Barry McGovern: Reviving the works of Samuel Beckett

DURING the preamble to I’ll Go On, Barry McGovern peered out at the audience. “You can’t leave,” he said, “because you’re afraid it might be worse elsewhere.” The pained laughter continued for 90 minutes.

Barry McGovern in the 2006 Gate production of I'll Go On. The show originated at the Gate Theatre under Michael Colgan's stewardship. Picture: Amelia Stein

McGovern has been performing selections from Samuel Beckett’s three post-war novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, for half a lifetime, clocking up more than 200 performances.

Next week — as part of an Irish armada of Beckett productions at the Edinburgh International Festival, including Michael Gambon in Eh, Joe — McGovern will perform I’ll Go On at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

That production sprang from Michael Colgan’s stewardship at the Gate Theatre, which began 30 years ago, and has been synonymous with Beckett’s work since.

“The thing was that I’d known Michael since college days,” says McGovern. “He was at Trinity and I was at UCD. We met around 1970. Trinity were hosting the university drama festival. He loved Beckett and so did I; I think I was doing Endgame, or something, at college, when he first met me.

“He suggested doing a one-man Beckett show. We looked at a lot of possibilities. One of them was the late Jack MacGowran’s Beginning to End. We considered that. He had been in contact with Beckett, who gave us a blessing to do it, but it didn’t work out, because there were some problems with the widow of Jack MacGowran wanting a bigger involvement in it; I can’t remember the details.”

Beckett suggested to the two that “there remains the possibility of another one-man show with a different title and a different choice of texts”. “Those were his words, as I remember. That’s all we needed to go ahead with our own show,” says McGovern.

Colm Ó Briain, who directed the show, and Robert Ballagh, who designed it, were on board. “We read around the canon of Beckett’s works. I re-read the three novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and I said, ‘No, let’s not even go outside these. Let’s not go to the poetry or the shorter prose or the plays. Let’s just do it based on this. It will have an integral sort of quality if we base it on these three novels.”

McGovern and Gerry Dukes, an academic, worked on the material together over a few months. “We had it ready by the summer of ’85, and Michael Colgan produced it at the Gate in September ’85 for the Dublin Theatre Festival. That’s how it originated,” McGovern says.

The first half of I’ll Go On is taken from the first section of Molloy, which leaves out the search for Molloy by the detective, Moran, in the novel. The second half opens with 20 minutes of material from Malone Dies.

“The last 10 or 11 minutes of the show is from The Unnamable,” says McGovern, “which is a very complex and difficult novel, but it’s basically a voice speaking, a bit like Not I, the play. It’s a voice, searching for silence, through words. It’s looking for peace and silence and truth and the only way to do that is through words.”

The show is the reflections of a tramp who tries to make sense of his life by telling himself stories (which might or might not be true). Death is never far from his thoughts. “I could die today, if I wished, merely by making a little effort,” he says, “but it is just as well to let myself die, quietly, without rushing things.”

A striking idea from the novels is the delusion that things change. This is not necessarily the case. Life is repetitive, and because memory fails us we go through the same experiences over and over again. As the Unnamable says: “What I best see, I see ill.”

McGovern is cautiousof drawing too many grand messages from the texts. Beckett wasn’t didactic. “It’s like Brendan Behan was once asked, ‘What’s the message in your play?’ He said, ‘If I wanted to have messages in my play, I would have been a postman.’ He was probably being a bit facetious. People take what they want out of it.”

McGovern thinks Beckett was a philosopher, though the writer would probably have denied it. “He read voraciously and voluminously. Most of the Western canon he probably would have read; the philosophers as well as the writers. He was very interested in visual art. He knew an awful lot about painting. He played the piano, and he listened to music a lot. He was a very cultured man. His philosophy of life would seep through his art, inevitably.

“A lot of people say it was pessimistic. It is, in a way, because he was pessimistic about the nature of life and existence and how cruel an animal man is. At the same time, there’s great beauty in it, and great hope. Even the final three words of The Unnamable: “I’ll Go On,” which is the title we use for the show.

“In Endgame, Pozzo keeps saying to Lucky, “On!”. It’s all about going on, and getting on, of getting up, and falling. Jesus falls the first time. Jesus falls the second time, the third time, and he gets up, and he goes on. There’s a kind of a Christian — although he wouldn’t call it Christian — message, a theological one, about picking up. You know: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’ as the narrator says in Worstward Ho. It’s a question of trying to do a little bit better each time. Or fail a little better in the sense that no matter what you do, you’re inevitably going to fail. It sounds very pessimistic, but there’s a great beauty and optimism in the way he transmutes it into art.”

*I’ll Go On is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, 30b Grindlay St, Edinburgh EH3 9AX as part of a Culture Ireland showcase, 9pm, Saturday, Aug 24 — Monday, Aug 26; Wednesday, Aug 28; Saturday, Aug 31.

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