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Will the Real Samuel Beckett Please Stand Up?


(L–R) Samuel Beckett and Alan Mandell in rehearsal for "Endgame" at the Peacock Theatre in 1980.

Samuel Beckett once wrote, Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness So it might be a little odd to imagine him joking with a friend about translating his book Pour finir encore et autres foirades “Wet Fart” (It was published in English as Fizzles). However, even a cursory glance at Beckett’s life will reveal a man of incredible wit and vitality—a stark contrast to the image of an unapproachable experimentalist his work sometimes conjures. As we welcome back the great playwright’s work to the Mark Taper Forum stage with Happy Days, which plays May 15 – June 30, 2019, we’ve gathered together a list of some of the most surprising facts of Beckett’s life.

Beckett was a jock

Beckett was apparently an amazing cricketer and the only Nobel laureate featured in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. He played throughout his youth and, in college, he is reported to have played first-class (which is not a comment on his ability, but a particular type of cricket of the highest level). He also played first team for his school rugby team, and won medals as both a boxer and a competitive swimmer. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, he left the life of a sportsman for more cerebral pursuits, but throughout his life he maintained an active interest in cricket.

Beckett was besties with James Joyce

The friendship between these two Irish expats living in Paris is well documented. At the time they met, Beckett was teaching English at École normale Supérieure and had not yet committed to a career as a writer. While some earlier biographers believed Beckett to be Joyce’s secretary, the fact is that the two were quite close. After Joyce’s eyesight began to fail, the younger Beckett is rumored to have read to the novelist and taken dictation for Joyce’s novel, Finnegan’s Wake. During this time, Beckett wrote an essay on the older author and published his first poem, “Whoroscope.” However, the friendship apparently ended after Beckett rejected the advances of Joyce’s daughter and muse, Lucia.

Beckett had a torrid love affair with Peggy Guggenheim

As a young man in Paris, Beckett met and (briefly) romanced the art collector and socialite. The particulars of this affair may be contended (both Beckett and Guggenheim offer vastly different accounts), but one fact is not: the witty heiress did nickname her one-time love Oblomov, after the apathetic and depressive title character of Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov.

Beckett was stabbed by a pimp

In 1938, while walking with some friends on the streets of Paris, Beckett was stabbed in the chest. The knife reportedly perforated one of Beckett’s lungs, nearly killing him. Thankfully, a piano student named Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil came to his aid, calling for an ambulance and saving his life. Beckett later visited the prison where his attacker was being held and asked him why he had committed the assault. The man’s answer was, chillingly: “I don't know, mister.”

Beckett fell in love with his rescuer

Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil turned out to be much more than a Good Samaritan. In a fairy-tale twist, Suzanne helped nurse Beckett back to health, and the two fell in love. They were partners for over 50 years and married in 1961. Just five months after Suzanne died in July 1989, Beckett himself died at age 83.

Beckett was a member of the French Resistance

Suzanne and Beckett spent almost the entirety of World War II in France. For much of this time, they were active members of the French resistance cell code named Gloria SMH, translating documents, running messages, and offering up their Paris apartment as a safe-house. However, in August 1942, the cell was betrayed by a double agent and Catholic priest named Robert Alesch. Suzanne and Beckett fled Paris for the relative safety of the French countryside, making it out mere hours before the Gestapo turned up at their apartment to arrest them. Beckett would later receive both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française for his service during this time.

Beckett won a Nobel Prize and gave away the winnings

Notoriously secretive and viciously protective of his privacy, Beckett did not even accept the Nobel Prize for Literature he won in 1961 (he sent his publisher in his stead). Reportedly, he gave the $72,000 he was awarded to needy artists.

Post updated May 2019.

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