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Home Uncategorized Politics in the Margins

Politics in the Margins

Anthony Roche
Beckett’s Political Imagination, by Emilie Morin, Cambridge University Press, 276 pp, £31.99, ISBN 978-1108417990 Since his emergence to international fame with the success of En Attendant Godot in the early 1950s, Samuel Beckett has been largely perceived as an apolitical writer. Martin Esslin’s critical bracketing of him as a practitioner of the “theatre of the absurd” removed his writing from having any direct social or political application. As Emilie Morin says, “interviews and memoirs portray a writer peculiarly unqualified for political activity, ill-at-ease with mundane realities and more comfortable with philosophical abstraction”; what tended to be stressed was the broad universality of Beckett’s humanism rather than any more narrow political allegiance. Beckett certainly offered comments that fed this interpretation, even when commenting on his intelligence work for the French Resistance during World War Two – rare political activism which has attracted increasing critical attention in Beckett studies. His response to the question of whether he was ever political was: “No, but I joined the Resistance.” He was moved to do so by the fate of Jewish friends in Paris in the early years of the war, such as Joyce’s secretary, Paul Léon, and his wife, Lucie, as the full extent of Nazi antisemitism became all too manifest. Beckett was most frequently moved to political action by the fate of friends, but though he may term this an act of friendship rather than a political act, it can be best seen as a strategy to retain his freedom. He was also capable of intervening on behalf of writers whose work he may have known but with whom he was personally unacquainted when it came to important issues of freedom of expression and censorship. Where his literary production is concerned, it was only with the appearance of the late play Catastrophe (1982) that a more political Beckett was discerned; the play was dedicated to the imprisoned Czech playwright Václav Havel. In the wake of Catastrophe, it became clearer that there was a political subtext to Beckett’s plays, “with their numerous portrayals of violence, torture, dispossession, internment and subjugation”. That subtext could be brought out more explicitly by a particular social and political context, as when the American intellectual Susan Sontag staged Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1993. But it is not at the well-known texts of Beckett’s writing career that Morin looks in the main. The more overt political engagement is to be found in the margins of…

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