Samuel Beckett (1952)

Folio Society, 2000; illustrations by Tom Phillips; bound in illustrated cream boards with olive slipcase.

This play is an interesting litmus test for the would-be literati or cognoscenti.  It is one thing for you to have a copy in your library; it is another thing to say that you have seen the play in production (where, as one critic said nothing happens – twice); but you really take the prize if you can claim both of the above – and that you understood it!  You go straight to the top of the honours class if you are aware of the following dialogue between Kenneth Tynan and Jean Paul-Sartre (which tells you about all you need to know about Sartre).

TYNAN: You once said that you admired Waiting for Godot more than any other play since 1945.

SARTRE: That is true.  I have not liked Beckett’s other plays, particularly Endgame, because I find the symbolism far too inflated, far too naked.  And although Godot is certainly not a right wing play, it represents a sort of universal pessimism that appeals to right wing people.  For that reason, although I admire it, I have reservations.  But precisely because its content is somewhat alien to me, I can’t help admiring it the more.

Sometimes you wonder how France survives its intellectuals.

Samuel Beckett was born into a comfortable Anglican family in Dublin in 1906.  He took a degree at Trinity College, where he played first class cricket, and he then taught in France.  There he came under the aegis of James Joyce.  He took up permanent residence in France, and during the war served in the Resistance for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (which, with cricket, distinguishes him from Sartre).  On visiting his mother after the war he had something of an epiphany.   He decided that his path would be different to that of Joyce. 

This play was first published in 1952.  After a rocky start, it gained popular and critical acceptance.  Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize and he rewarded himself with a modest quota of mistresses.  He died in 1989 and was buried in the Cimitière du Montparnasse.  He was a leading light in what is called the theatre of the absurd.

Two characters called Vladimir and Estragon, in a minimalist set, are waiting for someone called Godot.  While they wait – Godot never comes – they muse and squabble, and three other lesser characters intervene.  The script is such as to have driven actors nearly mad when they asked the author what it really meant, and critics have differed wildly about what it stands for.  Beckett got to be relaxed about this as it was obviously a driving force behind the success of the play.  At its Australian premiere in 1957, Barry Humphries played Estragon.

Here is the set: ‘A country road.  A tree.  Evening.’  The writer was not paid by volume.  Early in the dialogue, Vladimir says: ‘One of the thieves was saved.  It’s a reasonable percentage.’  There has been no prior reference to the crucifixion.

Vladimir: Suppose we repented.

Estragon: Repented what?

Vladimir: Oh….  (He reflects.)  We wouldn’t have to go into the details.

Estragon: Our being born?…..

Vladimir: You should have been a poet.

Estragon: I was.  (Gesture towards his rags.)  Isn’t that obvious?

So, the humour is Irish and black.

Vladimir: What do we do now?

Estragon: Wait.

Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.

Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?

Vladimir: Hmm.  It’d give us an erection!

Estragon: (highly excited).  An erection!

Vladimir: With all that follows…..

Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately.

Toward the end of Act I we get:

Vladimir: But you can’t go barefoot!

Estragon: Christ did.

Vladimir: Christ!  What’s Christ got to do with it?  You’re not going to compare yourself to Christ!

Estragon: All my life I have compared myself to him.

Vladimir: But where he lived, it was warm, it was dry!

Estragon: Yes, and they crucified quick…….I wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself….We weren’t made for the same road.

Vladimir: (without anger).  It’s not certain.

Estragon: No, nothing is certain.

Near the end of Act II we get:

Vladimir: What are we doing here, that is the question….We have kept our appointment, and that’s an end to that.  We are not saints but we have kept our appointment.  How many people can boast as much……?

Estragon: (aphoristic for once): We are all born mad.  Some remain so.

The illustrator of the Folio Edition, Tom Phillips, featured bowler hats in his work.  He said that he borrowed them from stills of Laurel and Hardy, ‘the cinematic precursors of Pozzo and Lucky’.  The play was written before the Goons came out, but it would be interesting to know if it had any impact on Joseph Heller before he wrote Catch 22.

Well, like oysters, you will either like this play or not.  But there is no doubting its impact, and if you get it, your intellectual standing will take right off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s