“They are King Lear and the Fool in a bad way in a dosshouse by the Liffey.”

A wondrous article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books, My Darlings. With more than a hint of a Joycean stream-of-consciousness to begin with, as he takes a walk, which he does regularly, “down to the Bank of Ireland at the corner of Westland Row and Pearse Street”. Contemplations on some of the great writers, actors, directors and critics whose paths have crossed and criss-crossed, as well as the society in which they lived, before focussing in on the creative working and personal relationship between Samuel Beckett and his darlings – one called Magee and the other called MacGowran. Go and read the whole thingIt’s an article which I’m reluctant to excerpt from but there are an early couple of paragraphs which, because of a previous post on a Terry Eagleton article, I will just pick out.

The street between Nora’s hotel and Wilde’s house is called Clare Street. Samuel Beckett’s father ran his quantity-surveying business from Number 6, but there is no plaque, or anything like that. When their father died in 1933, Beckett’s brother took over the business, while Beckett, who was idling at the time, took the attic room. Like all idlers, he made many promises. He promised himself that he would write and he promised his mother that he would give language lessons. But he did nothing much, except get away from her, which must have been a full-time job. It would look good on a plaque: ‘This is where Beckett got away from his god-forsaken mother.’ Must tell the tourist board. The implications of being halfway between Wilde’s house and Nora Barnacle’s hotel might well have been lost on Beckett. He specialised, after all, unlike Henry James, in allowing many things to be entirely lost on him.

Like Wilde, he belonged to that group of Protestant geniuses who thought they should speak up just as their land-owning and money-owning colleagues were clearing out of Ireland or learning to keep quiet. Terry Eagleton thinks that if they hadn’t let so many people starve, they mightn’t have had to travel so far collecting folklore, and there might have been more folklore to go round. He must have enjoyed writing that. But they all came from different rungs of the social ladder. At the top was Lady Gregory, who had a big house and plenty of tenants; and then Synge, who had a small private income, as Beckett and Wilde did, and a memory of glory; and then Yeats, who worked all his life, not only for his living, but at making himself grander than he was; and Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw, who were hardly more than clerks. And then Sean O’Casey who was poor and nearly blind. All of them baptised into the wholly un-Roman and highly Protestant church. And none of them believed a word of it except poor Lady Gregory, who hoped for heaven. It must be fun not believing in anything, and having your fellow countrymen wanting you to clear off to England because of the very religion you don’t believe in. This must be why a few of them became interested in posing and twisting things around and developing their eloquence and their silence. Wilde loved finding an accepted set of truths and turning them sharply inside out, and Beckett often followed suit until he started hanging out with Joyce and became concerned with language and consciousness, but then that too turned towards lessness, silliness, silence.

That done, and before I’m tempting to reprint the entire article, here’s an extract on some of those criss-crossing paths and the creative working relationships.

Just as Beckett’s Irish voices came as a pair, the context is always ambiguous. Both actors and Beckett himself felt undervalued in England; the actors knew this because of the sort of work they were offered by English directors and Beckett knew it by the response to his work by English critics and writers. There was a wonderful encounter with Olivia Manning when she berated him for his pessimism, his aridity and his lack of hope. But the two actors and Beckett were insiders as much as outsiders in the great city, they were deeply treasured and supported with immense zeal by powerful people in London, notably at the BBC and the Royal Court.

Neither MacGowran and Magee spoke with any fluency or care about their art; they spoke about it as though it were something deeply hidden from them, and quite simple and merely on the surface. This also has to be read carefully and suspiciously, especially in the light of Beckett’s view that a play like Waiting for Godot is ‘full of implications and every important statement may be taken at three or four levels. But the actor has only to find the dominant one. And if he does so, it does not mean that the other levels will be lost.’ Magee and MacGowran combined an instinct for finding this single level with the intelligence to know that it would never be enough, and the excitement was in the tension between the two.

Now, go and read the whole thing again


  • Garibaldy

    I’ve heard a version of this. Clever mimicing of superior artists but hollow. And, I’m reliably informed, not a great deal of this stuff is new to anyone who knows anything about Beckett. Wasn’t hugely impressed.

  • Yoda

    Strangely sectarian.

  • Pete Baker


    Sorry, you’ve lost me there. You’ve heard a version of what, exactly?


    Likewise, you lost me there.

  • Garibaldy


    He has delivered this article as a speech (not a great public speaker I thought), and the mimicry is even more noticeable than in the written version. It’s very deliberate but reminded me how inferior his talent was to those he copies,, be it Joyce or James. In my humble opinion.

  • Pete Baker


    Just consider it an homage to those writers since the stylistic tics are hardly veiled.

    And try to avoid playing the man.

    As I suggested in the intro, the article relates the criss-crossing paths of various artists and their relationships very well.

    The detail may not be new to you, but to many it will be.

  • Garibaldy


    I didn’t think I was playing the man. I was commenting on the performance of an artist – not on him as an individual. I am aware that the stuff is an homage, but I feel it just highlights the gap between the original and the homage.

  • I also attended the “speech” — actually, it was a lecture. Toibin wasn’t presenting an “homage” to Beckett, but rather exploring a very complex interaction between him and his McGowran and Magee. I wonder what Beckett specialists informed Garibaldy that the talk was derivative.

  • susan

    Tough crowd, Pete.

    I envy you, Junius, hearing the speech in person. Jack MacGowran paralysed beyond speech before each and every performance in Gorey (Gorey, God help us!), Mrs. Beckett’s despair in the streets of Paris over Samuel’s hard drinking when “the Irish” were back in town — priceless stuff. Shouldn’t be left solely for the appreciation of pale and lonely graduate students in cubicles in Cambridge, or Bonn — and if it is, it won’t be the fault of Colm Tóibín.

  • Pete Baker

    It’s always a tough crowd, susan.

    Wouldn’t have it any other way. ;o)

  • Fred Allan

    What is this weird idea Susan has of the graduate student? Life of Reilly, I can assure you.

    Should that be Life O’Reilly? Never occurred to me before…