There is a peculiar intensity about some streets in Dublin which becomes more gnarled and layered the longer you live in the city and the greater the stray memories and associations you build up. Sometimes this sense of the city can be greatly added to by history and by books; sometimes, however, the past – I mean the distant past – and the books hardly matter, seem a strange irrelevance. On a busy day it is easy to go into the GPO in O’Connell Street without a single thought for MacDonagh and MacBride and Connolly and Pearse, or without remembering for a second that Samuel Beckett once asked his friend Con Leventhal to betake himself ‘to the Dublin Post Office and measure the height of the ground to Cúchulainn’s arse’, as Neary in his novel Murphy wished to engage with the arse of the statue of Cúchulainn, the ancient Irish hero, patron saint of pure ignorance and crass violence, by banging his head against it. The need to buy a stamp or a TV licence or fill in a form is often too pressing, the queues too long, the malady of the quotidian too richly detailed to be bothered by heroes.

If I walk down to the Bank of Ireland at the corner of Westland Row and Pearse Street, which I do regularly, I hardly ever think about Leopold Bloom and the Kilkenny People or Stephen Daedalus and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, even if I decide to walk the route down Kildare Street and past the National Library. I studied in the National Library almost every weekday between 1973 and 1975, and it is easier to wonder who stole my yellow bicycle in the spring of 1975, or if they still make a Bulgarian wine called Gamza which Buswell’s Hotel opposite the library used to serve very cheaply in those years; or to remember how a friend one day, while we both stood smoking outside the portals of the library looking at the Daíl car park, remarked that Brian Lenihan, then a prominent politician, had hair that seemed to have been actually, by some ancient process, corrugated; or how strange it is, now that I think about it, that in 1978 when I came back from Spain, there was only one Mediterranean coffee-making machine in the whole city, in the Coffee Inn in South Anne Street. And then you turn into South Leinster Street, where the bomb went off in 1974, and you wonder how many precisely it killed and why there is no memorial, and then try to remember what the bomb had sounded like – nothing much in fact, it was more the silence afterwards – as you sat in the reading room; and there is the more exact memory of the rest of that Friday night in the mad, panicking city, watching each parked car with a numb mixture of suspicion and disbelief, drinking in Toner’s pub until the early hours, the music on the radio, the silence as each news bulletin came on.

And then you half-notice the sign on the gable end of the building on the opposite side of the street as the curve of Lincoln Place comes into view. It says ‘Finn’s Hotel’. It was where she worked. Funny the sign hasn’t faded more. Tourists must love it. Proof if you need proof. He got two books out of it, or the title of the second anyway. Finn. Finnegan. It was here on 10 June 1904 that James Joyce met Nora Barnacle, who worked in the hotel. The two young strangers who had locked eyes stopped to talk, and they arranged to meet four days later outside the house where Sir William Wilde, eye surgeon to the queen in Ireland, if she should have ever needed an eye surgeon (which she did not), and his mad wife, Speranza, had lived, where they had raised their son Oscar, who was four years dead by this time. There’s now a funny colourful statue opposite of Wilde, which tourists love, just as there’s a head of Joyce, which no one much looks at, in St Stephen’s Green.

When Nora stood Joyce up on 14 June, he wrote to her ardently, demanding another date. They met on 16 June, which is when their story began, and when Ulysses both began and ended. Lucky it wasn’t on Good Friday, when the pubs are closed. I wonder if the pubs closed on Good Friday in 1904, under the Brits, before the natives got their grubby hands on the place. Suppose they must have. A dry business, a crucifixion. Especially towards the end. Only water came out of the wound in his side.

The street between Nora’s hotel and Wilde’s house is called Clare Street. Samuel Beckett’s father ran his quantity-surveying business from Number 6, but there is no plaque, or anything like that. When their father died in 1933, Beckett’s brother took over the business, while Beckett, who was idling at the time, took the attic room. Like all idlers, he made many promises. He promised himself that he would write and he promised his mother that he would give language lessons. But he did nothing much, except get away from her, which must have been a full-time job. It would look good on a plaque: ‘This is where Beckett got away from his god-forsaken mother.’ Must tell the tourist board. The implications of being halfway between Wilde’s house and Nora Barnacle’s hotel might well have been lost on Beckett. He specialised, after all, unlike Henry James, in allowing many things to be entirely lost on him.

Like Wilde, he belonged to that group of Protestant geniuses who thought they should speak up just as their land-owning and money-owning colleagues were clearing out of Ireland or learning to keep quiet. Terry Eagleton thinks that if they hadn’t let so many people starve, they mightn’t have had to travel so far collecting folklore, and there might have been more folklore to go round. He must have enjoyed writing that. But they all came from different rungs of the social ladder. At the top was Lady Gregory, who had a big house and plenty of tenants; and then Synge, who had a small private income, as Beckett and Wilde did, and a memory of glory; and then Yeats, who worked all his life, not only for his living, but at making himself grander than he was; and Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw, who were hardly more than clerks. And then Sean O’Casey who was poor and nearly blind. All of them baptised into the wholly un-Roman and highly Protestant church. And none of them believed a word of it except poor Lady Gregory, who hoped for heaven. It must be fun not believing in anything, and having your fellow countrymen wanting you to clear off to England because of the very religion you don’t believe in. This must be why a few of them became interested in posing and twisting things around and developing their eloquence and their silence. Wilde loved finding an accepted set of truths and turning them sharply inside out, and Beckett often followed suit until he started hanging out with Joyce and became concerned with language and consciousness, but then that too turned towards lessness, silliness, silence.

As I walk to the bank I am not thinking about any of this at all. There are other more pressing matters, such as the office on 11 Clare Street of Flair Travel, to which I probably owe money; I should pay them, or at least ring them up or email. And then there is Bernardo’s restaurant, closed up now but easy to remember the taste of the scampi, the weekly lunches and the dental hospital around the corner where I was tortured once by a student. Someone told me that they have paintings now, a Sean Scully even. I wonder how they got that. Make drilling easier, all those coloured squares. Did he know where it would end when he was making it: Scully. Skull. Drill. Sean. Shine. An eye for an eye, a painting for a tooth. A little wider. Must go into the Kerlin Gallery later. And then the turn into Westland Row, hope to bump into no one between here and the bank, especially not Gerald Dawe or Vincent Browne, who both have offices there. Nothing against them really, but it’s mid-December, no time for meeting anyone. Pass by Sweney’s Chemist. Lemon soap. Viagra nowadays, Bloom would buy. Lemon Viagra. Mr Beamish the old bank manager gone now, gave me money when no one else would. Throwaway. The money. Loved his name. Beer and the bank. The counter and the bar. Drink Beamish. George Beamish. Loves his round of golf. Laughed at my jokes. Once anyway. Beckett too had a friend called Beamish, Noelle Beamish, an Irish lesbian lady who lived in the same French village during the war and left her long, utilitarian drawers out to dry beside her younger companion’s little frilly knickers.

On the way back I know that I will miss lunch in the Conrad so I turn, hardly thinking at all, into the new foyer of the National Gallery in Clare Street and go up to the carvery counter and foolishly order the turkey and ham, which is at least one hour old, and come with my tray into the whiteness of the restaurant and sit down at the first empty table I see. And then right in front of me at the next table, facing half away but unmistakeable, in full colour, sits Paul Funge.

It is some years since I have seen him, and this is not the right time, and he knows that too, but we are old friends and we are both alone at lunchtime and he knows and I know that I must join him at his table. The painting I bought from him more than ten years ago, maybe fifteen years ago, which I first saw with Robert Armstrong in late December 1980 in his studio in Gorey, Co. Wexford, rests against the wall of the room where I work. We are uneasy with each other now. The talk turns to Christmas and he mentions the sadness of Gorey and that extraordinary space he made behind his father’s shop, which I think is part of the shop now, or is a store, and the sadness of that, because this is the space that changed all our lives.

His father, Tom Funge, like my uncle and grandfather, had been involved in the struggle for Irish independence, so when Paul founded his Art Centre in Gorey in 1970 or 1971, it was easy for me, aged 15 or 16, to get permission to hitchhike the twenty miles to see it. I don’t think I had ever seen a painting before, or a piece of sculpture. In 1971 there was work there in my school holidays. I held a light from the wings on a production of Murder in the Cathedral. I remember vividly shining it on the actresses in the chorus as they chanted:

Does the bird sing in the south?
Only the sea bird cries
Driven inland by the storm.
What sign of the spring of the year?
Not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath.

And I know that at some stage that summer I went home and got a message to come back. We had no phone in our house, so I do not know how I was contacted and it was not to say that I was needed for work, but to say that there was something interesting happening in Gorey, too interesting for a 16-year-old to miss, and I thumbed back up and I found out what it was. It was an actor. He was called Jack MacGowran. I had not heard of him before.

Robert Armstrong, two or three years older than me, was already studying in the College of Art, and it was he who told me the story when I arrived. He was the stage manager for the one-man show which this actor was performing, but it was not ordinary, he said. The guy was like no one else. MacGowran didn’t want to go on, Robert Armstrong said. And Robert’s job was to make him go on. Before the show, with all his make-up in place and his costume, he waited in an upstairs bedroom in the Funges’ house above the shop. Robert was to tell him when it was an hour by knocking on the door and saying ‘an hour Mr MacGowran’ and then ‘half an hour Mr MacGowran’ and then 15 minutes and then ten and then five, and at five he was to wait outside, and come into the room at three, and find the actor frozen on the bed staring straight ahead and he was to lead him, pull him up if he had to and lead him across the room silently and then down the stairs past the kitchen and then down the next flight, still not speaking, the actor like one of the walking dead, and then backstage and then slowly up the steps as though to the scaffold and across the darkened stage to the spot. And he was to leave him there. Just let go. And go back and bang a piece of wood against the stage to indicate to the lighting man in front of the stage to turn the lights up. And there he would be, dressed like a tramp, his eyes filled with light, his face supple, his expression charming if it were not so sad and rueful. Ready to do his Beckett one-man show. Moving just a tiny bit, not his body and not really his eyes, but his face doing a sudden flicker as the breath came. He was almost going to speak and then thought better of it and pursed his lips and looked out into the dark. And there was in that provincial town on that night an absolute silence, a whole new world at his command. The marks of fear were all there, but fear as a gift, as a rare, ironic skin around the self, the unprotected soul was now ready to speak the bitter truth. None of us had ever heard anything like it.

I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month. Then it will be the month of April or of May. For the year is still young, a thousand little signs tell me so …

Later, I watched him in the pub and noticed his beautiful wife, but I did not want to go too close to him. He was dead within three years. More than twenty years later in Paris, the French critic Nicole Zande told me that she had met Suzanne Beckett, the wife of the author, if you can imagine such a wedding ceremony, one day on the street – as you did, I suppose, it being Paris – and asked her how she was and Madame Beckett had told her that things had never been worse, that she was in the most ghastly state, and when Nicole asked her why, she said that the Irish had arrived and they would not leave and her husband left each morning to spend the day drinking with them and did not come back until the early hours and then went out again as soon as he woke. When I asked Nicole if she knew who the Irish were, she said that she did, they were two actors, one was called Magee and the other was called MacGowran.

Jack MacGowran was born in 1918 on the south side of Dublin. He worked first in insurance and then slowly began to play small roles and bit parts in the Abbey Theatre, but was, like many other actors of his generation, deeply unhappy at the conservative nature of the theatre’s artistic policy. While he managed a number of triumphs as both director and actor in the Abbey’s short-lived Experimental Theatre, he was not admired by Ernest Blythe, the managing director: ‘He disliked my very guts,’ MacGowran said. ‘We were getting more attention than the Abbey, and the dear managing director promptly closed the Experimental Theatre down. He felt it was doing damage to the parent.’ Blythe also informed him that his nose was too big. MacGowran studied theatre in Paris for a short time, and then returned to Ireland, playing a small part in John Ford’s film The Quiet Man and working for a time at the Gate Theatre with Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. In the summer of 1953 he directed Siobhán McKenna and Cyril Cusack in The Playboy of the Western World, playing the part of Shawn Keogh himself, and later that year played opposite McKenna as the Dauphin in Shaw’s Saint Joan, her great part.

McKenna later said: ‘I compared every other actor who played the part with Jackie. He would never play a line for a cheap laugh, like the others did. In the cathedral scene, for instance, he says of Joan: “If only she would keep quiet, or go home!” – every other actor went for the laugh. Jackie said it in a thoughtful, reflective way; he showed the side that made Charles a great king afterwards.’ A year later MacGowran made his London debut as the Young Covey in The Plough and the Stars, becoming friends with its author, Sean O’Casey. In 1956 in London he played – to much critical acclaim from critics such as Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson – the part of Seamus Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman. When he was asked to play the part of the railway porter in Beckett’s radio play All That Fall in 1956 he found himself ‘struck tremendously by the writing. It seemed to me profound and yet ironically funny, in a style I had never come across before. I didn’t know then who Beckett was – I’d never heard of him. I thought he was a Frenchman whose work had been translated into English.’

Beckett had heard MacGowran’s voice in a BBC radio play by M.J. Molloy and asked for him, but did not oversee the production of All That Fall. They did not meet until Beckett came to London in 1957 to work on the world première of Endgame, or Fin de Partie, as it was still in French. The two men finally arranged to see each other in the bar of the Royal Court Hotel, where they got drunk together. MacGowran by that time was already a heavy drinker, but he remained a deeply ambitious actor, alert, for example, to the need to retrain his voice, making it sound less obviously Irish, more oddly cosmopolitan. He began to get more work with BBC radio and television and on the stage, playing Harry Hope, the irascible bar-owner in The Iceman Cometh. Patrick Magee, who played Slade the anarchist in the same production, said: ‘In a kind of funny way, as we went through rehearsal, Jackie became more and more like Harry Hope – you could actually see it. When he finally did it, it was absolutely extraordinary. I don’t expect to see anyone do it as well again ever.’ Tynan wrote: ‘Jack MacGowran, pinch-faced and baggy-trousered, plays the proprietor with a weasel brilliance I have not seen since the heyday of F.J. McCormick.’

MacGowran was a lead Irish actor who could hold the stage in the central plays in the Irish repertory. But these plays were few – notably the plays of Synge and Shaw and O’Casey, and perhaps O’Neill if you agreed that he was Irish – compared to the great canon of English theatre. The Irish plays from the beginning needed a peculiar sort of actor, who could manage anti-heroic material and offer it a sort of ironic heroic edge, who could play tramps, losers and chancers but hold the stage with them knowing that there was no king or potentate about to arrive. They were the king and the potentate. The bare landscape or the poor tenement was Troy or Elsinore. In life, the characters they played held powerless parts and walk-on roles, but now for their brief stretch on stage they were, in some sour way, lords of language. This required playing of an unusual sort, crossing absolute realism with a strange poetic glow, allowing silences and sudden shifts of tone to work a magic, allowing a strange helplessness to hit against an unforced and peculiar majesty in attitude or tone, allowing comedy to play very close to pure sadness. These actors could play Eugene O’Neill with absolute ease, but they could not play Henry IV. Although MacGowran did not play any lead roles during his time in the Abbey, he watched the lead actors, steeped in the Abbey tradition, who had made the O’Casey and the Shaw parts from scratch, and he was locked now in the dilemma facing any Irish actor from this tradition in London. One moment he was playing Eugene O’Neill to great acclaim, and immediately afterwards he was in Hollywood for Walt Disney, playing a leprechaun in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. In the words of Derek Walcott, either he was nobody or he was a nation.

London, to where he quickly returned after his role as a leprechaun, was for MacGowran both a capital city and a place of exile, a place where he could be a figure of swaggering talent and a marginal actor. Thus when Peter Hall saw MacGowran on stage in London in 1959 he knew immediately what MacGowran was made for on the English stage. He had, Hall decided, ‘the perfect qualities for a Shakespearean clown’ and he invited him to join the Royal Shakespeare Company to play bit parts, just as a decade later Peter Brook would cast him as the Fool in the film of King Lear, which starred Paul Scofield. Sean O’Casey understood the problem: on one side of the Irish Sea of the imagination being a hero, a lead actor, and on the other side offering comic relief to many centuries of English tradition – with your half-baked heritage and your funny face and gestures and your odd voice. ‘You’ll drink yourself to death,’ O’Casey warned him. Stratford was a disaster for Jack MacGowran.

If you came into the kitchen in my house when I was growing up and you were looking for something – money or a clean shirt or permission to go to the pictures – then my mother could be really irritating. She would quote Shakespeare in a loud voice and make you listen. Sometimes she was Julius Caesar, sometimes Cassio, sometimes Iago and often Othello. You had to stand there and wait until she was finished. The speeches were often long and accompanied by many gestures. She knew these plays because she had seen them acted by Anew McMaster and his company as they toured Ireland. Some of them she had seen over and over, especially Othello, she claimed, because McMaster and his company did that best. They were no good at comedy, she would often remark, and she hated people laughing at Shakespeare, she would add, even if it was funny. I suppose I thought then that Anew McMaster did all the parts, if I put any thought into it. I did not know until recently that two of the figures we would most associate with Samuel Beckett toured with McMaster in the early 1950s and played in those productions. In 1951 Harold Pinter wrote in his diary: ‘I’m going for a sixth-month tour in Shakespeare to Ireland next month. An Irish actor-manager called Anew McMaster.’ He stayed for two years. Later he wrote about playing Iago to McMaster’s Othello:

One of the greatest moments of theatre I have ever experienced was when Iago is probing Othello and he goes slightly too far … When I said, as Iago, ‘With her? On her; what you will,’ Mac turned, and the next moment he was strangling me as he said the line: ‘Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.’ It was the most incredibly dramatic gesture. In fact I can still feel his hand around my throat.

In Ireland in 1951, in the magazine Irish Writing, Pinter first came across Beckett’s writing, an extract from the novel Watt (although completed in 1945, it was not published until 1953). He was stunned by it. He tried and failed to contact the editors,

so I never found out who this man Beckett was. I went back to London and no library or bookshop had ever heard of Beckett. Finally, I went to the Westminster Library and asked them to burrow in their records and they came up with a book that had been in the Battersea Reserve Library since 1938 and that was Murphy. After a couple of weeks, I got it, pinched it and still have it … I suddenly felt that what his writing was doing was walking through a mirror into the other side of the world, which was, in fact, the real world.

One of the actors who toured Ireland in McMaster’s fit-up company at the same time as Pinter was Patrick Magee, who was born in Armagh in 1924. Beckett’s biographer Anthony Cronin suggests that playing non-Irish roles in these productions had given Magee his most peculiar voice. Cronin describes the voice as ‘harsh, gravelly, which had little superficial charm but had a hypnotic effect on the listener’. It had, he wrote, ‘only faint Irish overtones and prolonged vowel sounds’. Listened to now, it sounds oddly posh and effete, half-Irish, half-grand, and quite demented. In January 1957, just after he moved to London, Magee played Mr Slocum in that same first production of All That Fall, directed by Donald McWhinnie, in which Jack MacGowran had taken part. It was hearing this voice faintly in France through the ether as broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in December 1957 – reading an extract from Molloy and From an Abandoned Work, also directed by McWhinnie – that made Beckett begin to plan Krapp’s Last Tape, whose first title was ‘Magee Monologue’. A month later, while listening to the tapes of Magee that had been sent over to Paris and were being played for him in the BBC studio there, Beckett saw his first tape recorder in action, and got the idea for the use of such a machine in the play which he shortly began. When he had finished, he wrote to a friend in Ireland: ‘I’ve written in English a stage monologue for Pat Magee which I think you will like if no one else.’ Anthony Cronin, who knew both men in these years, has written of Magee: ‘With his chequered and, up to this point, not highly successful career, there was a sense in which, as an actor, he had been waiting for Beckett just as Beckett had been waiting for him. Beckett understood Pat’s Irishness but was happy that it was no stereotype, and Pat in turn treated Beckett with respect but without deference.’

