WAITING FOR GODOT -- Western AND Korean
The American scholar Stanley Gontarsky recently made a study of the earliest manuscripts of WFG which are preserved in an American University Library -- he found, as with a number of other plays by Beckett, that the earliest version contains much more realistic material, elements from Beckett's own life experience than the later versions. For example, in the earliest WFG the character who is now called Estragon was called Levi -- and obviously Jewish. In fact, it is fairly clear that the germ of WFG was Beckett's own experience during the war, when he had to flee from Paris, where he had, as an Irishman, a neutral in German-occupied France, been working for an underground resistance group. When this group was betrayed, he and his later wife fled, at a moment's notice to the then unoccupied part of the country in the far South, the Vaucluse (It is mentioned even in the present French text of WFG) and lived there hidden in a small hotel in a remote village. What were they doing? Waiting for the war to end, and nobody could foretell when that would ever be, so Beckett and Suzanne and the other refugees there, most of whom were Jews, passed the time trying to find topics for conversation - and when they ran out of one topic they had to find another one. That is the pattern of the conversations in WFG.
Of course, that is only the remote germ of the idea - as Gontarsky has shown in his book THE INTENT OF UNDOING - Beckett than gradually reduces the realistic original material, in order to extract the deeper, eternal, essential human situation - so that the play can become truly universal. That is the case in WFG : the general situation of waiting has been, as it were, extracted from the particular experience that Beckett had had - he used his waiting for the war to end as the starting point for the exploration of waiting in human life in general. We all wait for something for most of our lives - at school we wait for the end of the school year, and the exam results, at university we wait for our degree, then we wait to meet someone to get married to, and then we wait for a better job, and so on and so on. And when one wait is over, immediately another wait starts. Life itself is thus a kind of waiting - and life is determined by the fact that being is only possible in time, thus waiting becomes the exemplar of life in time itself.
WFG is a play about waiting for something that does not come or if it comes, will not be as good as it seemed originally. When WFG was for the first time performed in Poland in the sixties, everybody there knew who Godot was - the freedom from the Russians, which can never come; when the play was done in Algeria during the French rule there, the audience of landless peasants immediately knew that the play was about the promised land reform that never came. And when WFG was done in the penitentiary of San Quentin in America, the convict paper wrote that the convicts all knew Godot was the release for which they were all waiting. Well, we all know what Koreans are waiting for! It is Beckett's ability, by reducing the realistic elements from which he started out in his own experience - to achieve that universal appeal, and that great simplicity which makes his work so outstanding.
Now this movement away from realism in the writing must be parallelled in the staging. To me it is immensely interesting to see how the staging also gradually has moved away from realism. I did not see the first production of the play in Paris in 1953, but the first London production in 1955 by Peter Hall was fairly realistic in the acting. The tramps were very realistically portrayed, and Pozzo was a recognisable Irish upper-class landowner. Only Lucky had, by necessity, to be a fantasticated character.
Beckett himself, in his production at the Schiller Theater in Berlin in the early seventies, emphasised the relationship of the two main characters to the pairs of comics that used to be so pupular in the silent cinema - or the early talkies : Laurel and Hardy are the best known example. Beckett reversed the contrast between the two - he made the fat one very short, the tall one very thin, thus they become patterned on another famous pair of silent comics, the Danish actors who became world famous under their French names of Pat and Patachon. So Beckett deliberately made these characters unrealistic by introducing a reference back to a known example from the cinema.
The present Korean production seems to me admirable in that it goes even further on this road, by making Vladimir and Estragon into real clowns, whose movements are so closely co-ordinated that they at times become almost balletic. This emphasises the generalty of the piece even further and underlines its profound inner truth, which after all, makes this play one of the major myths of our time - a myth being a statement that may not be literally true, but is essentially truer than any other type of statement ever can be.
This high degree of stylisation seems to me to be derived from the tradition of Korean theatre itself, the whole Far Estern emphasis on a non-realistic approach. In many ways this approach suits Beckett admirably - it has been pointed out that there is a connection between Beckett and Far Eastern theatre through the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, whom Beckett acknowledges as one of the major literary influences upon himself : Yeats consciously tried to imitate the Japanese Noh play and created a symbolical dance drama.
