on 10 July 2011
* NB may contain a spoiler - do not read if you do not want to know the course of this book before reading it! *:
One academic writer, supposed to be an authority on Beckettt's work (see my review of one of his books), finds - or claims to find - deep Buddhist thought, philosophy, and probably even practice in it.
I wonder if he has considered Waiting for Godot in the following way...
The play has five characters, six if you include the named, waited for and talked-about Godot, who, we are told, has sent the last of them to appear (the Boy) to Vladimir (also known as Didi) and Estragon (also known as Gogo - the full name is the French one for tarragon), who have been (one, then the other) on stage from the start, and almost without break throughout the two Acts (although the end of both is, crucially, different - please see below).
The remaining two characters, Pozzo and Lucky (the atter is also known as 'pig', 'hog', 'scum', and a number of other offensive names, by Pozzo) arrive together, halfway through each Act, but seem mightily changed between them: in fact, we actually have no direct way of knowing how time passes, in this timeless and largely featureless space that keeps the characters in it or draws them to it (or through it), such as these two.
Pozzo is grand, pretentious even, and certainly cruel. However, he may not actually have the power either in the place where we see him, or in the relationship beyond his transit of these lands with the other man, Lucky. (At one point, Pozzo asserts or implies (but he alleges many things that we cannot verify) that this is his part of his land). Even so, he openly abuses Lucky before us, whilst - in the phrase used by another Beckettt writer to describe a scene of reported dialogue in the earlier novel Watt - often employing a 'language of bizarre civility', as well as some of the accompanying manners / mannerisms. His cruelty draws out that, alluded to earlier in speech largely, of Vladimir and Estragon, too.
Beckettt calls Waiting for Godot a tragicomedy (in two acts), but it is often played for pure comedy, which jars with the obvious brutality and unpleasantness of what human beings (Didi (or Gogo) pronounces that 'People are bloody ignorant apes!') do to pass the time when bored, but have to be somewhere.
Are we, perhaps, reminded of the random torture that SS officers and the concentration camps gave rise to (this play was first performed in around 1953 in what had been Nazi-occupied Paris, and Beckettt, who had served in the French resistance - is this where the references (shared by the contemporary novel Molloly) to beatings during the night by an unspecified 'they' come from?), would have had some bitter experiences / memories of the recent war.
After Pozzo and Lucky leave the stage (for the first Act), there is an exchange between the Didi and Gogo that their appearance had passed the time. The retort is that it would have passed anyway, replied to by agreement, but that it would not have passed as quickly.
Another exchange is:
What keeps us here?
This is a play of quick wits, and comments and counter-comments batted back and forth, and one character (probably Estragon) is asked whether he cannot 'return the ball once in a while'.
As has been said, Pozzo and Lucky return, much changed, in Act II - Lucky, who was loquacious on demand, is, if not mute, then does not 'think' for us again on stage as he did before, and Pozzo - we are told, anyway - is blind (so now led by his Lucky, whom he could previously lead before, and jerk quite cruelly to the ground by his rope). Yet Vivien Mercier, another Beckettt 'crrritic' (from when Gogo and Didi decide to play the game of orally abusing each other) trying to be clever, described the play as nothing happening - twice.
When had Act I been? Whenever it was, the title-page to Act II tells us: 'Next Day. Same Time. Same Place.' And this is where the Buddhism trail comes in more clearly: only Vladimir remembers - and does not (really) doubt remembering - Pozzo and Lucky from Act I, but there is scant or no recognition or recollection on the part of the other three (four, when we include the Boy - please see below). He knows that they passed this way the day before, and is appalled at the change (the Buddhist doctrine of and teaching on the transience of all things?), but all the rest muddle through.
Of them all, if he could see this for what it is, he could break through the unreality of life, of striving, of searching after the wrong things, whereas they are locked in it, so busy, seemingly, living these frantic and tortured lives that they have both little self-awareness (a step on the Buddhist path to acquire it). Since they cannot capture the keys and clues to reality, they struggle, battle and scrape on, as if that struggle, battle and scraping, rather than rejecting it as meaningless, is the essence of life, of what life is.
As things stand, Vladimir is doomed to be trying to remind others of their own (past) lives. (This play can, it is argued, be seen as a presentation of a (potential) voyage towards enlightenment - whereas people seeing the play may think that it is for their entertainment (distracting them from life), which is a further distraction, this time from what the narrative thrust (yes, Professor Mercier - there is one!) of the play is trying to focus on.) For he does not twig (yet?) what it means. So this includes interacting with the Boy, who comes (alone, and to him alone) at the end to apologize that Godot will not come that day (after all).
The Boy, as has been seen with the others, has no knowledge that he came at the end of Act I in the same way. In consequence of that, and because Vladimir only knows how to respond by just being frustrated that even this young being is blighted and trapped by not even remembering his own life, he lashes out, orally and physically, against a weaker force, with the brutal streak that we have witnessed - with a shudder? (although Lucky seemed weak, subservient, and capable of being picked on, in Act I, he proved not to be wholly so) - most clearly when Pozzo and he are on the stage.
The play does not end, though, with the frightened Boy running off the stage at what the stage-directions call Vladimir's 'sudden violence' (a contrast both to the placidity of this scene, and to the previous encounter in Act I (although Estragon did then briefly participate, laying hands on the Boy, and accusing him of lying before Vladimir intervenes). It is Didi and Gogo, again, hoping and fearing for another day, for hanging themselves, if they bring some rope, and that maybe Godot will come then, after all, and (they do not specify how) 'We'll be saved'.
Yet the words with which he has, two pages back in the text, heralded trying to grab for the Boy (as Estragon had done in Act I), and sent him running off instead, should ring in our ears:
You're sure you saw me, you won't come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!
He wants, at this stage to be witnessed, to be credited with existing and having existed in relation to another, but needs to let go. His search is for something else. Lewis Carroll had another faith, but wrote (for Isa Bowman, a child friend like the more famous Alice):
Is all our life, then, but a dream
Seen faintly in the golden gleam
Athwart Time's dark resistless stream?
Bowed to the ground with bitter woe
Or laughing at some raree-show
We flutter idly, to and fro
Man's little day in haste we spend
And, from its merry noontide, send
To glance to meet the bitter end