The Presence of the Past in
Waiting for Godot
The English Review, 5, 1 (September 1994), pp. 19-22
This article relates a particular literary past to the present of Beckett’s play. Taking his cue from T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Laurence Coupe demonstrates how Beckett ‘takes on’ canonical texts (Shakespeare, Dante, the Bible). Far from these being academic allusions, Beckett manages to treat them as vitally relevant to his own needs and to appropriate them for our own age.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, though about half a century old, is still regarded as a very strange play. To acknowledge what is familiar about it need not deprive the play of its power; rather, it might help affirm its creative credentials. For if we still find it challenging, this is surely something to do with its radical relation to established literary texts. As T. S. Eliot pointed out in his influential essay of 1919, there is no easy way to separate ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. The literary legacy — the ‘canon’ — would become a dead weight were it not for those modern writers who, far from evading it, make it crucially relevant to their own needs. Beckett is one such writer: with him the past becomes present.
Welcome to purgatory
Waiting for Godot, then, must be seen in context. Indeed, there is a context announced for it already, in the author’s own earlier work. I am thinking of his short story ‘Dante and the Lobster’, included in Beckett’s first prose volume More Kicks than Pricks (1934). The plot centres on a day in the life of one Belacqua Shuah, a Dublin student researching into Dante’s Divine Comedy, a major visionary poem of the early fourteenth century concerning the afterlife. Belacqua is attracted to that text because he likes pondering the themes of damnation and salvation; in the poem Dante imagines himself travelling from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. Moreover, Shuah has an affinity with it because he shares his own first name with that of one of Dante’s characters: the figure whom the poet meets as he travels up the mount of purgatory, which lies halfway between the infernal and celestial realms. Dante’s Belacqua is being punished for the sin of idleness, which meant that he delayed his repentance until the very last moment. Now he is forced to repent at length, lingering alone on the mountain, with the bliss of heaven a long way off. Here in this world, Beckett’s Belacqua also lingers and loiters a good deal. Indeed, it takes him all his time to prepare his lunch (burnt toast, gorgonzola, salt, mustard and cayenne) and then to collect a lobster from the fishmonger for his aunt. After several awkward episodes, he arrives at her house, where he is surprised to find that the creature is still alive. His aunt mocks him for his naivety, explaining how lobsters are cooked as she prepares it for the pan of boiling hot water. The story ends as follows:
She lifted the lobster clear of the table.
It had about 30 seconds to live.
Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.
It is not.
‘Dante and the Lobster’ gives us Beckett’s vision in brief. Living is a matter of suffering, as in purgatory, but without the consolation of an assured future. All one knows for certain — though, like Belacqua Shuah, we may try and take refuge in cliche — is that life is long, and pain is profound. The name of Dante may not have been on the lips of all the critics when Waiting for Godot was first performed in English in 1955. But perhaps we can see, with the advantage of having the complete works, that the familiar landscape of all Beckett’s writing is the mount of purgatory, as depicted in the second of the three books of the Divine Comedy. Again and again, his characters are ‘waiting’, as Vladimir and Estragon wait for ‘Godot’. And we do not even crudely have to identify that elusive figure with the God whom the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche announced to be dead, in order to see that between Dante and Beckett the emphasis has shifted. Where once purgatory was the route from hell to heaven — a stage on the journey of redemption — it now marks the boundaries of our meaningless and intolerable lives.
Consider Lucky’s tortuous speech in Act I of Waiting for Godot. If, in essence, his is a theological argument such as we frequently find in Dante, it is one that is taking place after the death of God. Though we constantly assume the existence of a sky-father who ‘for reason unknown’ rewards some souls and punishes others, humanity is seen to ‘waste and pine’. Though we seek to blind ourselves to this truth by physical activity, we will, ‘in spite of… the tennis’, eventually have to face the fact that we live in an ‘abode of stones’.
When in Act II Pozzo and Lucky appear for the second time, and soon collapse in a helpless heap on the ground, Vladimir is delighted because this gives him and Estragon something to do, relieving the tedium of their existence. He desperately enthuses to Estragon:
Vladimir: We wait. We are bored. [He throws up his hand.] No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s go to work! [He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.] In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!
Thus our condition, in this ‘abode of stones’, is revealed to be paradoxically both purgatorial and purposeless. Beckett’s vision derives from Dante’s traditional Christian universe; but without divine meaning the cosmos turns out to be chaos.
If Eliot is right about tradition then what both ‘Dante and the Lobster’ and Waiting for Godot have allowed us to do is to read the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present. Belacqua in purgatory, in no hurry for salvation, has now caught something of the character of Belacqua in Dublin, burning his toast and reluctantly fetching his aunt’s lobster. Nor can the landscape of purgatory itself ever be the same now that we have seen Vladimir and Estragon, tormented by time, as they wait by a bare tree on a bleak country road.
‘Do not presume…’
Behind Waiting for Godot lies The Divine Comedy; behind The Divine Comedy lies the Bible. The scriptures too are invoked by Beckett. But the experience of the play is not that of catching the odd, disposable allusion; rather, a pattern starts to emerge. Early in Act I Vladimir, having been ticked off by Estragon for leaving it too long to empty his bladder, quotes a half-remembered line: ‘Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?’ His friend neither knows nor cares, being preoccupied with his boots, but the reference is vital. Turning to the Biblical source we read the following: ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life’ (Proverbs 13:12).
