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Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text
Beckett once asserted: 'I produce an object. What people make of it is not my concern [...] I'd be quite incapable of writing a critical introduction to my own works.' Furthermore, whenever directors and critics asked for explanations of Godot, he both side-stepped their questions and revealed his distrust of any kind of exegesis. Two examples will suffice here. To Alan Schneider's question 'Who or what does Godot mean?', he replied, 'If I knew, I would have said so in the play'; when Colin Duckworth suggested that the characters existed in a modern version of Dante's Purgatory, he responded to the 'proofs' offered to him with a dismissive, if generous 'Quite alien to me, but you're welcome.' As is now clearly established, allusions to Dante are present throughout his novels and plays, but Beckett's position remained resolute; he wanted no part in the decoding process that haunts critical work, preferring to cling to his belief that: 'The key word in my plays is "perhaps"'.
Yet he also said about Endgame that 'You must realise that Hamm and Clov are Didi and Gogo at a later date, at the end of their lives [... ] Actually they are Suzanne and me.' Here he was referring to his relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, whom he finally married in 1961, and to the fact that in the 1950s they found it difficult to stay together and impossible to leave each other. This statement reveals Beckett's ambivalent response to his position as playwright; he initially allows total freedom to directors, actors and critics, but then wishes to correct their interpretations. Although Beckett only once gave an official interview, his many letters and statements to friends and collaborators reveal a wish to control the performance - and therefore the reception - of his plays. His close friend Jean Martin, who played Lucky in the 1953 premiere of Godot at the Theatre de Babylone in Paris, said of the rehearsals: 'Beckett does not want his actors to act. He wants them to do only what he tells them. When they try to act, he becomes very angry. What is most interesting is that whenever he directed or was closely involved in the production of his plays, he focused on different aspects. For example, his 1975 production of Godot at Berlin's Schiller Theater pointed up the bleakness of the play, whereas in the 1978 Brooklyn Academy of Music production directed by Walter A. Asmus, who had lengthily discussed the text and production with him, there was much more comic interplay with the audience.'
So Beckett's own uncertainty about his 'certain' perhaps may give us grounds for more interpretive hope than is usually admitted. What Beckett says outside the texts of his plays is undoubtedly worth considering, but when he comments on either texts or productions, he is just another critic, just as eligible for sceptical examination as any other interpreter. He may well have said to Deirdre Bair that 'the best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text. I'm trying to write one', but the use of the word text suggests that we should focus on the text itself and not seek to make our interpretations fit with what the dramatist may have said at any particular moment.
Beckett stressed that 'the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, that critics and public alike insisted on interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition'. He is undoubtedly right, but as readers, we are bound to interpret his works within a different context from that in which he wrote them. Ohio Impromptu, his most sustained dramatic allegory of reading, opens with the Reader saying twice 'Little is left to tell' and closes with his repeated lament 'Nothing is left to tell'. This final expression of nothingness is, however, an ambiguous recognition of the inevitability of 'nothing', for it comes at the end of a consideration of what 'nothing' is and whether it can even exist. Following the paradoxical logic of Beckett's position as playwright, director and (anti-)critic, each of us has the right to disagree with him - and the 'obligation to express'.
Beckett's first two published plays constitute a crux, a pivotal moment in the development of modern Western theatre. In refusing both the psychological realism of Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg and the pure theatricality of the body advocated by Artaud, they stand as significant transitional works as well as major works in themselves. The central problem they pose is what language can and cannot do. Language is no longer presented as a vehicle for direct communication or as a screen through which one can see darkly the psychic movements of a character. Rather it is used in all its grammatical, syntactic and - especially - intertextual force to make the reader/ spectator aware of how much we depend on language and of how much we need to be wary of the codifications that language imposes upon us.
Explaining why he turned to theatre, Beckett once wrote: 'When I was working on Watt, I felt the need to create for a smaller space, one in which I had some control of where people stood or moved, above all, of a certain light. I wrote Waiting for Godot.' This desire for control is crucial and determines the shape of Beckett's last theatrical works. The notion that the space created in - and by - the playscript is smaller than that of the novel, however, needs urgent and interrogative attention. It is undeniable that, having chosen to write in French in order to avoid the temptation of lyricism, Beckett was working with and against the Anglo-Irish theatrical tradition of ironic and comic realism (notably Synge, Wilde, Shaw, Behan). However, his academic studies had led him to a familiarity with the French Symbolist theories of theatre, all of which contest both French Classical notions of determinism and the possibilities of the theatre as a bourgeois art-form. Mallarme's vision of de-theatricalization and Maeterlinck's dream of a theatre of statues, reflections, sleepwalkers and silence are undoubtedly behind his first plays, but Beckett questions even these theories in order to create his own, new form of antitheatre.
