[(essay date October 1957) In the following essay, translated from the French version originally published in the October 1957 issue of Etudes Anglaises, Mayoux highlights Beckett's "laying open" the essence of human existence in Waiting for Godot,Endgame,All That Fall, and The Unnamable.]
I. An Overall View
I shall assume, in order to save time and space, that Samuel Beckett is well-known as a fifty-three year old Irishman who, in the last thirty years or so, has written admirably in two languages: poems, essays, fiction. His turning towards the theatre in about 1950 was probably due in part to expediency and perhaps to necessity, for the theatre, through visible but illusory forms, presents us with an unreal reality, a make-believe action. Those who have ceased to believe in reality, readily compare it to a theater, and foremost among them is Epictetus the Stoic.
Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it be his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned to you; to choose it is another's.
From the beginning to the end of his works, the deliberate derision thus offered haunted Shakespeare, and may even serve as the maxim of his theater: totus mundus agit histrionem. In the same spirit, Beckett's theater turns in upon itself, seeks to coincide with itself in a pure theatrical reality, much as three generations of symbolists sought, successively, a pure poetic reality, a pure pictorial reality, a pure fictional reality--whether by the different paths of a Proust, a Joyce, a Nathalie Sarraute, or a Beckett. This quest for an artistic truth that is both immediate and necessary, that is divorced from all social preoccupation, is the evidence of honest pessimism. When all fabrications of what we call civilization, all collective structures, are rejected as illusory, when all worldly activity is viewed as vain, useless, ridiculous; nothing remains but the consciousness of ourselves, and the forms of expression which we can given to that consciousness.
This kind of theater, turning in upon itself, turns back also to its beginnings in the medieval Christian world: an Everyman in which the stripping bare and final nakedness of man would be relieved neither by reward nor comfort, in which all such alleviation would appear only as a kind of thinking void, and where this awareness would spin round and round in self-declared abjection.
Two plays are complete realizations of this version: Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957). Viewed superficially, the first looks like an allegory: two tramps wait forever near an ominous tree, on a stage at once empty and sealed off, for One Unknown who does not come but from whom illusory messages flow, while there passes again and again a cruel couple of master and slave,...