Wednesday 10 March 2021

Human Wishes

 I've just read Samuel Beckett's Human Wishes. This did not take long, as it's no more than a fragment of a projected play that never got written. It left me wishing there was more, much more...
  Taking its title from The Vanity of Human Wishes, this was originally intended to be a drama about Dr Johnson's complicated relationship with Hester Thrale. Beckett made extensive notes for this, drawing on Mrs Thrale's recollections rather than Boswell's life of Johnson. However, he then changed course and started writing about life in the Johnson household, with its population of waifs and strays whom the good doctor had taken under his wing, including blind Mrs Williams, Mrs Desmoulins, Miss Carmichael and Dr Levett (an apothecary with a taste for drink). In Johnson's own words (writing to the Thrales), 'Williams hates everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll (Miss Carmichael) loves none of them.' What better dramatic set-up could one hope for?
  The surviving fragment features all of these, first the ladies chewing bits out of each other, and then – an incident: the return of Levett. After which it's back to the ladies. In this passage, it is easy to hear pre-echoes of the dramas that were to make Beckett's name two decades later (Human Wishes was written in 1937). As I said, I wish there was more...

Enter LEVETT, slightly, respectably, even reluctantly drunk, in great coat and hat, which he does not remove, carrying a small black bag. He advances unsteadily into the room & stands peering at the company. Ignored ostentatiously by Mrs D (knitting), Miss Carmichael (reading), Mrs W (meditating), he remains a little standing as though lost in thought, then suddenly emits a hiccup of such force that he is almost thrown off his feet. Startled from her knitting Mrs D, from her book Miss C, from her stage meditation Mrs W, survey him with indignation. L remains standing a little longer, absorbed & motionless, then on a wide tack returns cautiously to the door, which he does not close behind him. His unsteady footsteps are heard on the stairs. Between the three women exchange of looks. Gestures of disgust. Mouths opened and shut. Finally they resume their occupations.

Mrs W:  Words fail us.

Mrs D:  Now this is where a writer for the stage would have us speak, no doubt.

Mrs W:  We would have to explain Levett.

Mrs D:  To the public.

Mrs W:  The ignorant public.

Mrs D:  To the gallery.

Mrs W:  To the pit.

Miss C:  To the boxes.

Mrs W:  Mr Murphy.

Mrs D:  Mr Kelly.

Miss C:  Mr Goldsmith.

Mrs D:  Let us not speak unkindly of the departed.

Miss C:  The departed?

Mrs D:  Can you be unaware, Miss, that the dear doctor's [Goldsmith's] debt to nature –

Mrs W:  Not a very large one.

Mrs D:  That the dear doctor's debt to nature is discharged these seven years.

Mrs W:  More.

Mrs D:  Seven years today, Madam, almost to the hour, neither more nor less.

Miss C:  His debt to nature?

Mrs W:  She means the wretched man is dead.

Miss C:  Dead!

Mrs W:  Dead. D-E-A-D. Expired. Like the late Queen Anne and the Rev. Edward –

Miss C:  Well I am heartily sorry indeed to hear that.

Mrs W:  So was I, Miss, heartily sorry indeed to hear it, at the time, being of the opinion, as I still am, that before paying his debt to nature he might have paid his debt to me. Seven shillings and sixpence, extorted on the contemptible security of his Animated Nature. He asked for a guinea.

Mrs D:  There are many, Madam, more sorely disappointed, willing to forget the frailties of a life long since transported to that undiscovered country from whose –

Mrs W (striking the floor with her stick). None of your Shakespeare to me, Madam. The fellow may be in Abraham's bosom for aught I know or care, I still say he ought to be in Newgate.

Mrs D (sighs and goes back to her knitting).

Mrs W:  I am dead enough myself, I hope, not to feel any great respect for those that are so entirely. 

Silence.







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