In the context of twentieth-century theatre, his first plays mark the transition from Modernism, with its preoccupation with self-reflection, to PostModernism with its insistence on pastiche, parody and fragmentation. Instead of following the tradition which demands that a play have an exposition, a climax and a denouement, Beckett's plays have a cyclical structure which might indeed be better described as a diminishing spiral. They present images of entropy in which the world and the people in it are slowly but inexorably running down. In this spiral descending towards a final closure that can never be found in the Beckettian universe, the characters take refuge in repetition, repeating their own actions and words - and often those of others - in order to pass the time. Many critics have insisted that Beckett's early plays are constructed on a series of symmetries, pointing to the fact that characters are often organized in pairs; to the importance of dialogue and repetition; and to the concept of the set-design (notably in Endgame, with its underlying thematic and visual metaphor of the chessboard). This view is seductive, but is somewhat blind both to the problematics of the psychology of the characters, who exist as individuals and not just as cogs in a theatrical mechanism, and also to the complex web of references within the plays (intratextual reference) and of references to other texts (intertextual reference). These various references fragment the surface message of the text by sending the reader off on a series of speculations. However, this fragmentation operates (for the reader) as an opening-up of the text and therefore counterbalances the progressive closure of entropy experienced by the characters.
It cannot be denied, of course, that Godot and Endgame present many of the themes already explored in the novels, all of which centre on the complex problem of how we can cope with being-in-time. There is the abiding concern with death and dying, but death as an event (i.e., actually becoming 'a little heap of bones') is presented as desired but ultimately impossible, whereas dying as a process is shown to be our only sure reality. Beckett's characters are haunted by 'the sin of having been born', a sin which they can never expiate. Pozzo remarks that '[... ] one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second. [... ] They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more'. Death as a final ending, as a final silence, is absent from the plays. The characters must go on waiting for what will never come, declining into old age and the senility which will make of them helpless, dependent children again, but decrepit, as exemplified by Nagg in Endgame who asks plaintively for 'Me pap'.
We have here an apparent example of the circularity of existence which was proclaimed by the pre-Socratic philosophers (such as Heraclitus and Empedocles) whom Beckett admired, the difference being that the return to childhood in Endgame is merely part of the diminishing spiral that will go on and on - to infinity. It is worth pointing out that Beckett originally intended to make Godot a three-act play, but finally decided that two acts were enough; and that Endgame
started as 'a three-legged giraffe' which left him 'in doubt whether to take a leg off or add one on', but which ended up as a one-act play 'more inhuman than Godot'.The reason for these decisions is important. Beckett was fascinated by mathematics (hence his love of chess) and especially by the paradoxes that can be made by (mis-)using mathematical principles. He knew that in mathematical theory the passage from 0 to 1 marks a major and real change of state, and that the passage from 1 to 2 implies the possibility of infinity, so two acts were enough to suggest that Vladimir and Estragon and Pozzo and Lucky and the boy will go on meeting in increasingly reduced physical and mental circumstances but will never not meet again. The same is true of Winnie in Happy days who will never be completely covered by her mound, just as Achilles will never overtake the tortoise in Zeno's famous paradox. We know from our own empirical experience that Achilles would undoubtedly have overtaken the tortoise to whom he has given a head-start, but in many of his works Beckett uses the genre of paradox as a means of reminding us that in metaphysical terms we can never arrive at our chosen destination (death).
The characters are consequently engaged in a perpetual act of waiting. Much has been written about who or what Godot is. My own view is that he is simultaneously whatever we think he is and not what we think he is: he is an absence, who can be interpreted at moments as God, death, the lord of the manor, a benefactor, even Pozzo. But Godot has a function rather than a meaning. He stands for what keeps us chained - to and in - existence. He is the unknowable that represents hope in an age when there is no hope, he is whatever fiction we want him to be - as long as he justifies our life-as-waiting. Beckett originally thought of calling his play just En attendant (without Godot) in order to deflect the attention of readers and spectators away from this 'non-character' onto the act of waiting. Similarly, he firmly deleted the word 'Wir' from the German translation of the title Wir warten auf Godot (We're waiting for Godot), so that audiences would not focus too much upon the individuality - and therefore the difference, the separateness - of Vladimir and Estragon, but would instead think about how all existence is a waiting.
The title of Endgame, with its references to chess, articulates an equally powerful sense of waiting as reality and as a metaphor for infinity. Beckett's own comments are useful here:
Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. That he will make no progress at all with the gaff. Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would. A good one would have given up long ago. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which puts off the end. He is a bad player.
All those who people Beckett's plays attempt to delay the end and are 'bad players', but it is crucial that Hamm is conceived as a king in a chess game. When two kings are left on the board (this is possible only when bad players are playing!), they can never end the game but merely engage in an infinite series of movements around the chess-board. So taking Beckett's metaphor logically implies that Clov is a king - as well as a pawn. This inference accords with the fact that their relationship is one of master and slave/servant. Such relationships have fascinated philosophers from Aristotle through Hobbes, Hegel and Nietzsche to the present day, precisely because they are ambiguous; although the master has social superiority, the servant is actually more powerful, since he is more necessary to the master than vice versa. Thus Clov is stronger than Hamm because he makes his existence possible, just as Lucky is stronger than Pozzo because his apparent servility and inadequacy provide the crutch on which Pozzo constantly leans in order to create or, rather, to proclaim, a sense of his authority.
All of Beckett's pairs are bound in friendships that are essentially power-relationships. Above all, each partner needs to know that the other is there: the partners provide proof that they really exist by responding and replying to each other. In this respect, Beckett was much influenced by the contention of the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley: Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived). This postulate, which informs much Existentialist thinking and which Beckett quotes in Murphy, and which he places as the epigraph to Film, underpins the anxious desire of his characters to be noticed:
However, Beckett drew from his reading of Proust - highly subjective - a more cynical attitude: 'Friendship is a function of [man's] cowardice', and 'Proust situates friendship somewhere between fatigue and ennui'. There is certainly the desire to embrace and be to embraced, yet there is also a realization that friendship is based on the need to give and receive pity.
- 'Vladimir: [Joyous] There you are again'
- 'Hamm: You loved me once'.
If our one certain reality is that '[... ] we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!', this truth is very difficult to accept emotionally. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the time is always 'The same as usual' and is therefore 'abominable'). In fact, time does not pass in this world; rather, the characters have to find ways of passing the time. One solution adopted by Beckett's characters is mechanical repetition, re-enacting situations without perceiving any significance in these repeated actions - somewhat like Pavlov's conditioned dogs who salivate when the bell rings even when there is no food. The object of these games is not fun but defence against a world they do not and cannot comprehend or accept. In this, they are like the infant playing what Freud calls in Beyond the pleasure principle, the 'Fort/Da game'. Freud once by chance observed a boy of one-and-a-half playing with a reel of cotton. The child threw the reel over the edge of his cot, uttering a loud, longdrawn-out 'o-o-o-o', which Freud interpreted as the German word fort (gone), and then drew it back by the string with a gleeful da (there). Freud argues convincingly that by doing this, the child was compensating for the fact that his mother left him against his will (although she would also come back). His oft-repeated game was a means whereby he himself staged the disappearance and return of an object in order to move from a purely passive situation, in which he was helpless, to a situation in which he could take an active part and thereby (pretend to) master reality. For Freud, this fundamental defensive need to move from the passivity of an experience to the activity of a game is characteristic of much human psychology. It is certainly enacted by all the characters in Beckett's early plays.
Amnesia heightens their anxiety. As Pozzo says, memory is 'defective'. According to Beckett:
..the laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment [... ] the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.
In other words, time indubitably exists as a force of which the characters are aware in that they become increasingly decrepit, but they have no sense of its continuity. If each day is like all the others, how can they then know that time is really passing and that an end is nigh? Godot is grounded in the promise of an arrival that never occurs, Endgame is the promise of a departure that never happens. This would seem to imply that the characters look forward to the future, yet if there is no past, there can be neither present nor future. So in order to be able to project onto an unlocatable - and perhaps non-existent - future, the characters need to invent a past for themselves. And this they do by inventing stories. In both plays the past is invariably regarded with nostalgia:
V L A D I M I R: Must have been a very fine hat.
NELL: [elegiac]. Ah yesterday!
HAMM: She [Mother Pegg] was bonny once, like a
flower of the field. [With reminiscent leer.]
And a great one for the men!
CLOV: We too were bonny - once. It's a rare thing
not to have been bonny - once.
Crucially, the various stories are never really finished - and they are told not only to give the teller a belief that he or she does in fact have a past but, more importantly, to convince a listener that a past, or at least 'their' past, exists. Failure is the inevitable outcome - even the punch-lines of their jokes fail to be properly understood. The reason is that none of these would-be autobiographers can believe in their own tales or even invent plausible accounts. Hamm may redefine his story as 'my chronicle', that is to say, as a factual account; however, like everyone else, he is striving not to remember his past but to concoct it. Vladimir may say ironically to Estragon, 'you should have been a poet', but both plays articulate a mistrust of the adequacy of subjectivity. This explains Vladimir's violent refusals to listen to Estragon's dream-recitals.
If both subjectivity and narration are suspect, then any and all communication becomes difficult. Beckett repeatedly addresses this problem, but he makes clear in his plays that he believes that full communication is ultimately impossible:
HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!
CLOV: [Violently].That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.
Like Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm would like to be a poetic writer an even in his monologues he searches for the right words:
HAMM: A little poetry. [Pause.]
