Like George Orwell before him, Samuel Beckett had a strong aversion to being filmed or even having his voice recorded. Although he was nothing less than magnanimous in his own cantankerous way with his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, he did draw the line:
At this point in our conversation I pulled out a notebook and pencil out of my purse, intending to jot down some of what we were saying. He jumped up and demanded to know what I was doing. Were we not 'just having a friendly conversation, just two people talking?' Didn't I already know that he 'did not give interviews', that he 'never allowed pencil and paper,' and 'the question of the tape recorder is one which must never come up?'– Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p xii
And that is how the two of them proceeded over the next six years, friendly conversations in French cafés which she would endeavour to memorise as best she could and make a record of them as soon as she got back to her hotel room:
I told him at the beginning of these interviews that as soon as I left him, I would return to my hotel and spend the rest of the day … talking our conversation as I remembered it into the tape recorder, trying to capture every inflection of his every remark. He seemed particularly taken by the idea of my voice recording his remarks, and throughout the next several years, he frequently asked questions about it that I can only attribute to an interest in technique. – Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p xiii
You might imagine that Beckett's reluctance to be interviewed came as a result of the overnight fame he achieved after Waiting for Godot but this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an abridged version of the play was first broadcast on French radio. Beckett had the opportunity to say a few words before the play went out but preferred to send a polite note that Roger Blin read out on his behalf. I find it amusing that the opening words of that statement were: "I do not know who Godot is," something he continually had to restate for the rest of his life. (For more details see 'Ruby Cohn on the Godot Circle' in Knowlson, J. & E., (Ed.) Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p 122)
Beckett never gave an inch. He refused to be interviewed on camera and did not permit recordings to be made of any conversations he had. He would tolerate photographers up to a point but most could only catch his serious side, a shame because when you read about his relationships with his friends a completely different man appears.
To the best of my knowledge the only 'official' recording Beckett ever made came about as follows: he had contacted the BBC about making a recording of Lessness and the producer Martin Esslin visited him in Paris to discuss the project. Esslin asked the author how he wanted the piece to be read so Beckett demonstrated reading with a mathematical precision in a voice devoid of colour or stress tapping his finger metronomically as he read: "Grey, everything grey, little body only upright, fallen over", etc. Esslin remembers:
And I said, 'Sam, allow me to record a little bit so that I can tell the actors to pick up the tone.' He said, 'No, no I never record anything'. I said, 'Listen, I swear to you I'll never use this, only to play it to the actors'. And he read a few minutes of it for me and I've got that on tape. – 'Martin Esslin on Beckett the Man' in Knowlson, J. & E., (Ed.) Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p 150,151
Well, he did at the time. He's since donated it to the Archive of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading.
Needless to say Beckett fans have always been curious how he actually spoke. Kenneth Brecher noted that after more than fifty years in Paris he had not lost his Dublin Irish accent. What is interesting though is that when he talked to the actress Billie Whitelaw about working on the radio play All That Fall in 1957 he explained to her that the character Maddy Rooney was ''full of abortive explosiveness,'' and, emphasized that Maddy had an Irish accent. She said, "Like yours," and he said, "No, no, no, an Irish accent." Whitelaw recalls: I realised he didn't know he had an Irish accent, and that was the music he heard in his head.''
Many years later, when he was directing her in Happy Days – a not all that happy experience for either of them as it happens – she talks about him explaining to her how to sing the Waltz from The Merry Widow and says his voice was "quavering, weak [and] reedy". I had always known he was soft-spoken. Alan Mandell describes it as a "wonderfully musical Irish voice with a slight lisp." Bud Thorpe also confirms that he "lisped a bit".
You can imagine my surprise when a friend of mine from India who I ran into onto on Facebook’s underused Beckett forum – told me about a DVD entitled Waiting for Beckett: a portrait of Samuel Beckett (1CV0001243) which included some shots of him directing. I was aware of the film but from what I'd read the dialogue had been erased and there was little else on the tape to interest me, nothing I'd not seen before anyway. So imagine my surprise when on Monday morning I got an e-mail from my friend pointing me to a short clip on YouTube of all places which he believes is from that DVD. It lasts only a few seconds; the quality is not great but the man is. It is a fascinating glimpse of Beckett in conversation. I won't say I've learned anything from it but it does underline so much of what I've read already.
Frankly I'd be more interested in his rendition of Lessness because I've read in several places how well in fact he performed his own material. Anyway, for those of you interested (and with $49.99 to spare) you can buy the DVD from Global Village. In the meantime, enjoy the clip.
Samuel Beckett talking about What Where, Paris 1987.