Peter Brook on Samuel Beckett's Joy

George Hunka on the problems of using biography to interpret literature
Peter Brook
In a post promoting upcoming Beckett productions in New York, George Hunka (Superfluities Redux) addresses Peter Brook's comments on the 'shining thread', even joy, that supposedly runs through Samuel Beckett's plays:
Brook engages rather dangerously with the biographical fallacy (as well as misinterprets existentialism, which certainly sought to engage with society for its improvement, to the extent that many of its founding members, including Jean-Paul Sartre, were Socialists or Marxists) — that the life, in this case Beckett’s gregariousness, contains at least one primary key to the work: “I knew Beckett, and I found him a man of enormous humanity and humor and a really good companion and friend. Nothing was more enjoyable than to be with him,” Brook says. Because Beckett’s kindness, generosity and delight in some bourgeois pleasures are well documented, both critics and audiences have found this a singular means of finding that “shining thread” as evidence of a hilarious Beckettian optimism, as if Beckett himself were only a slightly more reticent Brendan Behan.

Arthur Schopenhauer, too, loved a good wine, a fine dinner and a good play; but does this necessarily undermine the pessimistic character of either his work or Beckett’s? Because both writers surveyed the vast spectrum of human experience, there are moments of joy and happiness to be found in the work of both writers, but do they outweigh the darker conclusions to which their writing leads? It has been my experience that those of an ordinarily melancholy disposition in their work are, as people, excellent companions: often witty, quick to find a joke in the darkest conversation, and genuinely compassionate. But it has everything to do with the man, and the way in which he believes human beings should conduct themselves among others, and not the writing, which describes the ways in which human beings normally conduct themselves among others. Especially in early Beckettian prose, let alone the early drama, there’s considerable comedy: the spectacularly unfortunate Lynch family of Watt, the apparent reference to Jonathan Swift’s feckless Lemuel Gulliver in the Lemuel that concludes Malone Dies. But I must say this “shining thread” is exceedingly hard to come by in the post-1962 plays Play, Not I, Footfalls, A Piece of Monologue, Rockaby (the climactic line “fuck life” being the shining thread of joy here, I suppose), Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe or What Where; or the post-1962 novels How It Is (especially here), Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, or Worstward Ho. These works constitute by far the majority of Beckett’s mid-career and late work; and perhaps one is reminded of film director Sandy Bates‘ frustration with an audience that is sorry that he’s stopped making movies similar to his “earlier, funnier” films. [Read More]
Hunka is responding to comments made by Brook in an interview with the Boston Globe, in which he discusses the work of both Samuel Beckett and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. [Read More]

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