You prayed - [Pause. He corrects himself.]
You CRIED for night; it comes - [Pause. He corrects himself.]
It FALLS: now cry in darkness. [Pause.]
Nicely put, that.
With no one (in this case, Clov) listening, the only alternative is to 'speak no more'. Desolation and isolation on Hamm's part, certainly; also an oblique allusion to Iago's last words in Othello. This is one of many references to theatre and theatricality throughout the two plays: for instance, Vladimir and Estragon squabble about whether their evening should be compared to the pantomime, the circus or the music-hall, and Hamm speaks of his 'aside', his 'soliloquy' and an 'underplot' ( the last term is a mischievously double reference to the subplot of traditional theatre and to the plots or graves in cemeteries). We may consequently describe Beckett's plays as being metatheatrical, in that they simultaneously are and comment upon theatre. These texts, both in performance and when read, challenge the traditional contract between play and spectator or reader, since they deny and, indeed, render impossible the need for what Coleridge memorably defines as 'that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith'. We are forcibly reminded that we are being confronted by pieces of theatre and so we seek not so much an identification with the characters and their predicaments as an understanding of what the plays mean and a new way in which they can mean.
Beckett's great innovation in Godot and Endgame is both to question the formal structure that playwrights of previous traditions have felt obliged to respect, and to offer a mimesis or representation of reality that recognizes and inscribes the formlessness of existence without attempting to make it 'fit' any model. In 1961 Beckett wrote as follows:
What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos, and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The form and the chaos remain separate. The latter is not reduced to the former. That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.
Much earlier, he wrote in his essay-dialogue on the painter Bram van Velde that 'to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail', thereby rewriting his first artistic creed: 'There is no communication because there are no vehicles of communication'. There was clearly a major shift in his critical and creative position between the 1930s and 1940s and the 1950s when he composed Godot and Endgame, for although he continued to juxtapose an acute sense of bleakness and nothingness with a desire for 'control', he discovered that the medium of play-writing afforded him greater freedom to make silence communicate.
The pauses in these plays are crucial. They enable Beckett to present silences of inadequacy, when characters cannot find the words they need; silences of repression, when they are struck dumb by the attitude of their interlocutor or by their sense that they might be breaking a social taboo; and silences of anticipation, when they await the response of the other which will give them a temporary sense of existence. Furthermore, such pauses leave the reader-spectator space and time to explore the blank spaces between the words and thus to intervene creatively - and individually - in the establishment of the play's meaning. This strategy of studding a text with pauses or gaps poses the problem of elitism, but above all it fragments the text, making it a series of discrete speeches and episodes rather than the seamless presentation of a dominant idea. Beckett writes chaos into his highly structured plays not by imposing his own vision but by demanding that they be seen or - especially - read by receivers who realize both that the form is important and that this very form is suspect. One of his most quoted statements, made to Harold Hobson in 1956, is as revelatory in its 'scholarly mistake' as in its affirmation of a love of formal harmony:
I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine, I wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. 'Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.' That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.
The reference is to the debate about one detail of Christ's crucifixion in Godot, where the 'wonderful shape' is deliberately presented in an amputated and hesitant way. However, it is significant that, while Beckett later said that he thought the sentence was in St Augustine's Confessions, scholars have been unable to find it there - although it has been pointed out that there is a possible origin in a statement in St Augustine's Letters. What is interesting is that, like so many of his characters, Beckett has a 'bad memory' - or, rather, a memory that, perhaps involuntarily, alters an original sentence in order to give it greater shape than there is in the original. This suggests that, as a playwright, he considers structure to be more important than any 'message' for the communicative functioning of a play.
This does not mean , however, that he is insensitive to the directive or didactic power of many of the texts to which he alludes. Rather, he seeks to show how their very construction is what makes them suspect. In Godot, Estragon replies to the question 'Do you remember the Bible?', 'I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Coloured they were. Very pretty'. In other words, the Bible is just another book for Estragon, a book that he can read or merely look at, rather than believing it to be 'Gospel truth'. It is well known that Beckett refused Christian interpretations of his work, as indeed he refused all reductive readings, but Vladimir's commentary on the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion is indicative of the seriousness of Beckett's lifelong subversive meditation on the authority of the Bible. Vladimir reminds us that of the four Evangelists who 'were there - or thereabouts' only one (Luke) speaks of a thief being saved, and goes on: 'Of the other three, two [Mark and John] don't mention any thieves at all and the third [Matthew] says that both of [the oher two thieves] abused him [Jesus].' So 'Why believe him [Luke] rather than the others?'. This point is central to Beckett's attitude to all writings, be they sacred or secular: why believe any text wholeheartedly? After all, if even the Gospels provide radically different versions of one single event, why trust any chronicle (especially Hamm's) - or any fiction? As Alice and Kenneth Hamilton argue forcefully and provocatively, the playwright repeatedly refers or alludes to the Bible, especially to the New Testament, because it is one text that he knows he cannot trust: 'Beckett does not use Christian "mythology" just because he knows it but, more particularly, because he is certain it is not true'.
Important and powerful though their themes may be, what makes these plays so interesting is their exploitation of the liberating possibilities of texts that refer within and outside themselves in order to expose the instability of every apparently solid structure. The tree in Godot is a marvellous example of how Beckett refuses to allow concrete images to become (mere) symbols. For the 1961 Paris Odeon revival of the play, the sculptor Giacometti designed a tree that was so crucially emblematic that each evening he and later Beckett would come to the theatre before the performance to tweak a twig. The appearance in Act II of four or five leaves has often been interpreted as a sign of optimism, but this interpretation must be unsatisfactory for it neglects (or forgets) that the text constantly denies time as a hopeful movement forward. The tree has no allegorical meaning - but it does have a textual function. It is first evoked (silently!) in Vladimir's thoughts on ending:ESTRAGON: What do you expect, you always wait till the last moment.
VLADIMIR: [Musingly.] The last moment ... [He meditates.] Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?
While we might initially read this as just one example of Vladimir's amnesiac discourse, its rehearsal of an archaic syntactic formulation suggests that we need to fill in for ourselves the gaps in his memory. Proverbs 13:112 says: 'Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.' Not surprisingly, Vladimir forgets the heart (symbol of life and emotion) and the tree (symbol of life and desire). All he can utter is a half-remembered fragment. The intertextual reader, however, completes the sentence - and is consequently alerted to the complexity of Godot's tree(s).
As the play continues, the references to the tree multiply: it is successively a potential gallows-tree; a paradoxical symbol of change and stability; an inadequate hiding-place; the name of a yoga balancing-exercise; a symbol of sorrow. Furthermore, the references to crucifixion and to hanging ironically evoke the New Testament image of Christ hung on a tree - which is the necessary prelude to the Resurrection. And, of course, in Genesis the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, while the only fruit forbidden to Adam and Eve, gives them both their humanity and their mortality. The tree thus means so much that it can have no single meaning, and we should remember that Vladimir and Estragon are not sure if it is even a tree, suggesting it might be a bush or a shrub.
In other words, both the denotative and symbolic functions of language are exposed as unstable modes of communication. The many references to the tree are not so much circular as labyrinthine. Wandering in a textual maze with no centre, the reader follows up one reference, establishes a sense, and then comes across another reference which suggests another sense. The tree is not just 'an arbitrary feature in an arbitrary world' nor is it a symbol of hope. Rather, in its multiplicity, it serves as an indicator of the play's strategies of saying indirectly - and functions as a 'visual' and 'concrete' representation of - the essential textuality of the play.
Consider the discussion of the need to talk in Act II:VLADIMIR: We have our reasons.
ESTRAGON: All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR: They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON: Like leaves.
VLADIMIR: Like sand.
ESTRAGON: Like leaves.
VLADIMIR: They all speak together.
ESTRAGON: Each one to itself.
VLADIMIR: Rather they whisper.
ESTRAGON: They rustle.
VLADIMIR: They murmur.
ESTRAGON: They rustle.
VLADIMIR: What do they say?
ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON: It is not sufficient.
VLADIMIR: They make a noise like feathers.
ESTRAGON: Like leaves.
VLADIMIR: Like ashes.
ESTRAGON: Like leaves.
Critics have compared Beckett's 'dead voices' to Dante's souls in Purgatory. This connection is, contrary to the opinion of Beckett was 'indifferent' to erudite interpretations, valid and illuminating, for in Canto I of Purgatory, we find the following exhortation: 'Here let death's poetry arise to life' (line 7). The 'dead voices' and the dead poetry, the morta poesia, refer both to the poetry of the Inferno and to the soul who in the Inferno are dead to God and his grace. Yet the canto immediately goes on to invoke Calliope, the muse of heroic or epic poetry, who is asked to perform some act of resurrection. In other words, the allusion to Dante opens up an area of intertextual speculation on (the possibility of) hope. Furthermore, the references to ashes prefigure a central image and theme in Endgame. But what is most important here is the inability to find the right words to describe existence: the leaves may also be ashes. While only the signifiers change, the signified is the constant of nothingness, or, more precisely, of indifferentiation. Even if leaves here - and the tree throughout the play - are privileged, they must be perceived less as objects with an allegorical meaning than as signifiers in a complex web of textual play.
