Samuel Beckett: Fail Better

by Jack Wright

17th February 2020

Wilton’s Music Hall served as a rather fitting abode for the first in Poet in the City’s series of events centred on the theme of failure. The man of the hour was the maestro of failure himself: author, playwright, poet and visionary Samuel Beckett.

The evening began, fittingly, with a reading from Beckett’s Worstward Ho delivered by actor Juliet Stevenson. Beckett’s prose piece contains one of his best known quotes: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. This reflection on failure, perhaps the quintessential musing on the topic, was a satisfyingly appropriate way to kick-start a series of events centred on what it means to fail and we respond to failure.

The delivery of the quote by Stevenson was equally satisfying. Her voice highlighted the curiosity in Beckett’s work and brought out the poignant in his occasionally rather inaccessible writing. Stevenson read from a number of Beckett’s poems over the course of the evening, as well as the third in the trilogy of novels, The Unnameable. Stevenson herself is no stranger to Beckett: she played Winnie in a 2014 adaptation of Happy Days directed by Natalie Abrahami.

Abrahami herself was one of the evening’s speakers, offering a fascinating reflection on the joy and, often, the producing and directing Beckett’s work for the stage. A number of photos filled the screen behind her as she spoke, including the aforementioned production of Happy Days and another collaboration with Juliet Stevenson, Play.

Another guest at Wilton’s Music Hall was Emilie Morin. A leading academic in modern British and Related Literature at the University of York, Morin talked widely about the theme of failure throughout Beckett’s oeuvre. References were made to a number of Beckett’s most famous plays, including Waiting for Godot, wherein the Vladimir and Estragon perpetually fail to achieve any sort of resolution or finality.

Before a final reading by Stevenson, writer, artist and editor Joanna Walsh took to the stage to perform a poetic piece centred on the card game solitaire. Walsh’s piece included delivery much akin to Beckett’s prose work, with abundant pauses and reflections on the routine of everyday life – ‘What if some days I don’t want to be smart? What if some days is most days?’ There was something distinctly “Beckettian” about Walsh’s performance, a phrase which reoccurs frequently in discussions around popular literature such as Anna Burns’ 2018 Man Booker Prize Winner Milkman. Beckett remains alluring for writers and readers of the twentieth-century alike.

The event concluded with a reading of Beckett’s poem ‘What is the word’. Stevenson continued to add a shade of vibrancy to Beckett’s dense writing, hinging on the pauses in between his observations with weighted consideration. For an evening, at least, the word in question was unquestionably ‘failure’.