Vladimir's Carrot

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

For a work of literary criticism, Vladimir’s Carrot: Modern Drama and the Modern Imagination has provoked unusually strong and distinctly polarized critical responses. Some reviewers have acclaimed John Peter’s book; George Steiner, for example, described it as a “major study” and praised Peter for his courage in pursuing unfashionable moral questions. Others, however, such as the drama critic Richard Gilman, have been scathing in their dismissal of Peter’s work.

Peter, chief drama critic at The Sunday Times, London, has written a curious cultural essay categorizing works of art as either “open” and therefore approved, or “closed” and therefore deplored. Despite his book’s subtitle, Peter devotes only about one fourth of the text to a discussion of modern drama; the rest consists of highly selective critiques of such alleged creators or ideologues of closed art as Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Peter begins his study by summarizing the plots of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.) and Henrik Ibsen’s Gengangere (1881; Ghosts, 1885). When his wife, Clytemnestra, welcomes Agamemnon back from the Trojan War and asks him to step on some crimson cloths spread on the ground before him, she thereby invites him to commit sacrilege because these cloths were precious tapestries used as hangings in temples; ancient Greek audiences would have known this. Similarly, when Ghosts refers to Mrs. Alving’s reading of books challenging conventional public opinion and religious piety, these books represent a precious freedom of thought that she has gained the courage to affirm, thus revealing much about her mental emancipation. Yet when Vladimir gives his friend Estragon a carrot in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), the play fails to explain what the carrot says about these two tramps or their world. This disturbs Peter. He asks, what do Vladimir and Estragon do? What do they live on? What kind of families have they? How long have they been on the road? What sort of appointment have they with Godot? What is the source of Pozzo’s income? Do Pozzo and Lucky ever arrive at the fair?

What Peter demands is a clear understanding of time and place, causation and community. He gets them in Agamemnon and Ghosts; he fails to get them in Waiting for Godot. He salutes Aeschylus’ play for dramatizing conflicts between human will and divine ordinance, and for affirming—by the end of the trilogy—his faith in civic justice as opposed to primitive tribal revenge. He admires Ibsen’s play for presenting a firm texture connecting his characters’ past, present, and future. Waiting for Godot, however, fails to answer Peter’s questions. Its characters function in an endless present and reveal no meaningful past; its few events have no evident causes—indeed, Beckett does not seem interested in precise causes or illuminating explanations of conduct. According to Peter, Beckett’s sole concern in the play is to offer a picture of life as a static condition of endless waiting, never to be rewarded with any substantive fulfillment.

Hence, whereas Agamemnon and Ghosts are open plays, responsive to what Peter regards as pertinent questions, Waiting for Godot is a closed play, frustrating his inquiries, presenting a vision of the world which the reader or spectator can only intuitively accept or reject. Peter grants that “This play may turn out to be the single most important event in the theatre since Aeschylus.” The admission saddens him, for “the social and psychological density of Beckett’s characters is almost nil,” and “insofar as morality has to do with conduct, . . . Waiting for Godot seems to have nothing moral about it whatever.”

Peter characterizes a work such as Waiting for Godot as a “perlocutionary act,” borrowing this term from an analysis of the psychology of German totalitarianism by the historian J. P. Stern. Stern called the speeches of Adolf Hitler “perlocutionary” because “they involved no interlocution, or proper communication in both directions.” Peter then throws his most shattering bomb: Is there, he asks,such a thing as the totalitarianism of the creative mind? . . . Could it be that, in an art which demands submission and no inquisitive thought, there resides an essential amorality? If art is the creation of communicating worlds, can there be such a thing as totalitarian art?

Peter never goes so far as to state, in so many words, that Beckett and the other dramatists who wrote what he considers closed plays, or the directors who staged them, were thereby creating totalitarian art. He occasionally comes close to such a damning indictment. He detests August Strindberg’s late works, such as the three-part Till Damaskus (1898, 1904; To Damascus, 1913), Ett drömspel (1902; A Dream Play, 1912), and Spöksonaten (1907; The Ghost Sonata, 1916), for “their abrupt, apparently arbitrary and nihilistic...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

British Book News. April, 1987, p. 223.

Choice. XXV, December, 1987, p. 615.

Encounter. LXX, January, 1988, p. 39.

Listener. CXVIII, July 2, 1987, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, November 22, 1987, p. 30.

The Observer. June 28, 1987, p. 22.

The Times Educational Supplement. July 3, 1987, p. 20.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 21, 1987, p. 908.