Friday, March 30, 2007

His hand around my throat

A magically good essay by Colm Toibin at the LRB site (no subscription required). It's indescribable, it's about everything (memory and loss and voices and Irish literature), but it's particularly about Beckett's actors (Jack MacGowran especially), and each paragraph is like a little world opening up. It is a scandal that I have not read any of this guy's novels, that must be remedied...

Really the essay is too good to excerpt, something about the flow from paragraph to paragraph makes me feel you must have it altogether, but here's a nice late aside:

Sometimes when I was teaching at Stanford last year I would go down into the bowels of the library late at night and, just to cheer myself up, watch both men perform as the students played Google games all around me. First, Magee in Eh Joe from 1972. The face sensuous, the expression mournful but oddly flexible, the mouth trembling, the lips full, the gaze full of deep intelligence and a sort of brutality, a figure for whom silence was natural but on whom the holding back of both thoughts and tears had taken its toll, so that at the end of this brilliant and sustained performance the trickling of tears comes to have enormous power.

And then MacGowran’s Krapp from 1970, made for American TV by Alan Schneider and never shown – out of loyalty to Magee, MacGowran had turned down an offer to make it in London a decade earlier. Look at it now: the eyes utterly beautiful, prominent, liquid, veiled; the face emaciated, drawn, haggard, lit as in a painting, managing to look young and old; the voice on tape like that of an RTE announcer, almost cheerful, but now troubled, frightened, a barrister turned beggar, both Lear and a Fool, both old Dublin and quite posh; the face suddenly alert and feral, the laughter fiercely ugly, and then the clownish tenderness in the eyes as he darts to listen; he is brilliant at conveying wondering, puzzlement, all fidgety and not at all like the man I remember in Gorey although I saw him in that same year. Here he is conveying the self as parchment, dried up despite the fire that was there once and which he manages also to convey. Death is in every darting gesture, every flicker, every sudden turn towards tenderness and a terrible melancholy, but there is too much life in the eyes, too much brooding memory for death to be anything more than a tasty shadow here. No use to anyone. This tape was lost for years and now exists merely in the basement of a few libraries. It is, by any standards, one of the treasures of our age.


  1. Blue Angel Films released all 19 of Beckett's plays on DVD in 2002 I think it was, each play directed by a different individual. I can't think of a playwright for whom an actor is more important simply because of the style and of the quantity.

    The Hood Company

  2. Thanks for this. It would have been terrible to miss it.
    Can I recommend The Heather Blazing as a good place to start with Toibin.

  3. Thanks to both of you for the recommendations, very helpful...