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.

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DAVID C. BREITHAUPT was born in the heart of the Cold War, in 1959. He grew up in central Ohio, the youngest of four brothers. His mother was an artist; his father, a political rabble rouser. He studied fine arts in college. Lived in NYC in the 1980s where he worked in various bookstores, including the great Brazenhead on East 84th street. He was an archives assistant to Allen Ginsberg and worked with his amazing staff. Did some part-time work as a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone. Quit drinking in 1987. Fell in and out of love. Kept moving. Moved back to Ohio with his family, Christa, Kate and Jo - worked in a college library. Snuck his work into various magazines like Exquisite Corpse, Rant, Main Street. Wrote bio-lit essays for the American and British Writers Series (Scribners) on James Purdy, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch under the editorship of Jay Parini. He edited a book on the works of writer poet, Charles Plymell called Hand On the Doorknob (2000 Water Row Press). Buy it now, please. His work is in the anthology, Thus spake The Corpse vol. 2, Best of the Exquisite Corpse (Black Sparrow Press, 2000). (Please buy that, too.) Breithaupt currently lives and work in Columbus, Ohio, for a sports newspaper while making occasional contributions to his federal restitution. He just finished a memoir with the working title Dada Entry: Picasso, Proust and Federal Prison as well as a collection of short stories, My Curves Are Not Mad with an intro by Jonathan Lethem. He is looking for publishers. Thank you.

20 responses to “Beckett As Buckeye – 
A Dream Deferred”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh you must have been so disappointed!
    This was such a lovely journey for me to take through Ohio, having never been there. You gave it such flavour.
    Silly Beckett. He’ll never know what he missed out on.

  2. Haha, I have a vision of Beckett tied up in the belly of a ship, being brought to Ohio. Which is weird, because someone told me just yesterday that there was nothing that would ever convince them to visit Ohio.

    • If you know Columbus, then you can appreciate the juxtapostion of Beckett being here. A part of me thinks he would have been intrigued by this town but I think the odds are against. But it can be a plus at times, living in Ohio, no one comes here, it’s mine own private Ohio (A special PS to you, Neal Cassady once had a breakdown in Wakeman, Ohio. Had to buy a new car I think.)

      • I’m not even sure what Ohio looks like… I don’t really know anything about it. But I’m sure it’s lovely… And at least his car wasn’t stolen there.

        • It is a countryside riddled with farms surrounded by strip malls. All sorts of critters, buffalo and llamas. Fighting cocks. When Ginsberg was out on a visit to Kenyon, I dove him back to the airport through the backroads and pointed out a farm that was raising fighting cocks. He looked amused. “What are they fighting about?” he asked. I had no answer.

        • Y’know, that doesn’t make it sound too bad. I like animals. Korea and Scotland both killed off their wildlife long ago, and I think I find that attractive about America – you’re working hard to do the same thing, but you’re not quite there yet.

          I’ve been around a lot of Asian countries where people cock-fight for fun. It’s disgusting, but once I saw two guys holding their cocks (er, roosters…) and making them flap at each other. It was amusing, but obviously the proper cock fighting is awful.

        • I was walking up my driveway last night (it is still to snowy to drive all the way up) and I came upon five deer in my yard. They looked at me as if I’d just crashed their party (which I did). They eventually ran off. Then a big V formation of geese fly overhead. By then my dogs heard me coming and started barking, I felt like I was in a National Geographical special. The strange thing is that in five minutes (when there is no snow) I can drive to Easton, the biggest mall in Columbus.
          But there are no cock fighters here, you have to go out to the boonies for that, I think the locals pay off the cops, that’s the scuttlebutt.

  3. Marni Grossman says:

    I’m fairly certain that no famous writer has ever set foot in Delaware. And we have the distinction of being completely forgettable. At least people have a general idea of where Ohio is. Delaware, not so much. Or, as I’m often asked, “isn’t that somewhere in New England?”

    Beckett had no idea what he was missing.

  4. pietdebest says:

    Hi Dave,

    I imagine that there are all kinds of famous people who have not been to Ohio. For example, Alexander Dumas has never been there. Nor has Pol Pot ever graced the bars of High Street. John Lennon never visited Columbus either. All of these would make great stories, if these stories were written by the incomparably brilliant David Breithaupt.

    However, I, Piet de Best, have been to Columbus, and it was wonderful. The culture, the highbrow conversations, the gorgeous and available women, the drugs. Sadly, the Columbus Public Library has a very limited collection of Dutch language books (Cleveland’s Public Library has many more, but its in Cleveland for Pity’s sake).

    Piet misses piling into a car with Dave, a few fatties, and perhaps a pal with a severe Jones, heading off to cow-town for thrills and excitement. I will always associated the joys of methodone-induced reverse peristalsis with Glorious Columbus!

    Glad to see something from you up on the screen at The Nervous Breakdown.

    By the way, did you know that our government collapsed over the weekend? It is great to have nobody ruling me, even if its for a short period of time. Neither Tony Blair nor Bush had to pay for their involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran, but poor little JP (our ex-prime minister) loses his FOURTH government because we Dutchies are, at heart, pacifist who see no reason to kill Afghanis.

    Peace and Groeten,

    Piet de Best

    • Dumas was in Columbus once, he was looking for a model for a fourth Muskateer. His mission failed. And didn’t Lennon and Neilson hit the bars on North High? I’m saving that for a later blog. Pol Pots was in Indiana once but we never let him cross the border. We have enough thugs in this state. Yes, I remember the days of Piet de Best being in Columbus. Remember Leary dying on the day we saw Bush?
      Yes, no one wonder you fled this country. Sorry your government collapsed, how could you tell? You can have ours, ok?

      • pietdebest says:

        Hi Dave,

        How sad it is to see that the long-term effects of demon alcohol upon memory can continue after years of dryness.

        It was Bob Dole, not Bush.

        Dole…one arm. Bush…no brain.

        Easy to remember now?

        And thank-you for the offer of your government. I would like one Dennis Kuchinich please, and half a Ron Paul.


        • By God you’re right. Dole was campaigning for Bush? If you ever stop your (I’m sure it’s therapeutical) daily use of, well, whatever, you will find you have no memory left. Just as if I were to drink, swig some methadone, eat some peyote, I would remember several lifetimes I’d forgotten. As a scientist you should know this. And by the way, you can’t have Dennis but you can have Sara. I’m sending her over.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    David, when you say you’d show him Thurber’s grave…

  6. D.R. Haney says:

    Ohio Impromptu is a great title. And I remember Art Schlichter! Do you know what he’s doing now? I imagine he might be a motivational speaker or some such. Or maybe I remember reading someplace that he’s now a motivational speaker.

  7. Duke, you got it. Art is speaking on the evils of gambling. He just wrote an autobiography titled “BUSTED.”
    I’m not sure what else he is doing other than trying to tame his monkey. Art was such a talented player, it is, as the song goes, “too bad it ended so ugly…”
    And yes, Beckett’s title says it all. So impromptu he never dragged his butt here. Ah well, tant pis.

  8. Caro Polhamus says:

    Did you ever really have a dog named Lucky? Do you like long walks on the beach, hacking old crushes, moravian banjo music, and could you tell me how to get rid of my old boyfriend?

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