Masterpieces of

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Samuel Beckett





 

Samuel Beckett
Irish author
in full Samuel Barclay Beckett

born April 13?, 1906, Foxrock, County Dublin, Ire.
died Dec. 22, 1989, Paris, France

Main
author, critic, and playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. He wrote in both French and English and is perhaps best known for his plays, especially En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot).

Life
Samuel Beckett was born in a suburb of Dublin. Like his fellow Irish writers George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats, he came from a Protestant, Anglo-Irish background. At the age of 14 he went to the Portora Royal School, in what became Northern Ireland, a school that catered to the Anglo-Irish middle classes.

From 1923 to 1927, he studied Romance languages at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received his bachelor’s degree. After a brief spell of teaching in Belfast, he became a reader in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1928. There he met the self-exiled Irish writer James Joyce, the author of the controversial and seminally modern novel Ulysses, and joined his circle. Contrary to often-repeated reports, however, he never served as Joyce’s secretary. He returned to Ireland in 1930 to take up a post as lecturer in French at Trinity College, but after only four terms he resigned, in December 1931, and embarked upon a period of restless travel in London, France, Germany, and Italy.

In 1937 Beckett decided to settle in Paris. As a citizen of a country that was neutral in World War II, he was able to remain there even after the occupation of Paris by the Germans, but he joined an underground resistance group in 1941. When, in 1942, he received news that members of his group had been arrested by the Gestapo, he immediately went into hiding and eventually moved to the unoccupied zone of France. Until the liberation of the country, he supported himself as an agricultural labourer.

In 1945 he returned to Ireland but volunteered for the Irish Red Cross and went back to France as an interpreter in a military hospital in Saint-Lô, Normandy. In the winter of 1945, he finally returned to Paris and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his resistance work.


Production of the major works
There followed a period of intense creativity, the most concentratedly fruitful period of Beckett’s life. His relatively few prewar publications included two essays on Joyce and the French novelist Marcel Proust. The volume More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) contained 10 stories describing episodes in the life of a Dublin intellectual, Belacqua Shuah, and the novel Murphy (1938) concerns an Irishman in London who escapes from a girl he is about to marry to a life of contemplation as a male nurse in a mental institution. His two slim volumes of poetry were Whoroscope (1930), a poem on the French philosopher René Descartes, and the collection Echo’s Bones (1935). A number of short stories and poems were scattered in various periodicals. He wrote the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women in the mid-1930s, but it remained incomplete and was not published until 1992.

During his years in hiding in unoccupied France, Beckett also completed another novel, Watt, which was not published until 1953. After his return to Paris, between 1946 and 1949, Beckett produced a number of stories, the major prose narratives Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable), and two plays, the unpublished three-act Eleutheria and Waiting for Godot.

It was not until 1951, however, that these works saw the light of day. After many refusals, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (later Mme Beckett), Beckett’s lifelong companion, finally succeeded in finding a publisher for Molloy. When this book not only proved a modest commercial success but also was received with enthusiasm by the French critics, the same publisher brought out the two other novels and Waiting for Godot. It was with the amazing success of Waiting for Godot at the small Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, in January 1953, that Beckett’s rise to world fame began. Beckett continued writing, but more slowly than in the immediate postwar years. Plays for the stage and radio and a number of prose works occupied much of his attention.

Beckett continued to live in Paris, but most of his writing was done in a small house secluded in the Marne valley, a short drive from Paris. His total dedication to his art extended to his complete avoidance of all personal publicity, of appearances on radio or television, and of all journalistic interviews. When, in 1969, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he accepted the award but declined the trip to Stockholm to avoid the public speech at the ceremonies.


Continuity of his philosophical explorations
Beckett’s writing reveals his own immense learning. It is full of subtle allusions to a multitude of literary sources as well as to a number of philosophical and theological writers. The dominating influences on Beckett’s thought were undoubtedly the Italian poet Dante, the French philosopher René Descartes, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Arnold Geulincx—a pupil of Descartes who dealt with the question of how the physical and the spiritual sides of man interact—and, finally, his fellow Irishman and revered friend, James Joyce. But it is by no means essential for the understanding of Beckett’s work that one be aware of all the literary, philosophical, and theological allusions.

