Beckett, Ireland and the Biographical Festival: A Symposium

Trish McTighe & Kathryn White

Photo by John McVitty

We propose that Beckett’s relation to contemporary arts is inflected by festivalisation in multiple and complex ways and that an analysis of festivals and festival cultures is an important aspect of the consideration of Beckett’s place within the field of contemporary art and performance. For us, the relationship between Beckett and festivals raises urgent questions about the relationship between place, authorship, legacy and cultural production. Beckett’s relationship to Ireland and Irish identity has been articulated in very specific ways through festivalisation. Festivalisation is a term that has been used variously to describe: the growth in the number of festivals over the last half century and the formation of individual arts events into collectively packaged and marketed festivals,1 the increasing ways in which these sets of events are seen as beneficial modes of cultural production as well as, more pejoratively, to describe an over-commodification of cultural goods through festival-related tourism and place-marketing narratives.2 Festivalisation also becomes a discursive tool to critique the assumptions and ideologies that underlie festivals and to query the ways in which they replicate social inequality rather than undermine it.3 Further, and relative to the Irish context (though the argument has relevance elsewhere), Brian Singleton has articulated a link between festivalisation and the construction of the literary canon. He writes that,

Perhaps the simplest way of determining the canonical in Irish theatre is to isolate writers whose work has been ‘festivalized’, embraced by the trend of single-author marketing which recognizes that great theatre writers are the mainstay of Irish cultural capital.4

Through commemoration, legacy is shaped and assured. In addition, we also propose that by engaging critically with festival cultures we are afforded an innovative way of mapping and tracing authorial presence and legacy within a region.

The following is a reflection on a recent symposium we held at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, Belfast (17th-18th November 2017) which drew together participants from across a range of disciplines to explore these issues. We see this as an initial event in what we hope will become a larger grant and publication project. The speakers for this event focused mainly on the Northern Irish context but the intention of the event was to help articulate some of the key research questions that will shape the direction of an island-wide research network.

That Beckett’s work lends itself to the festival form is evident. As part of our symposium, we held a public interview with Seán Doran, artistic director of the Happy Days International Beckett Festival. Doran talked in detail about his past festival experiences and his journey to Beckett. In particular, he talked in practical terms about the tone that Beckett sets for a festival. As he puts it, Beckett was the grounds, not only for a festival which would present live theatrical performances, as the Gate Theatre’s festival had done throughout the 1990s, but also the grounds for the kind of multi-arts festival which sees an annual influx of artists of all different stripes to the town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Further, it is clear that the festival mode of production is an ideal way of presenting Beckett’s shorter works. And Doran’s use of site – from ruins to islands with an embedded journey to and from the event – offers an ingenious answer to the challenge of programming such short works. (An interview with Doran appears in the accompanying Backpages for this special issue.)

It is clear that whatever insecurities the Beckett Festival might face from a funding perspective (and which are shared across the arts sector in that region), Doran has found a methodology for working with Beckett that illuminates less visible aspects of the work, expands the reach of the work to beyond a single mode of artistic production, and excavates the visual art, literary and musical influences that underpin its creation. What he has done also, and most importantly for our project, is to reshape the legacy of Beckett in Northern Ireland in significant ways, and has begun to enact plans to commemorate other authors linked to Northern Ireland in similar ways (Friel, Wilde, for example). This reshaping will continue under Doran’s proposed Arts Over Borders project. This is a project that will build a network of festivals and commemorations of literary figures and their works across the northern region of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, Beckett’s work has not had the same presence as it has in the Republic. The relationship between artwork and place is less clearly concretised than in Dublin and its environs, for obvious reasons. And yet through festival cultures and practices, this relationship has shifted in significant ways. Beckett has become visible on the horizon of Northern Irish town councillors, planners, and tourism administrators. And we must pay attention to the ways in which such festivalising practices alter the meanings of the work and impact in multiple ways on the public image and legacy of the author. This is a perspective, in other words, that is grounded in and builds upon an analysis of the relationship of the artwork to place, while homing in on the ways in which the varying discourses of festival producers, funders, tourist boards and so forth intersect with and construct versions of the author; sometimes this in response to the aesthetics of the work, other times it is in the name of marketability, often it is a combination of both of these impulses. The success and / or failure of these varying and interweaving projects tells us much about the the culture from which they are born, especially its contradictions and tensions. Thinking Beckett within the context of a symposium on festival cultures allowed us to converse with a diverse range of speakers, drawn from several disciplines – theatre scholarship and practice, law, history, arts management and production, geography and enabled us to address some of the questions that currently dominate our thinking on this issue.

Several key issues emerged throughout the day. One was to do with the significance of festivals for the construction of cultural identity and, somewhat connected to that, the branding (or rebranding) of a city. Hugh Odling-Smee, a Belfast-based arts organiser, talked about the ways in which the Belfast Festival succeeded in creating an alternative vision of the city during its most troubled times, while on the same panel Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh (Queen’s University, Belfast) traced how West Belfast’s Féile an Phobail emerged precisely as a response to those difficult times, and saw a reclamation of community pride there in the face of negative public critique around IRA activity. We saw in Féile and in Odling-Smee’s account of the CS Lewis festival in East Belfast, how the festival as cultural event was not simply an end in itself. New projects arose from Féile, many of them active in constructing peace-focused activities throughout the 1990s and up to now, while the more recent Lewis festival ushered in new political will for the funding and development of the East Belfast arts infrastructure. This glance at Belfast’s festival history revealed the competing political agendas that often underpin the existence of festivals.

