How It’s New York: The ability to hear two mega-stars in their own right, the best-selling novelist Paul Auster and world-renowned actor Barry McGovern, chat about their personal experience and relationship to an icon like Samuel Beckett is one of the reasons artists and academics move from all over the world to New York City.
How It’s Irish: Samuel Beckett is one of Ireland’s, and the modern world’s, greatest writers. To deepen the connection, Paul Auster and Irish actor Barry McGovern first met in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, where Auster delivered “Beckett’s address” in 2009.
What a rare privilege to get to know Samuel Beckett, playwright, poet, director, activist—even for just 90 minutes—through the eyes of Brooklyn-based author Paul Auster and Irish actor Barry McGovern.
Rachael Gilkey fills us in!
On September 30 at the Morgan Library & Museum in Midtown, the two artists from different genres isat down to talk about Beckett’s influence on their own careers, and give insight into the man himself through their intimate knowledge of his works, and personal experiences in meeting him.
Beckett, though studied by high school and college students across the nation, is not an easy playwright to comprehend. Many first come across him through Waiting for Godot (1953), a play in which, famously, nothing happens. McGovern’s introduction to Beckett came at age 12 when he was fascinated by a filmed black and white production of Waiting for Godot screened on BBC television. Later in boarding school, he organized a group of friends to see a production at The Gate Theatre, which would later be a central launching point of his acting career. Since his first introduction, he has played many famous Beckett roles, including Lucky, Estragon, and Vladimir in Godot, and Clov in Endgame.
Auster was slightly different, first encountering Beckett at 18, admitting that he had not understood his writing—“It resisted me; I resisted it.” But upon picking it up again, he realized he “was absolutely wrong the first time” and by age 20 had read everything Beckett had written:
“I was so marked by Beckett’s sentences, I found them to be so powerfully rendered with a rigor and honesty that he was always going for…You want to hold it up as a model.”
Auster, who met Beckett twice and kept up a correspondence in between, and McGovern, who met him in Paris on his 80th birthday, painted a picture of Beckett as friendly and approachable, with McGovern adding that “there was a strange sadness about him as well as the warmth.” A picture of the writer was recreated, right down to the detail of Beckett smoking “little cigarillos” in the cafés of Paris, where he lived much of his life.
So, too, did Auster and McGovern fill out this sketch of Beckett by reading aloud from some of his writing. Auster chose a handful of letters from Volume II of the recently published The Letters of Samuel Beckett, a collection which covers some of his correspondence beginning with the war years in France (1941-1956). The selections Auster chose gave an insight into Beckett’s personal life and relationships during this time, as well as his ability to write with humor and poetry even in his personal correspondence. Auster’s favorite sentence in his selection came from a letter Beckett wrote to Jacoba van Velde, a friend and sibling of Dutch painter Bram van Velde, in which he suggested that “without tobacco and drink, no life is possible.” Other letters convey his interest in painting as an art form, and he speaks with much modesty about his ability to interpret a particular work by van Velde – an interesting development when viewed in juxtaposition to a Auster’s comment that Beckett’s correspondences from earlier in his life were full of a younger person’s bravado.

It was during the years of the war, when Beckett worked as a courier as part of the resistance, that he was writing the novel Watt, as McGovern suggested, “to keep himself sane.” Auster called it “one of the funniest novels in the English language.”Lamenting that Watt is no longer read (while urging the audience to pick it up), McGovern suggested that this is the novel that changed everything for Beckett, in the way the war did. McGovern chose a passage from the character Arsene’s 30-page monologue that comes at the end of the first section, where Watt has just arrived to replace Arsene as manservant to Mr. Knott. The character is not happy about it, telling the reader:

“not a smile, not a tear, not a hope, not a fear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret exceedingly.”

The sadness of the words in throughout this passage were balanced by the playfulness of the tone. Professional that he is, the cadence of Beckett’s work came naturally to McGovern, and the joy with which the audience responded to his gorgeous reading was the highlight of an inspiring evening.

Through the short chat between these two men, the personal letters and the reading of his prose, Beckett became immediately more accessible, as a person and as a writer, for, as Auster reminded the audience, “how can you divide the work from the life?”


Don’t miss McGovern in The Gate Theatre’s tour of Endgame and Watt this November-December. The closest it comes is Philadelphia, but will be worth the trip.
8 – 13 NOVEMBER 2011
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