The widespread idea, fostered by the popular press, that Beckett’s work is concerned primarily with the sordid side of human existence, with tramps and with cripples who inhabit trash cans, is a fundamental misconception. He dealt with human beings in such extreme situations not because he was interested in the sordid and diseased aspects of life but because he concentrated on the essential aspects of human experience. The subject matter of so much of the world’s literature—the social relations between individuals, their manners and possessions, their struggles for rank and position, or the conquest of sexual objects—appeared to Beckett as mere external trappings of existence, the accidental and superficial aspects that mask the basic problems and the basic anguish of the human condition. The basic questions for Beckett seemed to be these: How can we come to terms with the fact that, without ever having asked for it, we have been thrown into the world, into being? And who are we; what is the true nature of our self? What does a human being mean when he says “I”?

What appears to the superficial view as a concentration on the sordid thus emerges as an attempt to grapple with the most essential aspects of the human condition. The two heroes of Waiting for Godot, for instance, are frequently referred to by critics as tramps, yet they were never described as such by Beckett. They are merely two human beings in the most basic human situation of being in the world and not knowing what they are there for. Since man is a rational being and cannot imagine that his being thrown into any situation should or could be entirely pointless, the two vaguely assume that their presence in the world, represented by an empty stage with a solitary tree, must be due to the fact that they are waiting for someone. But they have no positive evidence that this person, whom they call Godot, ever made such an appointment—or, indeed, that he actually exists. Their patient and passive waiting is contrasted by Beckett with the mindless and equally purposeless journeyings that fill the existence of a second pair of characters. In most dramatic literature the characters pursue well-defined objectives, seeking power, wealth, marriage with a desirable partner, or something of the sort. Yet, once they have attained these objectives, are they or the audience any nearer answering the basic questions that Beckett poses? Does the hero, having won his lady, really live with her happily ever after? That is apparently why Beckett chose to discard what he regarded as the inessential questions and began where other writing left off.

This stripping of reality to its naked bones is the reason that Beckett’s development as a writer was toward an ever greater concentration, sparseness, and brevity. His two earliest works of narrative fiction, More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy, abound in descriptive detail. In Watt, the last of Beckett’s novels written in English, the milieu is still recognizably Irish, but most of the action takes place in a highly abstract, unreal world. Watt, the hero, takes service with a mysterious employer, Mr. Knott, works for a time for this master without ever meeting him face to face, and then is dismissed. The allegory of man’s life in the midst of mystery is plain.

Most of Beckett’s plays also take place on a similar level of abstraction. Fin de partie (one-act, 1957; Endgame) describes the dissolution of the relation between a master, Hamm, and his servant, Clov. They inhabit a circular structure with two high windows—perhaps the image of the inside of a human skull. The action might be seen as a symbol of the dissolution of a human personality in the hour of death, the breaking of the bond between the spiritual and the physical sides of man. In Krapp’s Last Tape (one-act, first performed 1958), an old man listens to the confessions he recorded in earlier and happier years. This becomes an image of the mystery of the self, for to the old Krapp the voice of the younger Krapp is that of a total stranger. In what sense, then, can the two Krapps be regarded as the same human being? In Happy Days (1961), a woman, literally sinking continually deeper into the ground, nonetheless continues to prattle about the trivialities of life. In other words, perhaps, as one gets nearer and nearer death, one still pretends that life will go on normally forever.

In his trilogy of narrative prose works—they are not, strictly speaking, novels as usually understood—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, as well as in the collection Stories and Texts for Nothing (1967), Beckett raised the problem of the identity of the human self from, as it were, the inside. This basic problem, simply stated, is that when I say “I am writing,” I am talking about myself, one part of me describing what another part of me is doing. I am both the observer and the object I observe. Which of the two is the real “I”? In his prose narratives, Beckett tried to pursue this elusive essence of the self, which, to him, manifested itself as a constant stream of thought and of observations about the self. One’s entire existence, one’s consciousness of oneself as being in the world, can be seen as a stream of thought. Cogito ergo sum is the starting point of Beckett’s favourite philosopher, Descartes: “I think; therefore, I am.” To catch the essence of being, therefore, Beckett tried to capture the essence of the stream of consciousness that is one’s being. And what he found was a constantly receding chorus of observers, or storytellers, who, immediately on being observed, became, in turn, objects of observation by a new observer. Molloy and Moran, for example, the pursued and the pursuer in the first part of the trilogy, are just such a pair of observer and observed. Malone, in the second part, spends his time while dying in making up stories about people who clearly are aspects of himself. The third part reaches down to bedrock. The voice is that of someone who is unnamable, and it is not clear whether it is a voice that comes from beyond the grave or from a limbo before birth. As we cannot conceive of our consciousness not being there—“I cannot be conscious that I have ceased to exist”—therefore consciousness is at either side open-ended to infinity. This is the subject also of the play Play (first performed 1963), which shows the dying moments of consciousness of three characters, who have been linked in a trivial amorous triangle in life, lingering on into eternity.


