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Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can’t tell them to you? –Estragon, Act I
Samuel Beckett lived most of his life in France. Many of his most significant works, including Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot), were originally written in French–but Beckett was born in a suburb of Dublin in 1906 and attended Trinity University, Dublin. He settled in Paris until the mid-Thirties–plenty of time to get caught up in World War II as a fighter in the French Resistance. The years after the war were incredibly productive for Beckett. His best known works, Godot and the novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable were all written and published by 1953, the year in which Godot premiered in Paris. By the early Sixties, Beckett had ceased to write longer works, focusing much of the rest of his career on over forty shorter dramatic and prose pieces. When he died in Paris on December 22, 1989, he was one of the most celebrated writers of the century.
The Tears of a Clown (When There’s No One Around) or…. How Comedy Becomes Tragedy When There’s “Nothing to be done.”
Estragon: (with finality). Crritic!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.
— Waiting for Godot, Act II
Waiting for Godot is a classic of the absurd,* an expression of post-War existentialism and one of the most important pieces of literature written in the 20th century It’s a complex play that fascinates critics and has generated reams of learned articles, books and reviews in the half century of its existence. More words have been written about this one play than Beckett published in his lifetime.
There’s even a video game.
Anything carrying that much cultural weight encourages actors to take their roles far too seriously and leads lesser directors and designers to point up the Important Ideas in the play (all that existentialism and absurdism stuff) with Big, Portentious, Pretentious Theatrical Choices.
These, as CU Acting Professor and Godot director Sean Kelley knows, are sure-fire ways to put audiences to sleep. Nevertheless, Sean took on the project because he knows something most of the critics, academics and terrified students who have had to write about the play over the years either don’t know or have completely forgotten: Waiting for Godot is funny. VERY funny.
“It’s about clowning into the tears,” Sean told me the other day.
Sure, there’s serious stuff going on. These guys are hanging out, looking for the most famous no-show artist in literary history and it’s really important, for reasons they don’t entirely understand, that he (Godot) show up. They look for ways to pass the time, so they do what anyone in such an unusual situation would do: they fight, they play games, they whine and complain, they debate serious subjects about which they know very little, they try and top each other–all activities that lend themselves to hilarious comic business. “I spent all summer looking at the great movie clowns,” Sean continued, “Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy — and I’m putting as much of that as possible into the play. We’re about two weeks into rehearsal and we’re laughing a lot. I’m thinking we’ll get to the tears when we laugh hard enough.”
Samuel Beckett would probably agree. He knew what kind of play he’d written. In 1964 he insisted that the focus needed to stay on the simple truth of the characters: “I don’t like to talk intellectually about a play which has to be played simply in order to be an intellectual play. I would like to talk about how you go to sleep or how you eat the carrots. The words are there. If they have meaning, the meaning will come out.”
The director of the first American production of Godot, Alan Schneider, initially entertained the idea of starring popular comedians from radio, television and films (like Bob Hope and Jack Benny) as Vladimir and Estragon. He ended up with Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell,+ who starred in an ill-fated American premiere in Miami in 1956. Lahr, one of the most respected stage clowns of the day, was fascinated by the play despite the failure of its initial staging. He reprised his role as Estragon in the first New York production the next year. Of that production legendary director and critic Harold Clurman wrote: “It [Godot] is a poetic harlequinade — tragi-comic as the traditional commedia dell’arte usually was: full of horse-play, high spirits, cruelty and a great wistfulness. Though the content is intellectual to a degree, the surface…is very much like a minstrel show or vaudeville turn.”
The idea of Estragon and Vladimir as clowns–not the traditional, elaborately costumed, white-faced and red-nosed circus clowns, but the hobo-clown image inspired by Emmett Kelly and the previously-mentioned Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, has persisted in many productions since–as has the casting of comic actors in the lead roles. Even Robin Williams and Steve Martin took up the Godot challenge for a revival at New York’s Lincoln Center in the late 1980s.
* absurd: out of harmony with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical.
