Beckett and the Art of the Nonplus

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Editors: Roger Matuz and Sean Pollock
Date: 1990
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,738 words

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[The essay excerpted below was originally presented as part of a lecture series at the University of Michigan during the academic year 1984-1985 to celebrate Beckett's eightieth birthday.]

When I read Waiting for Godot for the first time, in 1955, I was nonplussed; but, nevertheless, after a couple of years, I began to plan a production of the play. Peter Hall's presentation in London had not encouraged me because its mixture of music hall acts, meaningful statements, and slow-moving narrative had shown me other values than those which had disturbed and silenced me. Nor did the lively discussion that followed that first production do more than widen the context in which I felt insecure because the critics were concerned mostly with the text's obvious and detachable symbols.

After reading only a few pages, I had known that I had been "appalled." This had been suggested by the very first stage direction and the words that follow: Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, tries again. As before. Enter Vladimir. ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done. VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle ...)

That was not how characters were introduced in the plays I knew at that time. The interchange of words seemed accidental, and only one of the two speakers seemed to hear the other. And how could the one who listened know what was meant by the one who spoke? Still more strange was the opening stage direction: how long would all this quiet business take to enact? "Panting" is not an action established in a brief moment. "Exhausted" is not a direction to put into effect easily, and again it takes time. And why should the boot fail to move? What obstacle did Estragon encounter, if any? I asked these ordinary, practical questions and became more sure that I had lost my bearings. (pp. 25-6)

[Beckett often makes use of dramatic silence in Waiting for Godot; most] alarming or appalling are silences which are followed by words or actions that have little or no continuity from what precedes them: the characters have become nonplussed until something accidental happens—perhaps Estragon's boot comes off—or some new topic for talk rises without apparent connection as if welling up from the subconscious of the character or possibly of the author. After Vladimir's "This is getting alarming," the next words are his: "One of the thieves was saved. (Pause.) It's a reasonable percentage. (Pause.) Gogo." His mind has moved at a tangent, for reasons unstated: old worries or old consolations have surfaced, claiming the effort of speech, and make play for present consolation by means of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000115