The humour and mastery
In spite of Beckett’s courageous tackling of the ultimate mystery and despair of human existence, he was essentially a comic writer. In a French farce, laughter will arise from seeing the frantic and usually unsuccessful pursuit of trivial sexual gratifications. In Beckett’s work, as well, a recognition of the triviality and ultimate pointlessness of most human strivings, by freeing the viewer from his concern with senseless and futile objectives, should also have a liberating effect. The laughter will arise from a view of pompous and self-important preoccupation with illusory ambitions and futile desires. Far from being gloomy and depressing, the ultimate effect of seeing or reading Beckett is one of cathartic release, an objective as old as theatre itself.

Technically, Beckett was a master craftsman, and his sense of form is impeccable. Molloy and Waiting for Godot, for example, are constructed symmetrically, in two parts that are mirror images of one another. In his work for the mass media, Beckett also showed himself able to grasp intuitively and brilliantly the essential character of their techniques. His radio plays, such as All That Fall (1957), are models in the combined use of sound, music, and speech. The short television play Eh Joe! (1967) exploits the television camera’s ability to move in on a face and the particular character of small-screen drama. Finally, his film script Film (1967) creates an unforgettable sequence of images of the observed self trying to escape the eye of its own observer.

Beckett’s later works tended toward extreme concentration and brevity. Come and Go (1967), a playlet, or “dramaticule,” as he called it, contains only 121 words that are spoken by the three characters. The prose fragment “Lessness” consists of but 60 sentences, each of which occurs twice. His series Acts Without Words are exactly what the title denotes, and one of his last plays, Rockaby, lasts for 15 minutes. Such brevity is merely an expression of Beckett’s determination to pare his writing to essentials, to waste no words on trivia.

Martin J. Esslin

 
 

Molloy

Samuel Beckett
1906-1989

Beckett is better known for his plays than for his novels, but his novels are the greater achievement. They are the funniest prose alive. Molioy, written initially in French, then translated into English by Beckett and Patrick Bowles, is the first novel in the trilogy finished off by Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Although they complete the trilogy, these two later novels proved inadequate to the job of putting an end to the decline begun in Molloy, which extends into everything that Beckett would go on to write.
Beckett is the great master of every possible shade of decline and its unrivalled comedian. Molloy is probably the funniest of all his writing. lt is made up of two stories, each the doppelganger of the other. In the first, the wretched cripple Molloy stumbles through a lost thread of episodes peopled by his insensible mother, a litter of comic citizens, a policeman, and a grotesque feminine captor named Lousse, before ending up dumped by Beckett in a ditch. His place is then surrendered to Moran, whom Beckett dispatches, together with his son, on a quest to find his predecessor, a quest that Moran pursues with furious inertia only to find that Beckett has declined to contrive a meeting between them. He trudges home to find his bees turned to ash.
Beckett nails all the perks of fiction (all the events, sympathies, and glitter of fiction's "real life") into their smorgasbord and buries it. His stories are all the confessions of a syntax addict whose phantom fix is total disagreement with himself.

 

 

 

Malone Dies

Samuel Beckett
1906-1989

For those readers who easily tire of colorful fiction, Malone Dies will be as revitalizing as anything in the language. Following the departure of Molloy, .Malone Dies is Beckett's attempt to winnow down still more violently the nib of his fiction. The stories are what the language uses to get away from itself, and they are ah going nowhere. Early on in Malone Dies we are spoon-fed the story of the sorrows of young Sapo Saposcat, a fake and abortive bildungsroman in a suite of ludicrously colorless episodes so boring that even Beckett cannot bring himself to keep up his ventriloquism of it. Later he tries his hand at a love story, where the protagonists manage at great effort and discomfort to act out what are surely the most repulsive sex scenes in any comedy.
When the language of Malone Dies begins to resemble a novel, it is always faking it. As each consecutive excuse for a story is dumped, we are dragged back into the scene of syntax addiction and the parody of mystification over life and death, endlessly knocked on the head by casual remarks such as "ideas are so alike, when you get to know them," and endlessly restarted. So it goes until the brutal finish of the book, in which Beckett is perhaps more nearly terrified than anywhere else in his fiction by the corner he has crushed himself into and by his failure to lose control of language even in that corner. The fundamental horror and optimism of Beckett are that true claustrophobia is possible only in paradise.