An analogous example is found in Endgame where a concrete detail of set design becomes an intratextual signifier. The initial stage directions tell us that there is 'Hanging near the door, its face to the wall, a picture'. The position of the picture immediately implies a rejection of something in the past (perhaps the image of someone whom one wants to forget, perhaps a troubling scene), but half-way through the play it takes on a new and more powerful meaning when Hamm says:
I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter - and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! [Pause.] He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. [Pause.] He alone had been spared. [Pause.] Forgotten. [Pause.] It appears the case is ... was not so ... so unusual.
In his own writings on painters, Beckett insists on impotence and failure, as in his 'dialogues' on Tal-Coat, Masson and, especially, Bram van Velde, collected in Proust and Three dialogues and later in Disjecta. In Endgame he goes further and suggests that, for Hamm, the artist's vision of desolation leads to madness, for in all beauty he sees only ashes. However we must remember that this is yet another of Hamm's stories and therefore cannot be wholly trusted. Perhaps there was indeed no 'loveliness' at all, perhaps the artist did see correctly, but had to be certified as mad because no society can allow its inhabitants (or its inmates!) to proclaim and represent the greyness, the entropy, the decaying of existence. Art as truth rather than as prettiness must consequently be refused, so the picture is turned to the wall.
This interpretation is consonant with the pessimism which is so often ascribed to Beckett. Yet the picture has a role in the play that goes beyond simple allegory. Clov later replaces the picture with an alarm-clock, while keeping its face to the wall: the mechanical has replaced the artistic. As Clov says, 'Something is taking its course'; this implies that our lives are a series of passive repetitions and that we are merely cogs in a machine that is slowly running down. And then finally Clov places the alarm-clock on the lid of Nagg's bin: the mechanical has been substituted for procreation as it is incarnated by Nagg who is 'Accursed progenitor' and 'Accursed fornicator'.
The point is not the force of any individual idea but that idea follows idea; each proposes something different but also arises from and refers on to another. This form of intratextual reference may be seen as centripetal, as binding the text together, giving it formal coherence, which is not to say that such reference provides a security blanket for readers. Rather it reminds us that all and every text must be read as text and not as direct communication or as authority. Each symbol is not a specifically coded means of communicating, but a call for participation in reflection and speculation.
A further example reinforces this point. Endgame opens:
CLOV: [Fixed gaze, tonelessly.]
Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause.]
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.
Hamm later takes up Clov's words: 'It's finished, we're finished. [Pause.] Nearly finished'. This is certainly a repetition, but it is significant that Hamm equates 'we' with the 'it' and the 'something' that dominate Clov's discourse; human beings are running down like an unwound clock, like the universe itself. Beginning with a preoccupation with ending, Clov's musing moves swiftly to the evocation of a paradox regarding the impossibility of genuine, logical progress. This philosophical challenge haunts the play, but most readers are unlikely to pick up the reference until Hamm rewrites Clov's speech: 'Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of... [he hesitates] ... that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life'. Most critics have assumed that these are both allusions to Zeno's millet-seed paradox: 'A grain of millet falling makes no sound; how can a bushel therefore make a sound?' In a sense, this paradox could be used to describe the central anxiety in Beckett's world: because 1 = 0, then mathematically, 1,000 = 0, and yet we do find 'impossible' heaps, so in what can we believe, in 'logic' or in empirical experience?
As so often in Beckett's works, though, the reference is more complex than an amnesiac recollection of a text once read, for another paradox and another 'old Greek' are being evoked. One of Zeno's followers, Eubulides of Miletus, established the sorites (or heap) paradox in which he proposed that there can be no such thing as a heap of sand, since one grain does not make a heap and adding one grain is never enough to convert a non-heap into a heap. The problem of Beckett's dramatic use of the heap has exercised many critics. Hugh Kenner offers a challenging new avenue to be explored when he proposes another source: 'Sextus Empiricus the Pyrrhonist used just this example [the heap] to show that the simplest words - words like "heap" - were in fact empty of meaning. It is like asking when a play may be said to have had a "run". Beckett's fascination with paradoxes is grounded in his conviction that we can (partially) know only ephemeral moments and that, in a world in which there is no God, we consequently look for 'logical' explanations which are themselves fictions and manipulations of reality; even the exact science of mathematics becomes another series of texts to be read with suspicion.
The prospect in Godot of becoming 'a little heap of bones' becomes a dominant, if problematic, concern in Endgame, and then recurs in concrete form in Happy days as the mound in which Winnie is embedded. Unlike her predecessors, Winnie would like to go on living and talking, so Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise would comfort her in that it suggests that she will never be completely covered. One must, of course, recognize that Beckett is using these paradoxes rather than proposing them as creeds or as models for existence. As with the St Augustine allusion, we shall never know whether his discourse is amnesiac, or whether the confusion of Zeno, Eubulides and Sextus Empiricus is deliberate.
What is certain is that his writing is highly intertextual and that Beckett is constantly referring not only to ideas but to the ways in which these ideas have been formulated. The plays are saturated with references to the writings of others, as allusion is piled upon allusion or parodic quotation. Many are obvious to 'literate' readers, such as Hamm's frenzied cry 'My kingdom for a nightman!' which echoes Richard III's cry. Others are obvious to enthusiasts of 'popular' culture, such as Hamm's angry response to Nagg's demands for his 'pap': 'The old folks at home!' which ironically evokes the nostalgia of the well-known American song Swanee River. Intertextual references are essentially centrifugal. They fragment the text and send readers off on chases for meaning, for explanation, for enlightenment. Some of these may be wild-goose chases, but in order to understand how Beckett's texts work we must accept that there is always a presupposition of reference. Every Beckett text is built on the premise that whenever we speak or write, we are using someone else's thoughts and language. We are condemned or 'damned' to construct ourselves through the discourses of others, whether we like it or not. And each time we write, we are rewriting and therefore transforming (and deforming!) what we and others previously wrote.
Beckett consistently quotes and repeats himself mischievously throughout his work. He also constantly refers to the writings of thinkers whom he simultaneously admires and wants to challenge. His engagement with pre-Socratic and modern European philosophy is evident in all the plays, and he clearly expects his readers to know - or to be willing to find out about - many mythological figures such as Flora, Pomona and Ceres. The obsession with dying/ending may seem to be the thematic undertow of Beckett's plays; his characters, however, have no sufficient language of their own and so their discourses are always dependent for meaningfulness on what has already been said - and on the creative intervention of readers.
What Beckett says in his plays is not totally new. However, what he does with his saying is radical and provocative; he uses his play-texts to remind (or tell) us that there can be no certainty, no definitive knowledge, and that we need to learn to read in a new way, in a way that gives us space to bring our contestations as well as our knowledge to our reception of the text. Brought up in a severely Protestant environment and having attempted an M.A. dissertation on Descartes, Beckett could not avoid referring to Christian texts and to canonical exegeses. The most obvious and recurring reference is to Descartes's Cogito ergo sum. In Whoroscope (1930), he aggressively rewrites this founding statement of modernity as Fallo ergo sum (I make mistakes, therefore I am). This is a clever and cynical comment on the culturally accepted authority of Descartes and, by extension, all philosophers. Yet as the Hamiltons remind us, Descartes's Cogito itself echoes St Augustine's earlier refutation of scepticism, Si fallor, sum (If I am deceived, I am), and is therefore already engaged in an intertextual manoeuvre. In his plays, Beckett moves from evident manipulative rewriting to indirect reference. In Endgame, Descartes's theory is evoked and parodied in terms of emotion when the decrepit Nagg is analysed:
CLOV: He's crying.
[He closes the lid, straightens up.]
HAMM: Then he's living.
The explicit ergo ('therefore'/'then') of Cartesian thinking is as true and as false as the implicit 'so ... maybe" of pre-Socratic philosophy; for Beckett's characters and for his readers, logic is the great 'proof', the great temptation, and above all the great lure. Somehow we must persuade ourselves that we exist, somehow we must find justification for our lives. In Godot and Endgame, as in many of the later plays, such proofs of existence as movement, thinking, dialogue and a relationship with God that have all been proposed by philosophers are replaced by anxiety, by an anxiety which leads to the compulsion to repeat and, above all, to fictionalize.
It should be stressed that the fictions and dialogues created by the characters are often based on previous texts. After all, none of us can speak or write unless we have already heard and read. A fascinating feature of Beckett's plays, poems and novels is that, although one can detect a deeply serious reflection on ancient and modern philosophy, he often chooses to use and to parody statements that have become cliches of contemporary thought (Zeno's paradoxes, Descartes's Cogito, Berkeley's Esse est percipi and so on). This strategy might seem patronizing, implying both that readers can be expected to recognize only well-known statements and also that the author knows more and is merely playing a cynical game with his own (low) expectations of readers' knowledge. However, Beckett's intertextual referencing operates more positively. By alluding to and rewriting cliches, he is underlining the fact that many statements have become part of common parlance precisely because they say something that is relevant to our individual and communal lives. We are thus propelled into a re-evaluation of why these affirmations have become essential parts of modern thought. In other words, Beckett alerts us to the power of the past and asks that we re-read and reconsider it.
His characters are amnesiac and therefore unaware of what they are (mis-)quoting. Yet they all refer back to the Bible, perhaps because it is the text which both founds our society and poses challenging questions to atheists. On virtually every page of Godot and Endgame, we find allusions to the Bible and to Christian doxology. While many of these allusions will pass by the 'average' reader/spectator, it is useful to signal some of the ways in which Beckett's plays are informed, and indeed structured, by his Christian education.
