Sunday, November 4, 2012
Waiting for Beckett
By early 1960 I had received acceptance letters from several colleges, but since my parents were headed overseas to Korea, I carefully chose to begin that higher education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, near my closest relatives (in Joliet). But I was way off about finances. As the only private school amid the expansive public campuses of the Big Ten, Northwestern was small, hugely expensive, and as a result of the money involved, something of a party school at the undergrad level—a fine English Department, superior Drama and Journalism Schools, but most of the action beyond undergrad level.
To survive there financially, I had a big academic scholarship, a bigger student loan, a 20-hours-a-week job at the campus Student Union—and then still needed monthly
And wasn’t that a mighty time? There’s much to tell, of course, but not today, because this piece has another subject altogether--a crankily shy, comically sullen, cannily deadpan pessimist; a lanky, sharp-featured, hawk-eyed, mock-Existential Absurdist (more Reductio ad than “Theatre of”), master of many words, or few, or none; a frankly hard-up, glad-to-be-unhappy, loving-every-miserable-minute, expatriate Irishman become ex-patriot Frenchman, feted by many and hated by a few, maneuvered by Joyce, slighted by Sartre, ignored by Camus, and finally hailed by the Nobel Committee and embraced by the wide world for, among three-score-more pertinent things, having written THE
No, not Synge with Riders… or Yeats invoking Cuchulain… nor Heaney re-Gaeling Beowulf… not even Joyce creating playlets within Ulysses. I’m writing instead, and briefly in fact, about Samuel Beckett… who looked somewhat like Dashiel Hammett minus the mustache. (You can also hear intriguing echoes of sounds and rhythm in their two names.) And the play? Doesn’t matter how many other bleak, funny, scarifying, mute, or talky stage works Beckett created. The world keeps Waiting for Godot.
Written in the late Forties/early Fifties, Godot was staged first in Paris in 1953, and word spread rapidly about Beckett’s bizarre and haunting, bare-stage-and-tree, lackadaisical yet compelling two-act piece concerning four comic and variable,
From the mid-Fifties on, rave performances of the play (“raving,” sneered naysayers) held theatres and audiences captive from Paris to London and Berlin, from Dublin to New York and on to San Francisco. Stage-conscious Northwestern was always well up on hit plays of the moment, and I recall hearing--or hearing about--dorm discussions, acting
I was nowhere near this hip on my own; it was the job I had lucked into--assistant to Joe Miller (not his real name, which I have shamefully forgotten), Northwestern’s vice president for something like “Student Events and Campus Productions” (including the annual, all-out Waa-Mu variety show), with his office located right in the busy Student Union. There I answered the phone; read and marked for clipping issues of Cashbox and Variety, The New York Times and Chicago papers, Time and Life and more; took informal notes, a fly on the wall at some of his meetings; and
It was work I looked forward to each day and, really, the only thing I regretted leaving when I headed West in June of 1962. The job had broadened my cultural awareness, and among the books I had read about and bought immediately were Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd (1961) and the brilliant, just-published Grove Press anthology titled Seven Plays of the Modern Theater, which of course included Godot.
So I was primed when I moved into a shared apartment in Seattle, with time to enjoy some months of Century 21 (official name of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair).
And was my life changed forever? Not sure, haven’t got there yet… but for 50 years
* * * * *
I’ve told this story for a ridiculous reason--an email tiff I got into recently with some Amazon.com adjudicator(s)...
I was idly browsing books by or about Beckett, noticed a new Everyman’s Library edition of his “trilogy,” three avant-garde tour-de-force novels he wrote before Godot--bleak Molloy, bleaker Malone Dies, and bleakest, The Unnamable--and saw too that the Amnipotent Seller-of-All-Things was soliciting
Hmmm, I said, hmmming… What could I write that would be serious but a joke too, maybe sound a bit like Beckett? The answer hopped into my head instantly. The Unnamable ends with some enjambed sentence-phrases long thought to sum up the rueful, hopeless, darkly humorous, Sisyphus-on-a-banana-peel universe that Beckett’s solipsistic characters inhabit: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I knew I could twist that a little, dowse with a bucket of Beckett-meets-Joyce linguistic nonsense, and heeding Amazonink’s submission regs, probably still amuse a few readers while staying true to the spirit of Sam.
Here’s what I emailed to the Amazonicans at World Domination Hdqs:
Sprocket zee Bequette? --Review of Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (Everyman’s Library hc)--
Re: Molly, Malarkey, UnGnomen (auf Existenz)… Eye cant knot reed awn. Butt aye mussed naught rede un. Sew aiee due.
… Came bouncing back almost before I got my finger off the Send key--detected, inspected, rejected. No reason given--just a repeat of the boilerplate: can’t be obscene, should focus on product features, must be at least 20 words, etc. I reflected, realized I’d been disrespected, and thus logically objected (excerpts as follows):
Hello. Might you not lighten up a little? Of course you are in charge and can reject any review you choose for whatever reason. But this one does not violate any rules or standards that I can find in your regs. It is 20 words long [more if headline and
There’s more, but why beat a China shop bull-sitter at ping-pong? I got back another
Waiting for Beckett to convince me once again that his later works--increasingly static, more and more silent--still bear the magic,