By TOBY LICHTIG
Enniskillen is not the most obvious venue for the International Beckett Festival (which began on July 31 and runs until this Sunday). The small town in County Fermanagh, now in Northern Ireland, where the teenage Beckett boarded at the Portora Royal School between 1920 and 1923, does not, on the face of it, appear to have exerted much hold on him.
Though Beckett was popular at Portora, prospering at his studies and excelling at sports, few will be surprised to learn, in the light of his later work and general disposition, that his schooldays were not an era of untrammelled joy. . .
According to his biographer Anthony Cronin, the schoolboy Beckett was "moody, taciturn and, with most, uncommunicative". He never contributed to the school magazine. And as he grew famous, he refused all entreaties to return. "No invitation, no matter how pressing" would persuade him, according to the wife of a future headmaster.
Portora must have been a gloomy place when Beckett was there. Aside from the usual delights of British boarding schools of the era, including bone-shivering dormitories, there was the grim strife of political upheaval, as Ireland fissured into two, and the awful legacy of the First World War. At the festival, I heard a former Deputy Headmaster of Portora who is currently researching the fate of the school's wartime alumni provide a depressing welter of statistics and stories (“winner of the 100 metres in the summer; dead in France by Christmas”), and tales of teachers grieving for their former pupils. Beckett is often remembered for his relationship with the Second World War, but it was this environment that shaped his young mind.
Perhaps even more incongruous than the location, however, is the idea of a Beckett festival at all. There may not have been a rollercoaster called "The Void" but Beckett kitsch – two words that surely have no place in such proximity – was nonetheless everywhere apparent. Volunteers wandered around in "Team Beckett" T-shirts; at a café we really were served "Beckett-themed" chicken and turnip flan (sucking stone soufflé was mercifully off the menu). One location was decked out in the black and yellow stripes of Beckett's school colours; his craggy face plastered on billboards and lampposts, quotations displayed in windows: "I can't go on, I'll go on"; Wait a little longer, you'll never regret it". Wise to the irony of all this, the festival's founder and driving force, Seán Doran, has seen fit to name the grim-gay gala "Happy Days".
Yet who could begrudge Enniskillen its embrace of this wise, humane, supremely gifted son? Paris (the obvious choice) already bursts at the seams with literary heritage; Dublin too. Enniskillen is primarily remembered for the devastating IRA bomb that killed eleven people in November 1987. And the co-option seems genuine enough on a literary level. Events were extremely well attended, the audiences engaged. 8,000 people came along last year; more are expected this time around. Aside from the frivolity, Beckett was met with the seriousness he deserves.
Over a single weekend, I saw performances of Waiting for Godot (twice; of which more in another post), Catastrophe, the prose piece Texts for Nothing, the radio play Words and Music; Antony Gormley's Godot tree, a performance by the Gavin Byrars Ensemble of Beckett's poems set to music, various lectures and an exhibition. Plenty more was on offer.
For the performance of Catastrophe (directed by Adrian Dunbar), we were driven out to a ruined church in the countryside: a suitably menacing location for Beckett's short play (written for Vaclav Havel) in which an actor/victim, static on a plinth, is meticulously arranged by a pitiless director/dictator, before finally lifting his head in defiance. Something about the persecutor's mania for detail reminded me of Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony", an adaptation of which I reviewed for this blog last year. For the reading from Texts for Nothing, around sixty of us were taken out by boat to the eerie and isolated Devenish Island on Lough Erne, this time to a ruined monastery. Huddling around the actor Frank McCusker (who had also played the tyrannical director in Catastrophe), we listened on as the fragments of pure consciousness dissipated on the morning breeze.
Terry Eagleton was in typically wry and pugnacious form for his talk on "Political Beckett" ("Lack of knowledge tends to produce fewer corpses than ideological certainty") and, as if to highlight the importance of studied bewilderment, our trip was rounded off with a stage adaptation of the very challenging radio play Words and Music, in which the two art forms of the title compete with and complement each other. "All dark no begging / No giving no words / No sense no need" sings "Words"; the confidently discordant reply, by the Crash Ensemble orchestra, seemed to offer something more decisive. As Beckett himself put it: "Music always wins".
So too, in Beckett, does silence. He himself – meticulous about the way his works were represented – would doubtless have been appalled by Doran's festival. But he might also have found a begrudging glimmer of appreciation for the notion of giving it a go. As James Lord once commented of Beckett's friendship with Giacometti: "What they eventually found in each other's company was the supreme value of a hopeless undertaking".