- Beckett's Thing: Painting and Theatre by David Lloyd
At a recent conference in Dublin, held to attract more multinational dollars to the country, a group of entrepreneurs concluded their session with a quote upon which they could all agree. The phrase was, of course, Samuel Beckett's, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."1 Beckett's statement of aesthetic breakdown is now cited so often in business circles that it has become a boardroom mantra. His poetics of repetition and struggle has been contorted into a motivational catchphrase for can-do-ism. It is as if Beckett's never-say-die attitude kept Richard Branson and Elon Musk going during their dark and lean times. In our own field, too, of modernist studies, Beckett's life and legacy are increasingly commodified by academic culture. Edited collections of essays dedicated to the writer appear with great frequency. The New Cambridge Companion to Beckett (2015), The Edinburgh Companion to Beckett and the Arts (2014), and The Grove Companion to Beckett (2004) each gather together bite–sized entries on a vast array of topics pertaining to Beckett studies in order to satisfy the demand for his idiosyncratic brand of refusal.
This commodification of the Beckett brand is, no doubt, inevitable, and, when it comes to modernism's practitioners, is certainly nothing new. Yet there seems still to be something particularly poignant about the absorption of Beckett's terse, monosyllabic negative statements by a culture industry that thrives on selling optimism. The circulation of Beckett as a thing is ironic. Few writers have spent more time wrestling with the definition, the situation, and the meaning of "things" and this is the focus of David Lloyd's latest book, Beckett's Thing. Beckett probes things in themselves, things as they appear, and human beings reduced to the status of things and, according to Lloyd, understanding Beckett's deep debt to painting helps us understand this turn. His work is haunted by abstraction and the concepts that hover around it: objectification, [End Page 416] alienation, and representation. As Beckett's theatrical work moved increasingly toward probing stillness and staging silence, his commitment to painting, especially abstract painting, grew. Such art, especially the work of the three painters examined in Lloyd's book, waivers between figuration and its absence, and Beckett's late theater bears the impression of that same dialectic between presence and absence, materiality and minimalism.
The introductory chapter to Beckett's Thing establishes succinctly the book's thesis: as Beckett's plays evolve, they become increasingly painterly, ever more static, ever more still. Following in the footsteps of Heidegger, whose essays "The Thing" and "The Origin of the Work of Art" are touchstones throughout the book, Lloyd's concept of the thing is that of an object that maintains a resistance to representation. Lloyd probes the meaning of the thing and the role of objects in Beckett's theatrical work by exploring the influence of three painters—Jack B. Yeats, Bram van Velde, and Avigdor Arikha—upon the writer. Lloyd demonstrates similarities between the art work of these three modernist artists and the writer's own theatrical vision. Beckett's plays, like those modernist and somewhat abstract painters with whom he engaged throughout his life, refuse to offer, or rather are unable to offer, the spectator a "punctual perspective which secure[s] the subject its sovereign position in the possessive spatial relations of Western art" (21).
The first full chapter of Beckett's Thing is the most theoretical, in depth look yet at the relationship among Beckett; the artist Jack B. Yeats; and Beckett's friend, mentor, and director of Ireland's National Gallery, Thomas MacGreevy. For those acquainted with Lloyd's work in Irish studies and postcolonial theory, this chapter is the most familiar. Lloyd not only details the friendship between the three young intellectuals, but he also interprets Yeats's paintings in the context of post–independent Ireland, and the weak foundations (revealed in Yeats's non-symbolic, modernist style) of that...