Samuel Beckett

If British Nobel prize winning novelists have been few and far between in recent years, the same is not true of dramatists. Actual numbers may be few but, given that dramatists are a comparatively rare breed who rarely win the prize, it is notable that, in addition to Bernard Shaw, two modern British playwrights have been so honoured.

The first of these was Samuel Beckett, though it may be stretching it to call him British. Like Shaw he was Irish, and he spent most of his working life in France, and wrote much of his work in French. He wrote quite a lot, fiction as well as drama, and some of his later work has received favourable critical attention and is often performed. However there is little doubt that he would not be remembered at all, except by a few specialist students of literature, were it not for a single work.

I refer to Waiting for Godot, which may well be considered the quintessential artistic expression of 20th century angst, that useful German word that means so much more than the English word anguish does, conveying as it does a sense of deep social and psychological trauma. Recently I read a thesis by a former student of mine which set the work solidly in the existential literature of the century, existentialism being the literary philosophy that dominated serious socio-political literary activity in the quarter century after the war.

The movement was essentially French, dominated by Camus and Sartre, and hinged on the assumption that the great social imperatives of the previous period had led to disaster. The argument was that men allowed themselves to be dominated by the agendas of others, religious or political or even simply social, as dictated by the expectations of family and friends. However, since the only self-evident truth about man was that he existed, it was his responsibility to maximize the possibilities of that existence by being true primarily to himself.

My former student would put all this better, which I like to think is a tribute to my teaching even though it shows up my relative ignorance about literary theory. That, to my mind diversion from literature itself, was only just coming into its own when I was finishing my postgraduate work, and was regarded with some suspicion by the comparatively old-fashioned Oxford dons I did much of my work with. Thirty years later however my student’s thesis lays out clearly the existential prescriptions of Camus and Sartre, who deal with protagonists responding to challenges in terms of their personal visions.

Discussion of Beckett has however to be on a different plane because his characters, most prominently so the two tramps in Godot, in fact fail to respond. The argument is that they have been conditioned to subordinate themselves to the agendas of others, most obviously God, who is suggested by the name of whoever it is they are waiting for. They are themselves not quite sure who or what they are waiting for, but nevertheless they are paralysed into inaction in any other regard because they are waiting for someone or something who dominates their existence.

That in essence is what Waiting for Godot is about, and the waiting, by the two protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, goes on for two whole acts in which hardly anything happens. But the play is riveting, and the static exchanges of the pair hold one’s attention regardless of the almost complete absence of action. We are not quite sure of who they are, they seem just tramps, though even in their vacuous existence they are sharply differentiated. Apart from the names, which suggest Russian and Spanish origin – appropriate enough for Paris, where the play was published in 1952, with its premiere a year later, in the place where refugees from all over Europe had ended up in the period between the Wars – one is impatient, the other passive, one speculates about their fate, the other realizes there is no point in this.

The action is relieved by a pair called Pozzo and Lucky who make their appearance in the middle of each act. These two, with respectively Italian and British (or more probably Irish) names, seem to be master and servant respectively in the first act, with Pozzo driving Lucky who is dumb. The relationship has changed in the second act since, though Pozzo is still in theory master, he is blind, and has to be led, and Lucky launches upon a monologue which is totally meaningless.

The episode makes us reflect upon concepts of dependence, the functions of self-expression and its limitations. We also wonder, as the tramps do, whether one or both of this strange pair could be the Godot that is awaited, their own helplessness despite the initial bombast suggesting the absurdity of waiting for salvation from elsewhere. Godot does however also make a more formal appearance through a small boy who appears at the end of each Act to tell the tramps that Godot will not be appearing that day. Who he is and when he might appear is not within the boy’s knowledge but, after initial exasperation about this absence of information, the tramps accept the position. The play is indeed summed up by the frequent exhortation, ‘Let’s go’, after which the stage directions indicate blankly that they simply wait.

Nothing then happens, the stage is bare, except for a single tree, which has a leaf in one act and loses it in the next, no ideas are exchanged – but the play struck chords in audiences when it was first performed over half a century ago, and has continued to thrill since. I remember seeing it performed in Colombo with Lucien de Zoysa and Winston Serasinghe in the principal roles, with Richard de Zoysa and Peter d’Almeida playing the other two parts. Rohan Ponniah directed it, and the casting seemed to me perfect, until I saw a revival with Rohan taking up I think it was Lucien’s role. Then the contrast in age between him and Winston seemed even more telling than the easy camaraderie of the two older actors when they had played together. That brought home to me even more forcefully how the play communicated regardless of time and space.

The period the play came out was particularly important, given the wasteland to which Europe had reduced itself after two World Wars, with the old totems of nationalism and religion and class structures, whether seen positively or negatively, rendered meaningless. Yet even now, when that particular damage has been to a large extent repaired, the sense of helpless angst that Beckett conveyed so powerfully continues to reverberate. While it would be nice to think of other more positive literary works to illustrate the 20th century, I suspect Waiting for Godot must be seen as its most characteristic representative.