Balzac (the play, Le Faiseur)
. . . it is, naturally enough, the Balzacian full-length version which appears, for instance, in Louis Conard’s formidable and attractively produced forty-volume illustrated Oeuvres complètes, which appeared between 1912 and 1940. It is perhaps not inapposite to mention here that the unfortunate name of Conard (French slang for "silly bugger" or "damn fool"), which has been sniggered over by many a cohort of students using these editions, makes a brief appearance in En attendant Godot in Lucky’s speech, which refers to the "recherches inactivées de Testu et Conard". The pejorative connotations of these names—(pigheaded [têtu] fool)—make them apt companions for the preceding research team of "Fartov et Belcher".
Le Faiseur concerns a financial speculator, Mercadet , brought to the brink of bankruptcy by unsuccessful financial dealings. As a result he is beset throughout the play by a swarm of creditors. . . . Mercadet’s financial credentials have in fact been severely affected by the long-term absence of his one-time business partner, Monsieur Godeau , who went eight years previously to make his fortune abroad, having extorted a considerable sum of money from Mercadet.
. . . It is with Godeau, then, that salvation, in the form of solvency, lies. During the course of the play, Godeau’s name becomes a kind of mantra, resounding in the minds of those implicated in Mercadet’s imminent bankruptcy, and summarising a potential energy field which could resolve the impasse. Nevertheless, Godeau’s movements are deeply mysterious, and, unable to influence them, Mercadet must simply wait.
. . . Thus Godeau/Godot, through his very unattainability, takes on the shape of human exigencies. . . . Moreover, both are driven to the limits of desperation: just as Vladimir and Estragon toy recurrently with the idea of ending their dependence on Godot by hanging themselves, Mercadet brandishes a razor at one point, offering to cut his own throat in front of his assembled creditors, crying: "Godeau! . . . Mais Godeau est un mythe! est une fable! Godeau, c’est un fantôme". In neither play, then, does Godeau/Godot supply any hard evidence of salvific intent. And both sets of protagonists do not dare hope for more than an even chance of salvation.
. . . Finally, in both plays, the additional risk is that of missing, or not recognising, Godeau/Godot if he should arrive.
Mary Bryden Balzac to Beckett via God(eau/ot)
. . . Goldmann connects Racine’s four true tragedies with the doctrine of "extremist Jansenism", according to which God is hidden, "so hidden that it is impossible to know his will" or to have "the slightest indication of whether we are damned or saved ". This has been regarded by some critics as also the theme of Waiting for Godot. The related question "What must we do to be saved?" of course becomes unanswerable.
. . . [consider also] Sartre’s masterpiece, Huis clos (No Exit), in which, once the three principal characters have arrived on stage, nobody comes and nobody is allowed to go . . .
Vivian Mercier Beckett/Beckett
. . . St Augustine’s sentence about the two thieves on the cross suggested one of the motifs in Waiting for Godot [" Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned"]
Martin Esslin Samuel Beckett
Godot, like King Lear, is saturated in the nothing of frustrated expectation, a void that falls away before the characters. In Godot it swirls like mist, intangible between the sentences, asserts itself at every pause and overpowers the landscape and the characters on it: "you couldn’t describe it," Vladimir says of the place, " It’s like nothing ." Only the clown, it seems, has the resources to exist in this condition. "Can you make no us of nothing, nuncle?" the Fool asks Lear who, still ignorant, replies (as might that debased relic of the tragic stage, Pozzo, who also stumbled when he saw) "Nothing can be made out of nothing."
This is precisely the clown ’s endeavour—and the writer’s whose subject is Nothing. He alone has the resilience to endure because he accepts the right to fail ; it is the title he was born to. And from this failure there emerges , not a victory but the slender, far more painful, triumph of continuance which repeats it affirmation when the impressive towers and kingdoms of the hero are compounded with indifference.
The individual characters give way before the impersonal poetry of pure theatre which returns to a deeper meaning than language can expression. In Lear, on the heath we are again conscious of the intuitive mysterious source of drama where the structure of the scenes and the visible imagery reveal a deeper wisdom than that which the poet himself is able to put into words and concepts.
In effect, in Godot what we witness is the intense centre of a play, extended over an entire evening but which ideally should be comprehended in a single moment as an abstract painting seeks to impress the reality of an object upon the eye without its diffusion in the necessity of recognition. It is Lear reduced to the insanity on the heath, Hamlet at the grave side and Richard II in his prison cell ; an attempt to hold up the central reality against its dispersion and change in the varied demands of plot, structure and language.
