In our February edition, Tom Parkinson told how he found himself agreeing to produce within ten weeks, a major compiled work by one of the century’s most important playwrights Samuel Beckett. It would be a one-man play starring Sam’s favourite actor, fellow-Dubliner Jack MacGowran, performed in English in a Paris Theatre.
As yet no finance, no production crew and no theatre. I needed time to think.
A meeting had been arranged in Paris in three days’ time. I took the then slow route: train to Dover, ferry to Calais – no channel tunnel in those days – train again to Paris. Ten hours in all, but time to strategise a to-be-done timetable.
The following morning I meet for le petit dejeuner with a young French Producer acquaintance Virgile Ionesco who was keen to be involved. He had found that the prestigious Theatre Edouard VII was available in six weeks and they would accept a four-day set up and rehearsal with a week’s performances. As an up-and-coming producer Virgile had a small band of investors. They were happy to put money in the Paris production on the proviso that the investment was part of the pre-production expenses in the New York package. I promised I would discuss this and propose Virgile as the Paris producer when I met with Jack and Sam later in the day.
On my way to my appointment with Jack and Sam I had a quick recce at the Edouard VII. It was located right in the centre of Paris between the Madeleine and the Opéra Garnier in the 9th arrondissement. It was small and intimate, 650 seats, built by Edward VII at the turn of the century as a gift to the people of Paris. The Theatre in its heyday was home to popular ‘French Bedroom Farces’. Not immediately the image of avant-garde, but for the US it gave a feeling of class and the perfect size for a one-man performance.
At Jack’s hotel I was greeted by his wife Aileen. Jack was on a call to London, so she and I chatted and took coffee while we waited. I always enjoyed Aileen’s company. She was the fourth daughter of Sir Walter Richard Nugent, the 4th Baronet of Donore in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath, a member of Seanad Éireann from 1928 to 1931. Strong minded and intelligent, Aileen was also a wonderful gossip. She gave me a background on what had happened or not happened so far on the production. Evidently some of Sam’s hanger-ons had claimed they could get a US and European deal with theatre and financing, but when the time came to actually do the deal it all unravelled.
Jack entered, stretched out his arms signalling the leading man and producer’s showbiz hug. As we bonded I could feel how small he was. His figure seemed no larger than a young teenager. But it was Jack’s head you focused on. Oval shaped with that extraordinary nose. That seemed to be his sense of choice, sniffing the truth or plot lines from fifty paces. As we parted he produced his greatest gift, the voice.
‘Shall we stroll to the maestros or catch a cab?’
He made the mundane sound as though it had the depth and resonance that could only come from the pen of your man from Stratford.
Our meeting place was in a café near Beckett’s apartment in Montparnasse. As we strolled there Aileen explained that Sam and his wife Suzanne had a house in the Parisian suburban countryside. Due to work commitments and increasing traffic in central Paris they had taken a pied-á-terre in Montparnasse during the week or when work required. Suzanne had always managed Sam’s life since they first met before the Second World War. But since the dual home living, stress had started between them. So much so, that according to Aileen, they now communicated with one another only by telephone in both the apartment and house. A man living in his own plotline.
Sam, true to character had placed himself in the café so that he could see the world yet his own position was hidden in shadow. He rose on seeing us and stuck out a hand for me to shake. No showbiz hugs here. He was taller than expected and his head did betray hawk-like features, but it was his intense stare that was most noticeable. Somehow those ice blue eyes remained fixed on you even though his head and body moved.
Nervous silence. Sound of a chair scraping.
‘Tom, tell Sam what you discussed with Jack and me on the way over about how the production can be financed.’
I explained that through Virgile’s investors we could raise 40 per cent of the Paris production budget and the remainder from US impresario James Nederlander. He was refurbishing a small Broadway theatre and his production assistant Liz McCann had convinced him that Beginning to End would be the perfect opener. By the by, Liz became Elizabeth Ireland McCann the famous Broadway impresario and today chairman of the Tony Awards.
Sam listened intently. Eyes not blinking.
Jack do you know the Nederlander fella?
Yes Sam I do. He owns a lot of theatres throughout the USA. He has a good reputation
Compared, say to NY Public Theatre’s Joe Papp?
I felt it was time for my penn’orth,
I worked with Joe on the European Hair production. He is a bit of an artistic bottom feeder.
Sam laughed at my remark, I had broken the ice.
We went through the business plan and timetable. Although they were nodding agreement they both needed to get their management to confirm. Theatrical agent Maggie Parker for Jack and publisher Marion Boyars for Sam. Nearing the end of our meeting I produced an image a friend of mine had shot of the very moment the human sperm fertilises the egg. The actual Beginning of the End. Sam and Jack loved it and agreed that it would make a brilliant poster. Meeting finished on an optimistic note, making way for an entertaining lunch.