Now Beckett is, on the surface, much more realistic that Yeats' highly poetical verse plays but the experience of the Korean Godot with its balletic clowning greatly illuminated to me how deeply Beckett's use of symbols - the tree in WFG, the mound of Earth in HAPPY DAYS, the funerary urns in PLAY ultimately derives from Yeats' use of such symbols.
Where I have some doubts on this production is at the ending : It has been said that WFG is a play in which nothing happens - twice. The structure of the play seems to me to be its main message : namely the fact that structurally the first act is being repeated almost exactly in the second. That means that the second act should end, as it does in the text, exactly as the first : "Let's go" with the stage direction "they do not move". In this production the second act ends with - the very beautiful - image of the two tramps sillhouetted in a pose at both sides of the tree - almost a religious icon. This is a very beautiful image, but it has an air of finality about it, which I think contrary to Beckett's intention of suggesting that there is nothing final in the ending - that the next day will be like the two previous ones, that Pozzo and Lucky will again be encountered, in some different form, but basically in the same type of encounter, and so on ad infinitum.
Beckett is deeply concerned with the concept of endlessness : that is the meaning of the song that Vladimir sings at the beginning of the second act - which is an old German student song, an early example of nonsense verse : about the dog who came into the kitchen and stole the cook's egg, whereupon the cook killed him with a spoon, and then there came many dogs and buried him and put a gravestone on his grave on which you could read about the dog who came into the kitchen and stole an egg and was killed by the cook and buried with a gravestone on which you could read about the dog who came into the kitchen and so on - ad infinitum.
The structure of Godot is I think meant to suggest a similar sequence and therefore the finality of the ending in this production which, seems to me, elevates the two men almost into saints in an icon, boddhisatvas on a stele, introduced a new element of meaning, as if the two tramps had reached their goal of salvation through nirvana. But perhaps Beckett's pessimism is too Western for a Far Eastern audience.
Of course the same desire to find a religious meaning in WFG is also a feature of many European and American production of the play that I have seen : in one American production, the tree with its branches was almost like the outline of a crucifixion by Mathias Gruenewald ?? the crucified Christ. The discussion about Christ on the cross and the two thieves on either side of him certainly suggests that the tree is in some way the Cross. But this does not mean that the salvation of the characters is suggested. On the contrary, Beckett once told me that the play was based on a saying of Saint Augustine : do not despair, one of the thieves was saved, but do not rejoice too much, one of the thieves was damned. When I aked : does that mean that the play has a Christian message or that you are a Christian, Beckett said, Far from it. It is merely the symmetry of the thought that I find as admirable. This emphasises that the rightness of the symmetry and close co-ordination of the balletic movement of the two men in the Korean production, but it points away from any finality of the ending.
after all, is also the message contained, if you try to extract its meaning
in Lucky's long speech - that if there is a God he does not care about human
beings. I like the way the speech was handled here : as a monotonous, mechanical
utterance which does not stop. In most European productions of the play the
speech starts low and becomes ever more wild and frantic. I thought the way
it was done here was very effective : as if Lucky had become a machine that
could not be stopped. I also liked the idea that Lucky seemed a big and strong
man, almost bigger than Pozzo. Usually in European and American productions
Lucky is very small and Pozzo very big and fat. Here the Pozzo figure stood
for a colonialist, perhaps a Japanese master and his colonial slave. I have
been asked to make comparisons between the other productions of WFG I have seen
in Europe and America and this one. It is not easy : Beckett's text is so precise
and economical that it does not allow for many variations. Whenever variations
are introduced, they tend to spoil the play.
Beckett himself is very strict about these things. Some time ago there was a big dispute about a production of Endgame in Boston where the director had transferred the whole play into a New York subway after the third world war. Beckett almost prohibited the production but finally a compromise was reached : the programme had to state that this was against Beckett's intentions and had to print the original description of the setting from the stage directions.
