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Tears Of A Clown - Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' at Circa

Tears Of A Clown - Beckett's Waiting for Godot at Circa.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.”
- Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho! (1983).

Those who work for any length of time in the collaborative media hardly need reminding that most theatrical and cinematic careers eventually tumble towards despair. Just as Orson Welles never surpassed Citizen Kane and Tennessee Williams failed to recreate the gorgeous poetry of his youth, so Samuel Beckett's late work was never a patch on his early output. Even the greatest falter, not, as some pruriently prefer to propose, because of the accompanying problems of excess - a surfeit of fame, sex, drink, or drugs. These are always symptoms, never causes. Nearly all artists fail for the same and one reason only - because the things they are trying to do are so damnably difficult.

Beckett's now uniquitous quote has been ripped out of context far to frequently. The entrepreneurial fashion to see a lack of success as an essential stage in the progress toward lucrative self-fulfillment could not be further removed from what Beckett considered to be the necessary defeat of every human endeavour, of all efforts at communication, and ultimately of language itself. In his bleakly mordant worldview, life is always and already either a grand failure - a tragi-comedy in which we are all, like the narrator of Worstward Ho!, sitting in an inexplicably “dim void.” Far from encouraging techie CEOs to achieve their greatest potential, Beckett's primary obsession in Worstword Ho! is the “Longing that all go. Dim go. Void go. Longing go. Vain longing that vain longing go.” This essentially poetic text can be seen as an extended meditation on the inexplicable nature of being and not-being, with the narrator trying to work out the paradox of birth and death, emptiness and presence. Beckett never thought of failure as a necessary step toward wealth or fame. He was interested in Failure with a capital F, period. Precisely the same obsession is equally evident in Waiting for Godot, written thirty-five years earlier.

Fittingly for a writer who became obsessed both with the crucifixion and the random nature of damnation and rebirth, Beckett was born at Foxrock near Dublin on April 13, 1906 - not only a Friday the Thirteenth, but also a Good Friday. He grew up in a Protestant household and, after receiving his BA in Romance languages at Trinity College, moved to Paris, where he became close to fellow expat James Joyce, picking up tips from the master about writing, and helping to finish off his final novel, Finnegan's Wake. Living in extreme poverty for many years entre-deux-guerres, Beckett mainly wrote literary criticism, but the only work from this period still read today is his analysis of Marcel Proust. When WWII broke out, Beckett remained in France and worked courageously alongside resistance fighters, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. His first major novel was Watt (1953), after which he published his classic trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, but it was not until his absurdist drama Waiting for Godot was produced on stage that he became an international celebrity of avant-garde theater.

An intensely private, reclusive, and ascetic writer, Beckett rarely gave interviews, although he was always generous with his time for serious artists who sought him out. Like his mentor Joyce, he scattered references to his favorite authours, especially Dante, throughout his texts. As he matured, however, he went in the opposite direction to that of Joyce, whittling his prose down to the bare essentials. While Joyce’s novels expanded capaciously, late Beckett texts like Endgame, Eh Joe, and Krapp's Last Tape contained fewer and fewer words and some of his final works (like the thirty second Breath) had no words at all. Beckett explored the nature of language, memory, and death, and consequently is often seen as a morbid writer, but he injected his own uniquely mordant sense of Irish humor into many of his plays and novels. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, he did not make a speech and gave away all of his prize money. He died in 1989, just a few months after his wife Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesni, and was interred next to here in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, where they share a simple granite gravestone that follows his directive that it should be "any colour, so long as it's grey.”

En Attendant Godot exploded full blown from Beckett's head in just over three months from October 1948 to January 1949. He claimed he began writing the play “as a relaxation to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.” Lacking any professional experience of the theater, he found play-writing to be a “marvelous, liberating diversion,” a way to capture the immediacy of direct speech on paper, imagining the way in which characters should move and speak within the confines of the printed page and his own mind. Suzanne was integral to its success, assuming the role of his agent and sending the manuscript to multiple producers until they met Roger Blin, who went on to direct the play. Blin's knowledge of French theater combined with Beckett's highly personal vision contributed greatly to its success. The play was published in 1952 and premièred in 1953 in Paris, with an English translation being staged two years later. It was a critical succès d'estime in Paris, but opened in London to mainly negative reviews. The tide only turned after it was championed by Harold Hobson, Kenneth Tynan, and Vivian Mercer, who wrote that Beckett "has achieved a theoretical impossibility - a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice."

