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This article is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

‘Just Saying No’: Beckett’s Epistolary Dissidence Drew Milne
IN 1982 SAMUEL BECKETT wrote Catastrophe for the Association International de Défense des Artistes. Dedicated to Václav Havel, then an imprisoned Czechoslovakian dissident, the play was performed in nights of solidarity with Havel, first in Avignon, and subsequently in New York and London. Catastrophe and What Where mark a widely perceived political turn in Beckett’s late plays, reshaping Beckett’s apparently apolitical stance as a writer.

The perception of Beckett as an apolitical writer has since given way to more nuanced readings of what might be called Beckett’s micro-political stances. Aside from French resistance activities Beckett kept private, Beckett’s most public acts of solidarity were with other writers and in resistance to censorship. In the context of the 1980s, however, Beckett’s solidarity with Havel could not simply be understood as the defence of another writer. As a dissident critic of Czechoslovakian communism, a defence of Havel’s human rights and freedom of expression also appeared anti-communist.

Beckett’s published writings could also be described as dissident, but not as explicit criticism of any particular regime, more as a negative no-saying, and a rejection of anything resembling cultural affirmation. Construing Beckett as a dissident writer nevertheless feels superficial. As his late letters reveal,1 Beckett was a persistent no-sayer, turning down requests and blandishments of various kinds in defence of his work’s artistic integrity. As Dan Gunn notes: ‘Sorry to disappoint’ becomes a formula repeated verbatim as often as sixty times during the years represented here’. [p. lxxxix] Beckett is capable of more belligerent forms of refusal, but there’s also a studied ...


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