We have already seen how, in the Beckettian world, the Gospels should not be trusted as authority. There is undoubtedly, nonetheless, an abiding concern with the Bible - as text and as culturally established authority. While both his parents were Protestants, it was his mother, May Beckett, who insisted that her children should know the Bible thoroughly. May's Protestantism was stern and canonical and she ensured that her children learned passages by heart. Beckett's adult writerly response, which is grounded in textual familiarity, is essentially atheistic, but it also consists in an exploration and exploitation of the Bible as text - as one text amongst many.
Pozzo describes human beings as 'Of the same species as myself. Made in God's image!', and he goes on to speak of their likeness to him as 'imperfect'. There is here a conscious exploitation by Beckett of the image-likeness opposition established by the writer(s) of Genesis, which sends us back to read the biblical text (Genesis, i), especially since Estragon later names himself as Adam. Conversely, Hamm says to Clov that humanity might start again from a flea or a crablouse. Here he is arguing from a mock Darwinian, evolutionist position, but even he cannot refrain from a 'Catch him, for the love of God!' God is omnipresent in Beckett's work as a textual figure who can never be known (because he does not exist or is dead) and who is always present (because the Bible is the founding text of our civilization).
Beckett's plays are full of theological and philosophical questions, such as Estragon's 'Do you think God sees me?' and Clov's 'Why this farce, day after day?' (E, 2.6), which send us on an exploration of the history of ideas and to an interrogation of authority. It is essential to recognize, along with Beckett, that we all remember only fragments of what we once read and that we cannot reconstruct the past: we have parts of the puzzle, but do not see how they could ever have fitted together. When Estragon decides to try Pozzo with other names, Pozzo responds both to Abel and to Cain, thereby representing victim and murderer or 'all humanity'. Yet earlier we find a reference to another pair of brothers when the Boy speaks of his brother who minds the sheep whereas he minds the goats. This might initially appear to be an innocent statement, but as the biblical references multiply, we are drawn back to it and recall that God 'shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left' (Matthew, 25: 33). In heaven as on earth, there must always be division and difference; there is no unity, no harmony.
If many of the biblical allusions are semi-occulted, the reader nonetheless senses that there are connections to be made, just as one senses that Lucky's speech must have a logical argument hidden within the incoherence. This sense is, however, a product of the cultural history that has taught us to seek for meaning, for a cause-and-effect logic. One of the most pungent parodies is Hamm's 'Get out of here and love one another! Lick your neighbour as yourself.' This patently rewrites Jesus's exhortation, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself', which is one of the cornerstones of his teaching, and yet the phrase occurs also in Leviticus, one of the most censorious books of the Old Testament. If the same divine directive can be given both by the stern avenging God who spoke to Moses and by the compassionate, forgiving Son of God, Jesus, its universal authority is necessarily undermined. This is not to say that Beckett is attacking Christianity, merely that he is reminding us of the textual nature of the Bible and thereby suggesting that it does not have to be believed in toto or as dogma.
While the Bible has been used here as an example, the same can be said about all of the many philosophical and literary works to which repeated reference is made. Adorno argues persuasively that Beckett's work is creatively challenging because it can be seen as philosophical satire which uses references to canonical works in order to undermine their authority. He speaks crucially of 'the precariousness of what Beckett refuses to deal with, interpretation'. This view is correct, if somewhat unnerving. Godot and Endgame are powerful (and highly comic) pieces of theatre. They are also works of literature which need to be read as well as seen and which call into play all the knowledge that readers may have. Beckett's vision is frequently described as pessimistic. His works are also said to be 'elitist' in their constant intertextual references: after all, as Estragon says, 'People are bloody ignorant apes'. I would argue that what is crucial is that the presupposition of reference, however parodic it may be, is ultimately optimistic - and democratic. None of us needs to notice and follow up every single allusion, yet we cannot but realize that the text of each play is pointing outside itself. Whether our favoured field is the Bible, literature, philosophy or popular songs, we will each pick up some of the references and so accept that all is not even close to being 'nearly finished'. Our strongest defence against the absurdity and the entropy of existence is the necessity - and the joy - of co-creating the text by continually changing its shape as we connect different ideas and images, as we perceive it to be unauthoritative precisely because it is a cento, a patchwork of manipulated quotations.
Suspicious of all authority and especially of the authority of the founding texts of Western culture, Beckett studs Godot and Endgame with references to these very texts in order to make his readers think and speculate, to make them participate in his anxious oscillation between certainty about what is untrue and uncertainty about what may be true. This abdication of authorial power and this appeal to the creative intervention of readers mark Beckett out as one of the founding fathers of, and one of the major witnesses to, our Post-Modern condition.
Make sense who may, for make sense we must...
This essay is a chapter from the book "The Cambridge Companion to Beckett", edited by John Pilling, which can be ordered from Cambridge University Press in Britain for £15.99 or in the U.S. for $23.99.