Michael Robinson The Long Sonata of the Dead
Waiting for Godot is founded on Beckett’s dual obsession of journey and stasis. And if, during the interval, five adjustments are made (Pozzo goes blind, Lucky dumb, the tree flowers, Estragon’s boots are changed and Lucky gains a new hat), such things are the logical imponderables of Beckett’s world which show that something is still taking its course in time.
Neither is the tree’s movement from winter to spring, apparently in a single night, a subject for credulity. It only moves fast in relation to the tramps, reminding us that objective time proceeds indifferent to their anguish, and that unless one approaches experience with Vladimir’s desperation of the rational it does not matter, in infinity, whether it takes months or minutes to complete the change. Unfortunately, most of us do and therefore, like Vladimir, are dismayed that nothing ends except by the arbitrary intercession of the author. Everything reaches into infinity, like the circular song of the dog which opens the second act and reduces Vladimir to despair.
Jean Anouilh described Waiting for Godot as "a music hall sketch of Pascal’s Pensées performed by the Fratellini clowns." Of [the Pensées] that which most obviously applies to Waiting for Godot is where Pascal describes the agony of man at rest:Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest , without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness , his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness , his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depths of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.
Michael Robinson The Long Sonata of the Dead
Traditions of popular [i.e. non-literary] entertainment
With the symbolic tree in the background and the ritual dance, the dance of the net performed by Lucky, it also reveals elements of the Japanese Noh play, but the most persuasive influence is the tradition of the non-literary theatre. In Peer Gynt the hero strips away the layers of skin from an onion which represents for him the human creature whose essence he has been seeking all his life: he finds nothing. Waiting for Godot begins at the centre of the onion and remains there, largely because it is founded upon the universal significance of the hobo-clown.
The tradition of the clown is retraceable to the same origins as its apparently more respectable counterpart, tragedy. . . . It is usually assumed that the literary theatre evolved from Aeschylus and incorporated the serious, moral and religious elements of the old festivals while the popular tradition appropriated the physical, bawdy and farcical and was consequently of lesser importance. Nevertheless each has its own validity and though at certain times one or the other strand has been predominant those ages are accounted the greatest in which the two are seen to fuse most completely. Such an age was that of Shakespeare which drew heavily for its extent and vitality on the tradition of the juggler, clown, acrobat and fool. . . . However, this anarchic fringe was eventually compelled by an unprecedented strength in its literary counterpart, to seek refuge in areas of the theatre mistakenly dubbed "illegitimate": the circus, the music hall and the boulevard.
Distrusting language especially when , as in the modern tradition of the well-made play, it performs under the illusion of infallibility , it was from these sources that Beckett and the other dramatists of the absurd took their forms. Straining towards a new purity, and establishing the primacy of the image, they . . . restored the theatre to its lost unity wherein the religious and the irreverent once again combine to confront man with his ultimate reality.
Michael Robinson The Long Sonata of the Dead
Beckett considered the circus to be an existential portrait. This couple— the "clown" and the "august gentleman"—is a simplified representation of a complex relationship: that between a man and his future. The "clown" and the "gentleman" are two men who do not understand one another. It is because of this that we laugh. It is because of this that we can cry. (Some children—let us not forget—cry at the comic blows in the circus.)
In reality, despite all the love that they have for one another, they are brutally separated , as if they were two distinct species. On one side, the white face, the great painted eyebrows, the sequined costume, the white hose, the mediocre intelligence. On the other side the big nose, the big mouth, the immense pantalons, an alarm clock in the pocket, enormous shoes, an impossibly dense intelligence. All is set up for them to misunderstand one another . They make grotesque efforts, they slap one another, they play musical instruments, they make the most incredible pirouettes to express themselves. They do not manage to understand one another.
Beckett finds his starting point in this circus couple. He eliminates their external differentiation. He erases the large eyebrows. He takes off the big nose. He fades the brilliant colours. He washes off the makeup and their wide eyes emerge. He throws them out on the street. They are trashed. They wait. They grow bored. They play.
We laugh, but our laughter sounds false. What has happened? We have recognised ourselves.