 

 

 

Watt

Samuel Beckett
1906-1989

This novel represents an essential stage in the development of Beckett's fiction. As Watt progresses, it literally unravels and collapses. The recognizably linear comic opening is easily identifiable with the Joycean style that characterized the preceding Murphy. It becomes increasingly fragmented, however, as the formal, temporal, and syntactical structures break down; the "Beckettian" world of his later work begins to take hold.
In the opening chapter, we encounter the titular character, who meets a number of misfortunes in the shape of a porter pushing a milk can and an irate lady who pelts him with a stone. Watt rests in a ditch before continuing his journey to the house of Mr. Knott, his subsequent employer and the center of the novel's impending collapse. Upon reaching his destination, Watt takes his position as the first-floor servant, gradually progressing up the floors, and closer to Mr. Knott. Knott himself is a mystery, less a character than a presence, a singularity, and it is under his service that Watt's obsession with exhaustive logic, the source of the novel's formal fragmentation, increasingly takes control. The role of multiple unreliable narrators assumes a central importance heir for the first time in Beckett's work, as do the great formal innovations, particularly in terms of temporal structure. Watt is essential reading for the spectacle of a writer developing his style on the page and for a demonstration of the strict order and Intent that underpin Beckett's chaos.

 

 

 

The Unnamable

Samuel Beckett
1906-1989

The Unnamable marks the conclusion of Beckett's drive toward the reduction of the novel form begun in Watt, and it is only logical that a move away from prose writing into drama immediately follows.This is the third part of the trilogy that begins with Molloy's haunted detective story and progresses through the deathbed hallucinations of Malone Dies. In The Unnamable, Beckett attempts formally to address a question he has been skirting around in his previous work; what is left of a novel once the story, characters, fictional space,and narrator have been removed?
The first notable quality of The Unnamable is the way it makes such indispensable use of its status as the third part of a trilogy. The end of the preceding novel, Malone Dies, begins to falter and die along with its narrator, spluttering and collapsing in a series of logical and syntactical breakdowns. Finally it is silent, and a turn of the page leads to all that is left of the novel—the disembodied voice in the darkness, "where now, who now." This voice is the voice of the unnamable, the "voice" of the novel, a ghost of sorts, exposed with no world to inhabit, no characters to speak through, and no events to describe, so speaking only of itself. In The Unnamable Beckett seems at last to have reached the core, speaking of the succession of previous Beckett characters as one and the same.

 

 

How It Is

Samuel Beckett
1906-1989

Following the Second World War, nothing occupied Beckett so much as the idea that his writing should be as difficult to imagine and to desire as it possibly could be. There is nothing in the English language comparable with How It Is, a novel that both ends and cannot ever end itself with every sentence. It ends not only itself, but also the whole tradition of the novel conceived from the nineteenth century onward, as a grand historical effort to bring literature up to date with the infinite detail of social and moral existence. Detail is erased and replaced by an exhausting round of repetitions and automatic verbal reflexes, uttered by a body barely crawling through mud, listing the contents of a sack, straining to contrive even the outline of a story or remembrance as if empty and straining to defecate. Beckett ejects from his last full-length novel even the caricature of linear narration that sustained him through The Unnamable, sinking instead into a prose so unsustainable and so much like pathological or obsessive utterance that it barely allows the composition of a paragraph. We now receive only the poltergeist of grammar, only the leveled succession of clauses without punctuation, none and all of which are subordinate clauses.There is the shadow, or recollection, of a plot, flickering through the language. But read this book for what it does to how language is and to how we are in consequence. In its most suspended animation, Beckett's prose turns into poetry.

 

 

 


WAITING FOR GODOT
 

Type of work: Drama
Author: Samuel Beckett (1906- )
Type of plot:
Tragicomedy
Time of plot: The present
Locale: A country road
First presented: 1952

 

In this comedy of the absurd, antic yet philosophically troubling, Beckett views the human condition through symbolism that has its roots in Freudian psychology, the Christian myth, and Existentialism. The two tramps vacillate between hope and despair; they are obsessed by uncertainty and dominated by the absurd.