Mac Ionnrachtaigh raised a key issue around methodologies for working with the complexity that characterises festivals. In particular, he was keen to highlight the ethical concerns with creating, as he is, an oral history record of Féile. The question of ownership and connection to the material becomes an important one, both in the delivery of the festival and in its archival traces – particularly when it comes to a festival so close to the cultural heart of West Belfast and its people. The paper raised the question of how one is to write the history of such events. From a practical perspective, festivals often leave few traces behind. Both panellists noted that the archive takes second-place in the often frantic scrabble for the next round of funding, but festivals also present a problem for the development of methodologies of analysis: they encompass multiple events, perspectives, stakeholders, participants, who all have their own agendas, investments and so forth. Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s paper made the demand for a methodology of analysis that is sensitive to this complexity and can express it even while focusing on specific aspects or single events of a festival.

Sustainability became a key issue that emerged in the discussion of many of the papers, whether as Odling-Smee put it, one is to create a one-off ‘spotlight’ festival or aim for longevity and repetition, the effect on arts production is extensive. David Grant’s (Queen’s University, Belfast) paper articulated the challenges for artists that festivals present: they funnel arts funding into specific short-term events, often leaving artists in a precarious situation once the festival and its short-term work contracts have come to an end. One wonders what work does not get done because of festivals, and what gets erased in the act of commemoration. Alice Diver’s (Edge Hill University) paper encapsulated the sense that festivals contain seeds of both creation and destruction. Her talk addressed the ways in which acts of commemoration, the making visible of certain things, might in fact be harmful. She was speaking specifically about sacred objects within native Québécois cultures and the history of appropriation and display that has imperilled native tradition and identity. This idea of the sacred had clear resonances for how we might view festivals as commemorative acts of cultural celebration and demand that we ask critical questions about what may be damaged, destroyed or erased within the structures of visibility and display that the festival form offers. Diver traced the sacred too back to Beckett and her paper spoke the broader discussion of how festivalisation shapes legacy and constructs the object of celebration in very specific ways, perhaps at the cost of other ways of seeing or understanding. This is the idea that Nicholas Johnson (Trinity College, Dublin) explored in his examination of the 2006 Beckett centenary in Dublin. Johnson demonstrated how beneath the glossy surface – particularly in the advertisements in the festival programme – may lie the discursive gaps which reveal the often contrary agendas of the various festival stakeholders – arts versus tourism, aesthetic experience versus profit margins, for example. The challenge then becomes to see the gaps, silences, erasures, acts of destruction, even as we celebrate the celebration.

Overall, the day highlighted that to think ‘festival’ is to think in interdisciplinary ways. It demanded that as we proceed to think about the relationship between Beckett and festival cultures, we think simultaneously of the festival form of production, as Bernadette Quinn (Dublin City University) mentioned in her comments during the day’s closing discussion, as ecological, connecting up multiple worlds – arts, business, tourism and so forth. Festivalisation has links to the canon in Ireland, as noted at the outset; it also opens up an author like Beckett to sets of tensions, contractions and conflicts in the interstices between the arts and the economy. Festival cultures are significant agents of Beckett presence within contemporary arts. They are not the only conduits of the work, but are also powerful tools for remaking, reshaping, renewing and remembering and as such demand that we engage with them critically.

The papers and discussions at Beckett, Ireland and the Biographical Festival provided us therefore with a set of coordinates or questions by which we might begin to think of the relationship between place, author and commemorative act and a sense of the multi-disciplinary quality of the work that is needed. We began to think on what a conversation about sustainability, the politics of commemoration, community and identity, funding climates and so forth, and demand that in light of these we think critically about the Beckett festival and the festival as a mode of cultural production in general. And, conversely, what are the questions that Beckett (as commemorated object, as commodity) demand that we ask of festival cultures? Listening to our speakers document the impact of festivals on culture gave us also a sense of the potency of the festival form within contemporary culture and the urgency, therefore, with which these questions need to be addressed.


Kathryn White is Lecturer in English in the School of Arts and Humanities at Ulster University. She specialises in Modern Irish Writing in English, particularly the works of Samuel Beckett.

Trish Tighe is Lecturer in Theatre at the University of Birmingham, where she teaches and researches in gender studies, festival studies and Irish theatre and culture, with emphasis on the work of Samuel Beckett. 

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  1. See Emmanuel Négrier, ‘Festivalisation: Patterns and Limits’, in Focus on Festivals: Contemporary European Case Studies and Perspectives, edited by Chris Newbold et al (Oxford: Goodfellow, 2015), pp. 18-27.
  2. See Donald Getz, ‘The Nature and Scope of Festival Studies’, International Journal of Event Management Research 5, no. 1 (2010).
  3. Bernadette Quinn, ‘Arts festivals, urban tourism and cultural policy’, Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events 2, no. 3 (2010): 271. See also Stanley Waterman, ‘Carnivals for Élites? The cultural politics of arts festivals, Progress in Human Geography 22, no. 1 (1998).
  4. Brian Singleton, ‘The Revival Revised’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, ed. Shaun Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 259.

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