and he considered his own writing “a stain upon the silence.”

  5. Todd says:

    I don’t want to keep Mr. Urbaniak’s fans in suspense, so here is the full text of the sketch he’s talking about.

    ANNOUNCER: And now it’s time for WHISKERS, the first talk show hosted by a cat!

    (lights come up to reveal a talk show set. A CAT, WHISKERS, sits behind a desk. Long pause.)

    ANNOUNCER: And here’s our first guest, Nobel-prize winning author Samuel Beckett!

    (Beckett enters, sits down in the guest chair. He looks uncomfortable. He looks at the cat, the cat does or does not look back at him.)

    (Long, long pause.)

    BECKETT (to someone offstage): So — it’s not a TALKING cat, is it.

    (Long pause.)


    • urbaniak says:

      You know, I was actually referring to my first appearance as Beckett in “The Underground Soap.” Not technically a sketch since it was part of a long-arc storyline but for brevity’s sake (and since the scene had a later life as a travelling vignette) I referred to is here as a sketch.

      But, yes, the Beckett/Cat sketch received an equally huge and sustained laugh. For those who weren’t there, the cat was a played by a puppet. The comedy was all about how long we could sustain the image of Samuel Beckett and a cat sitting at a desk together doing nothing. One of my fondest theatrical memories is of Todd Alcott, who was operating the puppet, writhing on the floor under the desk trying not to laugh.

      • Todd says:

        Ah yes.

        Mr. Urbaniak here refers to The Unnamable, which was a ’90s band, more or less modeled on Nine Inch Nails, where the singer/composer, whose name was Gag Reflex, played by cartoonist R. Sikoryak, teamed up, somehow, with the young Samuel Beckett, played by the selfsame Mr. Urbaniak.

        In the routine, Gag screamed gothish lyrics (written by Mr. Sikoryak) over a harsh metallic beat as Beckett stood there looking uncomfortable. Then, in the middle of the song, Gag screamed this couplet:

        “Spare me all your sactimonius pap/Now you all must heed Sammy Beckett’s rap!”

        At which point the music went dead and, in complete silence, Mr. Urbaniak timidly approached the mike and intoned with a heavy Irish accent, the last sentence from (Beckett’s novel) The Unnambable, which ends thusly: “Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the darkness you don’t know, I can’t go on, you must go on, you can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

        Then the loud, clattering music started again and Gag started screaming again.

        The point being that Beckett says more about nihlism and despair with quiet understatement than Trent Reznor ever could with an army of drum machines and deafening screams.

        I don’t remember Will Eno writing anything like that.

        • craigjclark says:

          Wow, you’re not cutting Will Eno any slack, are you?

          • Todd says:

            I kid because I love.

            • craigjclark says:

              And I love the way you kid.

              Incidentally, the only Beckett novel I’ve read so far is Malone Dies. Do you have a recommendation for what I should go with next?

              • Todd says:

                You started with one of the hardest ones. I would go for Molloy, which is more “conventional” (whatever that means) and also very funny. Mercier and Camier also goes down plenty easy, or perhaps you could take a step backwards and go with Murphy, which begins with one of the best sentences in the language: “The sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

                The best introduction to his prose in general is the Complete Short Prose. It gives a perfect overview of his prose work from short stories to the more condensed whatsits from his later work, and the pieces are all short enough to digest in one sitting, or skip over if you’re not in the mood (sometimes you have to be in the mood).

                For someone completely at sea about what this Beckett thing is about, there’s a collection called I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On that is a whole overview of his career, but I don’t know if it’s still in print.

                There are two wonderful, compact, concise introductions to Beckett that I recommend, “Beckett On File” by Virginia Cooke and “Beckett in 90 Minutes” by Paul Strathern.

                • craigjclark says:

                  The only reason I read Malone first was because I found it in the $1 bin at a used book store. I liked it well enough. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the main character’s endless monologue in Rockaby, which I had recently gotten to see as part of a fabulous night of his short works. That was also my introduction to Catastrophe, Come and Go and Act Without Words II.

  6. toliverchap says:

    20th Century Theater

    This was the Final Jeoparody question tonight. I guessed the answer . . . errr question would be “what is Waiting for Godot” and low and behold that was it.

    • Todd says:

      Re: 20th Century Theater

      How did they pronounce it? It’s traditional to pronounce it in English as if it were French, as Guh-DOH, but Beckett, apparently, insisted that it was actually GOD-oh, as if the whole thing about Godot representing God was too hazy for some people.

    • Todd says:

      Re: 20th Century Theater

      Next I want to see a Jeopardy category called “Movies Featuring Guys Scraping Names off Glass Doors.”