The Playgoer: Sam & Václav

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Sam & Václav

Beckett and Havel have been paired many times in analyses of their writing. But did you know each wrote a play for the other?

The Guardian has a moving story this week (longer version here) on the relationship between the two titanic playwrights--alas, one that had to remain long-distance, due to one of the men's long term imprisonment. In 1982, upon hearing of Havel's political persecution, Beckett wrote his short one-act Catastrophe as a tribute to the survival of the artist under dictatorship. With typical Beckettian precision, the play presents the image of a mute actor being manipulated by a controlling director and staff. Beckett himself was known as a, demanding director, so perhaps it's no surprise he seized on the apparatus of the theatre as a disarming metaphor for control.

One year later, Havel was released from prison and expressed his gratitude to his new pen-pal by dedicating Mistake--in which "a group of prisoners intimidate a newcomer, who has failed to observe the rituals of their incarceration"--to Beckett. The two pieces have shared double-bills occasionally in the past, but this week the Index on Censorship, which first published them side by side back in 1984, is commemorating them with a performance at London's Free Word Festival, to commemorate the Velvet Revolution and the end of the Eastern European dictatorships.

Speaking of that revolution, another touching link between Havel & Beckett:

Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, came to symbolise the agony of the Czech opposition and when the communist government fell in 1989, protestors took to the streets of Prague with posters saying “Godot is Here”. The waiting was over. Beckett died that December – he lived long enough to see the fall of the communist government, but just missed Havel’s election as president.
How did that not make it into Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll? (or did it?)

Luckily, Catastrophe is viewable in a wonderful film made for the Channel 4's Beckett on Film series. Fitting that a play that in itself is a tribute to another playwright is here paid tribute by two other major dramatists: David Mamet (who directs) and Harold Pinter (who stars). To watch Mamet direct Pinter acting Beckett is to see (in reverse, I suppose) a torch passed down from one writer to the next in a direct line of influence. (In this circle of "dedications" remember Mamet inscribed his Glengarry Glenn Ross "to Harold.")

The film, I believe, also records the final performance, albeit wordless, by John Gielgud.


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