The London Beckett Seminar, which meets eight times a year, brings together national and international scholars, researchers, postgraduate students and the general public to discuss issues arising from the prose, theatre and poetry of Samuel Beckett that pertain to aspects of literary, philosophical and historical analysis with particular attention to translation studies, performance and practice, digital humanities and visual cultures. Inherently interdisciplinary in approach, the seminar has established a vibrant research network for postgraduate students, early-career researchers, and established academics on a national and international level.
Established by Prof. Steven Connor (University of Cambridge) and then directed by Prof. Laura Salisbury (University of Exeter) both formerly of Birkbeck, University of London, it has been directed by Prof. Derval Tubridy at the Institute of English Studies of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, with the support of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths since 2016.
The London Beckett Seminar currently operates online as a carbon-neutral cost-neutral seminar series co-convened with PhD student Stefano Rosignoli of Trinity College Dublin that has over 1,300 members internationally and hosts eight global speakers each year. The seminars are free and open to the public.
Friday, 15th October 2021, Dr Rick de Villiers (University of the Free State), “How to Humble a Text: Beckett’s How It Is and the Syntax of Penury”
Friday, 19th November 2021, Dr Sarah Jane Scaife (Company SJ), “Beckett sa Chreig: Laethanta Sona / Beckett in the Rock: Happy Days”
Friday, 17th December 2021, Dr Judy Hegarty-Lovett and Conor Lovett (Gare St Lazare Ireland) “Contagion of Innovation”
Friday, 21st January 2022, Dr Amanda Dennis (The American University of Paris), “Beckett and Embodiment from an Ecological Perspective”
Friday, 18th February 2022, Dr Pim Verhulst (University of Antwerp), “Beckett’s Unpublished Radio Plays and Intermediality”
Friday, 25th March 2022, Prof Angela Moorjani (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), “Reassessing Beckett’s Buddhist Resonances”
Friday, 22nd April 2022, Prof Jonathan Boulter (Western University), “Beckett’s Posthuman: Spatiality and the World”
Friday, 20th May 2022, Dr Georgina Nugent-Folan (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), “‘A detour of filthiness’: Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes’ Repulsive Bodies”
All events are free, but registration is required. Please register by email.
In an early review of How It Is, John Updike cast Samuel Beckett as a “proud priest perfecting his forlorn ritual”. The charge is not easily dismissed. There is something arrogant in the writing of a novel that not only demands impossible patience from readers but also great familiarity with the prior body of work. My contention in this paper, however, is that How It Is looks askance at old foundations and new turnings, and, in doing so, offers an instance of a text humbling itself. Specifically, I consider the text’s self-critical appropriation of earlier works in the Beckett canon. What kind of residual embarrassment may be discovered in its undisguised echoes? What revision is implied? What tension can be traced between the old aporetics and the new? A further aim is to suggest a softening of the dogmatic aesthetic views Beckett espoused about the relation between the artist and the object of art. Such a softening sees the absolute terms “impotence” and “insuperable indigence” relativised as weakness and penury. This is not to say that Beckett abandons his project of aesthetic “failure”, only that the project itself is interrogated. On this view, weakness and penury facilitate humility in their resistance to a writing that has the potential to become what it opposes: a totalising poetics.
RICK DE VILLIERS is a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of the Free State, South Africa. His first monograph, Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (Edinburgh University Press) is due for publication by the end of October 2021. He is currently editing a special issue of English Studies in Africa (65.2, 2022) which considers the legacy of modernism in South African literature. For more, visit www.rickdevilliers.com or email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During our recent production of Laethanta Sona, on the occasion of the 2022 Galway International Arts Festival, we presented Happy Days as a sculptural installation set in the most remote area of the island of Inis Oírr, using the local landscape and language to generate a site-responsive, immersive performance. We filmed and recorded everything we encountered, including the sculptural set, the landscape, the rocks, the horizon of sea and sky, and the local Irish language during a series of interviews with the islanders. We worked then on the filmed elements in order to create an installation of landscape, language and forms within a theatre space, with the idea to offer a new encounter with the text. Our staging of Happy Days in Irish was naturally concerned with several challenges regarding the translation, performance and set design of Beckett’s dramatic work, having also to face the difficulties caused by the pandemic of Covid-19.