+ Bert Lahr was a vaudeville performer turned comic actor of the thirties and forties, best known for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Tom Ewell was a popular character actor on stage and in film, best remembered for co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
A Modern Dummies Guide to: Existentialist Theory and Godot…
by Bryon Matsuno, production dramaturg
If you’ve ever wondered where we come from, What we are, If there’s any kind of universal power, any kind of God … If you ever ask yourself, What does my life mean? What is the meaning of this? What will lead the way? You’ve been waiting for Godot, and you’re not alone.
In fact, these are age-old questions, mysteries if you will, the puzzles that puzzle humanity. Many, many malleable minds have worked toward bending and shaping human thought around this obstacle of our existence, and beyond towards productivity, regardless of purpose. Which brings us to our world, a modern world of purposeless pursuits of purpose. We have created need, created wants, and created desires to pursue. We have given ourselves material goals, material meaning. Where you live, What you drive, How you dress–these are the experiences, which make up our being, our essence today. We are living existential lives.
According to Webster’s dictionary, it is . . .
1. The doctrine that man forms his essence in the course of the life he chooses to lead.
2. Also called philosophical existentialism is a movement based on this doctrine, emphasizing man’s responsibility for making his own nature as well as the importance of personal freedom, personal decision, and personal commitment.
What of it? What does it matter who I become? Who I am? Who I was? We all just die.
This is the dilemma. The existentialists might respond saying, all we can really know we learn during our lives. What lies beyond I know not. That is another puzzle for another torrent. For now this life, this torrent, is all I have . . . I must do with it.
So we press on blindly into the unknown, yearning to know what we know not how to know. We hurl ourselves towards tomorrow, hoping that in some way it may all makes sense . . . Wondering if it will be today that Godot will finally come, make it clear. Whatever/whoever Godot may or may not be?
“This is becoming really insignificant . . .” and that is exactly the point Beckett is making with this play. No matter what we do, what we are doing, we all do the same thing… we all wait. We have a million different ways of doing it. But one truth remains, we are all simply killing time, watching the seconds tick by oblivious to the rhyme and reason behind it all . . . . Waiting for the inevitable . . . sleeping not yet to be woken from the slumber that is life . . . We all go on asking ourselves, as Vladimir does in Act II:
“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now ? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again it Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?” (Godot 104-5)
We go on then waiting . . . Knowing not what we say or do, regardless of our irrelevance, we press on, indefatigably, longingly…towards …???
I don’t know what it is we’re pressing towards anymore than Beckett did. If we’re just doing nothing as he seems to suggest, “it’s the doing of it that counts.” The process of watching, of thinking, of learning. The action is what counts not the outcome, but what does this mean? American playwright and director David Mamet offers one explanation:
“The play is a quest for a solution. As in our dreams we seek answers to those questions which the conscious mind is incompetent to deal with. So with the drama, if the question posed is one which can be answered rationally . . . we feel diverted but not fulfilled. Only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusceptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution become enlightening . . . we cast ourselves . . . in dreams of wish fulfillment. These dreams . . . seem to offer solutions to our concerns based on the idea that the concerns themselves do not exist, that they are only temporary aberrations of an essentially benign universe, or . . . of the universe which is positively responsive at that point at which our individual worthinesses . . . are brought to its attentions. We leave the theatre after such plays as smug as after a satisfying daydream, Our prejudices have been assuaged, and we have been reassured that nothing is wrong, but we are, finally no happier.”
“Freud said, ‘the only way to forget is to remember.’”
Welcome to the World of Godot. Good Luck!
More About . . .
Theatre of the Absurd–a term coined by drama critic, historian and theorist Martin Esslin to describe the anti-realistic post-War drama of such playwrights as Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet. Though each fiercely independent and distinct in his approach, the work of these and other playwrights, including Americans like Arthur Kopit and Edward Albee, share a certain outlook on life. Esslin contends that the essence of absurdist philosophy was outlined by French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who proposed that we see a paradigm for human life in the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods “to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the rock would roll back of its own weight.” Sisyphus, “the absurd hero,” is condemned to strain with all his might to accomplish his task, over and over–futile and utterly meaningless labor. The best he can hope for is that rare experience of a consciousness of the absurdity of his plight. At such moments of intellectual clarity, Sisyphus “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” In fact, we and Sisyphus may rise even to tragic stature when we are fully conscious of our absurd condition. (See “A Modern Dummies Guide to Existentialist Theory in Godot”) for more on this subject.
