- Samuel Beckett Meets Buster Keaton:Godeau, Film, and New York
Unlike millions of his compatriots, Samuel Beckett never wanted to come to America—not even New York. According to Alan Schneider, his American director, Beckett assumed that New York "would be too loud and too demanding, too many interviews and cocktail parties. He preferred the quiet of Paris and his country retreat" ("On Directing Film" 66). In the late 1930s Beckett famously said that he preferred France at war to Ireland at peace, and proved that he meant it by serving in the French Resistance during World War II, service that was subsequently acknowledged when Charles de Gaulle awarded him two medals. Yet, like Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, who also looked to the continent for culture, language, and values, Beckett reluctantly determined in 1964 that "The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward"—crossing the Atlantic to spend "one of the hottest and most humid Julys on record" (Bair 574) in the Big Apple. Beckett later wrote that he enjoyed New York ("Letter to Mary Manning") and recalled his weeks there as exciting (letter to Alan Schneider, 12 Feb 1971, in No Author 248)—including the experience of watching the young expansion Mets baseball team win a doubleheader (Knowlson 466). But he never returned to this country, perhaps deciding that his one venture here, or the long journey, was sufficient to last a lifetime.
Beckett and Buster Keaton traveled curiously converging paths that led to their meeting on the occasion of their equally reluctant visits to New York to work on Film, Beckett's only movie script. Beckett had admired Keaton from his adolescence in Dublin, when he had often gone to see his movies as well as those of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. James Knowlson, Beckett's authorized biographer, cites the influence on Beckett of a number of Keaton films, noting specifically that the "unsmiling protagonist" of Go West1 (1925) "resembles a Beckett hero, lost and alone in the world" (Damned 71).
In the mid-1930s Beckett, shaped in part by his movie-going adolescence, determined to become a cinematic photographer; he wrote a long [End Page 41] letter to Sergei Eisenstein, offering to come to Moscow at his own expense and spend a year there as his unpaid apprentice. Wanting "to learn how to edit film and perfect the zoom technique, [he intended] to revive the naturalistic, two-dimensional silent film, which he felt had died unjustly before its time" (Bair 204–05). Eisenstein never answered Beckett's letter—probably because he never received it (Leyda 59); if he had done so, Beckett's career might have taken a very different course.
Some of Beckett's early plays, like his mime Act Without Words I (1956), were influenced by the silent screen comedies of Keaton, among others (Knowlson, Damned 377). A few years earlier, after seeing Keaton perform on stage in Paris (352), Beckett and Roger Blin (who staged the first production of Waiting for Godot, in Paris in 1953), discussed casting Keaton as Gogo and Chaplin as Didi (Croall 19, 55). And for Godot's first American production, Keaton was considered for Didi and Marlon Brando for Gogo. Keaton was, in fact, offered the role of Lucky in that production but rejected it "because he couldn't understand it and considered it a waste of his time" (Bair 571).
Curiously, however, Keaton had already played opposite an absent Godot, or Godeau, in a film called The Lovable Cheat, made in 1949, the same year in which Beckett first showed Godot to Roger Blin. The film was based on Mercadet Le Faiseur (1851), a play by Balzac, whose work Beckett studied both at Trinity College and afterward (Knowlson 70).2 Knowlson suggests that Beckett may have read Balzac only "so that he could reject his entire approach as a novelist" (Damned 70), but Beckett knew Balzac's writings well enough to lecture on them during his brief teaching stint at Trinity.3
Despite their bourgeois settings and circumstances, both Balzac's play and The Lovable Cheat bear a striking resemblance to Waiting for Godot...