Pozzo: You are human beings … [He puts on his glasses.] As far as one can see. [He takes off his glasses.] Of the same species as myself. [He bursts into an enormous laugh.]
– Waiting for Godot
Beckett’s characters are not really the sorts of people we are familiar with from everyday life or traditional drama. But they do have characteristics that we recognise, and they are not indistinguishable from each other – as is made clear by Pozzo’s laughter at the idea that he, Vladimir and Estragon are of the same species.
Vladimir and Estragon are to some extent different personalities. The ‘unhappy’ but more physically resourceful Estragon increasingly finds his ‘lousy life’ intolerable. Vladimir is more emotional, practical and hopeful: he ‘reflects’ and ‘muses’ optimistically.
Winnie in Happy Days, despite her predicament, buried first up to her waist and then up to her neck in sand, is even more cheerful and optimistic:
… no no … can’t complain … no no … mustn’t complain … so much to be thankful for … no pain … hardly any … wonderful thing that … slight headache sometimes … occasional mild migraine … it comes … then goes … ah yes … many mercies … great mercies … ‘
Winnie’s henpecked husband Willie barely features in Happy Days, but we often meet two contrasting yet complementary characters in Beckett’s plays, who – like Vladimir and Estragon – have a sort of mutual dependence. In Waiting for Godot, Pozzo is a smug materialistic bully, whereas Lucky is abject but capable of imaginative thought and feeling. Rough for Theatre Ifeatures a blind man and a physically disabled man who consider the possibility of joining forces in the interests of survival. Act Without Words II is mimed by the slow and awkward ‘A’ and the brisk, precise ‘B’.
But the names here give the game away. On the whole Beckett provides minimal information about character identity. In Act Without Words II, the characters don’t speak, and he may also dispense with a character’s sight or bodily action, as in Rough for Theatre I, or with bodies altogether, blacking them out with long gowns (Ohio Impromptu) or lighting only the head(Footfalls). Not I features only a faceless mouth, and in Breaththere is no visual figure at all.
So Beckett reverses traditional character development, increasingly stripping away details of personality. He is not mainly concerned with aspects of individual identity, but with what it’s like to be alive and how we try to cope with it. As Vladimir says in Waiting for Godot: ‘At this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us.’
So although the characters may not have complex individual identities, they are deeply human. They are full of self-doubt, chatter to dispel despair but find little comfort, feel vulnerable, have nowhere to go, question their predicament, are bored, must continue doing something simply because they exist, sense the brevity of living and yet feel it seems interminable, contemplate suicide – and wait fearfully (for hope is unreliable) for what the end may bring.
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.
– Waiting for Godot
A beginning, a progression and an end are usually expected of drama, but in Beckett’s plays linear time becomes largely irrelevant and characters often seem stuck in a temporal loop. At the end of Play, for instance, Beckett’s stage direction instructs performers to return to the beginning and repeat the performance.
In the mime Act Without Words I, the poor player, finding himself in a desert, is forever thwarted from reaching water or any means of escape. His plight recalls the Greek myth of Tantalus. Every time Tantalus, crazed with thirst, bent to drink from a lake, its waters receded. Luscious fruit hanging from trees was always tossed by the wind out of his hungry reach.
‘We are rather in the position of Tantalus,’ Beckett wrote inProust (1931), ‘with this difference – that we allow ourselves to be tantalised.’ So Vladimir and Estragon allow themselves to hope that an event in the future – the arrival of Godot – will make everything all right. But Godot never comes.
Death might seem an end, and perhaps a release. In Endgame, it seems that time is running out for Hamm and Clov:
Clov: Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause.] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.
Hamm: Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of … [He hesitates.] … that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.
But again there’s a tantalising catch. Their allusion is to the fifth-century Greek philosopher, Zeno. Zeno proposed that if you pour half of any quantity of seed into a heap, and then pour half of the remaining seed onto the heap, and so on, the nearer you get to completing the task, the slower the heap grows, so it can never be completed. It seems to Clov, then, that ‘it’ll never end, I’ll never go’.
Beckett is also interested in how past and present, event and the memory of it, become confused. In Krapp’s Last Tape, an old man listens to a recording he made many years ago of himself, commenting on a recording he made in his twenties. InThat Time, similarly, a man at the end of his life is bombarded by information about his past from three different versions of his own voice.
This blurring of time is a constant theme. While Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot, they lose track of the present, the past and the future – the time of their crucial appointment.
Estragon: You’re sure it was this evening?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said Saturday. [Pause.] I think. Estragon: You think. Vladimir: I must have made a note of it. [He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.] Estragon: [very insidious]. But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? [Pause.] Or Monday? [Pause.] Or Friday?
The question ‘when?’ becomes irrelevant when the perception of time as a linear progression is lost. For Pozzo, it has become not only meaningless but a torment:
Pozzo: [Suddenly furious.] Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day you’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day the same second, is that not enough for you? Is that enough for you?
Clov: There’s nowhere else.
One answer to this question is: in a theatre. Beckett doesn’t try to create a dramatic illusion or encourage the audience to suspend disbelief. On the contrary, he often deliberately draws attention to the performance as a performance, playing with the relationship between player and audience. In Waiting for Godot, when Estragon directs Vladimir to the toilet – ‘End of corridor, on the left,’ – Vladimir requests, ‘Keep my seat.’ Then he sees the audience:
Vladimir: We’re surrounded. [Estragon makes a rush towards back.] Imbecile! There’s no way out there. [He takes Estragon by the arm and drags him towards front. Gesture towards front.] There! Not a soul in sight! Off you go. Quick! [He pushes Estragon towards auditorium. Estragon recoils in horror.] You won’t? [He contemplates auditorium.] Well, I can understand that.
In Endgame, Hamm conducts self-auditions and criticises his own performance. ‘Did you never hear an aside before?’ he asks Clov. ‘I’m warming up for my last soliloquy.’ When Clov wonders ‘ What is there to keep me here?’ Hamm quips: ‘The dialogue.’
The grimly satirical Catastrophe takes its title from the term for the final resolution of the plot of a classical tragedy. The principal player is called ‘P’ for ‘protagonist’ (the word is from the Greek for ‘principal actor’). He is placed on a pedestal, immobile, speechless and totally passive.
Assistant: [Finally.] Like the look of him?
Director: So so. [Pause.] Why the plinth?
Assistant: To let the stalls see the feet.
As far as setting and scenery goes, there is little or nothing in the plays to distract either audience or player:
- a bare interior – Endgame
- a low mound – Happy Days
- a desert – Act Without Words I
- a table – Krapp’s Last Tape
- a street corner – Rough for Theatre 1
- three urns – Play
- three chairs – Come and Go
- two sacks – Act Without Words II
- empty stage littered with rubbish – Breath
- a bare stage – Rockaby, What Where
- darkness – That Time, Not I I
In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon find themselves on a lonely, open ‘country road’, with a solitary tree; a non-representational place they can describe only as ‘here’ or ‘this place’. Whether ‘this place’ is even where they are to keep their appointment is in question:
Estragon: You’re sure it was here?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others?
The world elsewhere is silent and indifferent, and they are unable to move on.
Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let’s go. [They do not move.]
For Hamm and Clov, in Endgame, it is as if nature no longer exists. The world Clov spies through the windows is inaccessible, dead and grey:
Hamm: And the horizon? Nothing on the horizon?
Clov: [Lowering the telescope, turning towards Hamm, exasperated.] What in God’s name could there be on the horizon? [Pause.] Hamm: The waves, how are the waves?
Clov: The waves? [He turns the telescope on the waves.] Lead.
Hamm: And the sun?
Clov: [Looking.] Zero.
As the plays progress, the characters become more and more hemmed in. In Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp is surrounded by darkness, stuck with himself and his memories.
Tape: The new light above my table is a great improvement. With all this darkness round me I feel less alone. [Pause.] In a way. [Pause.] I love to get up and move about in it, then back here to … [hesitates] … me. [Pause.] Krapp.
In Happy Days, Winnie is actually buried up to her waist – and later to her neck – in a mound in the centre of the stage.Winnie: I speak of when I was not yet caught – in this way – and had my legs and had the use of my legs, and could seek out a shady place, like you, when I was tired of the sun, or a sunny place, when I was tired of the shade, like you, and they are all empty words …
Happy Days was Beckett’s last full-length play, and after it the work became increasingly minimalist, allowing nothing in the setting to distract either character or spectator. ‘Beckett is a remover of anything that might misdirect the audience,’ observes Charles Sturridge, director of Ohio Impromptu in theBeckett on Film series. ‘He takes everything out except the absolute essentials in order to produce the purest, simplest line of thought.’
Hamm: We’re not beginning to … to … mean something?
Clov: Mean something! You and I mean something! Ah, that’s a good one!
Beckett’s characteristic response to the question of what his work meant was: ‘It means what it says.’ He is trying to represent, not explain, the human condition. ‘What are we doing here, that is the question,’ says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, but the answer is only another riddle. They are waiting for Godot, who, according to Vladimir, will let them know how they stand. But who is Godot, and what can he tell them? We never find out.
The plays characterise life as insignificant and without purpose. An individual, Hamm says in Endgame, is just ‘a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe’. Clov is nostalgic for the days when they ‘weren’t in the land of the living’, rather than having to endure ‘all life long the same inanities’. And there seems no possibility of useful action. ‘Nothing to be done’ is Estragon’s refrain. Vladimir says he’s beginning to come round to the same opinion. And yet, despite repeated disappointments, Vladimir has allowed himself to hope:
All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. [He broods, musing on the struggle.]
We allow ourselves to be tantalised, as Beckett put it. There’s something pathetic about this, but also perhaps something admirable. In Happy Days, Winnie remains cheerful despite being buried in a mound of sand. She does what she can:
Winnie: My hair! [Pause.] Did I brush and comb my hair? [Pause.] I may have done. [Pause.] Normally I do. [Pause.] There is so little one can do. [Pause.] One does it all. [Pause.] All one can. [Pause.] Tis only human. [Pause.] Human nature.
This is not a happy way of looking at the world. But all the same Beckett could see the funny side. The very meaninglessness of life becomes a joke. ‘This is becoming really insignificant,’ Vladimir says in Waiting for Godot. There is a good deal of verbal humour, as well as elements of circus fun, vaudeville, music-hall and silent-film comedy: mannerisms and misunderstandings, knockabout slapstick clowning, swapping hats and falling trousers.
The American critic Martin Esslin coined the description ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ for this kind of drama, explaining:
The human condition being what it is, with man small, helpless, insecure, and unable ever to fathom the world in all its hopelessness, death, and absurdity, the theatre has to confront him with the bitter truth that most human endeavour is irrational and senseless, that communication between human beings is well-nigh impossible, and that the world will forever remain an impenetrable mystery. At the same time, the recognition of all these bitter truths will have a liberating effect: if we realise the basic absurdity of most of our objectives we are freed from being obsessed with them and this release expresses itself in laughter.
– Theatre of the Absurd (Penguin 1961)
But even this release seems to have a catch. As time goes on, Nell points out in Endgame, the fun may go out of the joke a little.
Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. But … Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.
Nell: Why this farce, day after day?
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