commedia dell’arte–an improvisational theatre form originating in Italy around 1545 and popular throughout Europe into the 18th century. Professional actors, most of whom wore stylized masks, portrayed stock characters and performed from rough plot outlines called scenarios. Significant comic figures were the zanni or comic servants (Harlequin, Columbine and Pulcinella among them), Pantalone (the miserly father), Il Capitano or Miles Gloriosus (a braggart soldier) and Il Dottore (the pedantic professor).
harlequinade–that part of a play or pantomime enacted principally by the harlequin and the clown. The harlequin was one of the principle comic figures of the commedia dell’arte (see above).
Emmett Kelly (1898-1979)–the prototypical tramp clown and a brilliant mime. His clown character, known as “Weary Willy” was the image of an unshaven, dirty tramp–a silent, unsmiling figure who, according to Kelly, keeps trying because of the one “spark of hope still glimmering in his soul.” His most famous routine involved the sweeping of a circle of light from a spotlight. In the 1940s, he was the star attraction of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Early film comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy —
Chaplin (1889 – 1977) was the most popular comic actor of his generation and beyond. His “Little Tramp” character is iconic, recognized world-wide, though the last films featuring him were made in the 1920s. Chaplin was also brilliant director, composer, writer, producer, and editor. His films include the Gold Rush, the Tramp, The Kid, Modern Times and City Lights.
Keaton, known as “the Great Stone Face” for his improbable acrobatic stunts and his stoic demeanor under even the most chaotic of comic circumstances, was trained in vaudeville and made the move to silent films in 1917. He had a long career as a slapstick comedian and director, lasting into the 1960s. Although many people think of Buster Keaton only as a comedian, film historians, critics, and directors regard him as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His best known films, The General (1926) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) have a place in the National Film Registry. Actors and comedians as diverse as Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke, and Jackie Chan say that he influenced their work. Clowns in all the major circuses study Keaton’s films.
Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) began their partnership at the Hal Roach studio in 1926 and remained active together for the next quarter century. Within a year of their first joint appearance, they were being touted as the new comedy team. After collaborating on many silent films, they took the transition to the talking film in stride. As their success spread throughout the world, they began making feature films as well and won an Oscar for their short subject entitled The Music Box (1932).
minstrel show–an American medley of sentimental ballads, comic dialogue, and dance interludes, ostensibly founded on Negro life in the South. Its origin is attributed to T.D.Rice, who (as legend has it) copied the mannerisms of an elderly black man in Baltimore in 1828, adopted blackface and banjo to produce the wildly popular “Jim Crow.” At first a solo act, minstrelsy grew into a major entertainment form in pre-Civil War America. After that war, competition from other forms of entertainment compelled the minstrel show to expand into a form involving large choruses and multiple feature acts. Now considered a breeding ground for racial stereotyping, the form survived on stage and in films well into the last century.
vaudeville–a form of popular theater which emerged in the United States in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. It “grew out of beer halls”–entertainment to accompany drinking–“and did not develop as a separate form until the 1870s and 1880s. In the West, it answered a desperate need for light entertainment amongst audiences of miners, lumbermen, cowboys, and gunfights; and in the eastern cities it soon became big business, popular with respectable families and single men alike. Like British music hall, it began dying with the advent of the talking film in the 1920s.” Vaudeville consisted of a large number of variety acts–comedians, serious and comic singers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, acrobats and the like, usally with orchestral accompaniment and all occurring, one after another on a set “bill” which was frequently performed twice a day. Many of the most famous performers of early radio and film came out of vaudeville, including W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.
This Preview was written by Tom Joyner, Heather A. Smith and Bryon Matsuno, edited by Tom Joyner.
Works Consulted in Compiling this Preview…
The Critical Response to Samuel Beckett by Cathleen Culotta Andonian, editor. 1998.
Understanding Samuel Beckett by Alan Astro. 1992.
Beckett in Performance by Jonathan Kalb. 1989.
Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin. 1969.
“A National Dream Life” from Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet.