Our first meeting of the Beckett Reading Group was today. We missed Chere and Todd, who have moved to St. Paul, so this is a record for them of what they missed. (Todd painted an amazing picture for me of an imaginary Joycean's study after the Yeats Group finished, which I hope someday will be on the cover of a future issue of the James Joyce Quarterly. Chere found soap and chocolates that perfectly matched every episode's reading in the Joyce group. We'll miss them dearly.)
The Beckett Group is the third iteration of Irish Literary Nights, an idea that began in the mind of an assistant manager of Claddagh's Pub on Front St. and morphed into one of the happiest teaching experiences of my career. Here we are all raising a glass at the end of the first one, the Ulysses group (18 meetings, 18 episodes - a long haul but worth it).
Then it was on to Yeats, which resulted in a pamphlet published by Yonina Hoffman, Kamal E. Kimball, and Elizabeth A. Vu (copyright 2019 by A Few Hibernians) of parodies of Yeats inspired by the picture of the black hole that circulated earlier this year.
Some of the poems are priceless: "Before me floats a hole, figure or ground / Ground more than figure, more whole than ground [...] the wet tide of my slow thighs / Hung, night-blue fruit beneath a golden bough," "We see now: there is nothing beyond Berenice's hair, / A hole at the centre where fecund delicacy lies,""Old McYeatsy had a tower / fol de fol de rol." But now it was time for Beckett.
So we gathered, missing two of our companions, and read Waiting for Godot. We meet in Tara Hall, which is a brothel purchased by the Ancient Order of Hibernians after they were kicked out by a German bishop from the basement of a downtown cathedral for making too much noise. It is cork-lined (the walls are literally lined with old corks), serves Harp and Guinness, and has music on Fridays.
On Tuesdays they open the place up to us. Upstairs there is a spooky library with old Joyce and Yeats texts, Celtic crosses, and statues donated by O'Shaughnessy's, the local funeral home. A proclamation of the Irish Republic is framed over the mantelpiece. We're in an area of town that literally nobody knows, next to a closed steel mill and an old roundhouse for the last tram south of Columbus. It's the end of the line. It's perfect for Beckett.
We are a proud band of community warriors. There's Steve, the retired professor of Political Science who stops everything to ask why all the time. There's Marian, who plays accordion around town, and Corinne, who has her own website of Tarot readings (Living Labita Loca). Jim is a quaker librarian and Kamal gives drunken powerpoints, Joe performs a Beatles marathon that reaches thousands of people every Winter, Jeremy writes poetry about the constellation Virgo, Juliet has a dream job teaching middle school, and there are half a dozen graduate students from various departments in OSU who behave atrociously but read beautifully. It's a mix of all walks of life, a little microcosm of what a community can be. After Claddagh's closed down, we became refugees, and squatted in any craft beer hall that had a back room. Two Dollar Radio. Smokehouse Brewing. You name it, we went there. Until we found Tara Hall, which has become our home.
Reading in cycles, stopping at the pauses in the text ("People are bloody ignorant apes," "STOP IT," "Nothing to be done") to change actors, we beat the play into submission. Once we had to stop reading and turn the flashlights on our phones to look for a pipe that had broken in half, much to the consternation of its owner (and mirroring Pozzo's similar concern later in the play).
A turnip turned into a hockey puck, a blarney stone served as a low mound, and then the play fought back. It was during Lucky's speech. I had given this role to Reece, because he adores Beckett and because he looks a bit like Lucky. Here he is reading:
This was the best performance of Lucky's speech I have ever heard. Somewhere around the list of sports ("running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying") we all started to lose control, so that when he got to "Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham" we were howling with laughter. The ovation when Lucky's hat was removed and the speech was over washed over us like a gale.
In Act II, Pozzo is prevented from falling by Vladimir on one side and Estragon on the other. In our staged reading, he played the figure of the crucified Christ, with a thief to each side, one damned, one saved. Except that he didn't know his lines, of course, so someone had to be underneath him on the bench turning the pages of his book. That's me, turning the pages of Richard Fletcher's book.
And what a Pozzo he was. The force of his great speech, the one that every Beckett actor longs to read, the one that sums up all of Beckett, was all the more powerful for being read by a man supported by two caryatids (the word is Beckett's) gazing down at a brocaded bench in a brothel:
POZZO: "Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more. (He jerks the rope.) On!"
I'm here to report that Waiting for Godot is bullet-proof. We tried to kill it, and we failed. And in doing so, we found a spirit of reckless danger, of exhilarated attention, of sheer hilarity, that education (stupid word) has long left behind in a morass of time sheets and memoranda. Yes, we were several pints to the good, though not all of us, and yes, we have known each other for three years now. But what other group would show up on a Tuesday night when it's 90 degrees out, finding sitters for their kids and arranging for their spouses to manage the pets and driving down to Hungarian Village, from where no one from uptown has ever returned alive to tell the tale? The Beckett Reading Group, that's who. And we're just getting started...