Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Beckett’

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In which Netty is still waiting, and waiting …

March 12, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was leaving the office after my shift had finished, around 8.45pm, when I encountered in the lobby a couple of colleagues who invited me to join them for a drink …

Me: (grimacing) I can’t. I’ve got to go home and read Waiting For Godot. Even though I know how the bloody thing ends. I have somehow inadvertently managed to find out that it’s about two guys sitting on a bench waiting for a bloke who never shows up!

Colleague #2:  (pause) Ah, wouldn’t you have figured that out anyway just by reading the cast list? After all, there’s no character called Godot, is there?

Me: (face palm)

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Now, I’m not sure where I got the bench bit from – there’s actually no bench in Samuel Beckett’s landmark 1953 play Waiting For Godot. But yeah, somewhere between Andy and I deciding we were going to read Beckett, and then actually getting around to reading him, I stumbled across said plot. Am surprised, really, that I made it to the age of – uh – nevermind – without ever stumbling across it before. Did it ultimately make a difference? No. Would I have realised Godot was never going to show up from reading the cast list? Probably not. (So much for my “eye for detail”.)

So Beckett. This is my first foray into his work. Andy thoughtfully got us copies of The Complete Dramatic Works, all 32 of ‘em. I wish I could say I will make my way through them, but I probably won’t (so many books, so little time). For last year’s Reading Challenge, we did Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which I think I preferred to Godot and nor have I yet tackled any of the other dramatic offerings in my copy of his Plays.

In the past five years of ANRC, this is the third play Andy and I have read (the others being the aforementioned Pinter, along with Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which didn’t really pump my ‘nads, either). However, of these three, Godot is the one I strongly feel should actually be seen, as well as read (actually probably just seen, and maybe dispense altogether with the reading bit) – which is something I didn’t necessarily take away from the other two. Godot comes across as such a physical play, actively engaging with its audience, which is something you obviously lose to some degree in the reading alone. Andy’s blog noted the prevalence of slapstick, and he is correct – not quite Laurel and Hardyesque proportions, but nonetheless substantial and exaggerated.

Back to the bench – or the lack thereof (where on earth did I get a bench from?). The two-act play (which runs to 88 pages in the written form) opens on a country road, in the evening, beneath a tree, with tramp pals Estragon (who is actually sitting on a “low mound” ) and Vladimir – yep, you got it – waiting for Godot. ‘Gogo’ and ‘Didi’ rib each other, and riff on and off about various subjects, including Estragon’s boots, the Gospels and hanging themselves from the tree. Then along comes landowner Pozzo – whom Estragon initially mistakes for Godot – and his slave Lucky, who is tethered to his brutish master by a lengthy rope. After a series of bizarre exchanges, culminating in a lengthy, nonsensical speech delivered by Lucky after he is commanded to “think” – the pair leaves. Then an unnamed boy materialises and approaches the tramps to inform them that Godot will not be coming that evening, but tomorrow.  The tramps consider parting ways, before deciding “it’s not worth while now” and agree to go, but do not move.

The second act – set in the same timeframe and place the following day – plays out much like the first.  Pozzo and Lucky again show up, except this time Pozzo is blind and appears to have no recollection of meeting the tramps the previous day, and Lucky is supposedly dumb. The boy also reappears, also denying he was there the previous day, but delivering the same message – that Godot will not be coming that evening, but tomorrow.  The play ends with Estragon and Vladimir agreeing they will hang themselves from the tree the following day if Godot does not come, and agree to go, but do not move.

Then, as Beckett would say, “la fin”. (I’m pretty impressed that Beckett, an Irishman, originally wrote Godot in French, before translating it himself into English. That surely negates a few Irish jokes right there.)

Waiting For Godot has been described as absurdist, and existentialist – Beckett himself called it a “tragi-comedy”. I suppose it is all of those things. Much has also been made of its religious aspects, its psychological allusions, its political ramifications, even its supposed homoeroticism. I am sure students across the world have tied themselves in knots over the decades trying to explain the essentially unexplainable. Beckett appears to never have been terribly forthcoming on the subject – “why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out”, he was once quoted as saying. So maybe that is really its intention; that, much like the 1990s US sitcom Seinfeld, that Godot is about, well – nothing at all. Not really. Maybe. Probably. Who knows?

As for me, the jury’s still out. I really do need to see Godot performed before I can make a final call on it. So, with no production in the immediate offing, I decided on the next best thing – YouTube. And there I found pages of excerpts from various productions – including the play performed in its near-two-hour entirety. I’ve bookmarked that for future viewing, but if you’ve only got two minutes to spare rather than two hours, I suggest instead this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksL_7WrhWOc

And I think I agree with the tree.

