Portraits of Beckett as a Famous Writer

On the construction of Samuel Beckett as a literary brand

'Taken during rehearsals of Not I and Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court Theatre in January 1973, the photograph isolates Beckett's head in a field of black, presenting him as a flesh-covered skull cut off from his body, from his background, from any context except that of his own head. [...] Ostensibly, the photograph treats Beckett as an isolated creative consciousness characterized by "Silence and solitude" (Haynes and Knowlson 1); thus it seems to confirm Patrick Bowles's 1958 assertion that Beckett lives in a "spiritual wilderness" and is exiled in "his own particular vision of the universe, original and uncompromising". This representation is, however, complicated by the haute couture lighting, precise staging, and deliberate costuming. These features call attention to different kinds of artistic expertise, revealing the complex network of professional work that goes into the marketing of a specific authorial image. Just as importantly, it hints at Beckett's willingness to reveal his complicity in the construction of this image.'

Stephen John Dilks, 'Portraits of Beckett as a Famous Writer'
Journal of Modern Literature. Summer 2006. Vol. 29, Iss. 4
I've been reading a wonderful article exploring the role photographs have played in constructing interpretations of Samuel Beckett and his work. Stephen John Dilks's essay in the Journal of Modern Literature takes a critical and revealing glance at his public persona.

To begin with, Dilks presents a step-by-step analysis of Samuel Beckett as cultural icon, starting with a commentary on what Samuel Beckett actually means to the general public: or rather, how his name and his image are construed by the mass media. Dilks gives a strong sense of the unified consistency of Beckett's image, and the characteristics it shares with a powerful brand identity in the context of the contemporary literary establishment.

Anyone who is familiar with Samuel Beckett and his work will have certain assumptions and preconceptions about what he stands for, rightly or wrongly. And it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that these assumptions and preconceptions are not necessarily related to the work, as such. Rather, public ideas of Samuel Beckett circulate around images of the man himself, and his iconic status within the context of European literature and post-war theatre. These ideas are manifested publicly, through interviews, photographs and appearances.

What makes Dilks's essay particularly interesting is the way it explores the propogation of Beckett's iconic status throughout a lengthy and successful career, and suggests the ways in which the writer himself is strongly implicated in its production - even complicit:
'Having learned his trade in Joyce's smithy, in a workshop designed to allow the author to assume a position of indifference while a flock of supporters published and promoted his work, Beckett was keenly aware of the ways of the literary marketplace. With firsthand experience of the uphill scheme to sell Joyce's "Work in Progress," he was well positioned to develop, nurture, and preserve a failure-based authorial persona. As he struggled to turn himself into a viable professional writer, Beckett managed his public image as carefully as he would manage the publication and performance of his texts.'
Stephen John Dilks, 'Portraits of Beckett as a Famous Writer'
Dilks offers a wonderful whistle-stop tour of major biographical events in Beckett's life, and lists many of the key contacts he held within the literary establishment. These contacts, in addition to publishers, artists and personal friends, all aided and developed what could be interpreted as a celebrity image to promote and popularize Samuel Beckett's work:
'Beckett was more effective than any other twentieth-century writer in the strategic control and dissemination of a personal aesthetic and an authorial persona. As his career blossomed, he could increasingly rely on a network of loyal professionals to affirm his preferred public image. After he signed with Les Editions de Minuit in 1951 and then with Grove Press in 1953, he could depend on dedicated, full-time professional support. But, having always depended on the assistance of friends and acquaintances in the publishing industry, including literary agents, editors, publishers, and wealthy sponsors as well as, most notably, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, Thomas McGreevy, and George Reavey, he continued the habit. And he developed a number of strategies to promote his public image. In the mid-1950s, when he was associated with the Left Bank, Kings Road, and off-Broadway intelligentsia, he expanded his popularity by pioneering the technique of what we might call the "non-interview interview" (an interview in which the interviewee bans verbatim quotation). He also disseminated verbatim quotations by allowing the selective publication of private correspondence. In addition, he benefited from critical commentary by a close colleague, Patrick Bowles. It was, of course, essential to Beckett's public image that he was represented as someone uninterested in developing a public image: as with the advertising campaign for "the car that sells itself" and as with the celebrity spokesperson who insists "I don't do advertising," the campaign to brand and sell Beckett took as its central proposition that the author was above commercialism and marketing.'

'[...] It is not, then, that his complicity in image-making and literary marketing makes him a "charlatan" (Bair ix); it is, instead, that his unprecedented control over his image and legacy makes his relationship with the literary marketplace extraordinarily interesting and instructive.'

Stephen John Dilks, 'Portraits of Beckett as a Famous Writer'
It's not surprising that an author would be interested in how they and their work are perceived by the public. But what is interesting in Beckett's case is his supposed reluctance to become involved with the trappings of fame, and indeed of celebrity. For instance, Beckett was famously reticent about the authorial intent of his novels, plays and shorter works, yet Dilks suggests that while Beckett did not communicate his thoughts directly to the public, he found other ways to make them popular:
'While he made an exception for Knowlson by granting recorded interviews over a five-month period in 1989, prior moves to control his legacy had involved the explicit refusal to allow direct quotation. The banning of explicit authorial commentary was, of course, crucial to Beckett's authorial persona. By granting non-interview interviews, as he did, for example, to Israel Shenker in 1956, Tom Driver in 1961, and John Gruen in 1969, Beckett shaped the reception and interpretation of his work while seeming to remain aloof from explicit authorial control. He had his cake and ate it too, spreading his authorial coda while expressing his reluctance to "be involved in exegesis."'

'Beckett preserves the idea that "No writer of our time has more consistently refused to comment on, or explain, his own work," as Esslin would put it in the introduction to his collection but, deferring to Schneider, he gets his ideas in circulation. In the process of turning "private" correspondence into part of the public and professional record, he authorizes Schneider's production. And, by asserting that "the mysteries are all of their own making" and "my work is for the small theatre," he reinforces the ongoing advertising campaign for the play.'

Stephen John Dilks, 'Portraits of Beckett as a Famous Writer'
Fascinating stuff.