There is a very important distinction between our event in Inis Oírr, which was set in a landscape of Beckettian lunar nature, and our staging in traditional theatre spaces. The stage design of the former was sculpted by men who are experts in shaping rocks and turning them into building material, as they did in the remote fields of Inis Oírr. The latter was conceived as an attempt to recreate imaginatively the West of Ireland, basing on the documents which we gathered and on the technologies at our disposal. The former was in Irish with no translation, the second could be compared to an opera with English subtitles, for those who require them, placed high above the stage.
SARAH JANE SCAIFE, Artistic Director of Company SJ, researches and directs the work of Samuel Beckett both nationally and internationally. She has conducted two main research projects: “Beckett in Asia” (2002-06) and “Beckett in the City” (2009-16) which set out to place side-by-side the socio-historic wounds of Ireland’s past with the current social tensions within the city itself, using the writing of Samuel Beckett in interaction with the social and architectural spaces of Dublin. In 2018 she presented Samuel Beckett’s prose piece, Company, for the Dublin Theatre Festival. She is also Assistant Professor of Drama at Trinity College Dublin.
Gare St Lazare Ireland presented the world premiere of their six-hour-long film How It Is, by Samuel Beckett, during the 2021 Dublin Theatre Festival.
How It Is charts a journey undertaken by turns alone and accompanied. Time and space are fragmented and juxtaposed in one of the most eloquent and exquisite texts in the Beckett canon. Continuing the company’s critically acclaimed and award-winning exploration and illumination of Beckett’s prose texts, the company will discuss their process of making, and the experience of working towards, their film.
From novel to stage and, now, from stage to screen. This durational piece became, for the audience, an opportunity to experience Beckett’s work in yet another medium. The director Judy Hegarty-Lovett and actor Conor Lovett will discuss how Beckett’s writing continues to find its way to audiences across multiple forms.
JUDY HEGARTY-LOVETT holds a degree in Fine Art from Crawford College of Art & Design, a post-graduate diploma in Dramatherapy from the University of Hertfordshire, and a PhD in Film, Theatre and Television from the University of Reading. She has directed all but one of Gare St Lazare Ireland’s twenty-three Beckett productions since 1996, when she first directed Conor Lovett in Molloy at Riverside Studios, London. Other titles include Waiting for Godot, Rockaby, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Lessness, Enough, Texts for Nothing, Worstward Ho, All That Fall, Embers, Cascando, Words and Music, The Old Tune, Rough for Radio I-II, First Love, The Calmative, The End, How It Is (Parts 1-2), Ill Seen Ill Said and the collaborative music/visual art creation Here all Night. Other directing credits include Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn (Los Angeles Times critics pick); Title and Deed, by Will Eno (New York Times, New Yorker and Time Out NY critics picks); Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (adapted by Judy, with Conor Lovett); Swallow, by Michael Harding; Tanks a Lot, by Judy Hegarty-Lovett and Raymond Keane; and The Good Thief, by Conor McPherson. Her work has been prized in London, Berlin, Boston, Dublin, Edinburgh, New York, Santa Barbara and Shanghai. It has also been nominated for seven Irish Times Theatre Awards, with How It Is (Part 1) winning Best Soundscape (Mel Mercier) and Best Lighting (Kris Stone) in 2019, and How It Is (Part 2) competing for Best Director (Judy Hegarty- Lovett) in 2020.
CONOR LOVETT was trained at École Jacques Lecoq, in Paris, and has performed over eighteen Beckett roles in twenty-one productions. Joint artistic director of Gare St Lazare Ireland, he has toured to over eighty-four cities in twenty-five countries with the company. He has worked with Judy Hegarty-Lovett on Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Texts for Nothing, First Love, The End, The Calmative, Here All Night and How It Is (Parts 1-2), and has been directed by Walter Asmus in A Piece of Monologue (for Gare St Lazare) and Waiting for Godot (in productions for the Gate Theatre, in Dublin, and the Rubicon Theatre Company, in Los Angeles). He has also performed A Piece of Monologue, for Corcadorca, and Act Without Words I-II and What Where, for the Gate Theatre. Other theatre plays include Leaves (Druid/Royal Court), The Bull (Fabulous Beast), The Feast during the Plague (Clod Ensemble), Orpheus (Steeple) and The Oginski Polonaise (The Gate, London). Nominations and awards include The Stage Best Actor nominee Edinburgh 1997, Best Performer 2007 Santa Barbara Independent, Irish Theatre Awards Judges Special Prize nominee 2008, and Best Actor nominee 2009, Lucille Lortel nominee for Outstanding Solo Performance 2012, The Stage Award for Acting Excellence 2014, Off West End Best Actor nominee 2014, and Shanghai Theatre Festival Awards in 2011 (Moby Dick) and 2013 (Waiting for Godot).
