Waiting for McGovern: Fiennes, Neeson Preludes to a Beckett Genius

The thing about the plays of Samuel Beckett is that while I’ve read a number of fine books and scholarly essays analyzing them, and fancy I can grasp what a state of “non-being” is, and even the fuzzy meaning of a “non-play” for that matter, the truth is much simpler in my case: Beckett’s plays never fail to make me feel absurdly, wonderfully miserable.

Which reminds me of my favorite anecdote about the great man: He was walking with a friend in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on a beautiful sunny day. “You know, Sam,” his friend said spontaneously. “It’s days like this that make you feel glad to be alive.” And Beckett replied, “Let’s not go too far.”

His Irish gallows humor is a saving grace: Talk is a barricade against the mortal tedium and void of being alive, death a welcome consolation. Since Waiting for Godot (1953), we identify the plays with tramps and vagrants—derelict characters outside society’s norms and expectations—unaccommodated man stripped to the source of things, without conventional narrative or solace, damned at birth, or before.

 

THE THREE BECKETT evenings produced at the Lincoln Center Festival by the keepers of the flame, Dublin’s Gate Theatre, proved—if proof were needed—that Samuel Beckett remains the modernist. No one writes like him (it would be foolish to try). “Humans are truly strange,” one of his characters announces en passant. To be in Beckett’s company is to realize how truly strange they are.

There’s more to his misery. Life maims and suffocates Beckett’s characters, their mordant humor notwithstanding. They live in an futile, tormented state of abandonment and loss. They scarcely live at all.

How then is it possible to find Beckett’s plays “wonderfully” depressing as I do? When a genius named Barry McGovern is performing, Beckett’s poetry of anguish is made more staggering than ever.

We were blessed to see Mr. McGovern in his masterly solo tour de force, I’ll Go On. The names of the other two actors who performed during the Beckett week are better known and starrier: Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson. But they cannot compare to Mr. McGovern—nobody can.

Beckett’s foremost interpreter is heir to the great Irish character actor, Jack MacGowran, for whom Beckett wrote plays. The text of I’ll Go On was selected by Mr. McGovern and Gerry Dukes from Beckett’s trilogy of major novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (the last of which he completed just after he wrote Waiting for Godot). The novels are key to the play—but is I’ll Go On really a play, or is it the novels onstage?

Though it sometimes seems as though everything Beckett ever wrote has been adapted for the stage, the long, unbroken interior monologues of the novels don’t make for natural theater. Even Mr. McGovern’s brilliance and innate connection to Beckett can’t disguise the fact that the 90-minute I’ll Go On is inevitably no more than a taste of the three novels, which would take days to read. (Molloy’s second paragraph alone is 80 pages long.) But what a taste Mr. McGovern offers us!

Directed by the excellent Colm Ó’Briain, he takes us uncannily to the essence of a man in the peculiar process of “finishing dying,” and opens the proceedings with a vaudevillian flourish as he imagines that we’re all sitting there waiting for something to happen because if we went somewhere else it would only be worse.

The actor’s Irishness roots the piece in the vigor and humor of Beckett’s precise language and musicality, and his onstage vitality is incomparable. The note of his opening extract from Molloy is black farce, with his vagrant’s coat lined for warmth with the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. He’s mesmerizing in the famous passage about endlessly sucking 16 stones, or pebbles—an inelegant solution, he admits, to an unsolved problem—only to discover at last that the stones all taste the same.