Samuel Beckett and the Comedy of Unhappiness

deadline for submissions: 
July 10, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Pacific Ancient & Modern Language Association
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117th Annual Conference - San Diego, California
Thursday, November 14 - Sunday, November 17, 2019

This session will focus on Samuel Beckett, the preeminent advocate for the clown. In Beckett’s novels, the protagonists and the narrator are often clowns. Waiting For Godot was written for actors who donned the attire of tramp-clowns. Beckett’s inspiration often sprang from silent film— he emulated Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

From his earliest writings to his last, Samuel Beckett championed the idiot. He collaborated with his hero, Buster Keaton, who was at the time only months from death, on Film (1965). The project was a delightful failure, infuriating critics. In that sense, it was a roaring success.

One of Beckett's short poems is an exhortation to artists: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

Nell, in Endgame, declares: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.”

This panel will explore the works of Samuel Beckett in light of the figure of the clown. Participants are encouraged to explore the space where tragedy and comedy meet—the clown. We will consider ideas about the genius of the clown; the clown as linguist; the clown as a hero; the clown as an investigation into the unknowability of human existence; the clown as philosopher; the clown as the patron saint of failure; the clown as the crucible of compassion and empathy. Participants are encouraged to conduct investigations into Beckett’s poems, plays, novels, and non-traditional works. Consider the following questions: To what degree is the artist a clown? How do Beckett’s clowns regard themselves in relation to organized (and disorganized) religion, philosophy, fine art? To what degree is the artist a clown? Why is the academic world so starved of clowns? Do Beckett's clowns subscribe to hierarchies in the manner of religious, political, or academic figures? How does the phenomenon of sadomasochism appear in and affect our reading of Beckett’s clowns?

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