Colm and Sam ... and me

Irish novelist Colm Toibin has written an absolutely superb article for the London Review of Books on Samuel Beckett's two favorite actors, both sad, drunken wrecks and brilliant performers: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. Beckett wrote Krapp's Last Tape for Magee (in picture as Hamm in Endgame) while MacGowran premiered a number of classic Becket roles (Clov in Endgame) as well as creating the first solo Beckett stage show (with the playwright's blessing).

Toibin splendidly conjures the period Dublin atmosphere in which these men grew up -- and which they fled. Once they've "Anglicized" themselves a little, Irish actors find that London provides better careers, but they rarely play the leading man, as Toibin notes (Peter O'Toole being the exception). They're more usually the clown, the servant, the failure. In fact, American film audiences probably know MacGowran best as the sadsack servant to Albert Finney in Tom Jones and, unfortunately, the doomed film director in The Exorcist (unfortunate because the film is ridiculous and it was his last: He died of pneumonia while making it). Magee, meanwhile, was the author-victim-revenger in A Clockwork Orange and the Marquis himself in Peter Brook's Marat/Sade. The only odd oversight in Mr. Toibin's otherwise richly evocative article is his failure to mention either Jones or Marat, yet they fit his points about the different actors perfectly.

For Beckett, living in Paris, MacGowran and Magee provided his cherished "Irish voices" -- and whiskey buddies -- and it was part of Beckett's genius to put the clowns and the failures center stage. Toibin is extremely sensitive and insightful when it comes to each actor's particular genius, its roots in Irish theater and how it blossomed in Beckett's world. It would be hard to imagine any other kind of drama making an international star out of the pathetic, comical mouse that was MacGowran.

Toibin's article reminded me of the one time I ran into Magee. When I was bumming around England before my summer at Oxford started, I stopped in a London pub in the early evening, planning on resting my feet, reading a little and restoring myself with some ale. The only other people there in the dim interior were a trio in a corner booth. I instantly recognized Magee -- from his forehead, his white hair and his unmistakable, theatrical voice. I asked the barman if I was right, and he simply nodded.

Magee and two middle-aged friends, one female, one male, possibly a marrried couple, were all clearly drunk, with Magee drunker and louder than the other two combined. They were chatting/gossiping about friends, I don't remember anything they said until, for some reason but clearly prompted by a dispute with the woman, Magee started yelling chunks of Hamlet's speeches at her (definitely not "To be or not to be." His lines were from "How all occasions do inform against me" and "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I"). After each half-dozen lines or so, when Magee's memory would peter out, the woman would tentatively suggest that perhaps the poetry was by Shakespeare. This would incite another volley from Magee, until triumphantly reciting a particular passage, he announced, "It's Byron, I tell you! Byron!"

March 30, 2007 1:11 PM | | Comments (2)



He was also Barry Lyndon's mentor in Kubrick's movie of the same name.

That is too funny. The "inimyskilling inglis" are all the same for the Irish? What is the story about Beckett and Joyce, and the joke about the Irishman plugging a Russian after the Russian wipes his rump with turf? They thought that was anti-Irish but I never did.

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