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Original Sin and Dog Biscuits

The danger of such treatment is that the artistic manipulation may becometoo obvious. It becomes so in Three Sisters, where what we should see as the hand of fate often becomes too plainly the hand of Chekhov. Each time an escape route opens for one of the characters, we watch Chekhov shut if off; what should seem an irrefutable condition of life becomes too much a prearranged game of chess. Unlike The Cherry Orchard, where the decisive element is the weakness of the principal characters, Three Sisters is decided by the strength of the author.

When we compare Beckett’s management of the same boring and suffering raw material, we find the most interesting differences as well as certain similarities. Chekhov’s array of colonels, doctors, schoolteachers, parish philosophers has been swept away, along with the pianos and the sofas and the dresses and the sets. We are down to two fantastic characters struggling in a fantasy world: there is not a trace of “reality” in their parable existence, no matter how hard they may search for fleas or play with their boots. Surely, the beauty of Waiting for Godot lies in the marvelousness of its vision—the wonderful unreality of two fantasy creatures yearning toward one that is never seen? Nor should we forget the small boy who serves as go-between, a visionary messenger of the first order.

These visionary and fantastic elements must be stressed at all costs: the fact that Godot can, and should, be played as if it were “real” is quite beside the point: all good fairy tales must be read as if they were authentic. In its conception, Godot leaves little to be desired: it is the author’s choice of a vision that moves us so deeply, although we may waste hours of intellectual, and even pedantic, thought trying to replace the vision with philosophical reflections. As to the religious nature of the play—that which adds so greatly to its parable quality—one notes that this has often been denied and is even considered to be nonexistent. If such is the case, it shows extreme carelessness on Beckett’s part. When a play is called Waiting for Godot and opens with two bizarre characters discussing the fate of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, both clergymen and critics are right to suppose that they are witnessing for the first time the haunting of the music hall by the ghost of the New Testament.

So much for the conception; but what of the dramatization? Does the vision awe us so much—does it carry us along so effectively—that we delude ourselves into believing that the dramatization is well done? This would seem to be the case, judging by the critical essays in the books on Beckett. But it is a false conclusion, and should be corrected. Godot is a badly flawed play: it demonstrates the author’s inability to handle the problem of his subject. Unlike Chekhov, he has only two characters; unlike Chekhov, he has only one scene. Yet he must contrive somehow to keep boredom going for two acts without being boring: he must invent enough incidents to prolong a fantasy that is embodied in a mere two men and a boy.

But this turns out to be impossible: before very long all the antidotes to boredom have been used up—the jokes, the boots, the fleas, the whistling, the hat, the aimless pacings, the desperate attempts at a conversation and reminiscence. Either the play must be made shorter, or new characters must be intruded to help carry it through: the former is the aesthetic solution, the latter the makeshift. And the latter is the one that Beckett chooses, wedging into both acts two new characters who have nothing to do with his play and are ruinous to its form.

A vast amount has been written about the significance of these intruders, Pozzo and Lucky, as if it were impossible for a distinguished author to make a clumsy mistake. It would seem clear, however, that these are two characters borrowed from another play, creatures of some other vision as yet unformed by the author. When they go off in act 1, they leave behind the following exchange:

VLADIMIR: That passed the time.

ESTRAGON: It would have passed in any case.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but not so rapidly.

This conclusion is correct.

It is possible that Godot was made to extend itself in this crude way because it was written at a time when a shorter version would not have found a producer. One mentions this possibility because many of those who write treatises on Beckett and others never seem to know that authors are actual people who find themselves in actual situations. This leads to many misunderstandings, of which the worst is that of making all their necessities into virtues.

End Game is just the opposite of Godot in two important particulars—the vision is far less beautiful, the execution is perfectly undeformed. The length—one long act running for an hour and a half—is exactly right; the four characters, all present from the beginning, justify their existence by seeming to be exactly associated, one with another, and inhabiting as of right the cavernous tomb of their fate. In this setup, the reflection of the author’s mind is extremely pretty too, for here, in their trash cans, are the very perpetrators of “the original sin of having been born,” the very source of life’s alternation between suffering and boredom. An excuse is thought necessary for making them small enough to fit into a refuse disposal unit, and this is supplied by taking off their legs in consequence of a bicycle accident. It is a very bad explanation but not one that we need remark upon, except to say that in all absurd cases it is better not to explain at all. Beckett’s more thoughtful admirers could easily have pointed out that parents shrink as they get older.

