Chess and Art: Samuel Beckett's Obsession with Chess
Stephen Moss has a brilliant article on Samuel Beckett's great obsessions in the Guardian. Was this game of fierce purity and life-or-death stakes is the key to all his work?
"I am something of an interloper at the Samuel Beckett festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. While the Beckettians are here to venerate the master and his works – concentrated, intense, elliptical – I have come for the chess, which is why on Sunday afternoon I find myself in the high street playing a game on a giant chess set against the man who created it, local sculptor Alan Milligan," writes Moss.
It is a monumental struggle, or would be if Milligan were any good at chess. Even though he designed the set, with bronze pieces modelled on Beckett's characters and pawns representing props used in his plays (boots and carrots from Waiting for Godot, a banana from Krapp's Last Tape, the pistol from Happy Days), he knows little about the game. In anticipation of playing me, he has been studying a book optimistically called Learn to Play Chess in a Weekend, but I still checkmate him in 20 moves. Don't give up, I tell him. Fail again. Fail better.
The set was supposed to be ready for last year's inaugural festival, but Milligan's studio burned down, so in 2012 he was able to present only the charred remains. "The pieces were black and blacker, which for Beckett seemed appropriate," he says wryly. Now the set has been recast, and is the centrepiece of this year's festival, which takes its cue from the playwright's fascination with chess.
Sean Doran, the festival's organiser, has planned the event like a chess game. A series of dance pieces inspired by Beckett's work form the graceful opening; short plays performed by Irish and Portuguese companies supply the crunchy, complex middle game; and the denouement (or in Beckett's case, anti-denouement) is provided by two productions of Endgame, from Australian company Wit's End and the Sligo-based Blue Raincoat Theatre.
Alan Milligan and Stephen Moss do battle on Milligan's Beckett chess set, built for the Beckett festival in Enniskillen. Photograph: David Fitzgerald
"I like the way in festivals you can go beyond what you ordinarily do," says Doran. "It's usually enough to have one Endgame in one town at one time, but to have two is something special. I wanted to play up the contrast: the productions are from different sides of the world, and play on Beckett's competitive spirit." Beckett went to the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen – the town's justification for gazumping his birthplace, Dublin, in staging this annual festival – as well as boxing and played cricket and rugby for the school.
Also see her personal chess blog
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