Increasingly, Beckett’s work is being read (and staged) against the backdrop of our intensifying climate crisis. Bodies potted in urns, confined to cylinders, shelters, or jars, or embedded in an earth where nothing grows, give us an image of the human as materially intertwined within its nonhuman environment. It is tempting to read Beckett’s abject, decrepit bodies as signaling the impossibility of agency. I argue instead that this porousness between the human (body) and the nonhuman (environment) supports a nonvoluntarist, material agency that is not strictly limited to the human. In Beckett and Embodiment, I argue that Beckett’s work urges us to reconceptualise agency, and in this talk, I’ll discuss the major claim of my book: that Beckett’s refashioning of subjectivity in dialogue with a disintegrating environment opens possibilities for embodied agency in collaboration with our physical and linguistic surroundings. I’ll then describe how this argument plays out in Beckett’s works from the early l960s, which provocatively conflate linguistic and physical terrain. In Comment c’est and Happy Days, techniques of linguistic citation and recombination suggest a parallel between a vision of aesthetic agency (vis-à-vis language) and embodied agency. The dissolution of the world into mud and the disarticulation of language in Comment c’est—its eschewal of punctuation and syntax—tether the work of signification to the physical body’s complex rapport with its surroundings. An aesthetic of bricolage also presents itself in Happy Days, where Winnie misquotes the classics to get her through a day that seems to recur eternally. I’ll ask how the body’s physical submergence (in mud, in earth) might parallel the verbal navigation among worn out fragments of culture, reframing the question of what, if anything, literary texts can do to reimagine human agency as integrated within nonhuman environments of earth and language.
AMANDA DENNIS is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at The American University of Paris. Her book, Beckett and Embodiment: Body, Space, Agency, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021, and she recently co-edited a special issue of Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui devoted to Samuel Beckett and the Nonhuman/ Samuel Beckett et le non-humain (32.2, 2020). Her interests span ecological criticism, philosophies of embodiment, phenomenology and modernist European literature. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature and the Journal of Beckett Studies, among other places, and she is the author of the novel Her Here (Bellevue Literary Press, 2021). For more information, please visit www.amandadennis.net.
Samuel Beckett wrote his six known radio plays between 1956 and 1962. Still, it would be misleading to confine the importance of the medium for his work to that short period. From his letters, for example, we know that he avidly listened to radio at least as early as the 1930s, when in Germany, probably before that time and during the war as well, certainly in the decades that followed, keeping a set in his Paris apartment and one at his country retreat in Ussy. In 1946, for RTÉ radio, he also wrote a reportage on the Irish Red Cross hospital in the bombed town of Saint-Lô, fittingly called The Capital of the Ruins but never broadcast. Less well known is the fact that he also planned to write a “sketch” for the French radio station Paris Mondial in 1940—although if it led to a script, this has not been preserved. Two others have, however. The first survives in six draft versions at Boston College and constitutes a substantial attempt to complete Rough for Radio I under a different title, “All but I”, begun in 1973 but quickly abandoned. The second is called “Endhörspiel” or “Hörendspiel”, written in 1988, mainly surviving in Beckett’s correspondence with Barbara Bray and Hans-Jochen Schale of SDR. These two “unpublished” radio plays is what my talk will focus on: firstly, to examine their specific relationship to other texts that Beckett was working on at the time—on the one hand, Not I and Imagination Dead Imagine; on the other, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still and “what is the word”—but also unused notes dating back to Krapp’s Last Tape; secondly, to make the more general point that radio’s significance for Beckett’s work stretches across his entire career, beyond the 1950s and 1960s, through intermedial exchange.
PIM VERHULST is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Antwerp. He focuses on postwar fiction from the British Isles, radio and intermediality, and has published in Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, the Journal of Beckett Studies, Beckett and BBC Radio (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), Beckett and Technology (Edinburgh University Press, 2021) and Beckett and Media (Manchester University Press, 2022), among others. He is co-editor of Beckett and Modernism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Radio Art and Music (Lexington Books, 2020) and Tuning in to the Neo-Avant Garde (Manchester University Press, 2021). As an editorial board member of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project, he has co-authored the modules on Molloy (2017), Malone Dies (2017) and Waiting for Godot (2018), which all received the Modern Language Association Prize. His book The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Radio Plays is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic.
