Samuel Beckett’s ‘The Unnamable’: who wore it better?

The above video features the actor Jack MacGowran reading the closing lines of Beckett’s novel The Unnamable. MacGowran is one of a celebrated few who Beckett personally approved during his lifetime and when Beckett had the means put at his disposal to direct a production by a generous patron of the arts, he cast him opposite Patrick Magee in a London production of Endgame. The play Eh Joe was written for him and he also staged a number of one-man shows based on Beckett’s works.

This video depicts the playwright and actor Harold Pinter, reading a longer extract of the same novel, albeit prefaced by an anecdote of the man Beckett, who helped him with his hangover.

Pinter delivers the line with far more determination than MacGowran, his voice has a sonorous depth to it, which is not to mention his sophisticated accent, and though his capacity to keep pace with the breathless quality of the prose is to be praised, he sounds as though he is constantly barreling towards a conclusion.

The visual component also deserves treatment. Pinter stares into the lens while spouting all this, in itself an achievement, but with this seems to come a demand to stress, emphasise and bring to bear some of his pugnaciousness for which he is known, I say at the risk of looking to the man and not the work. I find it most pronounced at certain junctures when Pinter/The Unnamable seems to come to some sort of realisation, leaning quite a bit on the word ‘indictment.’ Being unfamiliar with the contents of Pinter’s mind this is a guess, but all told, this seems to be what The Unnamable represents for him, if the letter he reads at the start proclaiming Beckett to be an elucidator of the human condition is to be trusted. The close-up lends itself further to a crescendo, lending Pinter’s conclusion to the genre of reality television where the actors later confess by speaking about the day’s happenings.

MacGowran’s reading is barely above the volume of a whisper, his inhalations make his performance as much about what he does not say, or what his rasping gasps say. Its focus is more that of the rhythm of not-saying and creates the illusion that the voice could go on lisping into the void forever, which of course it does, an effect implied all the better by MacGowran’s shedding of trajectory.