BERKSHIRE, ENGLAND: Scholars at the University of Reading, which holds the manuscripts of late 20th-century master Samuel Beckett, this month unveiled a startling find, only recently discovered among the playwright’s papers: the complete script of a proposed sitcom pilot from the late 1970s, along with correspondence, via an intermediary, between Beckett and producer Norman Lear, about the prospect of developing the half-hour comedy for an unnamed American television network. Titled “Hasp,” the show was to follow the meandering conversations and awkward silences among a quartet of clerks sorting unclaimed mail in a fluorescent-lit dead-letter office.
“This groundbreaking discovery could entirely change our thinking about one of history’s most influential dramatists,” said Quincy Habermas-Quayle, a reader in French literature at Reading and an assistant to the executor of the Beckett estate. “Not only does the surviving ‘Hasp’ manuscript show a surprising degree of familiarity with comedic trends of the era, with a clear debt to the oeuvres of James L. Brooks, Garry Marshall, and Norman Lear; the correspondence with Lear also shows Beckett to have been a savvy, incisive pop-culture observer.”
Indeed, though the deal to make “Hasp” ultimately foundered over such details as Beckett’s meticulous stage directions—including mandates about the exact placement and timbre of each laugh track cue—letters between Lear and Beckett reveal the seeds of a collaboration that could have transformed 20th century art and entertainment.
“Constraints are ever my best company,” wrote Beckett to Lear in 1976, around the time he’d penned a few teleplays for the BBC and seemed eager to try his hand with American TV. “Archie Bunker’s flagging recliner, the absent voice on the other end of Bob Hartley’s receiver, Murray Slaughter’s monk’s pate—blank pages all, and as bare for blackening.”
Lear replied enthusiastically, “I’ve long admired the vaudevillian rhythms of your plays, and even intended some small tribute when I cocreated ‘Sanford and Son,’” no doubt a reference to “Steptoe and Son,” the bleak BBC classic from the 1960s about a family rag-and-bone business, which has long been seen as Beckettian.
In the spirited if short-lived correspondence that followed, Beckett discoursed freely on the ripe absurdism of “Three’s Company,” the muted social commentary of “Chico and the Man,” and what he called the “gimcrack japes” of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Lear, for his part, gingerly tried to address some of the peculiarities of Beckett’s script, in which the four unnamed characters were assigned lines interchangeably but the pacing of each moment was regulated down to the semiquaver. Lear’s casting suggestions—including Peter Boyle, George Segal, and a promising young comic named Robin Williams—remained uncommented on by Beckett, who instead spent several pages mulling the proper screen time for the opening credit sequence.
The Beckett/Lear letters petered out by the middle of 1977, when Beckett turned his attention back to the theatre and Lear launched the talk show parody “Fernwood 2 Night.” The fate of the “Hasp” script, meanwhile, remains uncertain, though the University of Reading’s Habermas-Quayle indicated that the Beckett estate has initiated talks with Netflix about developing a limited run of the series.
“Imagine having Beckett in your Netflix queue,” said Habermas-Quayle, pausing for a moment to consider that sentence. “I can’t believe those words just came out of my mouth.”