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Original Sin and Dog Biscuits

Collected Works of Samuel Beckett

by Samuel Beckett
Grove Press, 16 volumes pp., $9.50

A member of the Swedish Academy said of Samuel Beckett’s winning the Nobel Prize: “In the realms of annihilation, the writing of Samuel Beckett rises like a Miserere from all mankind, its muffled minor key sounding liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.”

Grove Press has made this benison the signature tune of their Collected Works of Samuel Beckett: sixteen times it sings to the reader from as many blurbs. “Important, if true,” said Kinglake of the Christian religion, and this is rather the sentiment that is stirred up in us as we ponder the Swedish call to faith for the sixteenth time. Certainly, at first glance, it seems preposterous, for surely Beckett has never come even to one conclusion that could excite a spirit of liberation or comfort in anyone at all. Surely, even the wonderfully funny music-hall lines that flash like UFOs across his bogs are only intended to show that there is nothing like a little cheerfulness to enhance the misery of things, and that no suffering can look really poignant if the victim does not take to malarkey for refuge?

Chekhov, who dealt with much the same material as Beckett, felt so strongly in this matter about his own plays that he left emphatic orders as to the need for cheerfulness in the presentation of despair: “Don’t make a mournful face in a single act. People who have borne a grief in their hearts for a long time, and are used to it, only whistle and often sink into thought….”

No director of Chekhov has ever paid any attention to these instructions. They are too difficult to digest and even more difficult to direct; they ask that the characters play in apparent contradiction to their condition, that they show in real lightheartedness the full gravity of their sorrow. And most of us take the same line as Chekhov’s directors; we hate to spoil what seems a perfect agony by dousing it with splashes of fun. We like our sorrows straight: to cry “Lord, why hast Thou given me this cup to drink?” and only find that some joker has dropped a frog in it spoils the whole booze-up for us.

But the poor artist, who has made tragicomedy his precious medium and knows it to be the subtlest of art forms, is bound to deplore such insensitivity. The happiness he obtains from spicing wretchedness with dashes of happy poison is willful, perverse, and even morbid, but it is perfectly genuine and full of wonderful dramatic possibilities. For tragicomedy is not just a temperamental kink, it is the result of many years’ hard work, and if the work is not presented properly, the whole point of it is lost. If the tragedy is stressed too lugubriously (as it always is in productions of Chekhov), the result is commonplace and ponderous. If the comedy is allowed to take over, the pain is forgotten—a lapse that utterly disgraces the author, who never intended his comic stabs in the back to bring “liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.”

To get the balance just right in tragicomedy is extremely difficult. In his youth, the tragicomedian is already pledged to suffering, but all the natural vitality of his young self is there to argue against the glum pact. What has inclined the young author to make such a pact at all is a personal matter and of no aesthetic interest: authors come in all shapes and sizes and receive different visions of reality, none of which is accurate, let alone conclusive, but all of which are interesting and even admirable if they are put to good use.

Beckett’s vision—or illusion, if we like to call it that—was strong and vivid as early as 1931, when he wrote his passionate essay on Proust: all that is to come in later years is present already in such phrases as “the haze of our smug will to live,” “our pernicious and incurable optimism,” “that desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love.” Here we are told plainly that “tragedy is the statement of an expiation,” and that this expiation is of Original Sin—“of the original and eternal sin…of having been born.” And we are finally assured that the pendulum we call life

…oscillates between these two terms: Suffering—that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom…that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.

Here is the sum of things, later to be shaped into Godot and End Game, and all we need to say of them as convictions is that they are universal, not particular, for all time, not for today. We may take it for granted that the author is as distressed by the horrors of this century as other men are, but we must remind ourselves always that such horrors are quite extraneous to the theme of a man who is protesting against the fact of human life itself. The “original and eternal sin…of having been born”—the phrase is too foolish to stand up to inspection, but as a dramatic starting point, a belief on which to build a vivid fiction of endless suffering and boredom, it is not only adequate but splendidly broad-based. It embraces the existence of every man who ever lived and it leaves no room for excuses, modifications, statements of optimism. However absurd it may be intellectually, it is highly congenial theatrically—and congenial too, probably, to most intellectual minds.