As far as WFG is concerned, I don't know of any such basic alterations of the setting. There must be a road and there must be a tree. Most of the variations concern the tree itself. It is supposed to be a small, meagre tree, and when, in the second act it is supposed to bear a few leaves, these are supposed to be very small and miserable. Here, in one or two productions I have seen, liberties were taken, I have already mentioned the one where the tree became an elaborate picture of the crucified Christ. In another one, the leaves were very green and abundant, turning the second act into a very much more optimistic symbol. In the Seoul production I felt that the desire for symmetry was perhaps a little too strong. Not only was the tree right in the centre of the stage, it also stood on a hillock, thus emphasising its centrality. And the leaves also were exactly symmetrical. Well, the director, clearly understood Beckett's admiration for symmetry. In Beckett's own production of the play, the tree was slighly off center.
On the whole the clowning in European and American productions of the play is more brutal, and the gags more savage than in this very gentle, balletic Korean production. For example : Beckett himself has a rather weak bladder, and he excuses himself often to go to the toilet. He has given this weak bladder to ladimir. And what is more : with such a weak bladder it is painful to laugh. So I remember both in Beckett's production in Berlin and in a production at the Royal Court Theatre in London with Beckett in the background, where Nicol Williamson played Vladimir, everytime Vladimir wanted to laugh, at the same time his features were distorted by pain. A wonderful expression of the play's genre, which, after all, is subtitled "a tragi-comedy".
Similarly, the scene, where first Pozzo and Lucky and then Vladimir and Estragon too, fall and lie on the ground, is played very much more brutally and painfully in most of the Western productions I have seen. Here Pozzo and Lucky lay still on the ground, in a heap of suffering then become a very powerful symbol of "fallen" humanity. This greater brutality of European and American production comes I think from the fact that Beckett is relying on the tradition of European music hall and American burlesque - both low-class, proletarian and physical forms of folk theatre. The kick that Lucky gives Estragon derives from the brutal kicks that burlesque comics dealt their partners. The same is true of the coarseness of the talk, which at first, in London schocked audiences immensely. I don't know to what extent this comes over in Korean, or indeed, if there is a tradition of such coarse folk theatre in Korea.
It was the music hall and burlesque tradition which became world-wide with the coming of the cinema : Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Max Brothers made this type of comedy universal. And some of the greatest playwrights of our time have derived inspiration from those great comedians. Chaplin was Brecht's favourite actor and a model for Brechtian acting, and when Beckett made his only film he chose Buster Keaton, then very old, to play the lead. This connection to the great days of film comedy is an aspect of the work of writers like Beckett, and one should never forget that. Beckett himself at one time in the thirties wanted to become a film-maker and applied to study film under Eisenstein in Moscow. This explains why Beckett is so intensely visual a writer and why he sees the plays he writes as clearly in front of his eyes as he hears the words they speak. That is why variations introduced by directors seldom pay off in productions of Beckett's plays.
That also is the reason why in his later development Beckett has more and more veered towards writing for television : some of the most important later works by Beckett are television plays like Ghost Trio, But the Clouds, Nacht und Träume, Quad I and II which rely less and less on words and more and more on image. The gags of early film comedy were stylised, in the sense that they were non-realistic, up to a point, but at the same time they were more than real, more brutal sometimes than real, more threatening. It is no coincidence that this kind of gag comedy was called "slap-stick", there were so many very hard and loud slaps in it, so many cream pies thrown into the characters' faces.
In the Koresan production these gags have become, in my opinion, more gentle, more highly stylised : this brings great advantages - it makes the play, as I said before, more like a symbolic statement, more philosophical even. And more dreamlike : It is significant that Vladimir, towards the end of the play, as he is looking at Estragon sleeping, and dreaming, is asking himself, whether he too, might not be dreaming, and others looking at him, might think that he is foolish to believe in his dream. Of course in the theatre where this is happening, this is exactly what is taking place, audience is sitting there, looking at Vladimir, and perhaps thinking how foolish he is to be waiting for Godot. This is when Vladimir begins to walk up and down, excitedly, about to make up his mind to abandon the waiting. And it is at this point that the little boy comes in and brings the latest message from Godot. And so the waiting goes on.