Alfonso Sastre Avant-garde et Réalité
Music HallThe Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. (T S Eliot, "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama")
This is a comedy scene. These are music hall bits. (Bert Lahr)
. . . music hall, mutatis mutandis, is the fundamental structure and ambience of Godot, the source of its dramaturgical life. English music hall is the dramatic tradition that informs Beckett’s play. We are offered series of turns in a spirit of fun . . . Consider the following, chosen at random: comic business with boots and hats (staples of the music hall); cross talk about the Bible; joking about the audience (" that bog "); and exchange about Godot as haut bourgeois; Pozzo’s turn as arrogant landowner and master; Lucky’s dance and speech, a coup de théâtre; a hilariously polite exchange of adieux; imitations of Pozzo and Lucky; Didi’s and Gogo’s considering how to hang themselves from a prop tree that usually is, or should be, shorter than they—and so on, not to mention the classic pants-dropping that concludes the play. Every prop is the subject of humour. As Didi says, they can’t let diversions go to waste: " Come, let’s get to work !" Without these diversions they’ll be "in the midst of nothingness!"—just like the music-hall performer who, as Max Beerbohm noted in his obituary of Dan Leno, is all by himself on the stage, making his effects quickly "without the aid of any but the slightest ‘properties’ and scenery".
In the Victorian period, music-hall entertainment was designed for and patronised by working-class and lower-middle-class audiences who mingled and drank and ate and could ignore or talk back to the performers, themselves mostly from working-class backgrounds. The atmosphere was never "respectable" except in the days of genteel decline of the halls. The vulgarity in Godot—the penis humour and the references to farting, garlic breath, stinking feet and urination—is a vestige of this ambience and helps to identify the play as "popular" theatre. But the costumes and dialogue recall another aspect of music hall . . . [from] the French café-concerts of the same period: the combination of travesty and imitation of gentility and respectability that described both the performers and the audience. . . . The proprieties of class were both affirmed and deranged. Drunken swells in top hats tottered and spoke in real and botched French, performers in middle-class bowlers and lounge suits or in evening dress did pratfalls or sang sentimental or vulgar ditties in local accents before an audience dressed up in their best clothes and enjoying their new leisure time. Gradually, artist and intellectuals, as well as the rich and fashionable, were drawn to the halls, and—for a while, say, before 1912—a truly "mixed" audience mingled.
Like Chaplin, Beckett uses this music-hall tradition to transform the democratic into the universal. Chaplin’s "little man" (a Victorian phrase for the lower classes) becomes "Everyman". Beckett’s tramps become humankind. If the play words, the audience senses itself in the performers, acting out human life as a series of variety turns, with inevitably mixed results: funny and awful.
Didi and Gogo have already mentioned that they talk incessantly so they "won’t think" and "won’t hear"—presumably the silence of the nothingness in which they are entrapped. Afraid of this silence, they self-consciously start up some cross talk ("You can start from anything"):
V When you seek you hear. E You do. V That prevents you from finding. E It does. V That prevents you from thinking. E You think all the same. V No no, impossible. E That’s the idea, let’s contradict each other. V Impossible.
The contradiction implied is between thinking as something distinct from talk (words) and thinking as the object of talking. The first helps you find what you seek, the second prevents you from finding. But when Didi says it’s impossible for them to contradict each other, he implies that, since they’ve both been thinking this subject through, they are both seeking and not finding because they are seeking. . . . Gogo confirms the inevitability of the process when he responds to Didi’s "Impossible" with "You think so?": even the idea that thinking is impossible involves thinking. Hence the cross talk can continue:
V We’re in no danger of ever thinking any more. E Then what are we complaining about? V Thinking is not the worst. E Perhaps not. But at least there’s that. V That what? E That’s the idea, let’s ask each other questions. V What do you mean, at least there’s that? E That much less misery. V True. E Well? If we gave thanks for our mercies? V What is terrible is to have thought. E But did that ever happen to us?
Amid the comic miscues and interruptions, Didi makes a distinction between "thinking" and " to have thought ". "Thinking", they agree, is "not the worst" because it lessens the misery of silence, but it is terrible to have thought in the past (and had it come to nothing) as well as to possess thought. The terror of thought-as-possession has been demonstrated for them in Lucky’s speech, a sort of cassette tape he carries around inside him that only reminds him of the futility of having though about what must remain "unfinished".
How to distinguish between thought and thinking, between that which makes and that which alleviates misery? Gogo confuses the issue by wondering if they ever had any thought, and Didi’s responses about the corpses, skeletons, and tombs seem to refer to the very words they’re using, the nature of their talk (" All the dead voices "), which so easily can become hardened into futile, past ideas like " We should turn resolutely towards Nature ". Thought comes to naught, but you can’t stop thinking:
V Oh it’s not the worst, I know. E What? V To have thought. E Obviously. V But we could have done without it.