This play is like a perfect capsule: it looks like one, it is shaped like one, and it contains all the author’s thoughts. (Is it a coincidence, one wonders, that the best works of Ionesco [The Chairs], Genet [The Maids], Tennessee Williams [Suddenly Last Summer] are also one-acters, or should we conclude that the contemporary vision is intensified by compression but falls apart with expansion?) If it lacks entirely the magic of Godot, it gains hugely in both austerity and humor. The tragicomic balance is admirably held: it speaks volumes for the author’s skill that Original Sin and dog biscuits, blindness and badinage, can be pushed into the region of the tragifarcical and still appear to be all of a piece. Though it plays excellently, the craftsman should study it on the printed page, where he will see displayed the economy of the lines, the shortness of the words, the neat disposal of the bare bones. Finally, the central character, sitting dead center in his chair, may be admired as the perfect keystone of the whole structure—a monster made almost noble by mordancy, pessimism, and unyielding selfishness.

End Game marks the completion of Beckett’s work. The plays which follow it are comparative trifles—merely the dying chords of the old notes. There is nothing more to be said, and—which is more serious—the saying of it becomes more and more boring. The struggle to attain to a final inescapable tightness—to slow burial in sand, to reduction into an urn—becomes only a Puritanical mania, an irresistible insistence on immobility. The very stage is sucked into this vortex and dies of boredom and strangulation. As the sand rises in Happy Days, it is not Winnie’s protruding head that moves us but the last glimpse of Beckett’s.

An apology must be made for not discussing Beckett’s novels in this article. There are two reasons for this: one is too little space, the other is too much boredom. “To find a form for the mess—that is the artist’s task now,” Beckett has said, and the form is found only in the theater, the mess remains in the novels. As rubbish heaps for the academician they are, of course, of priceless value, yielding tome-bearing lodes of disquisition and analysis and having much to tell us of Descartes and bicycles, Malebranche and crutches. But those whom we are now fornicating to propagate—posterity, that is to say—will have other fish to fry, other chairs to fill, other boredoms to be boring about. In proportion as the novels sink from sight, the two plays will stand alone.

There remains the matter of “liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.” Chekhov certainly supplied these, because he believed that later generations might well succeed in getting somewhere: the problem was to dispose of the present poor trash. But Beckett, himself a product of such great white hopes, has no such consolation to offer: a man whose quarrel is with the Book of Genesis can hardly offer humanity a retreat in Moscow. Chekhov is the temporal writer, for whom times change; so, even, is Celine, whose fantasy is far more powerful than Beckett’s and whose characters are far more grandiose and compelling. But Beckett is contemporary only in his insistence that the times never can change.

The liberation and comfort that he can be said to offer are purely aesthetic—as indeed they should be. How well is it done? That is the only question we ask in the end; and if the answer is that it is well done, we obtain comfort and liberation from sharing this quality. It is usually our mistake, however, to confuse the author’s point of view with the form he has discovered for it: when the second is admirable, we give him the Nobel Prize for the first.

1) Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic by Lawrence E. Harvey. Princeton, 464 pp., $12.50.

A long and learned study of the poems, the early fiction, and critical writings, with particular attention to literary and philosophical influences. Carries weight in more than one respect.

2) Samuel Beckett Now edited by Melvin J. Friedman. University of Chicago, 276 pp., $7.95.

Thirteen essays by sundry hands on Beckett’s themes, meanings, aims, and methods. Includes such headings as “Beckett’s Metaphysics of Choiceless Awareness,” “Molloy or the Quest for Meaninglessness.” Good for lovers of intricate carburetors.

3) Samuel Beckett: His Works and His Critics by Raymond Federman and John Fletcher. University of California, 400 pp., $15.00.

A very useful book. Lists everything that anyone has ever written about Beckett (including Beckett) with dates, where published, etc. The grand total is about 2,000 pieces.

4) Samuel Beckett: A Study of His Novels by Eugene Webb. University of Washington, 192 pp., $6.95.

Resumés of all Beckett’s novels, including comparisons between French and English texts. The prose is as plain as the subject permits.

5) Twentieth Century Interpretations of Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable edited by J. D. O’Hara. Prentice-Hall, 128 pp., $4.95; $1.45 (paper).

Nine essays, chiefly about the novels, by eight writers. Much stress both on technical construction and Beckett’s personal involvement. One essay asks the most difficult question of all: “Who is Beckett?”

6) Samuel Beckett: A New Approach by G. C. Barnard. Dodd, Mead, 144 pp.,$4.50.

Declares that “Beckett’s interest in schizophrenia…seems unaccountably to have been unnoticed by previous commentators” and proceeds to make good the lack. Concludes that all Beckett’s characters are schizoids in search of a “central self.” This may or may not answer the question raised by book No. 5.

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