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The headline event for Creative Folkestone Book Festival 2021 was an immersive multimedia experience for an audience of one at a time, inspired by a curious event in the life of one of the greatest writers in history.

On 25 March 1961, following a fortnight of dodging reporters, hiding from the public and generally ‘trying to be invisible’ in Folkestone, Nobel laureate, novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett was married to his long-time partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil at a secret ceremony in the town’s Registry Office.

In order to ensure that Suzanne inherited the rights to Beckett’s works after his death, their marriage ceremony had to take place in England. So, in March 1961, Beckett drove from his Paris home to Le Touquet airport, from which he and his 2CV car (which he called his ‘two nags’) flew to Lydd Airport in Kent, which was, at the time, one of the busiest airports in the country. Beckett checked in for two weeks at the understated Hotel Bristol on the Leas clifftop, adopting his middle name, Barclay.

At Folkestone, Beckett spent the evenings in local pubs, worked on the manuscript of his play, Happy Days and generally tried to remain in the shadows; (he sent a postcard to his friend, Tom McGreevy, in which he said that he was ‘trying to be invisible’. Suzanne joined him three days before the wedding and on Saturday 25 March, they were married in a ceremony witnessed by two people who had either been pulled in from the street or worked at the Registry Office. The couple’s secrecy was jeopardised at the last minute when a reporter from the Daily Express phoned Beckett’s literary agent, asking whether the man due to be married in Folkestone later that morning was his author. Beckett’s agent, John Calder, put the reporter off the scent by replying that as Beckett was on holiday in Africa it couldn’t possibly be him.

While Beckett and Suzanne had been together for many years, Beckett was also in a relationship with another woman, BBC script editor and translator, Barbara Bray. The dual relationship and the stay in Folkestone made their way into his work. Between 1960 and 1962, Beckett wrote his first play for a female protagonist (Happy Days), followed by Play (1962), a play about a man involved with two women. Beckett slipped the Kent place names Borough Green and Sevenoaks into the second draft of Happy Days and included Ash and Snodland at a critical point in the drama in Play. Also, his screenplay for Film, which he started writing in 1962, features the main character (played by Buster Keaton) being pursued through the streets of a city.   

Inspired by this little-known moment in Beckett’s life, Beckett in Folkestone took place over the weekends of 4-5 and 10-12 June. The festival audience were invited to follow Beckett’s footsteps around Folkestone, guided into a hotel on the Leas, on to a pub and finishing at the Registry of Births, Death and Marriages. At each location, they heard new fictional monologues, written by Helen Oyeyemi, Rupert Thomson and Eimear McBride from the perspectives of the Hotel Bristol receptionist, the Daily Express journalist and a witness to the wedding. The three monologues will be read by an all star cast; Jade Anouka, Russell Tovey and Harriet Walter. As the audience members make their way along the Leas, past St Eanswythe Church and its cemetery and on to the cobbled streets of Folkestone’s old town, they will listen to biographical fact-files on Beckett’s life.

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