Pale Light: Samuel Beckett and Painting by Anthony Atlas

Aug 29, 2014 3:03PM

Legendary Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw once said about Samuel Beckett, “He writes paintings.” Aptly put, Whitelaw’s comment underscores the visualness of so much of Beckett’s work for theater. His plays do appear like paintings—paintings in the historical tradition of the figure, with their stark compositions, dramatic use of lighting, and fragmented evocations of stories. Beckett, it has been shown, actually studied this kind of painting seriously throughout his life, and allowed much of it to inform his dramatic aesthetic.

Whitelaw played roles in a number of Beckett’s most visually striking works for theater: RockabyNot I, and Footfalls. In all of them, an obvious debt to painting is revealed. Posing like a grieving Mary Magdalene in Footfalls, Whitelaw seems closely modeled to the innumerable depictions of the scene conveyed by Renaissance painters. And in Not I, in which Whitelaw premiered the lead role, the haunting, floating mouth borrowed candidly from Caravaggio. Indeed, Beckett is on record conceding to this old master’s direct influence on Not I. Thanks to devoted scholars—friends, actually—of Beckett, such as Ruby Cohn, who recorded Whitelaw’s insightful quote above, and Beckett’s masterful biographer James Knowlson, it’s now known in detail how these references surface in surprising ways in Beckett’s work. 

As a student at Trinity College in Dublin in the early 1920s, Beckett spent countless hours at the nearby National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, where he studied the collection’s old masters. He was fanatical for its Dutch and Flemish paintings, its van Goyens, El Grecos, and Rembrandts, and especially the Pietà by Perugino. Explicit references to the Pietà would turn up in Beckett’s earliest prose and poetry. At the same time, he also began a lifelong friendship with Thomas MacGreevy, who would later become director of the gallery. In the late 1920s, Beckett failed to professionalize his own passion for painting in a rejected bid to be hired as assistant curator at London’s National Gallery. 

In 1937, as Germany was mobilizing for war and its escalated campaign against Jews and other minorities, Beckett toured the galleries and museums of Dresden, Munich, and Berlin, and even attended one of the famous Degenerate Art exhibits in Halle. On this very tour, Beckett happened upon the painting that would inspire Waiting for Godot: Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon. Corroborated in evidence by a directorial notebook for Waiting for Godot (“K.D. Friedrich”—Beckett spelled the painter's first name with a "K"—is initialed in a key scene), and admitted personally by Beckett to Ruby Cohn decades after its premiere, it’s fascinating how this romantic, 19th-century transcendental painting could ignite the vision of a darkly humorous play that would, as the cliché has it, change modern theater

In the final moments of the first act, Beckett’s stage directions for Waiting for Godot asks for light that “… suddenly fails. In a moment it is night. The moon rises at back, mounts in the sky, stands still, shedding a pale light on the scene.” In the next direction Estragon is to “contemplate the moon.” Here, Estragon utters the line, “Pale for weariness.” Broken by Vladimir’s “Eh?,” Estragon finishes, “Of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us.” This is the very passage marked “K.D. Friedrich” in Beckett’s notebook from the play, revealing the exact painting Beckett had in mind when he wrote the scene.

As Knowlson points out in the survey Images of Beckett, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting might have only been referenced as an ironic nod toward the narratives of Christianity that Beckett was familiar with but had personally abandoned. And yet Beckett remained throughout his life a serene spirit, in many ways an artist highly concerned with the nature of being and, of course, our relationship with language. In my mind, this is where the role of painting most clearly came in handy to Beckett the writer: to alleviate the anxiety so many words induce in our consciousness, the stillness of paintings and their silences offered Beckett an obvious retreat. In that direction, toward the stillness of painting—and perfect silence—his theater would eventually follow. As for Friedrich’s painting, and many others like it, Beckett would see through the faddishness of so many movements of painting contemporary to him, and always retain a fresh eye for work that might have been considered passé in other circles. Finding the universal drama throughout all of them, Beckett mined these compositions for his own distinctly visual theater, creating what Whitelaw would refer to as his “paintings.” 

Anthony Atlas is a Brooklyn-based songwriter, and archivist for the estate of William N. Copley.

Images: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY and © John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Arts.

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