Paris, August 1948 is the title of a play which is a work-in-progress. Its first iteration was written in response to the ‘Why do things break?’ symposium in Adelaide in October 2016. Double Dialogue’s twentieth-anniversary symposium offered a unique opportunity to germinate an idea that I had to illuminate the links between Samuel Beckett’s ground-breaking tragicomedy Waiting for Godot and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow. It was presented as a film due mainly to logistics: I could not afford to bring my actors with me to Adelaide and, while a rehearsed reading using colleagues may have sufficed, it would not have been an optimum choice. The next iteration, following rewriting and refilming, saw an excerpt of a new version presented in New York in April 2017. Reaction to the (brief) excerpt of the play has been positive. Rather than concentrate on a work that is still in the early stages of its evolution, I will outline the context of the narrative which concerns a meeting, which may or may not have occurred depending on accounts, between these two Irish playwrights in Paris, August 1948.
Despite the Irish Free State’s neutrality during the Second World War, Irish playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan, underwent considerable hardship during the war years. Beckett first travelled to France a decade before the war in 1928. Over the next ten years, Beckett alternated between France and Ireland before returning permanently to Paris in 1939 just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Beckett later declared that he preferred ‘France in war to Ireland in peace’ (cited in Shenker, 1956: 129). Beckett, recruited by his friend Alfred Péron, joined the French Resistance in November 1941. Beckett’s group, ‘Gloria’, was betrayed to the Gestapo in August 1942 and Beckett and his partner, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, fled Paris to Roussillon. There they scraped a living labouring as farm workers and waited out the end of the European War in 1945. After the war in Europe ended, Beckett volunteered for the Irish Red Cross as an ambulance driver and was posted to St Lô on the Normandy coast. For his bravery and service to France, Beckett was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la reconnaissance by the French government.
At the age of eight, Brendan Behan joined the Youth organisation of the IRA, the Fianna Éireann. At 14 he applied to join the International Brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War. His mission was thwarted, however, when his mother discovered his plan. In 1939, at the age of 16, Behan joined the IRA proper and underwent explosives training at Killiney Castle where he was turned into one of the youngest IRA operatives. His first mission was to join a campaign to bomb targets in England aimed to oust the British from Ireland. Behan was arrested at a boarding house with a suitcase full of explosives within hours of his arrival in Liverpool.
Over 120 attacks were conducted by the IRA in England and Ireland in the first six months of 1939. Retribution for the campaign was swift. Even in Ireland the Emergency Powers Act 1939 enabled de Valera’s government sweeping powers to intern, arrest, convict and execute IRA members without the right to proper legal defence. IRA members and suspected members were arrested and interned in large numbers. Given a three-year sentence in a juvenile detention centre (Borstal), Hollesley Bay in Suffolk, Behan was released in 1941 and deported back to Dublin. He was arrested again in April for the attempted shooting of two detectives at a Dublin cemetery during an Easter Rising commemoration and sentenced to 14 years. He served his time in various prisons: Dublin’s Mountjoy, Arbour Hill and the Curragh, an internment camp in County Kildare. Released under a general amnesty in 1946, Behan was again jailed in 1947 after an abortive attempt to liberate an IRA comrade from a Manchester jail. In 1948, Behan was discharged from prison in England and was again deported back to Ireland. Behan decided to sail to France.
A convicted terrorist, Behan was also an aspiring writer. While in prison, a fellow prisoner and former teacher, Sean O’Briain, had taught Behan Gaelic and encouraged his efforts at writing. Behan wrote several short stories, some of which were published, and at least one play, The Landlady, which was performed by the inmates (Roche 1995: 43). In Paris, Behan desperately wanted to meet Samuel Beckett. Behan biographer Ulick O’Connor (1985: 143) states that Beckett met Behan for the first time in August 1948 ‘and was pleasant to him in a slightly sad, sardonic Dublin accent’. Behan met with Beckett on later visits to Paris. Behan stayed with Beckett’s nephew, John Beckett. During this time, Samuel Beckett regularly provided bail money to procure Behan’s release from the cells after a drunken evening. One memorable meeting occurred in 1952 where Behan arrived at Beckett’s door at dawn one morning ‘covered in mud and blood … insist[ing] on coming in and chatt[ing] amiably for the next three hours’ (O’Connor 1985: 166). Beckett, according to O’Connor (1985: 166), was trapped by his hospitality — an ‘involuntary listener’ — apparently not wanting to disappoint his ranting interloper despite wanting to get to the rehearsals of the first production of Godot. Literary scholar, Anthony Roche, alludes to the cross-pollination that may have occurred between the two writers. Roche points to the contiguity of Behan’s visits and the ‘close[ness] to the narrative core’ of Beckett’s play:
[T]here is something ironically apposite in the situation of Beckett’s being trapped as involuntary listener by a speaker who insists on going ‘on and on’ … perhaps Behan should be credited as one of the many anonymous, Irish-inflected voices (Roche, 1995: 42).
This visit and the first meeting in 1948 are conflated in Paris, August 1948 to become one long evening spent in Beckett’s attic studio at the top of the apartment building, number 6, rue des Favorites. While the scenes are imagined, the dialogue is constructed wherever possible from verbatim records of the authors in the manner of other works of part fictionalised verbatim theatre such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) and The Judas Kiss (1998), and Nick Enright’s Blackrock (1996) as well as drawing on works which draw on their relationship to earlier plays such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967).
En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot in the later English version) premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris, in 1953. Behan’s The Quare Fellow premiered not long after Godot at Dublin’s Pike Theatre in November 1954. Behan, by all accounts, went to Paris in 1948 with a rough draft of The Quare Fellow. Its genesis came about during his incarceration in Mountjoy prison starting out as a short play titled The Twisting of Another Rope: Behan mentions a completed draft in a letter dated May 1946 (Roche 1995: 44). Godot also had its genesis much earlier than its first production. The date written on the very first manuscript of Godot is 9 October 1948 just after Beckett and Behan’s first meeting. Both Waiting for Godot and The Quare Fellow are tragicomedies; both are non-Aristotelian; both plays are circular in form with no real climax or resolution and both follow a similar time frame. Many scholars have documented the parallels between the two plays and I try to connect some of these intertextualities in the narrative. Fintan O’Toole (2015) contends that in the postwar era, many Irish writers, including Behan, tackled subjects described as ‘Beckettian’:
[T]he strange energy of entropy, the melding of life and death, the sense of entrapment, the intense gossip that fills the void of silence, above all the idea of waiting—had nothing to do with Beckett, who was then unknown to the vast majority of his compatriots. Those themes and devices seem to reflect, rather, the purgatorial realities of imprisonment … [where] the only real action is that of waiting for a death foretold.
However, Roche (1995: 44) argues that Behan’s fortuitous meeting with Beckett just as Beckett was about to write Waiting for Godot, and later while in rehearsals for its premiere, may possibly have been a great influence on the final script of The Quare Fellow, ‘wittingly or no,’ and may have been ‘two-way’. This ambiguity is the schism that presents an opportunity to connect that first fateful meeting to the naissance of these two breakthrough dramatic works.
One overarching metaphor, that of the parable of ‘the two thieves’, links both Waiting for Godot and The Quare Fellow. This was a significant inspiration for Beckett, who in 1956 stated:
I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine … “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters. (cited in Hobson, 1956: 153).
Roche (2013: 12) contends that Beckett was much influenced by John Millington’s Synge’s The Well of the Saints (1905), ‘a parable which worked at one remove from its own time and centred on two talkative tramps’. In The Quare Fellow, the reference to ‘the two thieves’ parable is more literal. In the parable (Luke 23:39-24:53), the two thieves are both unnamed and crucified: one is saved and one is damned. Neither of Behan’s characters is named. One, the Lifer, is reprieved, and the other, ‘the quare fellow’ of the title, is hanged. Although the timeframe of Paris, August 1948 evolves over one night, the lesson of the parable was played out in the actual lives of the authors: one, Beckett, was saved; the other, Behan, was damned and died tragically young at only 41.
A break in time: After World War II
For Beckett and Behan, the events of the Second World War caused a rupture, a break from their former lives. As historian Tony Judt (2007: 38-40) asserts: ‘For most Europeans in the years 1939-45 rights — civil, legal, political — no longer existed … The war changed everything … What was not utterly discredited was irretrievably damaged’. This rupture is reflected in the works produced. As Martin Esslin (2001: 23) argues, in Godot, ‘the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away’. Survivor guilt is a major theme and the omnipresent link between the two characters in Paris, August 1948. Both Beckett and Behan wrested with the ghosts of their pasts. Beckett with the memory of friends and colleagues arrested, tortured and murdered by the Germans, including Alfred Péron who died while incarcerated in Mauthausen. Having narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo, Beckett waited out the war under threat of discovery and its fearsome consequences. Escaping Paris, hiding by day in barns and walking through the nights to Roussillon, Beckett and Deschevaux-Dumesnil presented as:
The image of a mutually dependent couple, disoriented and bereft of social context, able to both irritate and console one another, uncertain of their future, alternately clutching at straws of hope and sunk by fear and despair, is clearly central to the expression of Waiting for Godot (Taylor-Batty & Taylor-Batty, 2008: 4).
In the original 1948 manuscript, Beckett’s character Estragon was called Lévy. Beckett’s biographer Richard Ellmann (1986: 10) asserts: ‘That Estragon in Waiting for Godot was originally called Lévy suggests some of the emotional origins of the play — though indeed the play’s final form still embodies them’. Although Beckett was unwilling to be drawn on any direct references in his work, Terry Eagleton (2006: 71) argues, as did Adorno (1991), that Beckett’s works are ‘post-Auschwitz’: ‘What we see in his work is not some timeless condition humaine, but war-torn twentieth-century Europe’ (2006: 69). Later, after the liberation, Beckett experienced in St Lô what he was to describe as ‘humanity in ruins … in a universe made provisional’ (Beckett, 1946).
Eagleton contends (2006: 71) that, as well as referencing a world that is post-apocalyptic, post-Holocaust, Beckett’s work also represents Ireland’s broken spirit: ‘a subliminal memory of a famished Ireland, with its threadbare monotonous colonial culture and its disaffected masses waiting listlessly on a Messianic deliverance which never quite comes’. This same ‘threadbare monotonous colonial culture’ is also critiqued by Behan. Declan Kiberd (1995: 515) states that The Quare Fellow evidences Behan’s judgement of not only the British penal system but also of the Irish Free State’s wholesale adoption of this broken British model: ‘Three decades after the foundation of the state. Behan’s assessment of its progress was … bleak’. Behan, having spent most of the war as a prisoner, was haunted by the execution of a young IRA soldier from Kerry, Maurice O’Neill, hanged by Pierrepoint in Mountjoy on 12 November 1942. O’Neill had fired three shots at police; Behan had fired two. O’Neill was sentenced by a military court and executed; Behan was sentenced in a civilian court to prison. For Behan, Paris and meeting Beckett represented an act of breaking away from his former life as would-be terrorist and prisoner.
A break with form
When writers such as Sartre declared the end of the Second World War as the beginning of a new world, Year Zero, it meant a break from all that came before. For both Beckett and Behan, it meant a break with traditional form, the Aristotelian three-act structure. Gilbert Phelps (1992: 218) argues that Waiting for Godot demonstrated ‘that drama could be made out of inaction, that a climax could be dispensed with and that a play could end just as well with a whimper as a bang’. This ‘whimper’ ends each of the two Acts:
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go
They do not move. Curtain (Beckett, 1962: 45, 83).
Essentially plotless narratives, both Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Behan’s The Quare Fellow begin in media res and continue without plot points or traditional climax. Resolution is thwarted by never seeing either main character on stage. Like Godot, Behan’s condemned prisoner, ‘the quare fellow’ of the title, is never named and never appears. The dramatic tension in each play is sustained, however, as the audience anticipates that both Godot and the ‘quare fellow’ will eventually appear on stage. While the audience’s expectation is that the climax will constitute the eventual tragic hanging of the ‘quare fellow’ of Behan’s play, Act One closes with the attempted suicide by hanging of the reprieved prisoner. This use of anticlimax makes a point: ‘The non-climax is actually a different but valid answer to the original dilemma or problem’ (Aronson, 2010: 113). Without turning points raising a central question, there is no question to answer in order to provide a resolution apart from that of the absurd where life goes on despite tragedy. In The Quare Fellow:
Neither the warders nor the prisoners question the wisdom of the authorities who sentence one killer to death and reprieve another; they accept that the logic is absurd and incapable of explaining itself … as incapable as Beckett’s [Waiting for Godot] where one boy is punished and another spared (Kiberd, 1995: 514).
Roche (1995: 52) points to Behan’s legacy to Brecht in exposing the hypocrisy of the State using hanging as a punishment: ‘to acknowledge the spectacle as a theatrical event and penetrate through it to the motives which put it on, the social practices which authorise its continuance’. No great insights are discovered into the human condition; instead, the protagonists are left just as bereft and damaged at the climax as they were at the start. The Quare Fellow premiered in 1954, the same year Albert Pierrepoint — Britain’s official hangman — executed the last person hanged in Ireland. In the play, Behan creates an ironic paradox: the pardoned prisoner attempts suicide while the condemned prisoner is on suicide watch. Behan then debunks any pious reverence on the part of the British government official, Healy, sent to oversee the hanging by the comedic repartee of the Irish Warder Regan.
WARDER REGAN: Well, I shall be with the condemned man sir, seeing that doesn’t do away with himself during the night and that he goes down the hole with his neck properly broken in the morning, without making too much fuss about it.
HEALEY: A sad duty.
WARDER REGAN: Neck breaking and throttling, sir? … You must excuse me, sir, I’ve seen rather a lot of it. They say familiarity breeds contempt.
HEALEY: Well, we have one consolation, Regan, the condemned man gets the priest and the sacraments, more than his victim got maybe. I venture to suggest that some of them die holier deaths than if they had finished their natural span.
WARDER REGAN: We can’t advertise “Commit a murder and die a happy death,” sir. We’ll have them all at it. They take religion very seriously in this country. (Behan, 1962: 108).
In Behan, each Act ends with a hanging: one thwarted, one successful. However, each is carried out offstage frustrating the audiences’ sense of climax and resolution. In Beckett, hanging, as a theme throughout the play, is ‘contemplated but evaded, elided … by means of the comically subversive, self-defeating pantomime’ which ends in failure to affect the action of hanging (Roche, 1995: 55). A dramatic finale in both plays is thwarted.
Comedy vs. Tragedy
In Waiting for Godot, much is made of slapstick with reference to clowning, such as the Charlie Chaplin-style costumes worn by Beckett’s characters, Vladimir and Estragon. Beckett’s novel Watt, written mostly while in hiding in Roussillon, references the comedic double-act of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy: ‘a hardy laurel’ (Beckett, 1963: 253). These comedic influences are directly transported into Paris, August 1948: Behan arrives on Beckett’s doorstep tramp-like, acting the clown to Beckett’s straight man in a double-act with Beckett. But there is more to the comedy employed in both plays than just playing for laughs.
Beckett, although famously resistant to adding any interpretation to his work, said to Roger Blin director of the premiere production of Godot: ‘The spirit of the play, to the extent to which it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic’ (cited in Bair 1990: 200). An ever-present gallows humour pervades the dialogue of both plays. As Vivian Mercer (1956: 6) stated of Godot, ‘human suffering is comic and irrational’. Beckett expressed the import of linking despair with comedy: ‘When you are in the last bloody ditch, there is nothing left but to sing’ (cited in Bair, 1978: 282). Terrence Des Pres (Des Pres, 1988: 222-223) in discussing comedy and the Holocaust points to the subversive effect of laughter ‘in a world of death’ where the inclusion of humour ‘revolts against any order’:
Things lofty, grand, and solemn are degraded, pulled down to earth, officialdom and worldly power first of all … Lower forms of humor — jokes, puns, slapstick, and clowning — prevail in an endless spectacle of humble becoming…. Here is neither terror nor pity but, rather, a fearless affirmation of life against death.
The tragic, the ‘sense of futility and human isolation’ is counterpoised by humour in both Beckett and Behan (Phelps, 1992: 218). Beckett in Godot alludes to the ironic, dichotomous relationship between tragedy and comedy as Pozzo declares: ‘The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh’ (Beckett, 1962: 24).
The build-up of tension in waiting for the hanging in The Quare Fellow is alleviated with humour. As do Beckett’s characters, Didi and Gogo, Behan’s characters pass the time with comic banter and slapstick in a danse macabre while waiting for the outcome, the impending death of the quare fellow.
PRISONER B: It must be a great thing to be told at the last minute that you’re not going to be topped after all. To be lying there sweating and watching …
PRISONER A: And after that, the tea is drunk and they offer you cigarettes …
PRISONER B: And they ask you would you like another game of draughts, or would you sooner write a letter …
DUNLAVIN: And then the door is unlocked and everyone sweats blood, and they come in and ask your man to stand up … that’s if he’s able … I am instructed to inform you that the Minister has, he hasn’t, he has, he hasn’t recommended …
PRISONER A: And the quare fellow says ‘Did you say has recommended or has not recommended …? I didn’t quite catch that” (Behan, 1962: 90-91).
In a review after its premiere, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (cited in Shellard, 2003: 166) described the innovative method Behan used to create dramatic tension:
All he shows is the effect on the prison population of the knowledge that one of their number is about to be ritually strangled. There are no tears in the story, no complaints, no visible agonies; nor is there even suspense, since we know from the outset that there will be no reprieve … The tension is intolerable, but it is we who feel it, not the people in the play. We are moved precisely in the degree that they are not. With superb dramatic tact, the tragedy is concealed beneath layer after layer of rough comedy.
Behan’s prisoner gravediggers and their constant banter resemble Shakespeare’s clown gravediggers in Hamlet. In Hamlet, the gravediggers engage in a comic quibble over whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial due to her suicide, finally concluding that her rank as a member of the nobility surmounts any biblical restraints on her salvation. Behan’s gravediggers mark time while digging the grave for the quare fellow with jokes and songs considered socially unacceptable by the prison authorities. Behan, as Shakespeare had, also makes a political point in his retelling of the graveyard scene. Just as Warder Regan had done previously, the comedy of the prisoners challenges the bourgeois sentiments of the Governor and his false solemnity. In this way, the idea of tragedy is constantly usurped. For those existing on the liminal edges of society, such as prisoners and even Behan himself as revolutionary and ex-prisoner, the prisoner gravediggers’ comic banter represents a threat to the established order. By producing its own gravediggers, as Marx and Engels had argued 100 years before Behan’s play, the bourgeoisie’s ‘fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable’ (Engels & Marx, 2008: 16). As Eagleton (2009: 170) states:
For revolutionaries, who live continually in the shadow of the gallows, this negative comedy is not to be underestimated. Joking with the rope around your neck is a feeble way of transcending your oppressors, but it is a sort of transcendence all the same.
The prisoners are also called upon to engrave the hanged man’s headstone. In another act of irony, this memento mori carries not the hanged prisoner’s name but his prison number, E777. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon engage in much ironic contemplation of suicide without any concrete action. As Eagleton (2006: 73) argues, for Vladimir and Estragon:
Even suicide requires more sense of identity than they are capable of mustering. Beckett’s characters thus have all the unkillability of comic protagonists … They are not even up to tragic status, which would at least be some kind of recompense.
While at the same time, Beckett’s protagonists live as if already dead; sleeping in ditches as if already in a grave in an apocalyptic landscape.
Drama based on actual people is inherently subterranean. Implicit insights into the backstory of the real-life counterparts colonise their fictional characters and provide subtext extrapolated by the audience. The audience colludes with the playwright to infer biographical elements beyond the text. There has always been tension involved in the desire to link writers and their artefacts. Despite proclaiming the death of the author in 1967, in an interview in 1971 Roland Barthes (1978: 145) links the author with the examination of a text more specifically: ‘what we ought to do is retrace not the biography of a writer but what could be called the writing of his work, a kind of ergography’. This then is the premise on which Paris, August 1948 is based: a fictional imagining of what might have been discussed between these two Irish writers about to create two iconic works. The characters of writers Beckett and Behan are not seen in isolation to their life experiences or the works that they have yet to create. The tragedy of these characters is not presented onstage, rather, the tragedy occurred in the real lives of the characters that they are based on.
In 1946, the scientist and writer, HG Wells, predicted that the world, following the ‘tremendous series of events’ that was the Second World War, was broken. ‘[T]he human story had … come to an end,’ Wells wrote, ‘homo sapiens … is in his present form played out’ (Wells cited in Phelps, 1992:198). During the war years and the immediate aftermath, both Beckett and Behan had the experience of awaiting their individual destinies in an absurd, broken universe which no longer seemed subject to divine intervention or the ability to execute any human action. Beckett, broken by his experience of the tragedy of war is haunted by the ghosts of Mauthausen, Auschwitz and the devastation of St Lô. Behan, demoralised, his revolutionary zeal broken, resembles his reprieved prisoner; his life seems to have no purpose or meaning and he is slowly killing himself through drink. These wartime memories underpin the narrative in Paris, August 1948 which draws on loss, but also the banality of life both for a prisoner in a jail or a prisoner in hiding. In 1948, although Behan is no longer a prisoner and Beckett is no longer in hiding, ‘the purgatorial realities of imprisonment’ still remain for each character (O’Toole, 2015). Humour relieves but also reveals the tensions that exist for each. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir describes this sense of angst felt by each character, and similarly by Behan and Beckett in the immediate postwar world they find themselves in, ‘How shall I say? Relieved and at the same time … appalled … APALLED … Funny’ (Beckett, 1962: 4). A few weeks after their fateful meeting, Beckett begins writing, Waiting for Godot. Behan continues working on his anti-hero classic, The Quare Fellow. From this encounter between two broken individuals, art will make sense of a world forever changed.
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