The Korean production, with its gentle, balletic movement, and its highly stylised gestures, emphasises the dreamlike quality of the play. And in this sense it is surely a very legitimate version. I found the acting in this production very highly accomplished. The way in which Vladimir and Estragon took up their iconic poses, the way in which Vladimir's bandylegged stance became a statement of his ineffectualness, and Estragon's movements suggested an eternal baby was highly significant and added a great deal to the text.
One of the interpretations of the play suggests that each of the pairs of characters represents aspects of a single personqality - Vladimir being the rational side of the mind, Estragon the emotional, poetic side - he is said to be a poet, once even says his name is Catullus and Pozzo then is the brutal physical side, and Lucky who he says "thinks" for him, the intellectual side of the same character. In this production I thought this complementarity was admirably achieved.
The two pairs of characters thus represent two basic attitudes to life - the contemplative philosophical attitude which merely sits amd waits passively for something to come, and the active, enterprising attitude which is constantly on the move, constantly looking for new outlets. In a way one could see this as the constrast between the traditional Far Eastern philosophy of renunciation and contemplation on the one hand, and the Western, Faustian attitudes of constant seeking for improvement and technical progress - which, of course, never leads to the desired goal, because every process become merely the starting point for new endeavour and new disappointment. Beckett does not take sides in this conflict - he merely presents it, but it is clear that Pozzo's attitude is more likely to lead to suffering and cruelty, Pozzo is cruel to his slave, and is himself cruelly punished by blindness. One can thus see WFG as a play about the contrast between East and West and very much a play for our time.
I don't know whether this view comes across to an audience in a country like Korea, which has taken a path along the line of Pozzo after centuries of contemplation in the mode of Estragon. It is very interesting to me, that Beckett, who sharply denies any belief in Christianity and proclaims a very anti-religious attitude in many of his plays and novels, is, at the deepest level, something like a systic himself - although his systicism is more akin to Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism. it is, if I may put forward a view - and Beckett himself always insists that he will never comment on his own work, but critics are free to interpret it - the message of WFG that both the contemplative and the actively striving way of life is an illusion, as long as those who lead those lives really think that at the end they will get the desired result. Vladimir's waking up, at the moment when he is almost ready to decide to give up waiting, would consdist in realising that neither contemplative waiting, nor violent striving will bring results. The attitude that Beckett advocates, it seems to me, is one of realising that it is not the didtant goal, but the "here and now" which has to be kept in view : in other words, live every moment of life as if it were the only one, abd perhaps the last one, rather than either passively waiting for something that will come tomorrow, or to be chased after. Both these illusions are bound to lead to disappointment.
Beckett's attitude is one of cheerful nihilism : he enjoys life but is under no illusion about its briefness and the suffering it entails. Beckett is a great sports fan ; I am certain he will sometimes be watching the Olympic games on television day by day. Once, after the Football World Cup, he told me : have you seen those Brazilians, their play is sheer music." Another sport he loves is Cricket, the English National game. Whem the Australians come to London for the great international test match between England and Australia, Beckett often comes to London to go and see it. One beautiful summer morning, many years ago, Beckett and a friend of his (who was also a friend of mine, and told me this story) were walking towards the cricket ground, Lords, through one of the most beautiful parks in London, Regents Park. It was a lovely day, the grassgreen, the birds singing, blossoms everywhere. And Beckett remarked how beautiful it was. His companion said : "Yes, Sam, on a day like this it is a good to be alive." "Well," said Beckett, "I would not go as far as that." In other words : Enjoy the beautiful day, but do not forget that there is suffering and death yet to come. That I think is also the message of WFG.
I am grateful for Mr. Lim's beautiful production to have made me think of all this once more. I will add this beautiful production to the store of my memories of this wonderful play. And I am certain that I shall remember this production as long and as vivdly as any of the best of the others. He gave me a truly unforgettable experience. I am grateful for it.