Sunday, November 4, 2012

Waiting for Beckett

Bear with me, please. This starts complicated but gets simpler, and then simpler still.

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
help from my parents. There were many positive aspects to years one and two—learning much about Jazz and Folk Music, Modern Poetry, and the Modern Theatre as well (on-Broadway or off-, Absurdly), not to mention any social skills I absorbed—but by early 1962 I’d decided to save serious money by transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle, sort of the elephant in the room for my home state, but also a great campus for poetry, centered on Theodore Roethke and the circle of his ex-students, some still at UW, others spread out across the Pacific Northwest, Montana, and points East: Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, David Wagoner, Beth and Nelson Bentley, Robert Sund, plus young poets soon to be recognized, plus Roethke or Department links to Stanley Kunitz, Louise
Bogan, Robert Penn Warren, various Irish and English poets, on and on.

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
signature play of the Twentieth Century.

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,
angst-y Everymen who seem to speak and act, or not act, as would anyone (every one) of us who expends (wastes) his/her (our) existence, forever awaiting… what? Some thing, anything, nothing, no thing, whatever it takes for things to change, or perhaps to stay safely unchanging: playful, pitiful, baleful, pitfall, pratfall life… of love and death and taxes, of terrors and the unknown, of the Unnamable No-Show… known to some as Godot.

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
classes, and literature courses focused on comic Ionesco and convict Genet; on the threat of violence in tersely voluble Pinter, the strangeness of scene and character in Albee (America’s almost-Absurdist), and the Keaton-Chaplin-circus clown elements deployed by Godot’s-gone-AWOL-and-bob’s-your-uncle Sam Beckett.

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
spongily tried to absorb everything else. I functioned as a combination of secretary, factotum, bellhop and--once or twice--even Joe’s unofficial stand-in. (If he was triple-booked, say, because double- was no problem.)

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 by a splendid coincidence, wasn’t one of the featured plays, for a few days in July, Waiting for Godot in the acclaimed, long-running production mounted by San Francisco’s Actor’s Workshop? Why, yes it was. And did I actually get to a performance? Well, yes, two of them in fact.

And was my life changed forever? Not sure, haven’t got there yet… but for 50 years
now, I have written less formally, with more puns and word play, a greater awareness of the sounds of words and of other languages, of the points of view held by other nations, of our One World, fragile and beautiful, over-heating and overwhelmed. And I have despaired often.

* * * * *
I’ve told this story for a ridiculous reason--an email tiff I got into recently with some 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
customer reviews of the three-in-one book.

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
sub-head are added] including a brief bit of mock German but nothing that a fan of Beckett could not grasp--trying NOT to be excessive in length of the game it plays, taking Beckett’s most famous line… and subjecting it to the kind of sound and word play that Beckett’s mentor Joyce and indeed Beckett himself on occasion would write. Yes, it’s a bit of a lark, a game of seeming nonsense words, but it does actually say something quite Beckettian about the dedicated readers of Sam: “I can’t not read on. But I must not read on. So I do.” These small bits might amuse some readers other than the Amazin' po-faced judges…

There’s more, but why beat a China shop bull-sitter at ping-pong? I got back another
form email promising a considered response within a few days. But four weeks later… I’m still waiting. Waiting for the Tumbling Amazonks to get their act together. Waiting for some camera-sly Godot to school me in the marvels of spinal stenosis and Parkinson’s.

Waiting for Beckett to convince me once again that his later works--increasingly static, more and more silent--still bear the magic,
rough or radiant, of Lear and Quixote, of Prospero and Bloom, and of his own earlier characters Winnie and Didi, Hamm and Krapp, allowed to speak aloud… versus those of Buster Keaton, creator of cinemagical silents (some possibly, Absurdly, absorbed by Sam), from The Navigator and The General to those genius Jrs., Sherlock and Steamboat Bill… and from Keaton The Cameraman to Buster the Object, perceived by Eye of camera and I of self, in Sam Beckett's sole Film.

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