Their cross talk results in their thinking that even having thought is not the worst. Thinking is the balm for its own poison. Nothing has been found, and now, after this " little canter . . . . we’ll have to find something else".
. . . the unstabilising quality of comic patter is the perfect medium for expressing the conceptual heart of Didi’s and Gogo’s condition. Routines like these constitute, after all, their waiting. They seek Godot, whom they cannot find. They seek to be "saved" but are condemned to wait and think, infinitely. And thinking is playing with words, which can only elaborate themselves. Words, in their finite variety, comprise the acts that take place on a stage that Godot cannot enter because to be Godot he must remain offstage, the headliner act that never happens. Beckett makes music-hall turns out of his profoundest concerns. The very awfulness of the routines is funny, an occasion for surrendering to the "communal emotion" [considered] the essence of music hall. The futility of the tramps’ waiting can be celebrated because, if properly understood, it’s everyone’s condition; that’s what the audience’s laughter expresses.
Fred Miller Robinson Tray Bong! Godot and Music Hall from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
Laurel and Hardy
. . . Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, whose troubles with such things as hats and boots were notorious, and whose dialogue was spoken very slowly on the assumption that the human understanding could not be relied on to work at lightning speed. The mise-en-scène of their films was a country of dreams, at least in this respect, that no explanation of their relationship was ever ventured. They journeyed, they undertook quests, they had adventures; their friendship, tested by bouts of exasperation, was never really vulnerable; they seemed not to become older, nor wiser; and in perpetual nervous agitation, Laurel’s nerves occasionally protesting like a baby’s, Hardy soliciting a philosophic calm he could never quite find leisure to settle into, they coped. Neither was especially competent, but Hardy made a big man’s show of competence. Laurel was defeated by the most trifling requirements. Hence, in Way Out West (1937)
HARDY: Get on the mule. LAUREL: What? HARDY: Get on the mule.
Beckett’s extended canine imagery, . . . equates a human being to a dog "chained to his vomit" (Proust) and analogy that belies Gogo’s insistence that they are "not tied". Despite their awareness, even Didi and Gogo illustrate doglike features in waiting for Godot. The subtle orthographic difference between god and dog depends entirely on perspective and brings up the embarrassing question of human origin. Are humans made in God’s image, sharing in certain divine characteristics, or do they bear a greater resemblance to the domestic pet so lauded for its patience and loyalty? Lucky, however, is the character most closely associated with the dog imagery, and he also suffers most obviously from automation. Pozzo commands him with a whip, and everything Lucky does is a performance of some sort. Pozzo asks the tramps, " Shall we have him dance , or sing, or recite, or think , or—". Lucky’s actual performance is the closest Beckett’s play ever comes to a machine analogy. Not only do the heaps of academic verbal formulae point to intellectual automatism but Lucky’s working parts also stutter and cough: "quaquaquaqua" and "Acacacacademy" equate the ostensibly learned test with duck nonsense and excrement. The audience of three becomes alarmed at Lucky’s machine behaviour, which is now clearly out of control, and they try to stop him; only by seizing his hat does Didi render Lucky silent.
Although the tramps jump in and out of rôles, they are never far from an awareness of the larger performance that is life. Didi moans, "Come on, Gogo, return the ball , can’t you, once in a way?". . . . However, the two tramps occasionally enjoy being spectators themselves. . . . For a change, Didi and Gogo have the benefit of Pozzo and Lucky’s performance. Their indulgence in watching as distraction from being watched is given comic and dramatic focus in Act II, where Didi and Gogo enjoy the spectacle of Pozzo’s pitiful predicament, equating it first to a racing event and then to a boxing match: " He’s off ! (Pozzo collapses.) He’s down!". Didi’s heartless metaphors not only denigrate Pozzo’s suffering but also reveal how the tramps view their own endless imprisonment with regard to Godot, who takes inexplicable delight in keeping them on stage for his amusement.
Hugh Kenner Waiting for Godot
The French Resistance
Two men waiting, for another whom they know only by an implausible name which may not be his real name. A ravaged and blasted landscape. A world that was ampler and more open once, but is permeated with pointlessness now. Mysterious dispensers of beatings. A man of property and his servant, in flight. And the anxiety of the two who wait, their anxiety to be as inconspicuous as possible in a strange environment ("We’re not from these parts, Sir") where their mere presence is likely to cause remark. It is curious how readers and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of the play, that it resembles France occupied by the Germans, in which its author spent the war years. How much waiting must have gone on in that bleak world; how many times must Resistance operative—displaced person when everyone was displaced, anonymous ordinary people for whom every day renewed the dispersal of meaning—have kept appointments not knowing whom they were to meet, with men who did not show up and may have had good reasons for not showing up, or bad, or may even have been taken; how often must life itself not have turned on the skill with which overconspicuous strangers did nothing as inconspicuously as possible, awaiting a rendezvous, put off by perhaps unreliable messengers, and making do with quotidian ignorance in the principal working convention of the Resistance, which was to let no one know any more than he had to.
