The Arty Semite

French Actor Sami Frey: or 'Beckett Judaizing Beckett'

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Photo by Helene Bamberger-Cosmos

The other evening, a solo performance of Samuel Beckett’s “First Love” (Premier Amour) at New York’s French Institute Alliance Française had an unexpected Jewish aura to it.

The French Jewish actor Sami Frey, born Samuel Frei in 1937 to Polish Jewish parents deported from Paris and killed during World War II, will also perform it April 14 to 16 at La Maison Française, Washington, D. C., interpreting a different text by Beckett, “Worstward Ho” (“Cap au Pire”) on April 17.

Frey has investigated heritage and history in plays like “I Remember” (“Je Me Souviens”), a 1989 staging of a text by French Jewish author Georges Perec, whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz. In 2009, Frey portrayed the patriarch of a Montmartre Jewish family in the French crime film “Mensch.”

Beckett’s text itself has an aura of recent Jewish history. “Premier Amour” was written in 1946, just after the war in which Beckett was active in the French Resistance. As he told a biographer: “I was so outraged by the Nazis, particularly by their treatment of the Jews, that I could not remain inactive.”

Beckett’s close Jewish friends included his assistant Abraham Jacob Leventhal and Barbara Bray (born Jacobs), daughter of Jewish immigrants from Holland and Belgium.

The Forward’s Philologos has written about metaphorical references to Judaism in Beckett’s later work, but his 1947 play “Eleutheria” already has a line in which his name, pronounced French style as “Samuel Béké” is described as a “cross between a Jew from Greenland and a peasant from the Auvergne.”

An academic article, “Beckett Judaizing Beckett: ‘a Jew from Greenland’ in Paris” by Jackie Blackman, investigates Beckett’s attachment to other Jews like his former professor Alfred Péron and like Paul Léon, a Polish-born friend and assistant of James Joyce who was deported to his death. These and other alliances are detailed in the fascinating “Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. I, 1929–1940” (Cambridge University Press).

Postwar Beckett characters like the narrator in “Premier Amour,” homeless after his father’s death, wandering through cemeteries, confront annihilation and find a measure of laughter, as Sami Frey told one interviewer. Beckett’s subtext of bemused, and sometimes even amused, survival in the post-Holocaust world has duly inspired Jewish creators like sculptor Eva Hesse and choreographer Anna Sokolow.

Watch below as Sami Frey gravely dances the Madison in the 1964 film “Band of Outsiders.”

Watch a promo below for a 2004 short film, “Waiting for Woody Allen,” a parodic appropriation of Beckett “about two quarrelsome Hasidic men.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Samuel Frei, Samuel Beckett, Sami Frey

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.