The play was written quickly – in just over three weeks – and was first performed in October 1958 at the Royal Court in a double bill with Endgame, with Jack MacGowran as Clov. Beckett was delighted by Magee’s performance. He wrote to Alan Schneider: ‘I want to tell you about Krapp in London … I am extremely pleased with the result and find it hard to imagine a better performance than that given by Magee both in his recording and his stage performance.’ It was during that production that Beckett and MacGowran first became close. Donald McWhinnie remembered a party: ‘We all got pretty smashed, and Jackie was paralytic. We came out of [the flat] and he passed out. I have this vivid image of Sam picking Jackie up in his arms and carrying him like a baby through the streets.’ Cronin, who took part in the symposium about the plays at the Royal Court on the Sunday after their opening with Harold Pinter, who would later cast Magee as McCann in his RSC production of The Birthday Party, has written that ‘MacGowran and Magee were both, in their different ways, very Irish, and it was obvious that Beckett enjoyed their company as much for that reason as for others.’ They were, in fact, the first non-literary Irish Catholics Beckett had ever spent time with, even though he was now in his fifties.

MacGowran later described his first meeting with Beckett:

At that time I was drinking. Beckett drank Irish whiskey and lager. There was dead silence. He looked at the floor. Every furrow on his face seemed to be in deep. He thinks I’m going to pester him. Then I became silent. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I must have been utterly tight after half an hour. I cracked and suddenly blurted out something about a rugby match. He said something about a rugby match, and we talked about rugby, golf, six-day bicycle riding. Not a word about literature. What surprised me was his Dublin accent. After enough whiskies, I said: ‘I detect tones of Dublin.’ About three miles from where I lived. That is why we gelled so well. I understood his rhythm, his terrain.

Beckett, whose Dublin accent could be detected rather than instantly spotted, had found his Irish voices. One of them, MacGowran, had recently trained some of Ireland out of his voice and the other, Magee, had it done for him by Anew McMaster. When you hear these two actors’ voices now on tape in the plays by Beckett which they recorded for the BBC, you notice that their voices, their accents are made up; the hybrid is most apparent, the oddness; you notice the self-fashioning in their tones rather than something obviously Irish. It is not insignificant that both of them changed their names to make them seem less Irish to the English. MacGowran added an ‘a’ to his Mc and Magee removed his Mc altogether, becoming Magee. (I think they did this without consulting each other: they had not met at the time, except perhaps in the way in which parallel lines meet.) In any case they reminded Beckett less of home than of the joys of the Irish Sea, of what can happen to the self away from home; they did not carry any aura of nostalgia for Ireland, or an air of missing home, but a sense that Irish writers, actors, broadcasters and journalists have carried with them in London for more than a hundred years – a sense of pure ownership of the place, and a sense of absolute pleasure at being in the company of other Irish people miles away from Ireland while the English quietly and usually very respectfully listen in, half-bewildered, half-grateful. This is why we have English people.

Beckett’s interest in these two actors arose also from their ability to hold the stage, to be lead actors in a state of permanent alienation from their true role at the very centre, a role that was being played in England by such figures as Olivier, Redgrave and Gielgud, actors who would be no use to Beckett. These two Irishmen had Irish faces, which is something that might have interested Beckett since he did not have one himself. By Irish faces I mean that they were more content when looking at the ground or the far horizon; they were good at seeming stubborn and sore, bad at looking arrogant and in possession, they were good at silence, keeping their strongest feelings to themselves, sharing their deepest secrets with no one, good at masking themselves in layers of irony or self-deprecation or coiled brutality or pathetic vulnerability. And all of this came out in their eyes and nose and the mouth and the set of their Catholic jaws. Or maybe it was simpler than that: they were brilliant actors who came from Ireland and were working in London, and Beckett liked them, and he began to work with them.

It must be emphasised, but perhaps not too much, how close Beckett was to the theatre of the Irish Literary Revival, the classic plays through which the Abbey Theatre became famous. The only time in his life when Beckett actually went to the theatre regularly was in the 1920s, when he was a student at Trinity College Dublin. In his first year there he saw a production of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman at the Abbey. Later he saw a revival of J.M. Synge’s The Well of the Saints, as well as the two great O’Casey plays Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. He also saw Yeats’s two extraordinary Oedipus translations. The best sense of him as an enthusiastic attender at the Abbey is given by the fact that he was in the theatre not only on the opening night of The Plough and the Stars but two nights later, on the night of the riots, when he sat in the centre of the first row on the balcony. Thirty years later, when he was asked to praise George Bernard Shaw, he said: ‘I wouldn’t suggest that GBS is not a great playwright, whatever that is when it’s at home. What I would do is give the whole unupsettable apple cart for a sup of the Hawk’s Well, or the Saint’s, or a whiff of Juno to go no further.’

Later again, in 1972, when his biographer James Knowlson asked him who he felt had influenced his theatre most of all, ‘he suggested only the name of Synge.’ In the Abbey he had seen most of Synge’s work, and it is striking how close the outlines of Beckett’s background and early life were to those of Synge. They both came from the prosperous Dublin Protestant commercial classes where the reading of the Bible rather than playgoing was part of the household agenda. They both went to Trinity College. They both grew to love walking in the bleak landscape south of Dublin. They would both write plays about tramps. They both loved music and were skilled at remaining silent. They both suffered from widowed mothers who controlled their finances and grudgingly allowed them to travel and improve their minds and get a sensuous education in Germany and then in Paris. They both understood what Mrs Rooney meant when in All That Fall she replied to her husband when he said that she sounded like she was talking a dead language: ‘Oh it will be dead in time just like our own dear Gaelic, there is that to be said.’ Neither of them took language for granted, or accepted it as they received it. Synge understood that language should be played for all it was worth before it faded; Beckett loved the idea that nothing could be done, it was too late. He created his most beautiful cadences out of this idea.

Beckett made it clear to Knowlson that he remembered the names of the great Abbey actors of the age, including F.J. McCormick, whom Jack MacGowran also idolised. McCormick’s early death in 1947 caused MacGowran to come home with tears in his eyes. Beckett was even able to tell Knowlson where his favourite seat was: ‘The balcony,’ he said, ‘was semi-circular with two aisles, a central triangle and two aisles. And if you got a seat at the centre end of the aisles, you were as well off as if you were sitting in the centre. You got just as good a view. It also only cost you one and six for a side seat as opposed to three shillings in the centre.’ This did not mean, of course, that he belonged in any direct way to the Abbey tradition – it is his way of indirectly belonging that is more interesting – or that he revered the theatre and what it stood for. In August 1934, for example, he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy: ‘I saw Yeats’s two latest – Resurrection and The King of the Great Clock Tower – at the Abbey on Saturday. Balbus building his wall would be more dramatic.’ As late as 1969 he attempted in vain to stop the Abbey performing Waiting for Godot with Peter O’Toole, seeming to dislike both O’Toole, with whom MacGowran had also fallen out, and the Abbey. Beckett’s relationship to the Abbey is close to that of many other people in Ireland: we have seen wonderful work there which has etched itself on our soul, and we have also spent some of the most painful evenings of our lives there. And the idea of a National Theatre in Ireland for any serious Irish person, of whom Beckett was certainly one, even when he was not serious, is a sour joke; it was not for nothing that Beckett’s Murphy wished to have his ashes flushed down the toilet there during a performance. The institution, in all its pomposity, is there to be mocked; but the plays remain, the plays remain, although they are few.

In a review of Sean O’Casey’s Windfalls, Beckett emphasised his admiration for his fellow exile who had made his reputation in the Abbey, another Irishman who had seen fit to change his name for public consumption. ‘Mr O’Casey is a master of knockabout in this very serious and honourable sense – that he discerns the principle of disintegration in even the most complacent solidities, and activates it to their explosion. This is the energy of his theatre,’ Beckett wrote. The two writers never met, despite MacGowran’s efforts to bring them together and despite Beckett’s friendship with Eileen O’Casey, the writer’s wife, whom he met through MacGowran. For O’Casey’s 80th birthday Beckett wrote in the Irish Times: ‘I send my enduring gratitude and homage to my great compatriot, Sean O’Casey, from France, where he is honoured.’ Later he arranged for his From an Abandoned Work to be performed with O’Casey’s Figure in the Night.

O’Casey, however, was not in the business of returning compliments. Despite his great curiosity about Beckett and his lending one of his famous skull caps for Hamm in the 1964 production of Endgame, he did not (or at least he wrote on one occasion that he did not) admire Beckett’s work. ‘I have nothing to do with Beckett,’ he wrote. ‘He isn’t in me, nor am I in him. I am not waiting for Godot to bring me life; I am out after life myself, even at the age I have reached.’ But, as with much of O’Casey’s later polemic, one has to treat this claim with caution. Like Beckett himself, once he reached the age of unreason, he had ceased going to the theatre; he just continued writing for it. MacGowran was, for the last six years of O’Casey’s life, the connection between the two writers, not just as a friend – he insisted that O’Casey had, in fact, ‘thought Beckett was a great writer’ – but because he began to specialise in performing the work of the two writers and no others at that level of intensity. So much so that he himself observed that when he started working on Fluther in a production of The Plough and the Stars, ‘I began to notice Vladimir creeping in. This is jovial old Fluther from O’Casey suddenly turned into Vladimir.’ Such an idea would have amused Beckett, but it would have been kept a carefully guarded secret from O’Casey.

After Magee had played in Krapp’s Last Tape and MacGowran had played in Endgame, Beckett continued to engage with his new-found Irish voices. Embers, starring both of them, if starring is the word, was first broadcast by the Third Programme in June 1959. In 1960 they both played in Beckett’s translation of Robert Pinget’s The Old Tune. In 1962 Magee performed in the radio play Words and Music and in 1964 in Cascando and again in 1976 in Rough for Radio, with Pinter and Billie Whitelaw, two of Beckett’s English voices.

MacGowran continued to have problems as an actor. Even if he played small parts in films, his time on screen was reduced in the editing room simply because he would draw attention away from the star. After Lord Jim he said: ‘I’ll never do another film where I have anything to say to the star.’ When he played in a television version of Waiting for Godot in 1961, the problem was identified by Louis MacNeice in a review in the New Statesman: ‘MacGowran’s tragicomic face … is such a natural on the screen that it is unfair to anyone he is playing with.’ Tony Richardson remarked on his talent: ‘Jackie was like a unique instrument – not an instrument that would usually be part of an orchestra.’ He began then to toy with the idea of a one-man show based on Beckett’s work, which, despite Beckett’s own unease, and perhaps in the light of it, was refined and reconstructed over the next decade to become the show I saw in Gorey, Co. Wexford. It opened in Dublin in October 1962 and became enormously successful in the United States. When it came to London, Tom Stoppard, who was then a critic, commented: ‘There are few things in London I would hate more to have missed.’

MacGowran had his anchor, what Beckett called his ‘old chestnut’, a show he could return to again and again, where he could display his great solitary talents between now and his death ten years later. But he continued to work on other projects with Beckett, redirecting a production of Happy Days in 1963 and, since he had disliked his own original performance in Endgame (he told Beckett at the time ‘some day we must do this properly’), he agreed to do another in Paris, convincing Magee, whose agent was opposed to the idea, to come and play opposite him. Beckett directed rehearsals in London – which he referred to ‘Muttonfatville’, calling the actors in a letter ‘my darlings Jacky MacGowran and Pat Magee’ – although he did not subsequently take the credit. The journalist Clancy Segal wrote about Beckett’s style of directing as he observed him work with the two Irish actors: ‘His interventions are almost always not on the side of subtlety but of simplicity … The actors tend to want to make the play “abstract and existential”; gently and firmly Beckett guides them to concrete, exact and simple actions.’ The production opened in Paris in February 1964 in a 250-seat theatre, where it was an enormous success. Magee commented on the power of MacGowran’s performance:

Jackie had the most extraordinary affinity for Beckett’s work. Something in him latched on to it. Someone came around after the play – someone interested in acting – and asked him how did he do it. Jackie said: ‘I don’t know how to do it. I just do it.’ He had no theory; he made up the character and presented it. Simple as that. Jackie knew exactly what he was doing all the time; he was enormously instinctive. On stage it was back and forth between us, like a marvellous tennis match.

This production of Endgame became a landmark, and was restaged by the RSC at the Aldwych in London. The Guardian wrote about the production:

Pat Magee and Jack MacGowran work together like old, slightly putrid pub pals. They are consistently alert to each other’s moods and project a relationship which is a mixture of reluctant affection and sullen dependence, seasoned with some coarse guffaws at life. They are King Lear and the Fool in a bad way in a dosshouse by the Liffey.

As a result of this production, demand for the two actors began to increase. They almost became popular. Later in 1964, MacGowran played an extraordinary Lucky in a production of Godot at the Royal Court overseen by Beckett, who agreed to MacGowran’s request to record Lucky’s speech himself on tape so the actor could find the right cadences for it. But once again MacGowran could move from being wonderfully in his element to being woefully misunderstood and undervalued, this time by David Lean in his ghastly film Doctor Zhivago. ‘Under any circumstances,’ MacGowran was later to say, ‘I couldn’t work happily with David Lean.’

There were, unfortunately, very few figures of the calibre of Beckett and O’Casey working in film. But now two of the greatest directors of the age saw something in MacGowran and Magee which they could use. MacGowran was spotted by the young Roman Polanski. He worked with him first on Cul-de-Sac and then played the Professor, the leading actor, in The Fearless Vampire Killers, one of Polanski’s masterpieces. (Polanski wanted to make a film of Waiting for Godot with MacGowran but Beckett wouldn’t give permission.) MacGowran ‘was a tremendously likeable man’, Polanski said.

I mean there’s no one who would not like Jackie MacGowran. I had great difficulty understanding him at first; he was very amiable but language was a barrier. Later … I got very close to Jack … First of all working with him, I realised how exciting an actor he was. What he was doing was so funny – so right – on top of everything he was so easy to work with. On that film [Cul-de-Sac] I had a lot of difficulty with actors. Jack emerges from this experience in my memory as the only person I could really talk to, or spend time with, besides my co-writer … Jack was all like butter. I’d say: ‘Do this way, do that way,’ he would do it. With real actors, there’s very little of this so-called motivation.

Magee in turn was discovered, as it were, by Stanley Kubrick, who cast him in A Clockwork Orange in 1972, in which he played Mr Alexander opposite Malcolm McDowell, and in Barry Lyndon in 1975.

MacGowran and Magee were both heavy drinkers, and they both died young, MacGowran in 1973 at the age of 54; Magee in 1982 at the age of 58. They were not interchangeable, even if at times they seemed so. Magee had more menace, MacGowran had more natural comic skills. Beckett wrote Eh Joe, his text for television, for MacGowran, just as he had written Krapp for Magee, even calling the character ‘Jack’ in the original draft. When he sent him the script in May 1965 he did so with his customary humility: ‘I hope I did not seem to assume that you would necessarily want to do it because it comes from me. I assure you I don’t. I do hope you will take it on. But if on reading it again and thinking it over you decide it’s not for you, no one would better understand than I.’ Beckett once more oversaw the production.