We can easily see why a Pozzo would be unnerving. His every gesture is Prussian. He may be a Gestapo official clumsily disguised. . . . Not that modern history , nor the Occupation, is the "key" to the play, its solution; it is simply, if we do happen to think of it, a validation of the play. And Beckett saw the need to keeping thoughts of the Occupation from being too accessible, because of the necessity to keep the play from being "about" an event that time has long since absorbed. Sean O’Casey’s plays, being "about" the Irish troubles, slide rapidly into the past, period pieces like the photographs in old magazines. Waiting for Godot in the 1970s is little changed from that it was the day it was first performed in 1953, a play about a mysterious world where two men wait. We may state its universality in this way: only a fraction of the human race experienced the German occupation of France, and only a fraction of that fraction waited, on Resistance business, for some Godot. But everyone, everywhere, has waited, and wondered why he waited.
Hugh Kenner Waiting for Godot
The contemporary social context
. . . one of the reasons why Godot created so much impact, scandal and malaise. At that time in Western Europe generally there was a strong feeling of post-war disillusion. The age of heroes and of action for good causes had temporarily gone. Perhaps an increasing number of intelligent young people felt the need to ponder about the ultimate questions posed by existence. Godot seemed to match the mood of a large enough number of people to keep it alive during the first few vulnerable months of its public life. Here was a play which both entertained and disturbed in a completely new and revolutionary way. . . .
Colin Duckworth Angels of Darkness
On the subject of Waiting for Godot it has been said, with malicious intention, that it is a drama in which absolutely nothing happens. And is that not enough for you? they will say.
Precisely what is so compelling in Godot is that nothing happens. In a sense it is a lucid testimony of nothingness. And it happens that, considering that with many drames d’intrigue, in which many things happen, we are left indiffernt, this "nothing happening" in Godot leaves us in suspense.
These men who are bored purge us of our own boredom ; their boredom provokes a catharsis of ours, and we follow the adventure without a moment of respite. For the masses, grey and indifferent to our daily life, have in one blow suddenly exposed us within its very structure, naked and desolate! This is the great revelation. Otherwise, we are not watching a drama without intrigue: we are witnessing a drama of a single situation.
Godot is, in the scheme of things, a work that conforms to the artistic formality of a traditional drama. It is organised on solid ground; on the other hand, it is the only ground on which the theatre can seriously organise itself: the plot. And it is clear that the "nothing happening" can be the form that presents the most extraordinary and profound events as "many things happening" can be a form in which nothing else is of import—a void. Godot precisely seizes the "nothing happening" that constitutes our daily existence. That is why it is a family portrait, a radiographic plate where we recognise ourselves with horror. The fabric of Waiting for Godot is exactly that: the fabric of our life.
It is necessary to understand that this is not like a nihilist affirmation—that is to say a pure metaphysical negation—but a socio-historic polemic postulate: I speak of an "unhinged" life. In the same sense one could hear the words "rending of being".
Alfonso Sastre Avant-garde et Réalité
The fact that Beckett-Godot had been "officially" adopted as symbol of political change in Czechoslovakia first emerged in November 1989, when the success of the so-called Velvet Revolution prompted the crowds to shout "Godot has arrived". And it was confirmed in Havel’s public discourse as president. In a speech addressed to the Institut de France on 27 October 1992, for example, the President cites Beckett and Godot repeatedly with direct reference to the Czechoslovakian experience: "One can wait in different ways. The way in Waiting for Godot, incarnation of waiting for universal liberation and salvation, occupies one of the extremes of a vast range of possible forms of waiting. For many of those who, like us, lived in the communist area, waiting was often or even permanently of a kind very close to this extreme form."
From Beckett , the great deconstructor of dramatic and historical time, Havel manages to draw a lesson regarding the virtue of patience in politics and the necessity of allowing history to operate in its own time. Festina lente [Make haste slowly]: "In a word, I thought that time was mine. I had made a serious mistake. The world, being and history are governed by their own time, on which we can intervene creatively but which no one can ever dominate. "
Keir Elam Catastrophic Mistakes: Beckett, Havel, The End
Act I text