The original French manuscript was constantly refined before its first publication in 1952 and remained the only one that Beckett never sold, donated, or gave away. When Blin produced the play for the first time, it was once again cut and polished to make it more striking dramatically, and the text owes much to Blin's acute sense of the theatrical. Beckett, who was still searching for his own dramatic style, recognised the value of Blin's changes and incorporated them into his own English translation. Faber & Faber editor Charles Monteith wrote to Beckett in February 1956, “Do forgive me for writing again but I thought you would be interested to know that Waiting for Godot is being very successful indeed. The book is selling fast and exciting much interest and discussion everywhere. By the way, I wonder whether or not you have ever thought of writing a book of personal memoirs and recollections. If you have we would be more than pleased if you would give us the opportunity of considering it for publication.” To which Beckett tersely replied, “It is good news your Godot is doing well. My only regret is that it is not complete. Some passages are quite meaningless because of the holes. They could have been bridged with a little rewriting. Well, there it is. Afraid my memoirs are unlikely. J’ai moins de souvenirs que si j’avais six mois.”

Despite Beckett's reservations, after a successful off-Broadway opening in Miami, his play went on to became a big hit in the US, and has remained a repertory stable ever since, no doubt in part because of its low production costs. By the time the definitive edition of 1965 emerged, it had been through sixteen years of revision, both on stage and in print, and undergone the Lord Chamberlain's scrutiny for potential obscenity. As Beckett wrote to Monteith in January 1964, “I am returning to you under separate cover the two Godots and corrected proofs of Play. The Lord Chamberlain’s objections, as well as I can remember, were to button it, pubis, erection, clap, arse, piss, ballocksed and farted, pp. 7, 8, 12, 15, 21, 38, 50 and 52 respectively.” Not only is the play performed regularly and frequently around the world, but it has continued to inspire subsequent generations of playwrights. Vacláv Havel, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard all publicly acknowledged their debt to Beckett's example, which has exerted a huge influence on experimental theatre and writing in general, from the Beat generation to the 'happenings' of the 1960s, and beyond.

Despite its international acclaim, Beckett always remained highly reticent about his play, fending off awkward questions and providing a variety of reasons both for its title and his decision to write in French, simply claiming it was easier for him to write "without style" in his adopted language. In a 1972 conversation he confessed with evident glee that he enjoyed “any number of stories to be circulated,” both about himself and his work - ”the more there are the better I like it.” When Blin asked him who or what Godot stood for, he replied enigmatically that the name suggested itself to him by the slang word for boor in French - godillot, godasse - because feet play such a prominent role in the play. Another story is that Beckett encountered a large group of bystanders in the street during the Tour de France and asked what they were doing. “Nous attendant Godot,” they replied, adding that all the cyclists had passed by except the oldest. A third, and possibly apocryphal variation, is that the name derived from a time when Beckett was waiting for a bus on the rue Godot de Mauroy, a Parisian street notorious for prostitution, when he found himself propositioned by a hooker. When he refused her offer, she supposedly demanded what special creature he was saving himself for - was he “waiting for Godot?”

Godot has been variously interpreted as an allegory of the Maquis, a depiction of Irish nationalism, and a portrait of his relationship with Joyce. Less specifically, it has been taken to concern such broad philosophical issues as redemption, rebirth, hope, despair, and organized religion. When pressed for answer, Beckett would snap, “If I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play,” or “if Godot were God, I would have called him that.” He was equally insistent that he did not read Balzac's Le Faiseur (in which the characters wait for a Monsieur Godeau to save them from ruin) until after he wrote his play, and that Strindberg's Dream Play and Yeats' The Cat and the Moon, with its two lame and blind beggars, also had no influence. To the end of his life, he maintained that Godot was ”a bad play” and expressed frustrated amazement at the way in which it had overshadowed what he considered his more important work, the novels.

