Waiting for zilcho

It is sixty years today since the premiere of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot, at the aptly-named Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, before an audience that was a tiny fraction of the number who would later remember having been there. The playhouse, which had opened in May 1952, closed in September 1954. In the interim, as well as Beckett, the impresarios tried on a couple of Pirandello productions, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, & several avant-garde forgettables now forgotten.

In industry, I have noticed that with few exceptions, the person who invents some brilliant new contraption that sells millions & changes the way we all live, usually dies intestate. It is the businessman who guessed how to sell it who dies rich. Famous exceptions, such as Edison, were as much entrepreneurs as inventors. The two gifts are seldom combined in the same person — which is why I continue to advocate, for instance, a distinction between authors & publishers, & the retention of the middleman in many other fields.

But Beckett himself was something of an entrepreneur. He knew how to play the artist. He knew how to translate “deep” into postures that could be recognized & accepted in the broad cultural market. And he understood “authenticity,” that mysterious synthetic quality that turns a bottle of fairly commonplace tomato sauce into the immortal Heinz Ketchup.

Repetition is perhaps the key secret here. You keep doing the same thing, in the same way, over & over, & it develops a certain mythic quality — whether or not there is, in the kernel, some real living force. That is why advertising is so important: people must actually be exposed to the repetition, to weave the hypnotic spell. But even without a consistent marketing campaign, in those cultural industries, the artist who sticks rigidly to his guns — to his “product,” to his “unique selling point,” to variations on one gimmick or schtick — has some chance of being noticed. He can then enjoy his 15 minutes of fame, & look forward to a comfortable retirement.

We should not despise such accomplishments. It takes tremendous discipline to “stay on message”; not to wander through boredom or curiosity into new & more interesting fields, & thereby mark yourself as a dilettante. Keep that self-indulgence focused:

          I would like my love to die
          And the rain to be falling on the graveyard
          And on me walking the streets
          Mourning the first & last to love me.

This concluding quatrain in Beckett’s early sequence, “Dieppe,” & several of his other pre-War poems, were my companions in early travelling life. The combination of theatrical self-pity, with obvious fraudulence of intention, is exhilarating; it made me laugh. In many of the other early short lyrics Beckett developed his trademark sick-puppy lubricity, in which a glint of “romantic love” is quickly sabotaged by cross-reference to other crude bodily functions; & the condition humaine is enlivened with medical detail:

          Exeo in a spasm
          Tired of my darling’s red sputum
          From the Portobello Private Nursing Home …

In Waiting for Godot, this mordant, essentially adolescent humour, was raised smartly to the theological level. A little glint of God is provided to catch our attention, & keep us going. And then we are invited to wait, forever. Had it not been for the glint, the ennui wouldn’t be funny. Were it not funny, we would not have to suppress our laugh, out of respect for the “highbrow.”

Meanwhile we may enjoy a style of writing whose spareness should not be confused with minimalism. Beckett learned from James Joyce that excessive concentration could be more fun; that Baroque means happy. But Joyce having patented that, he learned, I suspect from Rudyard Kipling, that less can be more, that subtraction can be creation, & that through reductive self-editing one may leave every sentence haunted, by the ghosts of words meticulously excised. In Beckett, we may even find ghosts of ghosts to spook us.

The trilogy of quasi-novels — Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable — was written (in the original French) about the same time as Waiting for Godot, & may serve as its commentary. What is the human condition now that, as it were, God is so dead it is necessary to reinvent Him? As Vivien Mercier famously first noticed, it is a play in which “nothing happens, twice.” Beckett continued, in theatre, through plays like Krapp’s Last Tape, in which nothing happens & crucial sentences are never completed. By 1969, in his play, Breath, which has no characters & lasts 35 seconds, we have conscious self-parody. Beckett, having failed to make his audience laugh, but having the gift of holding them in rapt attention, is now more or less openly laughing at his audience.

He was, I understand, a great loss to the game of cricket, having played to first class level for Dublin University at an early age — a grittily defensive left-handed opening batsman, & useful medium-paced bowler by all accounts; & the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who could be so described. In France, during the War, he also proved a courageous underground courier, & gun-runner. Stabbed once, almost to death, by a Paris pimp, he forgave the man & refused to press charges, on the argument that the man was no worse than the others, & had after all apologized. Let me not suggest there was anything cheap about Samuel Beckett, who never hesitated to turn his drollery on himself, & dismissed praise for his own valorous behaviour with a flippant, “Boy scout stuff.” A man, unquestionably, of self-possession.

I am inclined to criticize him only as a man of letters; & not, certainly not, for any lack of talent, nor really for lack of sincerity, either. Rather, he allowed himself to fall into this trap of “focused self-indulgence” that has been waiting for almost every modern or post-modern artist. In the absence of a public “cosmology” — a worldview larger than any he could create for himself — each must end as a kind of one-note wonder. Beckett had the equipment of a philosophical mind, & even the capacity for theological inference, but no Faith to swim in. He knew this better than most, & therefore played the dried stick, with winking gallows humour.

The Unnamable ends with a delicious, almost vicious parody of the Molly Bloom interior monologue at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses, concluding not on the feminine “yes I will yes,” but instead on the masculine, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Yes, we are doomed, & in the absence of “Godot” — since we know bloody well he will never arrive — we have no idea what we are waiting for. But since we are operating in a theatre of the absurd, we will go on waiting anyway. It is like the triage station in a Canadian hospital.

This really will not do as a destination. It may hold our attention, but does not get us anywhere. Or rather, it takes us to a place where we may behold nothing, & that is not good. Nor is it improved by mythic repetition, when nothing happens again & again. For as his later works show, Beckett himself got powerfully sick of the nothing he found himself stuck with.