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Mystery plays

Last updated 20 October 2009, created 18 October 1996, viewed 986

DAMNED TO FAME: The Life of Samuel Beckett By James Knowlson Bloomsbury Pounds 25. SAMUEL BECKETT: The Last Modernist By Anthony Cronin HarperCollins Pounds 25 THE LIFE AND WORK OF HAROLD PINTER By Michael Faber Pounds 20

Biographies of Beckett and Pinter may be hot on gossip, but what do they s More…ay about their work? Ronald Hayman finds out

The good old days are over. Previously adamant in refusing to discuss the meaning of their work, Beckett and Pinter both finally gave unbuttoned interviews to biographers. Facing up to the resultant books is almost like being presented with authenticated sexual confessions from the Mona Lisa. Should we be grateful? Weren't we better off when our imagination had free play around the mysteries?

Waiting for Godot had its origins in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich - two people staring at a moon framed by the branches of a leafless tree. Beckett had realised that "all theatre is waiting", and was indebted to the population of tinkers and beggars in the plays of J M Synge. According to his official biographer, James Knowlson, the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon, like the recitation by Lucky, may derive from the experiences of Beckett's friend, Alfred Peron, in a concentration camp, where a tougher inmate protected him, and where, having recited verse to keep himself sane, he was asked for a recitation by a brutal guard.

It was pleasant, in the old days, to assume that playwrights were untroubled by other people's curiosity about the extent to which personal experiences had been transformed during the recycling process. Now we're told Beckett "exhorted" Knowlson to explain that "Krapp's vision was on the pier of Dun Laoghaire; mine was in my mother's room. Make that clear once and for all. "

Funnily enough, Anthony Cronin, who wasn't writing an authorised biography and had to manage without interviewing Beckett, had heard from "a Dublin medical consultant", Eoin O'Brien, that Beckett had the vision not on the pier at Dun Laoghaire, but on a "little jetty that juts into the sea at Killiney Harbour, which is overlooked by his brother's house".

If Beckett was actually indoors, he invented or at least transported the great granite rocks, the howling wind and the flying foam that form the background to Krapp's vision, but its location matters less than its content and its effect. In the play, the tape recording breaks off after "The dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most . . ." By sending a note to Knowlson, Beckett has filled in the gap: "'my most precious ally' etc. meaning his true element at last and key to the opus magnum". Surely Beckett's original instinct - against filling in the gap - was the right one. Few people would call Beckett ignorant or stupid, but he applied these words to himself, saying he didn't begin to write the things he felt until he became aware of his own "folly". Talking to Knowlson, he compared himself with James Joyce, who "had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you have only to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, [. . . ] in subtracting rather than adding."

They were both voluntary exiles from Ireland. Both had problems with their eyesight, and both recreated an unmistakably Irish world, but while Joyce crowded his with details and images from objects and circumstances he remembered, Beckett stripped away the inessential. In his plays, as Tom Stoppard once put it, he "redefined the minima of theatrical validity".

Because his world is like this, it can't be damaged in the way Pinter's can by statements about allegorical intentions. One of the most important lines he has ever written, he says, is spoken by Petey, the kindly deck-chair attendant in The Birthday Party: "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do." Stan, a dilapidated pianist, is victimised by Goldberg and McCann, a Jew and an Irishman. After discarding the Jewish faith when he was 13, and after working as an actor in Ireland, where a love affair brought him against the restrictions of Catholicism, Pinter wanted to show how religious forces can ruin our lives. The mystery of the play has been dispelled by an authoritative authorial interpretation. Nor does Billington help matters by introducing the story of a confrontation in a Sloane Square bar. After hearing a man say that Hitler hadn't gone far enough, and after being called a "filthy Yid", Pinter punched him. Eventually the man said: "Well, I can understand why you hit me but why did you hit me so hard?" What seems more emotionally relevant is an experience Billington doesn't connect with the play. When the young Pinter belonged to a closely bonded male group, he treacherously made love to the girlfriend of a group member. Two of the men appeared on his doorstep: "We're going for a walk, Harold." They made him get on a bus with them to Victoria Park. After taking him in silence to the middle of the park, they left him on his own. "They had no need to say anything and didn't." Talking to Billington, Pinter added: "I don't think I've recovered since."

The revelations about the origins of The Caretaker aren't particularly useful, but at least they do no damage to the play. Pinter and his first wife, Vivien Merchant, lived in a Chiswick flat, where the landlord's brother was an introverted and secretive handyman who one night brought back a homeless old man who stayed three or four weeks: "This room with the two men standing in different parts of the room doing different things . . . the tramp rooting around in a bag and the other man looking out of the window and simply not speaking." A play can germinate from an image like this - two people in a room, or two people in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. But you can't explain why that image is the one that makes it happen.

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