“I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” So ends The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett’s inscrutable and very nearly unreadable 1953 novel. Irish actor Barry McGovern has taken those words to heart. For 23 years, he’s gone on, performing his distillation of The Unnamable and two other Beckett novels, Molloy and Malone Dies. Beginning July 17, he’ll bring his solo show I’ll Go On to the Lincoln Center Festival as part of the program entitled Gate/Beckett, produced by Dublin’s Gate Theatre. He’ll appear alongside Liam Neeson, performing the teleplay Eh Joe, and Ralph Fiennes, who stars in an adaptation of the novella First Love.
McGovern—among the foremost living interpreters of Beckett—plays Molloy, mourning his mother’s death; Malone, scratching out stories in an exercise book; and the Unnamable, a strange non-man, his head “a great smooth ball I carry on my shoulders, featureless.” Speaking from his apartment in the Dublin neighborhood of Chapelizod overlooking the River Liffey, the 60-year-old McGovern chatted to the Voice about wringing drama from such stagnant situations and his meetings with the elderly Beckett.
How did you first encounter Beckett’s work?
I saw Waiting for Godot on television when I was about 12, a black-and-white BBC production. I’d never heard of it. It was different and weird. I said, “What is this?!”
And how did you first come to the novels?
For my birthday or for Christmas, I asked my parents to buy me the three novels that are in a volume—Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable—upon which this show, I’ll Go On, is based. I was 21 or 22.
I can’t imagine reading these books and thinking: “Oh, this should be a play.”
Yes, I can understand that, but . . . they’re all written in the first person. So, for a solo performance, I just thought, there’s great material here. Even though they’re tragic in their vision, they’re also funny, in a very black way.
But they’re so undramatic!
Yes, but the words are so wonderful. In a way, [these men] are all the same character, searching for peace, searching for silence, an end to hassle and trouble, and the only way they can do that is through words, even though they’re trying to escape words. “I have no voice and must speak,” as the Unnamable says.
How did you decide what to include?
[Co-author Gerry Dukes and I] loved the works so much, that was the problem—there was so much we had to leave out. The show’s only about an hour and a half. I’ve recorded all three of the novels, and if you played all the CDs straight through, it would take 20 hours. We had to give the flavor and essence.
You met Beckett several times toward the end of his life.
I first met him in 1986, a few weeks before his 80th birthday. . . . By that stage, he was quite elderly, but he was wonderful company. We had a beer and a coffee and smoked one of his very dark cheroots. I met him on a few other occasions before he died. They say, “Never meet your heroes—you’ll be disappointed.” But I wasn’t, thankfully.
Was he encouraging?
One time, as I was saying goodbye to him at the little café where we used to meet, he turned back and he held me by the arms and he said: “Thank you for what you’re doing for the work.” And I felt—God, I just felt so humbled, because thank you, Mr. Beckett, you know, for what you’ve done for me and my life with your work. For giving me not just pleasure, but insights into things that matter.