Jack told Sam we all had a mutual interest in English Music Hall. Sam enjoyed the Lancashire comic Jimmy James, particularly his rhythmic use of words. It seemed paradoxical that here was arguably one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, a Nobel Laureate and his performing voice truly enjoying the word subtleties and timing delivery of an English working class comic. But then Sam was equally at home playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, the personification of modernism.
Back in London I came to realise that both Sam and Jack had much in common. Each had strong, intelligent and domineering women as wives and managers; these allowed them an artistically uncluttered life, free from everyday commerce and financial obligations. Each in the past had a strong taste for alcohol, a taste they were still working hard to relinquish.
I called Jack’s manager/agent, the formidable Australian Maggie Parker. Maggie had made her name representing James Mason (much later she also managed Sam Neil). She came in guns blazing, but was soon dislodged when I explained that Jack and Sam were the production company. Jack was paying himself. I was merely producing for them.
On to Sam’s handler Marion Boyars, who was partner with John Calder of the publishing house Calder and Boyars. According to Aileen, Marion had a short affair with Sam in the early 50s and now treated him as a wayward brother. Marion came on aggressively until I pointed out that Sam and Jack were the production company and she would be negotiating with herself for the performance and publishing rights.
Back in Paris and two weeks to opening night. Virgile had done a great job, everything and everybody was working in a well-paced tempo. Posters and flyers had been printed and were being distributed. A local and international interest had been generated and tickets were selling well. As I moved into the theatre office a sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the production could be felt around the building.
In no time at all, the stark, basic set and the simple yet subtle lights were rigged and the first tech rehearsal started. As the crew and Jack worked their way through the production, I became aware that Sam had little or no interest in the theatrical tools. He sat in the middle of the third row often with his eyes closed concentrating on Jack’s words, sometimes questioning his tempo, his volume or length of pause. But never once asking him to walk towards the tabs or downstage, make a hand action, a facial expression.
Jack came to the great Waiting for Godot soliloquy with the imagery of the gravedigger spade and the surgeon forceps.
Astride the grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.
Jack, Jack there’s a comma either side of lingering. Pause on both. Slight change of tempo with the gravedigger puts on the forceps.
I am with you Sam, sorry, two pauses either side of lingering. It’s noted.
Sam closes his eyes, listens. Jack repeats the line with the corrected pauses. Sam nods satisfaction. Jack continues into the second part of the speech. Sam’s eyes remain closed.
I realised that Beckett was not a playwright in the accepted sense but a composer who used words as his notes, tune and melody. Jack’s voice was his instrument and just like his hero Schubert, Sam couldn’t care less if the soloist smiled at the first violinist, waved to the conductor, swayed to the audience, what he wanted was that the notes and tempo were as written.
As Sam wrote in his first published novel Murphy, ‘Words are the clothes thoughts wear.’
Jack finished the Godot segment and moved towards the front of stage and seamlessly began the Unnameable section with this virtuoso piece of Sam’s writing and Jack’s performance of this single sentence.
Ah if only this voice could stop, this meaningless voice which prevents you from being nothing, just barely prevents you from being nothing and nowhere, just enough to keep alight this little yellow flame feebly darting from side to side, panting, as if straining to tear itself from its wick, it should never have been lit, or it should never have been fed, or it should have been put out, put out, it should have been let go out.
Opening night was a sell-out. It seemed that we had created a theatrical event that attracted international interest. Theatre critics from the UK, USA, France and Germany were attending. The BBC and French TV were filming interviews and excerpts. Liz McCann and Jimmy Nederlander had even convinced some New York art heavyweights to join them crossing the Atlantic.
Twenty minutes before curtain up, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali arrived, accompanied by three greyhounds and on each arm, a young lady, his press rep and photographer (although I saw no notebook or camera). Also they had no tickets. Sam and I were going to make use of a discrete side box, but we agreed to give it to Dali, dogs and gals.
Sam decided to sit alone in the stage-side dressing room and listen to the show through the tannoy. A few years later he wrote a play Rockaby for Billy Whitelaw where she sits on a rocking chair. As she rocks she hears a dull, expressionless pre-recorded voice – her own – recount details from her life, and that of her dead mother. Life often imitates art.
I watched the performance from the wings, occasionally looking into the dressing room to make sure Sam was still comfortable.
The curtain fell. From backstage the applause and cheering was absolutely astonishing. As Jack took his curtain calls, Sam, stunned by the noise of the applause, joined me in the wings. On about the fourth curtain call, Jack saw Sam and grabbed his arm and pulled him onto the stage as the curtain rose again. As far as I know that is the one and only time Samuel Beckett appeared on stage.
For the record there were four more calls for Jack…. and Sam.
In retirement, Tom Parkinson continues his involvement in the media, mainly with Foxtel ARTS and the European Classica Channel. He lives in Sanctuary Lakes, South West of Melbourne and writes a monthly Nature column for the local community.
Editor’s note: Some extracts from Beginning to End can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7zXy57O7bc. These are from a Dublin performance recorded by RTE, some three years before the events recalled by Tom Parkinson.