Most of us suffer from the curious conviction that wisdom and unhappiness are synonymous—that we can learn more about reality from Dante and Leopardi than from Rabelais and Groucho Marx. We regard the former as the spokesmen of truth, the latter as the palliatives of truth—amiable kibitzers but not wise instructors. When we are in bed with the right woman or devouring an excellent book, we never pause to ask: “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why was I ever born?” We seem to feel no need for such inquiries. But we are unable to equate such delicious contentments with wisdom: this we find only in the man who assures us, as Beckett does in Proust, that “our life is a succession of Paradises successively denied, that the only true Paradise is the Paradise that has been lost….” This being our point of view, it is not surprising that we have little respect for paradise and, no matter how often we find ourselves in it, fly in the name of wisdom to the more intellectual and chichi discontents of hell.

More Pricks Than Kicks, a collection of stories intended for a novel and published three years after Proust, is an amusing early effort to attain the wisdom of perfect suffering. The vein is already tragicomical, but the balance of the mind is badly disturbed. Although the author is by no means afflicted by “incurable optimism,” lightness and genuine gaiety keep upsetting his despondency. Jokes that should properly make the suffering keener only take the edge off it, providing personal amusement instead of general depression, e.g., “His aunt was in the garden, tending whatever flowers die at that time of year.” When the young couple ascend a hill to commit suicide and the girl takes a long, nervous swig from their whisky bottle, her fellow-suicide shouts angrily: “And leave us a drop in the bottle. I’ll need it when you’re gone.”

This burst of jocularity could be contained very nicely in Beckett’s later work, where the fabric of total pessimism is too strong to be ruptured by hilarity. But More Pricks Than Kicks is too early a work: in it, being miserable is still only a matter of principle and cannot afford to slip on banana skins. Moreover, though most of the stories are grossly overwritten, in the genre manner of the Wordy Thirties, an evocative simplicity keeps intruding on them, displaying the hills and fields of Ireland in a positively pleasing light and actually causing the hero to exclaim at one point: “What a splendid thing it is, when all is said and done, to be young and vigorous.” Beckett, one sees, is still at the stage of juvenile delinquency when happiness is acceptable and pricks pernicious enough to act as if there were no sin in being born. The long struggle to achieve a predominance of kicks has hardly begun: what will become second nature to the author eventually is now only Puritanism taking its first practice runs.

The tragicomic method is perfected in Waiting for Godot and End Game. To dwell on their content, to expound their meaning, is only to stuff more raw meat into the mincers of the academies—as witness the books listed below, all of which are devoted more to content than to form, to philosophy rather than artistry. It may seem wrong to ignore them, but in a relatively short study of Beckett it seems sensible simply to hang on to what he himself has given us and try to draw a fairly clean line through what is otherwise a hopelessly involved maze.

The oscillation of the pendulum between suffering and boredom, the expiation of the original sin of being born—this, he has told us, is man’s life and his own raw material; and the plays confirm his words. Posterity’s interest will be in the manner in which he handles this material—the forms he finds for it, the manner in which he represents it dramatically. Like all raw material, it is very old and has been picked over by numerous artists already, but Chekhov has been its finest illustrator on the stage and it is to him we should return in any preliminary study of Beckett.

The boredom of waiting for something that never comes and the suffering that comes with the endurance of boredom—these conditions of life are marked strongly in The Cherry Orchard and may be found even in Chekhov’s early play Platonov. But they are best expressed in Three Sisters, a play that shows us very well how much manipulation reality requires if it is to make an effective appearance on the stage.

In real life, boredom may appear simply as boredom, but it cannot do so on the stage for three whole hours without being so intolerably boring as to put the audience to sleep. For the stage, boredom must be dramatized, it must be presented in artistic, not natural, forms. It must be shown in the act of denying itself, of pretending that it does not exist, of pressing on hopefully, of believing that tomorrow will be different. Life does not demand action, but the theater does: a whole plot, involving twenty-odd people, must be invented and put into constant motion in order to show that all motion is useless, all plots fruitless—Moscow, like Godot, is an unattainable dream; suffering and boredom are real and forever.

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