[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Brater studies the uniqueness of many of the opening lines from Beckett's plays, explores their portent, and probes the non-linear aspects of the plays.]
Although Beckett has often been discussed as a modernist writer of termination, of "reckoning closed and story ended," his work as a whole displays a remarkable range of beginnings. Even before he took up writing for the stage seriously, he had calculated on the effect of opening a story with a line an early piece of fiction might have called a real "stinger." Murphy, the novel published in 1938 by Chatto & Windus, opens with a serious and memorable non-starter: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." Unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, which begins so promisingly with a suspenseful "Who's there?," here the sense of an endgame is nicely embedded in the effort of merely beginning, an action at once lame, impotent, futile--and dazzling, initiating a pattern Beckett will make familiar to us in his writings over the next fifty years: "What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple?" And although it might be argued that in this bold imaginative world the end is already in the beginning--Beckett's speakers have repeatedly made the same argument themselves ("The end is in the beginning and yet you go on")--it will be the point of this discussion to suggest that for this writer beginnings and endings are never quite the same thing.
In Waiting for Godot, his signature play, Beckett faces the challenge of beginning a play that is going nowhere--in particular. "Nothing to be done"--Estragon has the opener here--is the sort of ambitious "stinger" Beckett had in mind more than a dozen years before when he wrote Dream of Fair to Middling Women. The line all at once introduces us to an un-accomplished stage character and boldly announces what will soon become the theme of Beckett's most famous play. It does more than that, too: for while Estragon utters the line to express his frustration at not being able to remove a boot while struggling with it as he sits on a low mound, Vladimir hears things differently, as he pretentiously states in his opening line: "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."
Only then does Vladimir retreat from his metaphysical speculation to take notice of his colleague (though in this case side-kick is probably the more appropriate term): "So there you are again." Beckett's opening lines in Waiting for Godot therefore offer his audience an object lesson in what we might be tempted to call the hermeneutics of listening: we listen while a character hears but misinterprets something that was just been said. What was the word? What was the word?...