Samuel Beckett’s secret wedding in Folkestone inspires festival 60 years on | Books

Sixty years ago, in 1961, Samuel Beckett slipped away to Folkestone to marry his long-time partner Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil at a secret ceremony. Now the playwright and novelist’s incognito wedding at the register office in Kent has inspired an immersive multimedia event at the forthcoming Folkestone book festival, with major names Helen Oyeyemi, Rupert Thomson and Eimear McBride writing a series of monologues from the perspectives of those there at the time.

In March 1961, Beckett drove from his home in Paris to Le Touquet airport, flying from there to Lydd airport in Kent and checking in for two weeks at the Hotel Bristol on the Leas clifftop in Folkestone. He spent the evenings working on his play Happy Days in local pubs, with the Kent place names Borough Green and Sevenoaks making their way into his second draft.

Hoping to remain under the radar in Folkestone, the future Nobel laureate adopted his middle name, Barclay, at the hotel, telling a friend in a postcard that he was “trying to be invisible”. A reporter from the Daily Express almost stumbled on the secret, however, phoning Beckett’s literary agent John Calder to ask if the man set to be married in Folkestone was actually the well-known author. Calder managed to foil the reporter, telling him that it couldn’t be, because Beckett was on holiday in Africa. The couple married on 25 March.

The wedding had to take place in England, in order for Déchevaux-Dumesnil to inherit the rights to Beckett’s work after his death. The couple had been together for many years, but Beckett was also in a relationship with BBC script editor and translator, Barbara Bray.

Audiences at the festival, which starts on Friday, will be able to follow in Beckett’s footsteps around Folkestone, visiting a hotel on the Leas, a pub and ending at the register office. At each location, a fictional monologue from the perspectives of the Hotel Bristol receptionist, the Daily Express journalist and a witness to the wedding, read by the actors Jade Anouka, Russell Tovey and Harriet Walter, will be screened on 1960s television sets. A film of the event will be streamed for online audiences on 13 June.

Novelist Rupert Thomson, whose monologue is from the perspective of the reporter, said that when he heard about Beckett’s secret wedding: “I thought it sounded kind of either absurd or perfect – I couldn’t decide which was more appropriate for Beckett.”

“It’s just so odd, the idea of him being there, just down the road from where I come from,” he said. “And the idea that he was incognito – he checked into that hotel under a false name, he was trying not to be noticed, and it was almost like a throwback to his time in the resistance, when he was living this hidden life. Except in the bizarrest surroundings: cosy little Folkestone with its flower gardens.”

Seán Doran, who curated the festival with Liam Browne, said: “It’s a little known fact, and we were tickled by it, because there’s an incongruity of a kind that this took place in Folkestone on the edge of England, and why it did. The surprising juxtaposition of Beckett and Folkestone may illuminate an example of how the Nobel laureate’s art and life entwine.”

The Folkestone book festival, titled The Shape of Things to Come, runs from 4 to 13 June, with guests including Laura Bates, Natalie Haynes and David Lammy. Inspired by the works of Folkestone resident HG Wells, the event will see guests exploring the future of issues including race relations, the environment and technology.

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