By David Kranes
Have you heard the one about the two tramps who were killing time? Or was it filling time?
Is Samuel Beckett the stage poet of gloom? Or is he a baggy-pant burlesque comedian? (Bert Lahr acted in Godot; Buster Keaton in his Film.) Does the spirit involuntarily lift in the gaunt Irishman's grove of denuded trees. . .or fall? Does the flesh fall and the voice arise?
"We give birth astride the grave," Beckett utters at one point. Some critics arm themselves with the word birth; others with the word grave. Perhaps more of them ought to have chosen the word astride.
Samuel Beckett, who always loved the shape and play of language, was fond of the epigram from St. Augustine: "Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned."
During this past year, in response to Beckett's 1989 death, remembrances by writers such as Mel Gussow of the New York Times stress his quiet and reflective caring, his interest in others. And perhaps those finding only morbidity forget that in 1941 and 1942, Beckett worked in the French Resistance and that in 1945 he worked for the Irish Red Cross in Normandy.
"...you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on," Beckett's novel, The Unnamable, ends. In one of Beckett's last plays, Not I., a pinspot isolates only a mouth on stage, the rest of the body in darkness. How utterly bleak, the gloom-seer cries—taking the image and the title literally, unaware probably of his or her own pun in a play about a voice: how utterly bleak. "In the beginning was the pun," says the titular character in Beckett's novel, Murphy. "I think (hiccough)...I am," from another play. In fact, playing with the title—"Not I/(eye)...rather, mouth, the mouth self-confesses to being a "mouth on fire," a "stream of words" which "can't stop...no stopping it." Bleak? How utterly alive!
"Fear not; one of the thieves was saved."
It would seem we are on the playful and precarious edge of irony here...or even astride it. The final stage gesture of the Auditor in Not I is that of "helpless compassion." The helpless falls; the compassion rises. In a 1949 dialogue with Georges Duthuit, Beckett spoke to the subject of his own voice: its gravity; its undying instinct:
"...the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express." and one notes that, in each phrase, the first word is no; the last word, express.
You are about to enter the world of Samuel Beckett's most produced play, Waiting for Godot, and will hear the following opening exchange (note the first words of each character):
Estragon: Nothing to be done.
Vladimir: I'm beginning to come round to that opinion.
Nothing. . . .I'm beginning.
Perhaps, now that Samuel is no longer with us, he can be more with us. Perhaps he needed to die so that we might "come round to" a more lively opinion and not take him so...well, utterly gravely.
Have you heard the one about the two tramps who were weighting for God? Oh!
And while you're at it, remember Beckett's final words to his novel, Watt: "no symbols where none intended."