On April 12, 1963, a Grove Press staffer wrote to inform Samuel Beckett that he’d received a package at the company’s Manhattan office: “Enclosed were: 1 bottle Mustard sauce, 1 can condensed split pea soup with vegetables & smoked pork … 1 jar midget gherkins and 1 jar Kandied KrinkLChips (pickles!). All sent with the enclosed card from Heinz 57 varieties on your 57th birthday.”
This delightful note is among the dozens of heretofore hidden treasures contained in “Dear Mr. Beckett,” a fascinating new compendium of correspondence between the avant-garde playwright/novelist and his American publisher.
The heart of this satisfying book is made up of letters from the desk of Barney Rosset, Grove’s longtime head and the man whose publication of risqué novels such as Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” placed him at the center of numerous controversies.
Rosset’s dispatches to “Sam” (as he calls Beckett) are augmented by an array of scrapbook-style ephemera. News clips, legal documents, award citations, telegrams, dust jackets, advertisements, interviews, photos — together, these items serve as a kind of alternative history of Beckett’s last 3½ decades. Although the contents will not redefine our understanding of his work, they add fascinating and colorful context to his provocative career.
Beckett signed with Grove in 1953 and stayed with the company until his death in 1989. One of the book’s first entries, a memo from Beckett’s agent, lays out the terms under which he agreed to complete a translation of “Waiting for Godot,” his famously difficult play. The deal earned him an upfront fee of $150 and a 2.5 percent royalty rate for the script sold in book form. Rosset was not expecting a big hit — as he says later in the book, the initial print run was about 1,000 copies; it eventually sold “well over a million.”
An early production of “Godot” occurred at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse, of all places. A news clipping featured in the book captured the audience’s perplexity: “One man insisted he smelled smoke as he left the theatre, only to have his wife remark, ‘They’re probably burning the script.’ ” The reception was such that Rosset felt compelled to apologize. “It is terribly unfortunate,” he wrote to Beckett, “but it really was hoping for the impossible to think that a Miami audience would put up with Godot.”
The book includes a handful of terse letters from the playwright himself. In 1973, he was asked if he would support a female-centric production of his best-known work. Here, in its entirety, is Beckett’s reply: “Thank you for your letter — proposal which I fear I cannot accept. Godot should not be played by women. I regret.”
“Dear Mr. Beckett” also provides a glimpse of Beckett’s take-it-or-leave-it approach to mainstream success, and his apparent lack of interest in pop culture. In a transcript of a 1990 interview Rosset gave to the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the publisher recalls when an unnamed but quite famous actor flirted with the idea of playing one of Beckett’s characters: “I told Sam [that the actor] was sort of like Marlon Brando. Sam asked what Marlon Brando looked like. He’s big, isn’t he? Sam asked. I said yeah, he’s very big and heavy. Finally Sam said, but my characters are ghosts. So we forgot about it.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters From the Publisher
By: Barney Rosset.
Publisher: Opus Books, 473 pages, $32.95.