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James Knowlson, Damned to Fame

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By MICHAEL VALDEZ MOSES
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Beckett was a behind-the-scenes supporter of those who criticized the conduct of the French government and military during the Algerian war for independence in the late 1950s and 1960s. He steadfastly refused to allow his works to be performed in South Africa except before racially integrated audiences. And when the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal was imprisoned by the Franco regime on charges of blasphemy and treason, Beckett wrote a letter of protest and agreed to testify before a tribunal in his defense.

Knowlson considers Beckett to have been "basically left-wing and anti- establishment," but he dutifully and admiringly recounts Beckett's profound interest in and support of liberation movements in Eastern Europe. Beckett gave financial support to the Polish dissident Antoni Libera, and with Beckett's tacit understanding, some of his monies were used to fund underground publishing houses critical of the Communist regime in Poland. When martial law was declared there in 1981, Beckett signed a public manifesto protesting the curtailment of civil liberties. In 1982, Beckett dedicated his play Catastrophe to the imprisoned dissident writer Vaclav Havel. It concerns a Protagonist, a silent figure who stands on stage responding passively to the orders given by the despotic Director, who inhumanely molds the abject posture of the Protagonist for public display. At the play's conclusion, the apparently will-less Protagonist defiantly raises his illuminated head to face the audience, directly challenging the Director's command that it remain bowed When critics suggested that the political message of the play was ambiguous, Beckett fumed: "There's no ambiguity there at all. . . . He's saying: You bastards, you haven't finished me yet!" After his release from prison, Havel expressed his gratitude by dedicating his own play, The Mistake, to Beckett.

One of the deepest and most pervasive concerns in Beckett's work is his lifelong obsession with and search for unlimited freedom At times, that quest might take the form of a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of freedom, while at others it centers on artistic, psychological, and even political efforts to attain the maximum degree of individual autonomy. Beckett's intellectual mentor and champion at Trinity College, Thomas Rudmose-Brown, took a liking to the young Beckett not only because of the demonstrable brilliance of his protege, but also because the professor saw in his student a fellow "free spirit." Beckett would never forget one of Rudmose-Brown's pithiest aphorisms: The best government was the one "that charges you the least blackmail for leaving you alone."

Beckett, as both man and writer, devoted his life to subverting all forms of authority -- religious, intellectual, cultural, and political -- that presumed to restrict the freedom of the individual. Though his works bespeak a lifelong meditation on the failing light of reason, they also represent an equally powerful engagement with the struggle to expand and explore the utmost possibilities of human emancipation. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Beckett's last major play to be published, written in the 1940s but appearing only posthumously, should bear the title Eleutheria -- the Greek word for freedom.

Michael Valdez Moses is professor of English at Duke University.