Beckett and Buddhism undertakes a twenty-first-century reassessment of the Buddhist resonances in Beckett’s writing. In my presentation, I propose first to explain the motivation underlying this reappraisal, before discussing some of the insights into Beckett’s works that its Buddhist reverberations, set in dialogue with Western thought, have brought to light.
Recent archival research and studies by Buddhist scholars have confirmed the quality of Schopenhauer’s knowledge of Buddhist thought, on which, as my study demonstrates, Beckett drew from his earliest to his final works. Investigating the extraordinary influence of Schopenhauer’s transmission of Indian philosophy (until roughly the 1930s) and probing his views of the artistic process derived from Indian thought led me to situate the early Beckett at the intersection of Eastern and Western philosophy current at the time. Additionally, the posthumous publication of Beckett’s first novel, the story “Echo’s Bones”, his letters and archival riches yielded new evidence for Beckett’s yet to be uncovered knowing allusions to Buddhist thought.
Subsequently, I will introduce a relatively little-known piece of art criticism of 1952 in French, in which Beckett embraces the Buddha’s paradoxical view of self and no-self, and illusory reality. In the book, Beckett’s logical paradoxes and their parallels in Buddhist philosophy, negative theology and modern Western philosophy are investigated in view of this minimal Buddhist manifesto.
Further, in the wake of the increasing awareness of the political in Beckett’s works, I will draw attention to his mingling of empirical and metaphysical realities and his concepts of a positive void and “unspeakable home” in later texts, converging with the Buddha and Schopenhauer’s visions of an ineffable beyond. Explored are the effects of this sub specie aeternitatis vision on the ethical obligation writing entails, for Beckett, in the face of human traumas and the unknowable beyond.
ANGELA MOORJANI is Professor Emerita of Modern Languages and Intercultural Pragmatics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has extensively explored the multidimensional writing of Samuel Beckett in her many publications, with essays ranging from “A Mythic Reading of Beckett’s Molloy” (1976) to “Entangled Minds: Beckett and Bion” (forthcoming, 2022) and with books from the post-structuralist study Abysmal Games in the Novels of Samuel Beckett (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1982; reissued in 2018) to Beckett and Buddhism (Cambridge University Press, 2021). In her other interdisciplinary books and essays, she investigates the effects of trauma and mourning on modern writers and artists.
Can the term “posthuman” be usefully deployed in a reading of Beckett? At first blush this question may seem simple to answer. Beckett’s characters—and I think here primarily of those in the prose—are often figured as disintegrated, diffuse, spectral, fundamentally post-ontological: “I’ve given myself up for dead all over the place” (Texts for Nothing, 1); “Long live all our phantoms” (Texts for Nothing, 5). As early as The Unnamable Beckett seems to have anticipated some idea of what constitutes the posthuman: a subject with no transparent understanding of self, no history, no proper language, perhaps not even a body: “There will be no more from me about bodies and trajectories, sky and earth, I don’t know what it all is” (The Unnamable). And yet, even as Beckett works assiduously to dismantle a model of the humanist subject, reducing it, ultimately, to an unlocatable grammatical impulse, “Whose words? Ask in vain…No words for him whose words. Him? One” (Worstward Ho), he insists on locating his subject in the world. And even as the posthuman subject understands itself as a phantom, as a spectre, it recognises the aporetic necessity of ground, of space, of world: “What counts is to be in the world, the posture is immaterial, so long as one is on earth” (Texts for Nothing, 4). My deep interest here is to begin to understand the post-ontological subject’s requirement for world, its desire to be located as a spatial subject. What does it mean that a spectre needs a world, needs to be on earth? How are we being asked to understand the categories of world, or earth, of space and spatiality, as they relate to the effaced and groundless subject? “A place. Where none. For the body.” I will turn to various thinkers here—Heidegger, Blanchot—in an effort to understand how Beckett’s construction of the spatialised posthuman works both as a critique of traditional philosophical readings of the humanist subject and as an aporetic confirmation of the persistence of the remaindered human. It may be that it is precisely the oscillation between groundlessness and ground, worldlessness and world, that defines the Beckettian posthuman: “Long live all our phantoms”.
