Wednesday, June 11, 2008

You're On Earth -- There's No Cure for That

I don’t have a formal education in literature, so I tend to make mental notes about cultural references I find in books, films and magazines. Frankly, the majority of what I know about post-modern literature and film I’ve learned after watching Woody Allen movies and Jeopardy.

I'm not intimidated by people who are comfortable discussing these things and I don't feel incomplete for not knowing them. I have no problem admitting my ignorance about a wide variety of subjects. I suppose I just don’t like the idea of feeling like I'm on the outside of an inside joke when it should be a fairly simple matter to learn enough about nearly anything to follow along.

A few months ago I purchased a collection of Samuel Beckett’s plays on film. I’m sure I’ve seen bits and pieces of his first, and most famous play, Waiting for Godot on PBS or somewhere. Two guys are waiting. It's all about the waiting.

Over the course of several weeks, I watched the Beckett plays on DVD and my ears have become attuned to anything I read or hear about Beckett, but I have to say, I don’t quite get him. I gave each play my undivided attention, paid close attention to the dialogue, the timing and the sets and came away from each with only an abstract sense of what it was about and generally a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.

Endgame was Beckett’s second play and the essence of the story was almost the exact opposite of Waiting for Godot. There are four characters in a house they appear to be trapped in, they may be the last people on earth and three of the four don’t have any way of leaving. The fourth is the caretaker, and the tension and expectation through the course of the play is that he’s going to leave. In the end, the viewer is left to decide what happens. This was one of the longer plays on the DVD series and I admit, it kept my attention and my mental wheels were spinning the entire time I watched. I remember most of it in a fairly detailed way. It made an impression. There is something here.

Actors and film directors speak with great reverence about Samuel Beckett, but I am still scratching my head and wondering what it’s all about.

I know many of you who visit here have studied literature or theater and if you can help me to understand what it is that makes Samuel Beckett so influential and iconic, please share your thoughts.

Here’s part of a scene that comes toward the end of the play, Endgame. The dialogue is very carefully written and carefully delivered and as I understand it, if you see this play (or any other Beckett play) performed, you will not see any, or much variation from one production to the next. Each word is said exactly as originally written.

I’m just not quite getting it…

21 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm afraid I can't help you much. I've never been a big one for plays. I really hate reading them because they are meant to be seen. I've enjoyed most of the ones I've watched but it's still a rather foreign experience for me.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

It's a bit like Eugene Ionesco, isn't it? Although, he was more French absurdist. I enjoy Ionesco, Beckett and Harold Pinter, but all their pieces leave me with a lingering sense of 'what the hell is going on?'. I guess their perpetual appeal lies in their ambiguity. We're not meant to have it all figured out. And yet, I've felt like a bit of a poser every time I've read/seen/acted in one of their plays. You're not alone.

Ello said...

I'm just like Charles. I hate plays. HATE THEM! There is an art form that just does not work for me so I have never read nor seen anything of Beckett's. Probably wouldn't get him either thought.

Riss said...

hehe, I understand...I had a similar discussion about a German Expressionist painter the other day...his house was awesome, his art, I've never been that impressed with and I have a degree in Fine Art. It's like, I just don't get it. I also feel the same way you do about the guy who wrote The Lord of the Flies...hehe.

Good luck with finding your answers but I wouldn't trip on it too much...sometimes the only reason people are considered "amazing" or "influential" is because no one really gets them and they don't know where else to put them because the people in question are just really, really good at BSing enough that people cry "genius" instead of going "huh?"...(c:

Lisa said...

Charles and Ello, It's funny that there doesn't seem to be much middle ground when it comes to how people feel about plays. Scott uses exactly the same language when it comes to plays: "I hate plays!"

I don't think it's an accident that people who really don't like plays do like novels and movies that tend to lean toward action and adventure. Plays, by their very form tend to be somewhat static, with a limited setting and few characters and usually the story is confined to a short time period or may simply be a monologue from one actor under a spotlight.

Orchid Hunter, I'm so relieved to hear you say that and I'm so glad you're familiar with these guys. I think you're probably right, that these particular playwrights tend to focus more on an idea and that the audience really is meant to make more of a personal interpretation of the work. I don't think you should feel like a poser any more than I'm feeling like I "have" to relate to this work. The truth is that there definitely is something I do relate to in this work, it's just elusive. VERY interesting that you've acted in these kinds of plays. One of these days if you get down to Denver, lunch is on me if you'll tell me about that. I'm sure that in order to act in a play where what's happening is so -- almost surreal -- there had to have been quite a bit of discussion and direction about it. Jean Genet gets categorized with this group sometimes too.

