Beckett is not fun. Owen Hatherley on Brecht and Beckett

Yesterday evening I came close to finishing my current read, Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley. It’s a wonderfully polemical book about Brutalist and Modernist architecture. It’s opinionated and passionate and full of little asides which are often as provocative as the main arguments. It’s a surprising amount of fun to read.

Anyway, I’ll be reviewing that soon, but in the meantime I came across this quote which I thought some of the Beckett fans who follow this blog might enjoy. It’s from a chapter where he’s debating the merits of Brecht and Beckett: 

Really, Brecht has so little going for him here it’s almost comic: Marxist, German, Hegelian, his innovations rummed up as either the rather grand sounding ‘Epic Theatre’ or theorised in impossibly Teutonic terms as the ‘Verfremdungseffekt‘ which is seemingly designed to be oppressive: whether you translate it as ‘alienation’  or ‘distanciation’ or ‘estrangement’, it isn’t a phrase that promises a whole load of fun. But what is so frustrating about this is that it simply doesn’t square with any of what Beckett or Brecht actually wrote. Beckett’s Late Review devotees seem to have an idea of him as some sort of amalgam of Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted, yet one can’t imagine Tom Paulin or Bonnie Greer relishing being assaulted by the panic attack of Not I or wading through the thick impenetrable tangle of repetition and horror of How it Is. Beckett is not fun. For all his virtues, he is a supremely difficult writer, almost all of his mature works extremely forbidding: one might extract a quote or two from Worstward Ho, but few try reading the bastard thing. To be crass, people think they would like Beckett but wouldn’t, and think they wouldn’t like Brecht – but they would.

I don’t know Brecht enough to comment on the accuracy of how he’s perceived (which perhaps supports Hatherley’s point), but I do know Late Review and I absolutely sympathise with Hatherley’s attack on that. Depressingly, it’s probably the best arts programme on British tv. It’s sandwiched in after general news, full of middlebrow emphasis on culture as phatic diversion rather than something which challenges or disturbs. It’s not that I think Late Review should aim to challenge, it is what it is, but it’s a great shame there’s nothing on television that does.

It is strange too how Beckett has become a rather cuddly figure in British culture. I admit so far I’ve only read one book (Murphy) and seen one play (Waiting for Godot), but he doesn’t seem the grand old man he’s depicted as. He seems stranger than that, more troubling. Perhaps though making him cosy is just the easiest way to ignore what he was actually saying. Beckett becomes, like Joyce, a Guevaran figure fit who can safely be referenced as an image but whose actual work is ignored for its failure to fit a convenient narrative.

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16 Comments

Filed under Beckett, Samuel, Hatherley, Owen

16 responses to “Beckett is not fun. Owen Hatherley on Brecht and Beckett

  1. At the risk of sounding moronic, I feel that Godot was brilliant fun, more a comedy with dark undertones than the other way around.
    I don’t know how the average Brit thinks of the guy, but I’d always considered him an imposing figure (like what Hatherley wants me to think of him), what with first having come across the name via Coetzee.

  2. Nothing moronic in that. I think Godot is absolutely capable of being interpreted as a (admittedly dark) comedy, and there have been productions which have played it that way. It is fun, I quite agree, even though it’s a rather desolate fun. Murphy too is extremely funny in places.

    The thing with Hatherley is that even when I don’t agree with him, and I don’t so far on Beckett, he does make me think about why I don’t agree.

  3. Did you copy the quote out or was it cut and pasted? “Westward Ho” should be “Worstward Ho”.

    For what it’s worth, your words “strange[r]” and “troubling” are far better words to describe than “difficult” and “forbidding”. Can one be a fan of what’s strange and troubling? Just stands before it as if it were an Easter Island statue, and don’t expect it to embrace you.

    I stopped watching Late Review many years ago and recommend it for sanity’s sake.

  4. Westward Ho is my typing error. Working late last night means sloppy quote transcribing today. Thanks for the correction, which I’ll edit into the post.

    Strange and troubling felt right to me, so I’m glad it did to you. Fan is an odd word, as here is fun. Rewarding is perhaps the better one, or simply worthwhile. Or none of those, it just is and one engages or not as one sees fit. Perhaps that’s most correct.

    I’ve also long since stopped watching Late Review, but I absolutely recognised his description of it.

  5. I read Beckett precisely because he is strange and troubling. The fact his writing is laced with very dark humour is not contradictory. But fun? I enjoy Beckett’s work, perhaps more than anyone, but I don’t read it for fun. I like your term, though: desolate fun. Perhaps that is what it is.

    Has Beckett become a cuddly figure in British culture?

  6. CD

    Personally I think Beckett can be really funny at times, but he can also be dark & remarkably difficult – it’s what I like about his work. Here in Ireland, anyway, he’s regarded as quite an imposing figure, certainly not a cuddly one & absolutely not one to be taken lightly – as far as I know the same flies in France. Then again, ‘Britain’ (whatever that means – let’s just say ‘England’) is always going to struggle with an Hiberno-Franco literary genius, isn’t it?

  7. When I say Britain I usually mean the mainland plus Northern Ireland. I never mean Eire. Of course there’s a long tradition in England (specifically meaning England here) of claiming a variety of Irish writers as British or even English.

    The reason incidentally I’m careful with these terms is my family are Scottish, I was born in London then raised in Scotland until I was 5, but grew up thereafter in London. I also have family in Ireland. All that makes one aware of these distinctions.

    You’re right though, for all my protestations here when I said Britain I probably should have said England, or even London since that’s where England’s media is mostly based. I think he does get presented now as a rather avuncular figure. Detoothed. Made familiar.

    But then, with enough time the radical always becomes the subject of faintly patronising nostalgia and affection (or ignored entirely).

  8. I think as beckett push the bouds so like avant garde music or haute coutore fashion it isn’t meant to be easy it is meant to trouble ,I saw a number of his plays years ago on channel four they did a season of them for schools I found his work like I do avant garde music I got it but didn’t get it if you know what I mean but like avant garde music and haute coutore it is his influence that buts him in his place maybe not the accessiblty of his own work .I really must get those novels at some point ,all the best stu

  9. I’m not sure I totally got why Brecht and Beckett are quoted together. I’m maybe the only one here who has read far more Brecht than Beckett and I think he is enjoyable, very accessible and fun, more fun even than Waiting for Godot which I thought was equally thought-provoking and amusing.

  10. On the whole I can agree but the thing is Beckett can be fun—Waiting for Godot and Endgame can be laugh-out-loud funny if done right—but, speaking as one who has read How it Is, he can also be very disturbing. Anyone who reads to be entertained should steer clear of just about all his prose with the possible exceptions of Murphy and First Love. Mercier and Camier has its moments and it’s easy to see how Waiting for Godot developed from this book but as a completed text (and I’m not entirely convinced it wasn’t simply abandoned) it is hard going and also disturbing on a number of levels. You need a certain mindset to truly appreciate Beckett. As he write himself, in Endgame:

    Nell: Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
    Nagg: Oh?
    Nell: Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.

    I’m sure one of the reason I’m struggling to get people to review my own novel is that they hear that it was inspired by Beckett and prejudge it; they think they’re going to have to work hard to get it and then probably not get it anyway. Very few people got Waiting for Godot when it was first performed—people who only ever waited on buses or for their meals to be brought to them—but the prisoners in San Quentin did; it made total sense to them. I don’t think I got any of his plays the first time round. I needed to immerse myself in him and get to know his whole body of work before I started to see the threads.

  11. As you may have notice from reading my blog, I love theatre.

    I’ve seen A Respectable Wedding by Brecht and it was really funny. (dark funny like the Erdman play I reviewed recently)

    I’ve also seen Fin de partie (Endgame) by Beckett. I was funny too but not the same kind of funny.

    The Brecht was frank comedy with strong undercurrent ideas, it triggered a good laugh, with an open mouth.
    The Beckett was more a discret haha with lips rather closed and triggered by the absurdity of it, so absurd it could only become funny.

    Is was I wroter understandable? I’m struggling with my English right now

  12. I agree with Anthony: “I read Beckett precisely because he is strange and troubling. The fact his writing is laced with very dark humour is not contradictory.”
    Beckett, I’m sure, had a great sense of humor (we can see it in the way he uses irony, sarcasm and word-play in his writing), but this quality does not make him into a likable literary father figure. He is not entertaining us, he is showing us the absurdity of life – our own life.

  13. Sorry for the slow reply folks, I’ve been away on business.

    Stu, precisely so.

    Caroline, Owen Hatherley would agree with you about Brecht. He pairs the two because both challenged certain traditional approaches to fiction, but one has been marginalised and the other celebrated (though trivialised in the process). His view though is that Brecht is unfairly seen as inaccessible and unfun, whereas in fact he is neither.

    Jim, the bulk of the article this quote comes from is about Brecht, and he makes a good case for engaging with Brecht. Beckett he’s less persuasive on, but then he’s making an argument and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if on another occasion he argued more positively for Beckett too.

    I’ve always rather liked the line that the difference between tragedy and comedy is whether it happens to you or to somebody else. Your quote reminded me of that.

    Sigrun, quite so, though Hatherley would agree with you. His argument is that in the UK Beckett is falsely made avuncular – that his actual work is misrepresented with Beckett being made a heritage figure, as with Joyce, more referenced than read.

  14. LaurencePritchard

    I haven’t seen The Late Show for years but I’d think they’re trying to avoid being seen as elitist perhaps. If they say SB is difficult or challenging then this presents them as divorced from the “masses” where everything supposedly has to be fun and accessible. Agree with people above that particularly How it is and the later, shorter work are difficult. This is the first line of Worstward Ho.

    On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

    It’s not exactly a doddle is it? It’s certainly the case that Godot is a way in to Beckett and I have seen productions of some of the shorter silent plays which were pretty much physical comedies, but i’m not sure why the Late Show would be seen as some kind of introduction to a particular artist rather than critics expressing their views on novels, plays etc. I don’t think many people who aren’t interested in the arts watch it. I’m not interested in football so i wouldn’t watch pundits discussing the latest big match.

  15. Well, I have to admit I don’t know Brecht or Beckett, but your quote from Hatherley still drew me in. There is something seductive about his style. Alarmingly, I feel that I know what he is talking about when I can’t possibly. Not sure if that is the sign of a good writer or a dangerous one…

  16. Laurence, agreed, but elitism of course needn’t be exclusive. I think it’s a contemporary fallacy to think it must be. The masses can be trusted to watch or not as they see fit, and personally I have a lot more confidence in them (us) than many broadcasters seem to.

    Give people intelligent programming and many do respond to it, and not just South-Eastern middle class arts types.

    It slightly depresses me to say so, but Sky Arts and Sky Arts 2 are streets ahead of the BBC these days in terms of serious arts coverage. Just a different league. At risk of being paranoid though I suspect that’s only so Sky can point to them on licence renewal and show they’re fulfilling a public service remit.

    That first sentence is, I admit, possibly just a touch inaccessible.

    Sarah, he’s a good writer. He pulls you along, not necessarily always agreeing but always thinking. He’s also got a real knack for explaining sometimes quite unfamiliar concepts (unfamiliar to me anyway). But then, a good writer is I suspect also the most dangerous sort of writer.

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