Samuel Beckett was born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, at Cooldrinagh, the family residence in Foxrock, County Dublin. He died in Paris on December 22, 1989, and was quietly buried four days later in the Cimetière du Montparnasse. How ironic that the man who turned despair into an art form should be born on Good Friday and buried at Christmas.
Although he was also a poet and a novelist of note, Beckett is perhaps best known for his great play Waiting for Godot. The critic Vivian Mercier has memorably described it as a play where “nothing happens—twice.” I have seen it many times, and I would be hard-pressed to say what it is about, but I do know that I always come away from it with the feeling that everything that can possibly be said about the human condition has been said. Incidentally, Godot is frequently mispronounced in America, where the last syllable is accented. This completely destroys the rhythm of the title.
One of the most unusual experiences of my own life related to Samuel Beckett. I have a number of his plays on videotape, and one of my favorites has always been Footfalls, featuring Billie Whitelaw as May. Back around 1987, my sister-in-law and her husband left their little Cairn terrier, Karl, with us while they were away on holidays. Now, while I find May’s pacing up and down and the rhythmic intonation of the lines enthralling, if truth were told, very few human beings can stay with it for the full half-hour. Karl, however, who normally took no interest whatever in television, pricked up his ears as soon as it started, sat in front of the set, and would not move until it finished. Then an extraordinary thing happened. I had recorded the play from a commercial channel and some ads came up immediately afterward. Karl showed immediate impatience and irritation. When he realized that Footfalls was not coming back, he got up on his hind legs and switched off the videocassette recorder by placing his paw on one of the rows of rectangular switches on my old-fashioned machine, which was on a shelf under the television.
Karl stayed with us for a week, and I played Footfalls a number of times to check his reaction. Each time the bell, which announces the start of the play, rang he was over like a shot to the television. There was no repeat of the turning-off bit, and I can only assume he did that accidentally when trying to get into the set. However, a few years later, at Christmas—Beckett was now dead—Karl was present at a family gathering in our house and we decided to try him out again. This time the reaction to the bell was equally immediate but quite different. He came to the TV set but was visibly distressed. By now I had a remotely controlled machine, and he seemed to know I was in control, because he came to me whining, quite obviously asking me to turn it off, which I did.
The obvious explanation is that there is a high-pitched noise on the tape, audible to dogs but not to humans, but I have tried it out on other dogs with no reaction whatsoever. Maybe there is some other rational explanation, but Karl is now long-since dead and I doubt if I will ever know what it is. My one regret is that I never made contact with Beckett to tell him the story. I wonder what he would have made of it.