Nothing much happens in Godot, as Vladimir and Estragon amuse themselves with a conversation that alternates between expectant hope and bitter despair while they wait for Godot to arrive. Vladimir has the ragged aplomb of Buster Keaton, while Estragon is Chaplin at his airiest and fairiest. In both acts (which are of uneven length), they encounter Pozzo, a fat Humpty Dumpty figure with a whip in his fist, and his dumb slave, Lucky. In the second act, the bare branches of a tree suddenly sprout leaves - “Not,” as Beckett insisted, “to show hope or inspiration, but only to record the passage of time” - and a young boy appears to tell them that Godot regrets he is unable to come today, but is sure to show up tomorrow. It is the same message as yesterday. Nonetheless, the “tatterdemalion Stoics,” as Tynan described them, wait.

Tynan opened his review of the 1955 London production at the Arts Theater by noting that “a special virtue attends to plays which remind the drama of how much it can do without and still exist ... It possesses no plot, no climax, no denouement.” Instead, it simply has a situation and a degree of suspense, since it deals wth the impatience of two tramps waiting beneath a tree for their appointment with Monsieur Godot. Tynan astutely observed that the drama “arrives at the customhouse, as it were, with no luggage, no passport, and nothing to declare; yet it gets through … by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than any in the books. A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.” Passing time together in the dark is not only what drama is about, Beckett insists, but also what life is all about. Existence depends on those metaphysical Micawbers who will go on waiting, against all rational argument, for something or someone who may one day explain the purpose of living. Becket's two tramps pass the time of day just as we, the audience, are passing the time of night. Were we not in the theatre, we would, like them, be clowning around, aimlessly quarrelling and bickering amongst ourselves - simply, as one of them suggests,”to give us the impression that we exist.”

Beckett wanted to recreate a circus or vaudeville atmosphere in a context of radical yet dramatic simplicity upon which he could superimpose a pastiche of his ordinary thoughts and conversations. He wrote the play in a post-War period of limbo, when he was waiting for his publishers and the general public to recognise the importance of his fiction. He therefore chose to write about the idea of 'killing time' in anticipation of something important that was about to happen, directly inserting snatches of overheard conversation, scraps of song lyrics, references to his past reading, and demotic expressions he found himself using frequently in everyday speech. The text remains unique because it is deeply rooted in the singularities of his daily life and experience, while at the the same time sufficiently abstract to possess a universal relevance for a global audience. Of all the English-language modernists, Beckett's work represents the most sustained attack on the realist tradition. He opened up the possibility of theater and fiction to dispense with conventional plot and the unities of time and place in order to focus on essential components of the human condition.

This is the second time Ross Jolly has directed the play and he brings both experience and pace to his Circa Theater production, while Jeff Kingsford-Brown as Estragon (Gogo) and Andrew Foster as Vladimir (Didi) demonstrate a marvelous ear for Beckett's rhythms, imbuing the mis-matched pair of tramps with a compassionate lunacy. Physically, Peter Hambleton embodies the whip-cracking Pozzo to the life, even as he overplays his hand vocally. Jack Buchanan's punk Lucky is anguish made comic with an amphetamine urgency, perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the production, which depicts the agony of adolescence in terms of torn jeans and bovver boots. Marcus McShane's deliquescent lighting and Andrew Foster's set design are minimally evocative and entirely modernist.

To state that humanity is waiting for a sign that is late in coming is a platitude none but an illiterate would interpret as making claims to profundity. Jolly's Waiting for Godot seamlessly interweaves elements of the music hall and the parable to present a view of life that banishes the sentimentality of the former as much as it denies the latter's fulsome uplift. All that really emerges in the end is that the master needs the slave as much as the slave needs the master, since they provide each other with a paradoxically spurious sense of purpose. The audience is reminded of the great double acts, as much Morecambe and Wise as Laurel and Hardy, entangled together in an endless celluloid loop of surreal slapstick. We may cry - even die - laughing, but as Joni Mitchell astutely observed, it's the same release ...

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