January 29 2014: John Calder’s Godot Company is back on tour, with Happy Days. This article was written for the Irish Independent on the occasion of their tour of Endgame, in September 2009. See also this article for Le Monde Diplomatique.
“The whole place stinks of corpses,” says Hamm. “The whole universe,” says Clov. “To hell with the universe!” says Hamm.
This is ‘Endgame’, Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play. Hamm is slowly dying, stuck in an armchair; Clov, his carer-companion, is stuck with him.
“Why do you stay with me?” asks Hamm.
“Why do you keep me?” asks Clov.
“There’s no one else,” answers Hamm.
“There’s nowhere else,” replies Clov.
There are two other people on stage, Nagg and Nell. They are confined, inexplicably, to dustbins, where they appear to be dying, starved of food and human touch.
“Nature has forgotten us,” says Hamm.
“There’s no more nature,” replies Clov.
Samuel Beckett is perhaps not often thought of as a barrel of laughs. But John Calder, his English publisher, and friend for 45 years, is on a mission to change that.
“‘Endgame’ is really very funny,” he says.
“Everybody comes out feeling a little bit better, a little bit bigger, a little bit more able to deal with the problems of life,” he says of the audience. “Nobody comes out depressed.”
Calder, now aged 82, has recently retired from running his legendary, eponymous bookshop and publishing house, partly in order to give more time to his theatre group, the Godot Company. Their production of ‘Endgame’ is currently touring Ireland (playing at Cork’s Everyman Palace tonight; see www.everymanpalace.com for tour details).
“‘Endgame’ is absolutely spot on for what’s happening today,” says Calder, who believes we are heading into a prolonged depression possibly similar to the 1930s, which he lived through; “I just hope it doesn’t end in world war,” he says.
“It’s a play about courage, a play for how to face disaster. It’s about how to die with dignity and resignation.
“And it’s full of humour. Sometimes, the only thing to do is laugh. There’s no way out.”
There are two great misconceptions about Beckett’s work: one is that it’s depressive; the other is that it’s difficult. “That’s what I’m trying to knock down,” says Calder.
“Beckett is, ultimately, simply a realist. He’s looking at the world as it is, and describing it as it is.”
Beckett, as Calder knew him, was intensely engaged in the world around him, and all too aware of its bleakness and tragedy.
“The horrors, the wars, the massacres – he saw a lot of that during the war, of course. The suffering of the world was something he could not ignore.”
Yet, says Calder, in private he was a “very good humoured person”, very funny and immensely generous. They first met in the summer of 1955.
Calder was then a young publisher, starting to bring radical American and European writing to the British public (he would go on to become famous as the British publisher of Hubert Selby’s ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, which the late John Mortimer would successfully defend in an obscenity trial).
Calder wrote to Beckett, asking could he visit him. Beckett replied that Calder should ring when he was next in Paris. Calder rang straight away, and was in Paris two days later.
They met for dinner in a restaurant, then retired to a local café, and talked till breakfast, at eight am the next morning. Their friendship lasted till Beckett’s death in 1989. That first night formed the pattern of their acquaintance: when meeting in Paris, they would invariably talk all night – about the state of the world, and literature, and the arts – and play chess, ping-pong or billiards, depending on what games the all-night café they found themselves in had. They would drink beers “rather slowly”, he remembers. “We were always sober in the morning.”
Calder remembers Beckett as a man of great character, as well as good company. “He took a lot of risks in his life.” Beckett was in Ireland when World War II broke out, but returned to France to volunteer with the Resistance; many of his comrades were captured and killed, and he was “lucky to survive”. Then, as a writer, “he was 47 before he had any success at all in his life. Nobody’d ever heard of him.” His family and friends had “given him up as incapable of making any money, or living a normal life”.
Beckett’s gift, says Calder, was to “make you see the world as it is, not as the advertisers would have you see it”. In place of the eternal and false optimism of the “consumerist society”, Beckett wrote in the awareness that “life is ultimately going to end, and the end of everybody’s life is tragedy”.
A bleak vision, fitting for a newly bleak time, perhaps. Yet Calder greets this bleakness with relish: these will be hard times, but interesting ones. “I wish I were younger, because I’d like to live a few years into this time,” he says.
After all, as Nell says in ‘Endgame’, poking her head out of her dustbin, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”