JONATHAN BOULTER is Professor of English at Western University. He is the author of Posthuman Space in Samuel Beckett’s Short Prose (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Parables of the Posthuman (Wayne State University Press, 2015), Melancholy and the Archive: Trauma, Memory, and History in the Contemporary Novel (Continuum, 2011), Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2008), Interpreting Narrative in the Novels of Samuel Beckett (University Press of Florida, 2001) and co-editor of Cultural Subjects: A Cultural Studies Reader (Thomson Nelson, 2005). His work has appeared in Cultural Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, Genre, Hispanic Review, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, the Journal of Beckett Studies, International Ford Madox Ford Studies, as well as in Digital Gameplay (McFarland, 2005), Cy-Borges (Bucknell University Press, 2009), Samuel Beckett: History Memory Archive (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Beyond Cyberpunk (Routledge, 2010), Samuel Beckett and Pain (Brill, 2012), Understanding Blanchot, Understanding Modernism (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) and After the Human (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
In late 1970 Samuel Beckett wrote to Djuna Barnes with the offer of financial assistance, pledging “between 3 and 4 thousand dollars” (LSBIV, 244), which Barnes accepted in a letter dated 2 January 1971. Later, following Barnes’ death in 1982 and the re-publication of a number of her works, he wrote to Kay Boyle in 1983 that Barnes’ “prolificacy” was news to him (LSBIV, 606), but in the 1930s Beckett did read (and enjoy) Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood, referencing it in that same letter to Boyle in 1983. Beckett’s extraordinary act of generosity towards Barnes has long been acknowledged, but their work also merits consideration together, not least for the fact that both Barnes and Beckett maintained close personal relationships with Joyce. In this paper I will compare the representation of repulsive or disgusting bodies in Barnes’ writings (up to and including Nightwood) with those found in Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women, More Pricks than Kicks and “Echo’s Bones”. Leaving aside the well documented Joycean traces identifiable throughout Beckett’s early writings, and throughout Dream in particular, I will argue Barnes’ representation of the grotesque and the repulsive, typically in female bodies, has an aesthetic counterpoint in the repulsive bodies in Beckett’s early prose; specifically I will propose that Beckett’s repulsive male bodies are responsive (I do not use the word “responses”) to Barnes’ repulsive women. More broadly, this article argues for Barnes’ inclusion in the nexus of artists whose writing we may consider alongside Beckett’s early writings; with an alternative to Joyce that need not supplant him, but that will further redress the ubiquity with which Joyce is seen throughout Beckett’s early works.
GEORGINA NUGENT-FOLAN is Assistant Professor of Modern English Literature at LMU Munich. Her monograph study, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company/Compagnie, was published in 2021, and she is presently completing an accompanying digital genetic edition of Company/Compagnie as part of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. A study on Beckett and Gertrude Stein is forthcoming in the “Elements of Beckett Studies” series (Cambridge University Press). She is editing a special issue of the Journal of Beckett Studies that focuses on Beckett’s Female Contemporaries (32.1, 2023) and is co-editing a critical retrospective of Hans Walter Gabler’s Critical and Synoptic Edition of Ulysses with Sam Slote, for publication in 2024.
Derval Tubridy is Professor of Literature and Visual Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and former Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Pro-Warden for Research and Enterprise. She is Co-Director of the London Beckett Seminar and Vice-Chair of the British Association of Irish Studies. She works on modern and contemporary literature, philosophy, performance and the visual arts with a particular focus on the intersections between language, materiality and process. Author of Samuel Beckett and the Language of Subjectivity (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Thomas Kinsella: The Peppercanister Poems (University College Dublin Press, 2001), she has published widely on Modernism and Irish Studies. Her work has been funded by the Fulbright Commission, the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Stefano Rosignoli received an MA in Modern Literature (2006) and an MPhil in Publishing Studies (2008) from the University of Bologna. From 2008 to 2015 he focused on trade publishing in Italy and the UK while taking the first steps towards his PhD in English, which he is completing at Trinity College Dublin. Stefano’s academic education is grounded in textual studies at large, from philology to genetic criticism, balanced by formalism, structuralism and the semiotics of texts, and his research examines the philosophical exogenesis of Irish literature in English. He has recent or forthcoming publications on Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce; he teaches modern literature and theory at Trinity College and University College, in Dublin; and serves as Review Editor for Variants: The Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship. In 2018, he has been a James Joyce Visiting Fellow and J-1 Short-Term Scholar at the Humanities Institute, State University of New York at Buffalo, and a visiting research scholar at Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Cornell University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.