 

Principal Characters

Vladimir (Didi) (vla-de-meV; de-de') and Estragon (Gogo) (Ss-tra-gon'; go-go'), two tramps. In this play action is unimportant; the characters remain undeveloped as the tramps wait impatiently for Godot, who remains a mysterious entity, possibly a local land owner but also a symbol of man's spiritual seeking. They gnaw carrots, rest their tired feet, and engage in other simple activities while their conversations reveal the helplessness of their situation. Throughout the play there is every suggestion that the two live estranged from a state of grace which is hoped for but never realized. Often considering suicide, they are caught in a calm of inactivity between hope and despair in their longing for salvation, which is linked somehow with Godot. When the play ends, the two are still waiting for the promised appearance of Godot.
Pozzo (ðá-zo'), a materialist. A rich, boisterous tyrant, he is obviously an expounder of Neitzschean doctrines and materialistic concepts. Pozzo admits that Lucky has taught him all the beautiful things he knows, but now his servant has become unbearable and is driving him mad. At first he drives his servant with a rope; however, when he reappears, blinded in symbolic fashion by his own worldly successes and romantic pessimism, he must be led by his mute servant.
Lucky (lti-ê¸'), Pozzo's servant. Born a peasant, he gives the impression of a new proletarian, the symbol of modern man's belief in the promises and miracles of science. Lucky first appears driven by Pozzo at the end of a rope. Ordered to think for the group, he delivers the wildest, most brilliantly sustained monologue of the play. When he next appears, he is leading the blind Pozzo, but he is mute.
A Boy, a messenger from Godot.

 

