Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 6)

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Last Updated on July 3, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16290

Beckett, Samuel 1906–

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Beckett, an Irish-born Nobel Laureate, lives in Paris and has written mainly in French since 1937. He is a major dramatist, as well as a poet, critic, novelist, essayist, translator, and short story writer. His plays, metaphysical enigmas, are generally regarded as prototypical of existential theater. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Waiting for Godot … is a poetic harlequinade—tragicomic as the traditional commedia dell'arte usually was: full of horseplay, high spirits, cruelty and a great wistfulness. Though the content is intellectual to a degree, the surface, which is at once terse, rapid and prolix in dialogue, is very much like a minstrel show or vaudeville turn.

The form is exactly right for what Beckett wishes to convey. Complete disenchantment is at the heart of the play, but Beckett refuses to honor this disenchantment by a serious demeanor. Since life is an incomprehensible nullity enveloped by colorful patterns of fundamentally absurd and futile activities (like a clown's habit clothing a corpse), it is proper that we pass our time laughing at the spectacle.

We pass the time, Beckett tells us, waiting for a meaning that will save us—save us from the pain, ugliness, emptiness of existence. Perhaps the meaning is God, but we do not know Him. He is always promised us but He never recognizably appears. Our life is thus a constant waiting, always essentially the same, till time itself ceases to have significance or substance. "I can't go on like this," man forever cries; to which the reply is, "That's what you think." "What'll we do? What'll we do?" man repeatedly wails. The only answer given—apart from suicide, which is reticently hinted at—is to wait: "In the meantime let us try to converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent." (pp. 63-4)

[The] play may be said to be too long, too simple, too clear, too symmetrical a fairytale, because it is an abstraction. Abstract art, it often occurs to me, is far too logical and direct as compared to the more "realistic" art. Too soon we see through to its meaning. Hamlet is in many ways still a puzzle to us, because its abstract significance is part of the complex stuff of its material, which being humanly concrete must be somewhat elusive. In Waiting for Godot almost everything is named. When abstraction is so clear, our attention weakens. As soon as we perceive the play's design everything else appears supererogatory. (p. 64)

We all, at times, feel as Beckett does (so much, alas, in the contemporary world gives us reason to do so), but in the sum of everyday living we give this mood the lie. Beckett is what in modern times we call a genius: he has built a cosmos out of the awareness of a passing moment. But what saves humanity is its mediocrity: its persistence in becoming wholly involved in the trivia of day-to-day physical concerns out of which arise all our struggles and aspirations, even to the most exalted level. It is this "stupid" appetite for life, this crass identity with it, which is its glory, sometimes called divine. (pp. 64-5)

Harold Clurman, "Samuel Beckett" (1956), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 63-5.

A pattern of uncertainties and questions, an action demonstrating the absence of action—here we have the essence of [Waiting for Godot ]. And if we look at it a little more closely—and without any of the preconceived notions of what drama ought to be, we can see quite clearly what Beckett wants to express: human beings waiting for the arrival of someone or something with...

(The entire section contains 16290 words.)

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