Dance first, think afterwards

  • Themes: Culture, Film

A conventional film about the life of Samuel Beckett fails to explore the unconventional writer's work in film and television that made him so interesting.

Gabriel Byrne and Maxine Peake in a scene from Dance First.
Gabriel Byrne and Maxine Peake in a scene from Dance First. Credit: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

Dance First, 2023, directed by James Marsh, is in cinemas now.

It is a feature of Hollywood filmmaking that, sooner or later, every writer of significance has a picture made about them. It is also a regrettable side-effect of this that the vast majority of these are not very good. Few would consider Ernest Hemingway particularly well served by Chris O’Donnell in Richard Attenborough’s anaemic In Love and War, or the rakish Lord Rochester brought to life by Johnny Depp in the murky The Libertine. Now we can add to their number another failure, in the form of the Samuel Beckett drama Dance First, which stars Gabriel Byrne as the Irish playwright. It has opened in cinemas to dismally dismissive reviews, most of which suggest that giving a man as contradictory and insular as Beckett the full Hollywood treatment has been a waste of time and effort. It is unlikely that the Beckettian adage ‘try again. Fail again. Fail better’ will be displayed with any kind of further film about the man.

Yet the greatest disappointment about James Marsh’s film is that its conventional and unadventurous approach to Beckett’s life and career has meant that there is now no further scope to deal with his own interest in television and cinema, which was a vital – and perhaps now underappreciated – aspect of his work. After Beckett had established himself as one of the leading playwrights of the century with such works as Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days, he then wrote an original short screenplay, which he entitled simply Film.

It was made in 1965, starring a then-69 year old Buster Keaton as an anonymous man simply known as ‘O’. Film was directed by the American theatre director Alan Schneider and, in its combination of Keaton’s habitual deadpan persona and Beckett’s gnomic reflections on memory and self, produced something both unique and hauntingly memorable, even if it is not now regarded as a major work of Beckett’s. That said, posterity has proved kinder to it than the Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell, who dismissed it as ‘a load of old bosh’.

The collaboration between Keaton and Beckett may have seemed a surprising one, but the playwright’s work always owed as much to the formal ritualism of silent comedy as it did to existentialism; after all, Waiting for Godot ends with Estragon’s trousers solemnly falling around his ankles, as he and Vladimir debate the necessity of hanging themselves if Godot fails to appear. Beckett had long admired Keaton, and had offered him the role of Lucky in the New York premiere of Godot, but the actor had turned it down in incomprehension, despite or perhaps because his career had long since passed into eclipse. An ailing Keaton subsequently accepted the part of O, talked into it by his wife Eleanor, who suggested that it might be his version of the much-loved Les Enfants du Paradis, and could even have led to a late-career renaissance for the actor. After all, Beckett’s plays were hugely acclaimed and discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, and association with the playwright could have been an epochal one for both men.

Alas, it proved not to be, as the collaboration swiftly stalled on both a personal and professional level. Beckett later recalled: ‘Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face. I doubt if he ever read the text. I don’t think he approved of it or liked it. But he agreed to do it and he was very competent… I tried to engage him in conversation, but it was no good. He was absent. He didn’t even offer us a drink. Not because he was being unfriendly, but because it never occurred to him.’ Yet, when on set, the veteran actor remained a professional; Beckett said ‘Keaton was galloping up and down and doing whatever we asked of him. He had great endurance, he was very tough and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end – oh!’

Beckett never wrote another original screenplay for cinema, although he wrote several works for television, including Eh Joe and Beginning to End with his regular collaborator Jack MacGowran, as well as some obscure later plays that included 1981’s Quad and Night and Dreams. By now, the relative accessibility of Beckett’s earlier work – to say nothing of the droll wit of his novels – was a distant memory, and the plays are seldom screened publicly, although one academic, Eckart Voigts-Virchow, suggested that there was an unlikely but amusing parallel between Quad and the children’s television series Teletubbies. Voigts-Virchow wrote that ‘The Quad figures are probably an image of how the Teletubbies will behave when they are close to death and their belly monitors have long gone blank and become sightless windows.’ It is hard not to feel that Beckett would have enjoyed the mordant nature of the comparison.

For those seeking a wider representation of the playwright’s work on film, then it is one of the great strokes of luck of the modern age that, around the turn of the millennium, Michael Colgan, the artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin – which enjoyed a long professional association with the playwright – managed to convince the notoriously unyielding Beckett estate to sanction all nineteen of his plays being immortalised on screen. The resulting project, Beckett on Film, brought together everyone from Harold Pinter and John Gielgud to Michael Gambon and John Hurt in a collection of films that encompassed everything from the two-hour length of Waiting for Godot to the 45-second long Breath, directed by none other than Damien Hirst and featuring actor Keith Allen.

These films are not as well known as they should be, perhaps because of the relative difficulty of viewing them. Although several were screened on Channel 4 in 2001, just over a decade after Beckett’s death in 1989, the only way of being able to see them in their entirety is to buy an expensive and now out-of-print DVD box set, which means that only the most committed Beckett aficionado will own them. It is well worth the effort of hunting them down, however, both for the well-known plays – John Hurt is surely the definitive Krapp, and the interplay between Michael Gambon’s Hamm and David Thewlis’s Clob in Endgame is peerless – and for the more obscure works, which have probably never been given richer or more satisfying treatment.

The much-missed Anthony Minghella’s short Play, depicting three anonymous characters in what look like funeral urns, is accomplished with breathtakingly cinematic panache, not least because of the performances of Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson, and it is doubtful that even Beckett could have conceived of a starrier combination than Gielgud, Pinter and David Mamet to make his 1982 short Catastrophe. Appropriately enough, it was Gielgud’s final performance; a career that had begun in the early 1920s and had spanned the twentieth century therefore ended with Beckett.

It is unlikely that Dance First, which takes its title from a line in Godot – ‘Perhaps he could dance first and think afterwards’ – will inspire new audiences to seek out Beckett’s work, whether on stage or in film, and this is a pity. Yet even a flop biopic cannot dent the magnetic interest that Saucy Sam’s work holds for audiences, and has done since a pair of tramps first ambled onto an all but bare stage seventy years ago. We can only hope that the Beckett on Film projects finds itself revived and available to a wider audience, so that the famous final line of his 1953 novel The Unnameable can once again be justified: ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’


Alexander Larman