The Story

Estragon tried to take off his boot but failed. Vladimir agreed with him that it sometimes appeared that there was nothing one could do. They were glad to be reunited after a night apart. With Vladimir's help, Estragon succeeded in removing his painful boot. Vladimir, also in pain, could not laugh in comfort; he tried smiling instead but it was not satisfactory.
Vladimir mused on the one gospel account that said Christ saved one of the thieves. Estragon wanted to leave. They could not leave because they were waiting for Godot. They became confused about the arrangements and wondered if they were waiting at the right time, in the right place, and on the right day. They quarreled briefly but were, as always, reconciled.
They considered hanging themselves but decided that it would be safer to do nothing until they heard what Godot said. They did not know what they had asked Godot for. They concluded they had foregone their rights.
Vladimir gave Estragon a carrot, which he ate hungrily. They decided that although they were not bound to Godot, they were in fact unable to act.
Pozzo entered, driving Lucky, who was laden with luggage fastened by a rope around his neck. Estragon and Vladimir mistook him for Godot but accepted him as Pozzo. Although he attempted to intimidate them, he was glad of their company. After ordering Lucky to bring him his stool and his coat, he gave Lucky the whip. Lucky obeyed automatically. Vladimir and Estragon protested violently against Pozzo's treatment of Lucky. Pozzo deflected their outburst and the subject was dropped.
After smoking a pipe, Pozzo rose. He then decided he did not want to leave, but his pride almost prevented him from reseating himself. The tramps wanted to know why Lucky never put down the luggage. Pozzo said that Lucky was trying to make him keep the fellow. When Pozzo added that he would sell Lucky rather than throw him out, Lucky wept; but when Estragon tried to dry his tears, Lucky kicked him away. Then Estragon wept. Pozzo philosophized on this and said that Lucky had taught him all the beautiful things he knew, but that the fellow had now become unbearable and was driving Pozzo mad. Estragon and Vladimir then abused Lucky for mistreating his master.
Pozzo broke into a monologue on the twilight, alternating between the lyrical and the commonplace and ending with the bitter thought that everything happened in the world when one was least prepared. He decided to reward Estragon and Vladimir for praising him by making Lucky entertain them. Lucky executed a feeble dance which Estragon mocked but failed to imitate.
Estragon stated that there had been no arrivals, no departures, and no action, and that everything was terrible. Pozzo next decided that Lucky should think for them. For this Vladimir replaced Lucky's derby hat. Lucky's thought was an incoherent flood of words which resembled a dissertation on the possible goodness of God, the tortures of hell fire, the prevalence of sport, and the vacuity of suburbs. He desperately upset his listeners, who attacked him and silenced him by seizing his hat. Having restored Lucky to his position as carrier, Pozzo and the tramps said many farewells before he and Lucky finally left.
The Boy called to Vladimir and Estragon. He came with a message from Godot, who would come the next evening. The Boy, a goatherd, said that Godot was kind to him, but that he beat his brother, a shepherd. Vladimir asked the Boy to tell Godot only that he had seen them.
By the time the Boy left, night had fallen. Estragon decided to abandon his boots to someone else. Vladimir protested and Estragon said that Christ had gone barefoot. Once again they considered and rejected the idea of separating. They decided to leave for the night. They stayed where they were.
The following evening the boots were still there and the tree had grown some leaves. The tramps had spent the night separately. Vladimir returned first. When Estragon came back he said he had been beaten again, and Vladimir felt that he could have prevented such cruelty. Vladimir began to talk of the previous day, but Estragon could remember nothing but being kicked. Then they were overwhelmed by the thought of the whispering voices of the dead around them. They tried to break their silence but succeeded only in part. By a great effort Estragon recalled that the previous day had been spent chattering inanities. He reflected that they had spent fifty years doing no more than that.
They discovered that the boots left behind by Estragon had been exchanged for another old pair. After finding Lucky's hat, which assured them that they had returned to the right place, they started a wild exchange of the three hats, shifting them from hand to hand. Finally Vladimir kept Lucky's hat and Estragon kept his own.
Once more Estragon decided to leave. To distract him, Vladimir suggested that they "play" Pozzo and Lucky. Puzzled, Estragon left, but he returned almost immediately because some people were coming. Vladimir was jubilant, convinced that Godot was arriving. They tried to hide, but there was nowhere for them to go. Finally Lucky entered with Pozzo, who was not blind. Lucky fell and dragged Pozzo with him. Pozzo cried for help. Vladimir passionately wished to act while there was the opportunity—to do one good thing as a member of the human race, a species that appalled him. Pozzo was terrified, and Vladimir also fell in his attempts to raise him. Estragon fell too while trying to lift Vladimir. As they fought and argued on the ground, they called Pozzo "Cain* and "Abel." When he responded to both names they concluded that he was all humanity. Suddenly they got up without difficulty.
Pozzo prepared to leave, but Vladimir wanted Lucky to sing first. Pozzo explained that Lucky was dumb. They wanted to know when he had been afflicted. Angry, Pozzo said that all their lives were merely momentary and time did not matter. He left with Lucky.
While Estragon slept, the Boy entered to say that Godot would come, not that night but the next. The message for Godot was that the Boy had seen Vladimir. The Boy left and Estragon awoke. He immediately wanted to leave. Vladimir insisted that they could not go far because they must return the next night in order to wait for Godot, who would punish them if they did not wait.
Estragon and Vladimir remarked that only the tree in the landscape was alive and considered hanging themselves again. Instead, they decided that if Godot did not come to save them the next night, they would hang themselves. At last the tramps decided to go. They remained immobile.

 

