An Introduction to Beckett's Style & Works

There are numerous web sites devoted to Beckett, many to discussions of his style and works. It seems redundant to add to this vast bibliography. A good place to begin to access it is here: http://www.samuel-beckett.net

Nevertheless, below, in a short monograph which served as program notes for the second American production in 1957 of Waiting for Godot by the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, Herbert Blau, the director of that production, succinctly describes the overarching themes, and the style of the whole of Beckett’s opus. But did the style change over time since that play was written? Yes, of course, but you might say it was always more of the same, but with less and less and less.

WHO IS GODOT?

Never mind. We ain’t talking. You sees the play and you takes your choice. But if you must have questions, there are better ones. Who am I? What am I doing here? “You do see me, don’t you,” cries one of Beckett’s heroes to Godot’s angelic messenger. “You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”

Always there is something to give us the impression we exist; but habit is the great deadener. It takes a play like Godot to remind us that the little rituals of biology, the harmless obscenities of being, help keep us human, and conscious of our humanity. For Beckett, irrelevance is next to godliness. “My creatures,” he writes in one of his novels, “what of them? Nothing. They are there, each as best he can, as best he can be somewhere.” They mark time by child’s play, and their neurotic games, like charades in Hollywood, are exhibitions of cultural hysteria. If they can’t remember anything, it is the malady of the age: cosmic thoughtlessness, Pan sleeps, life on the knife-edge of the absurd, a grin to bear it. In the immense confusion, in the enormous buffoonery of the modern soul, one thing is clear, they are waiting for Godot to come.

With techniques borrowed from the circus, the pantomime, the music hall, Marcel Proust, burlesque, vaudeville, the daily newspapers, Kafka, the comic strip, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Godot acts out the project of being—just being. The two tramps are nothing but the concrete facts of their waiting. Sans history, sans memory, with nothing but a few carrots, radishes, and verbal scraps and tatters and grease spots from the rag and boneshop of the western tradition, they wait for “the hour when nothing more can happen and nobody more can come and all is ended but the waiting that knows itself in vain.” Do they also serve who only stand and wait? Maybe. There are echoes of good classical discretion in this very avant-garde play: Teach us to care and not to care, teach us to sit still.

About some plays the less said the better; about others the more the merrier. About Waiting for Godot it is not yet certain whether more or less has been said than should be. After all, who is Godot? Beckett said if he knew who Godot was he would have said so. Was he kidding? That remains to be seen.

Herbert Blau, Program note, the Actor’s Workshop of San Francisco, 1957