It’s a piece of history that was neglected, I suspect, diminished by a daily barrage of war news, economic up and down turns and celebrities acting poorly. It would be a footnote, obscure as some inscription in a Pharaoh’s tomb or the answer to a thousand dollar question on Jeopardy! Even I barely heard the rumors. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them. I ask them to look it up.
It happened in the early 80s. I was finishing up art school. Disco was over. Reagan was President. I had an Irish girlfriend who eventually broke my heart. Everything was fine except for Reagan being President. I never trusted that folksy old codger.
Enter Samuel Beckett. The story is he came to Columbus, Ohio, to write a play in honor of his 75th birthday. How did Beckett ever end up in Ohio? I suspect he came much the same way Kong was brought to the states, in chains and against his will. I believe the deal was set up by a professor of literature in Florida named Gontarski. He commissioned Beckett to write a play, something the author had never taken on before. He struggled in hell with it for about nine months before eking out almost five pages. He called it Ohio Impromptu.
This is what can happen when you become famous, writers beware.
How, I often wondered, did Beckett interact with Columbus, the sometimes city of my youth, the present city of my middle age? Writer Jerry Stahl, who lived a brief stint in Columbus during his tenure as a writer for Hustler Magazine, wrote that Columbus is to brake pads as Italy is to shoes. I’m not sure if Columbus is the brake pad capital anymore, but you get the idea. Columbus is not a town Beckett would have made his second home, or even his third. “Relief,” he wrote in Ohio Impromptu, “would flow from unfamiliarity.” Did Beckett find comfort in the midwest? Did he eat brats at a tailgate party at the OSU stadium?
I picture Beckett wondering the environs of Columbus, hiking up North High Street, checking out the campus bars, Dick’s Den, The Dube and of course Larry’s (now the late great Larry’s), the closest bar we had to the Cedar Tavern. He could have slipped in unnoticed, his accent mistaken for the Appalachian twang of the many West Virginian transplants that have migrated here over the years. Just another crazy soundin’ bar fly talkin’ shit, something about Joyce, was that his girl friend? Long as he pays he stays…
Ohio State football was big at that time, just as it is now, just as it has always been since they inflated that first pig-skin ball. Beckett would have been in town to see the endgame of then OSU quarterback Art Schlichter. Art was beginning the full bloom of his mightily self-destructive gambling obsession, a monkey that eventually led him into more than a decade spent in more than 40 US prisons. Schlichter was a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, gambling more than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky combined. Beckettw ould have seen Art’s career do a slow fade, as in some torrid B-movie, while his life dissolved into the maws of the obsessive-compulsive appetite which nuked his world and anyone near him.
I am haunted by Beckett. I envision him exploring our town, out of place. Lost. Looking for comfort in the unfamiliar. He should have called me. I could have taken him places, shown him Thurber’s grave, visited the big Henry Moore nude in front of the art museum, introduced him to the Amish. We could have gone to Cleveland, caught a Lou Reed show. Eaten Polish sausage. Columbus may have been as exotic to him as Mozambique. Perhaps it would remind him of the danker parts of Dublin, the shaggy corners with barefoot kids and wretching drunkards, those parts of town where James Joyce is still a villain. Maybe he would have recalled his days with the French resistance, missing the danger so glaringly absent from our midwestern lives. Or maybe he was just thinking of his own demise. Tolstoy said if a man learns to think, he only ends up pondering his own death. I don’t know, these pontifications could have all been on the Beckett menu.
Columbus, Ohio, however, is no stranger to immortality. Charles Dickens came through town after his less than satisfactory jaunt in Cincinnati. He stayed at the original Neil House downtown (in whose later incarnation Hunter Thompson preferred to stay when in town covering the campaign trail) before traveling north to Upper Sandusky on a bumpy log road where the townies introduced him to several local Indians. Mark Twain lectured here and said Columbus had the “most beautiful people” he’d ever seen. He may have been drinking absinthe at the time.
Abe Lincoln gave many a stump speech here on the capitol steps and returned one last time on his funeral train. History had left a few footprints here, what was to prevent Beckett from making a few more? There seemed to be little information on Beckett’s soujourn to Columbus. I Googled and browsed bios. I finally asked the owners of the Acorn Bookshop, down the street from where I work, if they knew of Beckett’s visit. They didn’t. But they suggested I contact a man in the theatre archives department at OSU, which I did. I asked him about Beckett’s visit, saying I was curious about how he spent his time in Columbus.
Did he have any details? I waited anxiously for a return email, which came quickly enough. The news was not good. Beckett was never in Ohio, he wrote me. Ohio Impromptu was written elsewhere. The Irishman never set a foot in Buckeye Country, not even for the premiere of his own play, which was performed in May of 1981 in the Drake Union at OSU.
I was crushed.
It gave me a strange thrill to think Samuel Beckett was once here, I don’t why. I found comfort in his unfamiliarity. I relished the history he would have brought with him and his connection would have been my connection to a world I’d only read about and would have made that history palpable. I wanted to trace the remnants of his ragtag and spectacular past and know we shared a brief moment in geography but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Not in this burg at least.
Damn, looks like I am going to have to drag my ass to some foreign country to forge this bond. I’ll start saving me pennies. Oh well, it was a nice fantasy while it lasted. You don’t know what you missed, Mr. Beckett. I’ll catch your ghost in France.