Riss, It's kind of funny because I have far less trouble being objective about the visual arts than I do with the literary arts. I don't create it myself, but during the four years I was stationed in Germany, instead of taking night classes to finish an engineering degree, I took art history classes instead because I couldn't resist the field trips! It is much easier for me to look at the German expressionists or the cubists or fauvists or any school of modern painters and intellectually appreciate what they were doing, whether I have an aesthetic appreciation for it or not. As a matter of fact, it took me a long time to develop an appreciation for realists and even an enjoyment of their work than it did for me to study the history of what some of these other guys were doing and say, "aha, risky. I respect that." This is similar in that I suppose that with literature, I don't necessarily read for entertainment or enjoyment, but to understand what the writer is trying to communicate or convey. With some novels -- it is about getting lost in story, but with a lot of it, it's about ideas to me and as long as I feel like I "get" what the writer is trying to do, I can then choose to take it or leave it. I suppose I like to be challenged and I enjoy being an active participant in certain forms and I think some of them demand it. There definitely is something to Beckett and I suppose I'm searching for someone who's familiar with him to bounce ideas off of.

Rebecca Burgess said...

Someone with more literary clout will probably correct me...but I think one of the biggest things about Beckett is that he is considered one of the first postmodernists. A pioneer in leaving realism in the past. He opened the door for writers to leave behind what was considered typically appropriate as far as having a plot and delve into the lives, and more importantly, the minds, of the lesser man. He is a major figure in Absurd literature and Theatre of the Absurd.

Very philosophical, life is meaningless and moving towards death. His characters are usually moving into deeper and more advanced stages of physical decrepitude, the only true freedom is of the mind. His later work got rid of form altogether.

Curious, have you read any of his novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable?

Vesper said...

Lisa, a very interesting post.

I have seen "Waiting for Godot" many, many, many years ago.
I couldn't attempt an answer to your questions other than by thinking that his and other similar plays are, in fact, philosophy in a form of a play, a meditation on the human condition, on the meaning or lack thereof, and on the absurdity of life.

I like plays, but I also like books, and films. I like adventure, and I like philosophy.

Thank you for making me think about these things. :-)

Yogamum said...

I wish I could use some of my literary street cred to enlighten you, but I'm afraid I can't, not having studied much theater. I do think that Beckett's plays are, as Vesper said, as much philosophy as theater.

Rebecca Burgess said...

Vesper, It has been many years since I've seen any of his plays as well. And Lisa, I too remember being most struck by Endgame. I would like to review it again now (in fact maybe I'll go buy a copy today) but I seem to remember thinking (coupled with the Beckett's ideas about freedom of the mind and that his character's were free to create their own characters) that there is one objectively real character in Endgame and that the others are characters that exist in the mind of that one character. Thus Lisa's feeling that they are "trapped" in the house, the house being the mind of the one real character.

I don't know, it's been a long time since I've seen it. But now I must go find it and watch it again.

Thanks for this post Lisa, it's been too long since I've paid any attention to this brilliant artist.

Denis said...

It's all very clear to me. The main character,Ham (the man with the round sun glasses) is Matrix! The bald guy is from Night Court. Beckett calls them Ham and Clove, which refers to baked ham with lyonnaisse potato. That's why when Watt says, "It's finished, nearly finished", he's talking about the brussell sprouts. If you take a close look at the shape of hamm's hat you'll see for sure! It's the shape of a brussell sprout.

Lisa said...

Becky, Your observation that "His characters are usually moving into deeper and more advanced stages of physical decrepitude, the only true freedom is of the mind." is exactly right. As a matter of fact in "Happy Days", the two main characters are buried up to their chests in mounds of dirt and in another play, called "Play" that had Alan Rickman, Kristen Scott Thomas and another woman in it, all three were up to their necks inside large urns. I actually could not follow "Play" very well when I watched it (but I just found the text on line). The dialogue is rapid-fire between the three and although I normally don't have trouble with English accents, the speed makes it too difficult.

I have not read any of Beckett's novels, although I might one day give one of them a try. Great comments.

Vesper, Thanks for commenting. The consensus seems to be that his plays really are communicating a concept or philosophy. Somehow, I suspect Beckett was not an especially happy man!

Yogamum, I was hoping for your literary street cred on this! Now I understand why you did not pursue literary criticism -- it goes against the grain of criticism to decline to offer an opinion simply because you aren't familiar with the work, doesn't it? :)))

Becky, I like that theory! Now you've made me want to watch it (and the rest of them) all over again.