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Waiting for Godot – Andy revels in a bit of existential slapstick

March 8, 2012

Years ago, in the late 90s, when the Melbourne International Arts Festival still programmed stuff people wanted to see, I went to a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performed by Dublin’s Gate Theatre. They did Waiting for Godot as well but either it sold out and I could only get a (pretty shit, if I remember) seat for Endgame, or I was perverse and decided to see the less famous play. Anyway, I saw Endgame, and I thought it was hilarious and deceptively profound and oddly moving, and I told a work colleague the following day that I’d seen it and thought it was funny and she was gobsmacked because apparently I was supposed to make no sense of it whatsoever and be awed by Beckett’s awesome awesomeness. I wasn’t supposed to be amused.

Which is odd, because Waiting for Godot and Endgame would have to be the funniest pieces of theatrical writing I’ve ever read.

I read Endgame after reading Waiting for Godot for the Challenge and it was as funny as I remember it being. I’ve also read Krapp’s Last Tape, which is much shorter and less amusing and rather poignant. This post, though, is about Godot. So I suppose I’d better get a move on, hey.

Waiting for Godot is hilarious. It is also deceptively profound and oddly moving. It’s kind of existential slapstick, I reckon. Although I wonder whether you could make a solid argument for all slapstick being existential. But then you could probably make a solid argument for everything being existential. Anyway. Back to Godot. There are dick jokes, there are fart jokes, there are people falling over and failing to get up, there are sight gags aplenty, there are trousers falling down and playing funny buggers with each other’s hats. In all of this there is a fascinating meditation on life, and its apparent meaninglessness, its monotony, its repetition. “Next Day,” says the note atop Act Two. “Same Time. Same Place.” Did the writers of Groundhog Day have Waiting for Godot in mind, or was it at least an inspiration? Who would know. But Act Two of Godot plays out in roughly similar fashion to Act One. There are variations, but do the variations mean anything? Does anything mean anything? My birthday, incidentally, is Groundhog Day. Feb 2. Meaningless, of course. Just sayin’.

As Act Two opens the tree sitting centre stage, leafless in Act One, boasts a few leaves. This would suggest hope, rebirth, new beginnings. But really, does the play suggest any of that? In Act Two Pozzo is blind and the rope attached to Lucky is much shorter and he has no memory of meeting Estragon and Vladimir the day before. Why? Who knows? Did Beckett know? Maybe. The boy towards the end of each act who informs our protagonists that they wait in vain is the boy he says he isn’t. Why?

Beckett occasionally breaks through the fourth wall, which is magic. There are some comments directed to “the auditorium”, and in one of my favourite exchanges Vladimir dashes off stage looking for the dunnies – “End of the corridor, on the left,” Estragon tells him. “Keep my seat,” Vladimir says on the run. Clever-clever postmodernism shits me most of the times but how could you not read (or preferably see) this stuff and not be bowled over by how spectacularly funny, and spectacularly brilliant, it is?

Allegedly there are Freudian and Jungian elements to the play. Perhaps. I can’t say I noticed and I can’t say I care. Allegedly there are religious, specifically Christian, elements to the play. I’ll accept that, although the idea that “Godot” is “God” is ludicrous. But certainly the tree, and references to Christ’s crucifixion and the differing accounts of the thieves he was crucified with – these must be acknowledged. But I have to wonder if their inclusion is more about mockery than serious exploration.  This may sound contradictory but it seems to me there is something deeply rational about absurdist writing.  Or perhaps secular, which is less contradictor7. Either way, as far as I can see and perhaps that’s not very far, there’s not a lot of room for the spiritual in the writings of Beckett – or, for that matter, Pinter, whose plays differ from Beckett’s, but certainly have plenty of absurdity about them. And in Waiting for Godot I suspect Beckett is taking the piss out of , not seriously exploring, ideas of spirituality and religion.

As I said, I have once seen Beckett performed but this is the first of his work I’ve read. I’ve tried his fiction once or twice but it’s always seemed too weird and dense for me – although my literary fellow traveller Angela Meyer’s take on Malone Dies makes me wonder if I need to rethink that.

Beckett wrote a lot of his material, including Godot, in French. He’s clearly influenced by continental existentialism, which was much darker and more nihilistic than its English-language counterparts. But he was also Irish and the Irish are great storytellers and they love, by god do they love taking the piss. And his ability to meld these elements is  one aspect of his genius. To be sure, to be sure.

Five years into Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge (I always wanted it to be Netty and Andy’s Reading Challenge, which would be NARC, and ho ho ho how funny would that be; but it now occurs to me that the kids – you know, the kids – the kids might read ANRC as “anarchy”. Get it? No?  Okay look probably not) it surprises me a little that it’s taken this long to read some Beckett.

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