Eh Joe must have been the hardest of all, because it is played in silence, the face registering pain and surprise as a voice from off camera speaks a text of great tenderness and beauty, the camera moving closer and closer in on the face. Later, Magee would also play the part of Joe on film, just as MacGowran would play Krapp on film.

Sometimes when I was teaching at Stanford last year I would go down into the bowels of the library late at night and, just to cheer myself up, watch both men perform as the students played Google games all around me. First, Magee in Eh Joe from 1972. The face sensuous, the expression mournful but oddly flexible, the mouth trembling, the lips full, the gaze full of deep intelligence and a sort of brutality, a figure for whom silence was natural but on whom the holding back of both thoughts and tears had taken its toll, so that at the end of this brilliant and sustained performance the trickling of tears comes to have enormous power.

And then MacGowran’s Krapp from 1970, made for American TV by Alan Schneider and never shown – out of loyalty to Magee, MacGowran had turned down an offer to make it in London a decade earlier. Look at it now: the eyes utterly beautiful, prominent, liquid, veiled; the face emaciated, drawn, haggard, lit as in a painting, managing to look young and old; the voice on tape like that of an RTE announcer, almost cheerful, but now troubled, frightened, a barrister turned beggar, both Lear and a Fool, both old Dublin and quite posh; the face suddenly alert and feral, the laughter fiercely ugly, and then the clownish tenderness in the eyes as he darts to listen; he is brilliant at conveying wondering, puzzlement, all fidgety and not at all like the man I remember in Gorey although I saw him in that same year. Here he is conveying the self as parchment, dried up despite the fire that was there once and which he manages also to convey. Death is in every darting gesture, every flicker, every sudden turn towards tenderness and a terrible melancholy, but there is too much life in the eyes, too much brooding memory for death to be anything more than a tasty shadow here. No use to anyone. This tape was lost for years and now exists merely in the basement of a few libraries. It is, by any standards, one of the treasures of our age.

Just as Beckett’s Irish voices came as a pair, the context is always ambiguous. Both actors and Beckett himself felt undervalued in England; the actors knew this because of the sort of work they were offered by English directors and Beckett knew it by the response to his work by English critics and writers. There was a wonderful encounter with Olivia Manning when she berated him for his pessimism, his aridity and his lack of hope. But the two actors and Beckett were insiders as much as outsiders in the great city, they were deeply treasured and supported with immense zeal by powerful people in London, notably at the BBC and the Royal Court.

Neither MacGowran and Magee spoke with any fluency or care about their art; they spoke about it as though it were something deeply hidden from them, and quite simple and merely on the surface. This also has to be read carefully and suspiciously, especially in the light of Beckett’s view that a play like Waiting for Godot is ‘full of implications and every important statement may be taken at three or four levels. But the actor has only to find the dominant one. And if he does so, it does not mean that the other levels will be lost.’ Magee and MacGowran combined an instinct for finding this single level with the intelligence to know that it would never be enough, and the excitement was in the tension between the two.

In the correspondence between Beckett and the American director Alan Schneider what emerges is Beckett’s immense affection for MacGowran and concern for him. Both writer and actor admired the Irish painter Jack B. Yeats. MacGowran’s most successful production in Ireland was Jack B. Yeats’s play In Sand, which he directed. Beckett wrote about Yeats the painter: ‘He is one of the greats of our time … because he brings light as only the great bring light to the issueless predicament of existence.’ When he was broke in 1937, Beckett bought a painting from Yeats, who was a friend of his, for £30. Now in Paris, when MacGowran said that one of the few things he would wish to own was a painting by Yeats, Beckett took it from the wall and made him have it, worrying afterwards about how he would buy it back from MacGowran, who was always in financial trouble, should he need to sell it. It was a painting called A Morning and it showed an Irish landscape under a high sky and a figure on a horse; it meant a great deal to Beckett because of its dense texture and its deep simplicity. The painting was bought from an anonymous dealer in 1996 by the National Gallery of Ireland, which is not far from the studio where it was painted, and it hung in the gallery’s show Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Paintings, which marked the centenary of Beckett’s birth last year. Its trajectory – Yeats’s studio, Beckett’s apartment, the managed chaos and charm of Jack MacGowran’s life, the dealer, and then back to the gallery where Beckett’s friend Thomas MacGreevy worked as director for so many years – can stand for the way Beckett’s own affections and loyalties had travelled.

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Vol. 29 No. 8 · 26 April 2007

Colm Tóibín’s piece about Samuel Beckett in the last issue was a version of the John Coffin Memorial Lecture given at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, in January.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Vol. 29 No. 11 · 7 June 2007

James Joyce got it right, Colm Tóibín didn’t (LRB, 5 April). The Dublin chemist’s shop is Sweny’s, not ‘Sweney’s’; the last chemist in the line, Frederick William Sweny, was my great-grandmother’s cousin.

Ken Cooke
Mornington, Australia

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