Here we need to remind ourselves that in the beginning, the Bible tells us, Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden and did not know suffering or death. Then, prompted by the serpent, they chose to defy God and eat the fruit of ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. The result was that they were driven out of the garden, and the way was barred to ‘the tree of life’ (Genesis 2-3). Vladimir and Estragon have inherited this loss. The road they are travelling leads nowhere; and though the tree by which they wait, which is bare throughout Act I, suddenly in Act II acquires ‘four or five leaves’, this is hardly a guarantee that the ‘life’ of Eden has been restored. Moreover, though Vladimir may remark at the end of the play that ‘Everything’s dead but the tree’, his and Estragon’s main interest is whether or not it will do to hang themselves on: it will not. Contrast this painful symbolism with Dante’s welcome of a sure sign of salvation coming out of suffering: ‘The tree renewed itself, which before had its boughs so naked’ (Purgatory, XXXII, 59-60).
So all our two wanderers are left with is the realisation that they have fallen:
Estragon: We’ve lost our rights?
Vladimir [distinctly]: We got rid of them.
Significantly, when the former is asked by Pozzo for his name, he replies ‘Adam’. Again, when Estragon later tries to attract the attention of Pozzo and Lucky by calling out ‘Abel’ and ‘Cain’ (the names of Adam and Eve’s sons), Pozzo responds to both titles: as Estragon remarks, ‘He’s all humanity.’ In other words, he has unknowingly admitted our fallen condition, in which we are all as much capable of evil (Cain) as of good (Abel).
But what of Christ, and the possibility of redemption? Vladimir is certainly interested in the crucifixion, and the story of the repentant thief; or, at least, he hopes that telling it ‘will pass the time’:
Vladimir: Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One –
Estragon: Our what?
Vladimir: Our Saviour. Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other… [he searches for the opposite of saved] … damned.
In a rare interview Beckett once quoted St Augustine’s reflection on this story: ‘Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved: do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ What appealed to him, he said, was ‘the shape’: a typically ambiguous observation, since the symmetry of the statement allows for it to be read both optimistically and pessimistically. On the whole, of course, the evidence of Waiting for Godot is that Beckett’s interpretation of what is often called the good book is decidedly gloomy. When Estragon compares himself to Christ, Vladimir objects (typically, on geographical rather than theological grounds):
Vladimir: Where he lived it was warm, it was dry!
Estragon: Yes, and they crucified quick!
However negative the Biblical context of Waiting for Godot, one could hardly accuse Beckett of avoiding the challenge of the scriptures. The faith to which they testify may not be available to him, but they offer a pattern of meaning against which to test his despair. Dante is re-read in a similar way. If we look carefully, we might also detect the presence of Shakespeare, another pillar of the tradition. Indeed, in this case the influence might, at first, seem even more direct. But again, we have to be careful in comparing source and use.
Take King Lear. In Act 3 the old king, driven to madness, wanders on the heath followed by the motley entourage of his Fool, the banished Earl of Kent and ‘Poor Tom’ (the Duke of Gloucester’s maligned son, in disguise as a beggar). The dialogue reaches heights of absurdity comparable to that of Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky (another quartet of misfits); but again, mixed in with the madness are moments of awful truth. Pointing to ‘Poor Tom’ and appealing to the other three, Lear asks:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! There’s three on’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare forked animal as thou art. (III.iv.105-11)
At such moments of insight in the bleak, storm-tossed wilderness we may not feel there is much effort needed to see Beckett as traditional. Waiting for Godot seems to be exactly about this vision of humanity.
We may recall also the last great speech by the blood-steeped hero of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Besieged in his castle and hearing of his wife’s death, he manages to attain a lucidity as terrifying as that of the old king on the heath:
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.v.24-28)
Could there be a better description of the progress of Vladimir and Estragon throughout the two acts of Waiting for Godot?
Indeed, Vladimir’s own conclusions are not unlike Lear’s and Macbeth’s. Remembering Pozzo’s insight (‘They give birth astride of a grave…’), he elaborates:
Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. [He listens.] But habit is a great deadener. [He looks again at Estragon.] At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. [Pause.] I can’t go on! [Pause.] What have I said?
Absurdity then and now
Do we conclude, then, that whereas the Bible and Dante have to be forcibly taken over by Beckett, his world-view has already been anticipated exactly by Shakespeare? This would be, I feel, misleading. For the vision of ‘unaccommodated man’ is Lear’s, not the author’s of King Lear; and the vision of the ‘tale / Told by an idiot’ is Macbeth’s, not the author’s of Macbeth. After all, the last words of both works go to other characters, representatives of a new beginning. Moreover, the same playwright also wrote Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night: festive comedies, in which such nihilism is very firmly put in its place. By contrast, Vladimir speaks — if the evidence of Waiting for Godot as a whole, and ‘Dante and the Lobster’, is to be believed — with Beckett’s full authority.
Another way of putting this is that, though the absurd vision is only one dimension of Shakespeare’s repertoire, in our age it has become central. Thus, while the great tragedies may offer Beckett a model of despair, he can only use it by extending it beyond the dramatic limits originally imposed. An insight born of extremes — Lear’s anguish, Macbeth’s guilt — has been treated as absolute and universal. Shakespeare too has had to be read against the grain. But then, this is just the kind of daring that we need from an ‘Individual Talent’ if ‘Tradition’ is to be kept alive.