Sheltering with Beckett

April 13, 2020   •   By Michael Coffey

Isolating for a month now, to the day, 200 miles north of New York City, where the deaths mount. Here we see no one. North of here, all the way to the Canadian border, there are no deaths. Yet. In the brutal daily calculus, we continue to count ourselves among the lucky.

A country road, a tree, evening. I’m looking at you, Sam Beckett, on the occasion of your birthday, in the midst of the kind of scorched earth event that many of your works imply has already occurred. Life in the aftermath. As Hamm warns Clov in Endgame, “Outside of here it’s death.” Noted.

Here, in this sparsely settled rural Adirondack town, I have my books, mostly a library of works by or about Mr. Beckett, a private obsession. I also have my wife, Becca, who is a library of committed wisdom in her own right, and a more supreme obsession to be sure. Becca-Beckett? In any event, this Easter Sunday as I write, I am sheltering with Beckett and sheltering with Becca and that’s that. And I’ll go on. We must.

When we decamped from Manhattan, we did not know we were fleeing an epicenter of the deadly virus. I arranged for our mail to be forwarded — but for only two weeks. Such was my innocent hope… I did bring along with me a project: to read from first to last the four volumes of the Beckett letters, as one of the collection’s editors, Dan Gunn, had recently proposed that they constitute a second corpus of Beckett work — “the necessary preamble, the preface, the precursor, the predicate even, of the literature.” Juicy stuff, I thought, back when we expected to have upstate friends over for dinner and drinks and maybe get away to Quebec for a weekend as we waited for the bizarre outbreak to pass. Au contraire. Another reality set in, one that is shared the world round. Hence, distractions and obsessions welcome.

As with any project involving a great artist, there is much you must understand to have a chance at understanding the work. Even a casual reading of Beckett can draw the innocent into arcane fields of knowledge or long-ago historical events. Scholasticism, St. Augustine, Quietism, Nominalism, the Algerian War, the Civil War in Ireland, Surrealism, Shakespeare, the Bible, rankings of Irish whiskies, Descartes.

I did get somewhere with Descartes, and my sheltering with Becca benefitted, too, at bedtime, from my intoning softly passages of J.P. Mahaffy’s 1880 biography of the great French philosopher. We are halfway through this life story, which was the foundation of Beckett’s first published poem, “Whoroscope,” though if I am doing my job correctly, Becca has been asleep for most of it. Try it sometime: [sotto voce] “We turn from these Catholic divines to a very opposed and yet a very kindred body, the Protestant theologians of Utrecht and Leyden, towards whom Descartes adopted a very different attitude.”

Where was I? Beyond manning the hearth, swabbing the deck, developing strategies involving old cheese and mousetraps and guarding the demesne in general with absolute (unarmed) vigilance, I have read in recent weeks several essays in the Beckett literature, including Paul Lawley  on Endgame and adoption, Lois Oppenheim on Beckett’s dialogues with Matisse’s son-in-law, and Sean Kennedy on the most violent act in Beckett — the bludgeoning to death of the constable in Mercier & Camier: “Mercier picked up the truncheon and dealt the muffled skull one moderate attentive blow, just one. Like partly shelled hard-boiled egg was his impression. Who knows, he mused, perhaps that was the finishing touch.”

There is violence in Beckett, to be sure; the man lived in violent times. He was stabbed nearly to death on a Paris street; he was betrayed to the Gestapo and barely escaped; he lost dear friends to the death camps. But what is becoming a source of strength for me in these punishing weeks is the sweet survivalism that is present in nearly all of his work, and undeniably in the greatest of it — the four major plays. Each features a couple of sorts: Vladimir and Estragon in Godot, Hamm and Clov in Endgame, the two Krapps, 30 years apart, in Krapp’s Last Tape, and Winnie and Willie in Happy Days. Each of these “couples” are forever sheltering in place, under a kind of quarantine or exile, waiting out something — life, perhaps. And in the life that is the theater, and the culture that is ours, they survive. They indeed “go on,” as all players must.

“Hail, holy light.” I thought those were the words, from Paradise Lost, that opened Beckett’s play Happy Days, but no, I just checked. They open the second act, and it might as well be a blast of triumphal horns, now I remember. We have witnessed Act I, Winnie, buried to her waist in a mound of scorched earth, under a blazing light so hot her parasol smokes. Now Act II, under the same blazing light but now buried to her neck, Winnie can, with a “long smile,” praise God’s creation, and be convinced that “someone is looking after me still, [c]aring for me still.” And she has the comfort of her husband, just the other side of her mound, difficult to see, but there, there.  Yes, he is mostly silent. Yes, he masturbates to some scandalous postcard. Yes, Winnie has contemplated using her handgun in Act I, when she had access to her belongings. But now, in this short final Act, she witnesses with rising joy the slow approach of Willie, scaling the mound toward her at last after living on “the other side.” When he utters her name, just audible  — “Win” — Winnie exults: “Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day!” She then softly sings a “musical-box tune”: “It’s true, it’s true/ You love me so!” A long smile at Willie, and the curtain.

Perhaps what Beckett shows here is that the more impoverished the circumstances the simpler and humbler the joys. Happy days are there to be had. It helps to have love or to remember love or simply imagine it. Godot may come, Clov will not leave Hamm, Krapp, for all his unhappiness, relishes “the fire in me now,” and Winnie has Willie right where she wants him, smiling up at her. As Vladimir cheerfully reminds a despairing Estragon, “What’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, back in the nineties.” Now to the Resurrection. Becca’s waiting. This will have been another happy day.


Michael Coffey’s most recent book is Samuel Beckett Is Closed (Foxrock Books).