Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Irish Beckett

In the play Waiting for Godot (now running at the Mark Taper Forum), Samuel Beckett's best known work, the main characters Vladimir and Estragon are stuck in a ruined landscape where they bicker, contemplate suicide and observe a ritual of degradation performed by two visitors, Pozzo and his underling Lucky. They wait for the mysterious Godot who just might deliver them from their tedious repetitions. The literary critic Vivian Mercier famously quipped that Waiting for Godot is a play in which "Nothing happens twice."

Godot was written during the winter of 1948-49 in French and in France - Beckett was born in Ireland but lived in France from 1937 until his death in 1989 - but was not performed on stage until 1953 at a tiny Paris theater. During intermission at one performance, well-heeled but irate attendees got into a fight with the play's supporters.

With its themes of futility, master-slave domination and unfulfilled hope, none of the early theater journalists suggested that audiences would be in for "A great night out." But a number of them did observe that in a counter-intuitive way, the humor of the play defeated its grief. Godot is a much a Laurel and Hardy knockabout - complete with the comic use of bowler hats - as it is a play set on the edge of an existential abyss. It's possible that Beckett actually believed that there was nothing funnier than unhappiness.

Godot eventually made Beckett famous worldwide and the play itself became a secure part of western literary culture. Academics have scoured the play for symbolic references, obscure philosophical sign-posts and clues to its geographical setting. Literary critic Hugh Kenner suggests that the burned-over landscape, the anxious waiting for people who never show and the "Gestapo" tactics that Pozzo visits upon Lucky are all a somewhat abstract version of Nazi occupied France. Beckett worked with the French resistance, humbly referring to the labors that could have got him executed as "boy scout stuff." Other scholars insist that the play's setting is "nowhere," emphasizing the universal themes that transcend any particular time or place.

James Knowlson, Beckett's authorized biographer, aruges that whatever academic strip-mining that is applied to the play, the world and feel of the characters is "unmistakably Irish." Vladimir and Estragon remind Knowlson of the Irish tinkers and beggars of John Millington Synge's plays that influenced Beckett. The Irish writer and scholar Declan Kiberd places Beckett's tramps within the tradition of the 17th century Irish wandering poets, victims of the collapse of the old Gaelic order. In this analysis, Godot represents the historical and political amnesia that afflicts an uprooted people.

Just this week in an Irish Times on-line discussion, the question was put to readers if they would move again to another country given the economic circumstances. The so-called Celtic Tiger collapsed, the result of a massive banking failure and obscene real estate speculation. Judging from the posted responses, this St. Patrick's Day the Irish are ready to move again in search of opportunity.

A dominant preoccupation in Irish literature involves leaving from and returning home. In the 19th century, of all the ethnic groups that arrived in America, it was the Irish who were least likely to return to their homeland. This sense of exile and alienation, the struggle for recognition and a sense of self and the acknowledgement that "home" is a place that can sustain as well as restrict, are central themes of the Irish literary diaspora. "If it is suicide to be abroad, then what is it to be at home. A lingering dissolution," says a character in Beckett's 1957 radio play, All That Fall.

Beckett left home following his mentor James Joyce. Like his characters Vladimer and Estragon, he determined that there was no home to return to. The two tramps are prisoners in a world they did not create, and perhaps prisoners of the theater itself. "All theater is waiting," Beckett told his biographer, a key element in creating dramatic tension. In this sense the audience is in prison too, waiting for "something" to happen and questioning, as early attendees apparently did, whether they should get up and leave. We stay, as Irish theater critic Fintan O'Toole has pointed out, because hope triumphs over experience.

St. Patrick's Day in the United States is known as a day of drinking and revelry. There is no point in being too sanctimonious about this for despite Beckett's reputation as a recluse, he was notorious for drinking binges with friends and his appreciation of Irish whiskey. So this Saturday I'll be at the Mark Taper Forum - waiting.

Here is a link to the Los Angeles Review of Books where the article first appeared. Please check out the site.

Further Reading:

John Harrington - The Irish Beckett

Hugh Kenner - A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett

Declan Kiberd - Inventing Ireland - The Literature of the Modern Nation

James Knowlson - Damned to Fame - The Life of Samuel Beckett

Vivian Mercier - Beckett/Beckett - The classic study of a modern genius

Fintan O'Toole - Critical Moments


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