Critical Evaluation

Waiting for Godot (En Attendant Godot) is a landmark in modern drama. When it premiered in Paris, its originality stunned audiences; no one had seen or heard anything like it before. Initially, some were disgusted; some were puzzled; and some were wildly enthusiastic. Within a short time, audiences came to the theater prepared for a wholly new dramatic experience and went away with praises for the enigmatic Samuel Beckett. The play ran for more than three hundred performances in Paris, other productions were mounted in London and major cities on the Continent, and it was widely translated and performed around the world. After a disastrous United States premiere in Miami, Waiting for Godot went on to a successful New York run, suggesting that the play was best received by an audience of sophisticated intellectuals.
Nevertheless, audience enthusiasm has not been matched by unalloyed critical acclaim. To be sure, many critics as well as eminent playwrights have paid high tribute to the play, but other critics, like some members of the first-night audience in Paris, have been repelled or baffled by Waiting for Godot, their reactions most often stemming from a misunderstanding of the play. In order to avert such misunderstanding, it is necessary to examine two crucial aspects of the play: its language and its philosophical orientation.
First, the language of the play is intimately connected to Beckett's own background in language studies and literary influences. Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, and took his A.B. degree in French and Italian at Trinity College. After teaching English in Paris for two years, he returned to Trinity to teach and complete his M.A. in French. Next, he traveled in England and on the Continent, and he wrote poems, short stories, and novels—in English. He at last settled permanently in Paris, except for a brief hiatus during World War II, and began writing in French in the late 1940s.
Of equal importance, during Beckett's first sojourn in Paris (1928-1930), was his meeting with James Joyce, a meeting which launched a long and mutually satisfying friendship between the two Irish expatriates and language experts. The influence of Joyce on Beckett's work is evident in the wordplay in Waiting for Godot, for puns, allusions, and linguistic "tricks" abound.
Great effort has been expended, for instance, in trying to decipher the word "Godot," as character and as concept. Beckett himself has declined to explain, but critics, undeterred, continue to speculate. The most common view sees Godot as God with the "-ot" as a diminutive suffix. The French title En Attendant Godot seems to lend support to this interpretation. Another suggestion is the analogy between Godot and Chariot (both utilizing the diminutive suffix), the latter an affectionate nickname for the Charlie Chaplin character in a derby hat, the kind of hat which plays a significant part in the stage business of Waiting for Godot. Some readings inevitably deteriorate into the preposterous—that Godot represents De Gaulle, for example. B^it the most likely explanation involves an allusion to a highly obscure source: Honore de Balzac's comedy, Le Faisseur (also known as Mer-cadet). Balzac's play revolves around a character—named Godeau—who strongly influences the action of the play but who never appears on stage. The parallels between the Balzac work and Waiting for Godot are too close to attribute to mere coincidence, for Beckett, like Joyce, has a marked fondness for the esoteric literary allusion. It is possible, of course, to circumvent these literary contortions and simply view Godot as the objectification of a state of being: the waiting, bracketed by birth and death, which we call life.
In addition, Beckett plays other word games in Waiting for Godot. Estragon, for instance, begins a sentence which Vladimir then finishes. Yet the overwhelming monotony of the dialogue, reflecting the monotony in the characters' lives, is reminiscent of the exercise drills in old language texts of the "La plume de ma tante est sur la table" variety, further suggesting the debasement of language and the consequent breakdown of communication. (This point is a major preoccupation of another modern playwright, Eugene Ionesco.) And the non sequiturs which emerge from rapid-fire exchanges in the dialogue echo the music-hall comedians in the heyday of vaudeville. Thus Beckett's penchant for wordplay reveals the influence of his language training, of his friend James Joyce, and of his conviction that language in the modern world is both necessary and impotent.
The philosophical orientation of Waiting for Godot is another matter, however, for the years of Beckett's residence in France coincided with a period of great ferment in Existential philosophy, most of it centered in Paris. Beckett is not a formal or doctrinaire Existentialist, but he could hardly avoid being affected by Existentialism, for such ideas were part of his cultural milieu. There is no systematically Existential point of view in Waiting for Godot—as there is in, say, the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and the novels of Albert Camus. Yet a generally Existential view of the human condition comes through very clearly in the play. Vladimir and Estragon, Lucky and Pozzo are psychically isolated from one another; despite physical proximity, they are alienated and lonely, as indicated by their failure to communicate meaningfully. And in that state of mind, each despairs, feeling helpless in the face of an immutable destiny. But, unlike the formal Existentialists, Estragon and Vladimir hope, and it is that hope which sustains them through their monotonous and immobile existence. Thus, they wait. They wait for Godot, who will surely bring them words of comfort and advice, and who will intervene to alter their destinies. By maintaining this hope, by waiting for Godot to come, Vladimir and Estragon elude the inevitable Existential logic which postulates hopelessness followed by a sense of futility, reducing humankind to absurdity. In this way, Vladimir and Estragon attain truly heroic proportions; they endure.
Beckett's play has been criticized, even by Estragon, because, as the tramp puts it, "Nothing happens." In fact, a great deal does happen—there is a lot of action, much coming and going. However, action in this sense is quite superficial, for all of it is meaningless. Yet that very action assumes a rhythm and a pattern which constitute the structure of the play. The repetitious movements and dialogue reinforce the quasi-Existential theme of the play: that life is a meaningless and monotonous performance of endlessly repeated routine. The pattern established in the first act is recapitulated in the second act, with only slight variation. Obviously the action in Waiting for Godot is not the action of conventional drama, but it is this unique fusion of theme and structure which accounts for the startling originality of the play and which rightly earns Beckett a place as one of the few genuine innovators in modern drama.

 

 

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