Denis, I am so glad you were able to demystify this whole thing! Night Court -- I don't know why I didn't catch on to that. And the brussel sprout was so obvious!!

You are hysterical!

Billy said...

Well, Beckett and Ionesco, etc. are part of the movement called "The Theater of the Absurd," some it it very confusing and existential, such as SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A PLAY. I don't think anyone is in complete agreement as to what these plays mean, although scholars who study the period may claim to have more or less insight. WAITING FOR GODOT is generally seen as a play on words--waiting for "God." In grad school, the my professor was himself quite ambivalent about the meanings of some of these plays. They're like impressionist paintings in a sense. Another school of thought says that they are simply trying to express the frustrations and absurdity of life, a certain alienation from meaning through the eccentric settings and plots.

JES said...

I do web-development work for a small poetry (mostly) press. Somehow, over the years they have developed an affiliation with an "experimental" prose press, called Fiction Collective 2 (or FC2, for short). Not sure what it is -- maybe it's just because their director and ours have become friends.

I like to think of myself as an adventurous reader but must admit that much of their stuff leaves me scratching my head. (In the same way, The Missus tends to wander out of the living room, on suddenly remembered errands, when I put The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus in the DVD player.)

Plays in general: Some yes, some no. One of my favorites to read, verging on absurd although hardly post-modernist, was "The Skin of Our Teeth."

Lana Gramlich said...

I can't speak to Beckett's plays (although I don't mind plays, myself,) but I think that some of us just don't 'get' some others. I've heard so much about Margaret Atwood, but regardless of my attempts to 'get' her, I just never will. I don't understand why people rave about her, I don't find her to have much of a point, ever. I just won't ever 'get' her. Perhaps that's Beckett for you.
(I love the painting in the upper right, btw. Lovely!)

Lisa said...

Billy, Well you've now convinced me that I probably understand Beckett as well as anyone else (who's not a scholar) does. Apparently I was thinking there was something more concrete that I was missing, but I guess not.

JES, Since writing this post, I've done some surfing around and I'm now convinced that nearly the entire postmodern/meta-fictional movement is all pretty hard to nail down.

Now Monty Python -- I'm with you!

It's kind of interesting though that I can watch movies and either like them or not, without analyzing why. Not so much with literature. Hmm, I wonder why that is...

Lana, I feel the same way about Faulkner :) I'll tell Scott -- unfortunately, you can't really see the painting very well, although if you look on his site you can.

Sustenance Scout said...

This has been a fun thread to read, Lisa (as usual!). On Beckett I'm clueless, but I love love love to watch plays and just about any other performance art. I was introduced to great community theatre while an undergrad and was hooked. Someday I'll add playwrighting to my list of hobbies; why not? We all have so much time to spare...unless you take Beckett REALLY seriously, which is a very scary thought.

Between Monty Python and Night Court I'm back in high school at the moment, lol! Great post! K.

Lisa said...

Karen, Yeah...why not? My late Uncle Phil (who was, coincidentally the older brother of my Uncle Denis of the brilliant ham, potato and Brussels sprouts observations) was involved in community theater from the time I was really young, so I can't remember not going to plays. And my sister, Leslie was a theater major at St. Michael's College in Vermont, so I've sort of always been exposed to it and liked it too.

I still remember the very first time I saw Monty Python. I think I was in junior high school and I was channel surfing (you know, by turning the dial on the front of the TV set and seeing what was on the half dozen TV stations) and it was on PBS (WGBH in Boston). I had no idea what it was, but I was mesmerized! I "discovered" Saturday Night Live during the first season in a similar happy accident :)

Sustenance Scout said...

Now that was REAL channel surfing! Kids these days...huh! They've no idea! :)

Patti said...

there's oodles of stuff out there that is revered that i don't get. the one author for me is joyce carol oates. there i said it...

Anonymous said...

For me reading Beckett is all about finding diamonds in the desert. Read monotonous brilliance for days and then find "I can't go on. I'll go on" or reflect that "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again" amidst the "sun rising having no alternative on the nothing new." It's life and Sam remains one of the most positive writers I have ever read - after 19 years of reading I am still surprised. There is no plot. But life is full of gems.

Lisa said...

Anonymous, For the love of God! I finally get a comment from someone who loves Beckett and you're anonymous! I have questions and issues. If you want to subject yourself to them, PLEASE email me at lisa.eudaemonia at gmail...thanks for stopping in.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf