Samuel Beckett: The Search for the Self

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Author: Martin Esslin
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,829 words

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[The revised essay excerpted below was originally published in 1961.]

The French translation of [Beckett's novel] Murphy, which appeared in 1947, attracted little attention, but when Molloy was published in 1951, it created a stir. Beckett's real triumph, however, came when Waiting for Godot, which had appeared in book form in 1952, was first produced on 5 January 1953.... Roger Blin, always at the forefront of the avant-garde in the French theatre, directed, and himself played the part of Pozzo. And against all expectations, the strange tragic farce, in which nothing happens and which had been scorned as undramatic by a number of managements, became one of the greatest successes of the post-war the-atre.... seen in the first five years after its original production in Paris by more than a million spectators—a truly astonishing reception for a play so enigmatic, so exasperating, so complex, and so uncompromising in its refusal to conform to any of the accepted ideas of dramatic construction.

This is not the place to trace in detail the strange history of Waiting for Godot. Suffice it to say that the play found the approval of accepted dramatists as diverse as Jean An-ouilh ... , Thornton Wilder , Tennessee Williams , and William Saroyan .... (pp. 20-1)

When Alan Schneider, who was to direct the first American production of Waiting for Godot, asked Beckett who or what was meant by Godot, he received the answer, `If I knew, I would have said so in the play.'

This is a salutary warning to anyone who approaches Beckett's plays with the intention of discovering the key to their understanding, of demonstrating in exact and definite terms what they mean. Such an undertaking might perhaps be justified in tackling the works of an author who had started from a clear-cut philosophical or moral conception, and had then proceeded to translate it into concrete terms of plot and character. But even in such a case the chances are that the final product, if it turned out a genuine work of the creative imagination, would transcend the author's original intentions and present itself as far richer, more complex, and open to a multitude of additional interpretations. For, as Beckett himself has pointed out in his essay on Joyce's Work in Progress, the form, structure, and mood of an artistic statement cannot be separated from its meaning, its conceptual content; simply because the work of art as a whole is its meaning, what is said in it is indissolubly linked with the manner in which it is said, and cannot be said in any other way. Libraries have been filled with attempts to reduce the meaning of a play like Hamlet to a few short and simple lines, yet the play itself remains the clearest and most concise statement of its meaning and message, precisely because its uncertainties and irreducible ambiguities are an essential element of its total impact.

These considerations apply, in varying degrees, to all works of creative literature, but they apply...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000114