I guess I should confess here, if it hasn’t become obvious from previous posts, that I think Beckett was a genius and that Godot is a masterpiece. I can’t ignore those feelings entirely, of course, but I’ve tried to put them aside when I debate Patrick on his assertions and claims in “’Godot’ and Other Trash.” You’ll determine how successful I’ve been.
With respect to my first impression of Patrick’s essay--that he was coming from personal jealousy--I can only observe that though Patrick had had some success as an Off-Off-Broadway playwright in the ‘50s and ‘60s, starting at the Caffe Cino where he was something of a fixture, and moving into the OOB arena of the early and middle ‘70s, especially in the realm of gay theater. (There used to be several significant gay and lesbian theater companies in New York City as well as a relatively prominent gay bi-weekly newspaper, The New York Native. Briefly in the 1980s and ‘90s, I wrote reviews for the Native, covering mostly OOB productions and some Off-Broadway shows. My editor was the late Terry Helbing who ran one of those gay theaters in the decade previous.)
Kennedy’s Children ran at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway from 3 November 1975 to 4 January 1976; Shirley Knight won the 1976 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance. After Kennedy’s Children, Patrick’s work returned to the OOB theaters and he began, in my opinion, to rewrite the same play--mostly based on his own life as a gay man--over and over again. In October 1986, two years before Patrick wrote his New York Times column on Godot, I was reading scripts for the 1987 Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships for American Playwrights Program in the prescreening stage of selection for residency grants. One of the plays I read was Patrick’s The Trial of Socrates, a two-act play modeled on classic theater ostensibly examining the real reason Socrates was tried and condemned. (That’s what Patrick would assert. Actually, I maintain it was really about what happens when you deny a kid a homosexual affair. The plot centered on Socrates’ infatuation with the young Alkibiades.) In my evaluation, I wrote: “. . . This is pretentious dreck dressed up to be poetic drama. Patrick is simply presenting a brief for gay love, with a little (frustrated) voyeurism thrown in for good measure.” (Before anyone charges that I was acting out of some form of homophobia, let me say that I added that there were many better gay plays and gay playwrights who could benefit from a grant. It had been Patrick’s dramaturgy, not his theme that had turned me off.)
In October 1990, I was assigned by Terry Helbing of the Native to cover Patrick’s “Hello, Bob” at La MaMa under the author’s own direction. Like Kennedy’s Children, “Hello, Bob” is a series of monologues, all of which relate in some way to the success of the Broadway play and the effect of that success on Patrick. Whereas Kennedy’s Children considered “the death of the idea of heroes as guides for our lives,” according to Patrick’s note in the published text, “Hello, Bob” seemed only to be concerned with praising Patrick--the man, the artist, the Samaritan, the lover. There were many references to Patrick as a “great guy” and to his “great play.” Over and over again, the playwright showed himself as a tireless teacher, dauntless crusader for noble causes, and unwavering friend. In most of the speeches, the playwright portrayed himself as persecuted by opponents and enemies; The New York Times characterized the impetus as “paranoia.” Aside from Patrick’s need to revisit this event 15 years later, what astonished me most was the opprobrium he heaped on Shirley Knight (a character in the play is an actress named “Shirley”)--bordering, in my opinion, on libel. He said terrible things about her in the play! Was Patrick envious that Knight had won a Tony for his play and he hadn’t? (The play had been nominated for a Drama Desk Award that season, but didn’t win. Patrick himself received no nominations of which I am aware.) Did she do something during the production of Kennedy’s Children that pissed Patrick off? Was he just mad because after that taste of mainstream success, he fell back to near obscurity and he took his anger out on Knight, whose career moved forward, with TV and movies as well as stage work? I don’t know, of course, but I have always wondered why Patrick so viciously attacked Knight in “Hello, Bob” for work I had found strong and appealing. (I saw Kennedy’s Children in December 1975. I even bought the script because I thought the monologues would be good material for acting classes. Neither The Trial of Socrates nor “Hello, Bob” have been published, though some monologues from the latter that weren’t used at LaMaMa appeared in Stages magazine in July/August 1991.)
Did Patrick then do the same thing with Beckett and Godot, railing at a more successful and respected artist because Godot was getting so much press and Patrick couldn’t get arrested by 1988? Patrick wrote in the Times: “Those working outside the canon are denied space or are defused by being placed among the space junk.” That sure sounds to me like that’s what he was doing. I’ve seen it before, of course: an artist who isn’t getting the attention he thinks he deserves turning on the establishment and blaming some bunch of villainous gatekeepers for barring him from his just recognition. For one playwright, the villains were the dramaturgs and literary advisers who blocked his way; for Patrick, it was a cabal of “ambitious young critics” who promoted bad writers over worthy ones in order to aggrandize themselves.
(Amusingly, it’s worth noting that in the late 19th century a group of French poets and novelists of considerable renown and repute who had nonetheless failed as playwrights formed a semi-formal conclave which met for elaborate dinners once a month. These writers were Ivan Turgenev--an honorary Frenchman--Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, and Edmond de Goncourt and, because their first dramatic efforts had been booed off the stage, they called themselves the Group of Hissed Authors--le Groupe des Auteurs Sifflés. They didn’t blame anyone for their lack of success. They just found an excuse to party!)
But now, leaving aside if possible the dramatist’s apparent emotional investment, let’s see if I can refute Patrick’s logic.
It might be easier to discuss Patrick’s reasoning if I reproduced all or most of his column, but I won’t do that. I’m not even sure that would be permissible, and to make matters worse for the reader, the essay isn’t available on the New York Times website or elsewhere on the ‘Net. (Aside from the microfilm of the issue, the column can be found in the databases ProQuest Historical Database or ProQuest Historical New York Newspapers & Magazines, but only if you go to the whole page on which it appeared. Except for a clipping file somewhere, those are about the only sources I know of.) So, I will do my best to outline Patrick’s argument as scrupulously as I can.
Patrick’s argument against the importance of Beckett as a writer and Godot as theater literature is made up of three major points supported by various assertions:
- Beckett is a minor writer. [Paragraph 1 of Patrick’s essay]
- Critics of the ‘40s & ‘50s created the impression of value in such artists. [¶ 2]
- The young were fooled into accepting the values. [¶ 3]
- Audiences took the critics seriously. [¶ 4]
- Artists not accepted by the establishment are ignored. [¶’s 5 & 9]
- Standards are “incoherent,” thus so is the art. [¶’s 8 & 7]
- Our art is becoming shallow. [¶’s 12 & 10]
Now, the logical connection among the three parts of the argument is weak. Part A is developed through several steps: a syllogism based on unsubstantiated opinion. If you buy the assertion that Beckett and the other writers Patrick disparages are low-level artists, the syllogism might hold. But Patrick’s characterization is an assertion for which he offers not only no proof, but no criteria. By what standards are Beckett and his fellow modernists “mediocrities”? Why should we take Patrick’s judgment without question when he unabashedly scolds us for accepting the judgment of the critics? If you take a look at my earlier post, “History of ‘Waiting For Godot’” (20 March), you’ll see that not all critics agreed among themselves; quite a few didn’t like Godot or Beckett’s kind of writing. So, what are we left with then? We can listen to critics who agree with Patrick, but not those who disagree with him? That may be a supremely human stance, but it’s not rational argument.
Part C, on the other hand, only follows if you accept that the “canon” is made up of unworthy artists. Patrick offers no cogent argument that Jasper Johns or Beckett are inferior artists to van Gogh and Picasso, or Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, and Harvey Fierstein, the artists Patrick holds up as worthier vessels than Beckett. Again, what are Patrick’s criteria? This is the question Patrick continually begs, of course. (Williams, by the way, was a great admirer of Beckett, who influenced Williams’s later, non-realistic works. Williams’s absurdist play Camino Real, by coincidence, came out the same year Godot was performed in Paris.) Indeed, if we apply even a general standard to judgment, say international renown and artistic staying power, we can see that the three playwrights on Patrick’s list aren’t even of equal stature among themselves, much less in comparison to Beckett. Williams is, by almost all measures, one of the two or three most important American dramatists of the middle of the 20th century. When Patrick asks, If you give Beckett a Nobel Prize, “what are you going to give” the other three, Williams could conceivably have been a contender. Lanford Wilson? He writes good plays, which I like a lot, as it happens, but is he of comparable stature to Williams? The Nobel is given for literature, not theater (the Pulitzer’s awarded for drama), and I don’t know that Wilson writes great literature. And what about Harvey Fierstein, a friend and sometime collaborator of Patrick’s? Is he Nobel material, do you think? Let’s also remember that the Nobel is awarded for a career of achievement, not a single work (that’s the Pulitzer again). Does Fierstein have a body of work that competes with, oh, say, Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature? Fierstein’s written some fun, interesting, and even moving plays, but I couldn’t put him in the same category as Williams much less O’Neill.
We can glean some of Patrick’s criteria for worthiness from other statements. In a 1979 interview with Bernard Weiner of the San Francisco Chronicle, the playwright complained, “If you absolutely refuse to relate your theater to life, the grants doors open wide.” The work such artists make is “a dead-end; it’s for people who take drugs and stay up late.” So, we can infer that Patrick’s theater canon would consist of plays that “relate to life.” From the work of the artists he deprecates in the same interview--Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban, Winston Tong, Richard Foreman--we can deduce that what Patrick doesn’t like is theater that is experimental or innovative in form and idiosyncratic in structure. Looking at the writers he admires so fiercely, who also include David Mamet, David Rabe, Christopher Durang, and Michael Weller, what he apparently likes, is some form of Realism: straightforward Realism, enhanced Realism, lyrical Realism, but Realism nonetheless. “These people [the experimentalists] are getting grants to work with tinker toys,” he charged. “It’s super-chic trash, and it will only stop if someone comes out and says so.” There’s little question who that someone is, I guess. “Change,” Patrick urges in the Times essay, “must come from on high.” Oh.
Patrick also embeds a red herring in his case against the avant-garde. While the opening (and the headline, assuming Patrick had a hand in composing that) of his Times essay lead us to expect that he will argue the demerits of Beckett as an artist and Godot as a play, an argument that might be hard to marshal (especially without evidence or stated criteria), Patrick moves into an assault on the neglect of home-grown playwrights whom he feels don’t get enough stage time. They are, he claims, being displaced by “Soho performance art twaddle.” But even if Mamet, Rabe, et al., are pushed aside undeservedly, that is not the same as arguing that Beckett and Godot are unworthy of being staged and viewed. It’s much easier to make a case for paying more attention to supporting American playwrights; theater artists have been saying that for several decades. (Of course, in 1988 writers like Mamet were just beginning their careers; the writers on Patrick’s list have since become almost household names--if there’s a theater devotee in your house, that is. Mamet just had two major revivals here in New York, Durang’s new play recently opened at the Public to excellent reviews, and I saw a new Weller play Off-Broadway a few months back in a top-flight production--though I didn’t end up caring much for the play, but that’s a different issue. Lanford Wilson was the subject of a Signature Theatre season in 2003, including a stunning revival of 5th of July.) Even if Patrick’s complaint about the neglect of domestic writers were true (and Patrick essentially begs this question as well, offering only an assertion without proof), it amounts to a more easily-handled distraction from his originally-stated contention: that Becket is a mediocre writer and Godot is trivial art. Besides being a red herring, the issue, even if Patrick proved it, is beside the point since Beckett’s merit has little to do with how other writers are treated and or vice versa.
Moreover, Patrick protested in the Chronicle interview: “America has turned its back on its dramatists.” But we haven’t: Patrick has set up a false dichotomy here by implying that we can either like Godot or appreciate other, less-experimental, domestic authors, but not both. That’s just not so: both Williams and Wilson won Pulitzers for drama. Wilson won in 1980 for Talley’s Folly; Williams won twice, once in 1948 for Streetcar and again in 1955 for Cat. Wilson is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and all three of the writers Patrick dubs as underrecognized by society have won Tonys or Obies and other performance awards. Furthermore, as I noted, only one American dramatist has ever won a Nobel, so it’s not as if these three have been singled out for this slight. Arthur Muller has never won a Nobel; neither has Edward Albee or Maxwell Anderson or Robert Anderson or James Baldwin or Horton Foote or William Inge or Lorraine Hansberry or Lillian Hellman or George Kaufman or Clifford Odets or William Saroyan or Neil Simon or Wendy Wasserstein or Thornton Wilder or August Wilson. (The list of prominent non-American dramatists who never won Nobels is very long as well: Anouilh, Brecht, Cao Yu, Chekhov, Cocteau, Dürrenmatt, Fugard, Gorky, Havel, Ibsen, Lorca, Rostand, Strindberg, Synge, Tendulkar, Witkiewicz--just to name sixteen.) Just because American dramatists, O’Neill aside, haven’t received Nobel recognition, doesn’t mean American society has “turned its back” on its dramatic writers; one award lacking isn’t sufficient proof of overall neglect. (This is really another question Patrick begs.) Patrick thus commits the fallacy of the hasty generalization. Specifically, he slants the evidence by using as his support the one award American playwrights have failed to win. The many other literary and theatrical awards his favored writers have won, from the Obies and Tonys to the Pulitzers, the Rockefeller and Ford grants, the fellowships, the MacArthur “genius grants,” and all the other honors America has heaped on its preeminent and emerging playwrights, including Williams, Wilson, and Fierstein--Patrick himself won a Rockefeller residency grant in 1973--are not mentioned in Patrick’s thesis, so we don’t see that most of the writers he champions are well-rewarded in public praise. That Beckett got a Nobel Prize may irk Patrick, but it’s not evidence that we overlook all other writers.
Part B is slipped in without much development, an assertion made by every artist ignored or panned by critics and the art establishment. It may, however, be Patrick’s real central point, but he’s afraid to compare himself openly to Wilson, Fierstein, and Williams, not to mention Beckett. Patrick returns briefly to B by inference in Paragraph 9, but doesn’t make the connection explicit.
The overall syllogism might look like this:
- Premise 1: Artists like Beckett are mediocre.
- Premise 2: Critics promote mediocrity.
- Conclusion: Good artists are overlooked.
The logic alone, on its surface, might work, but the truth of the Conclusion depends on the truth and accuracy of all the premises. The fallacies are that Premise 1 depends on Patrick’s judgment alone and is unprovable; Premise 2, the middle term, is undistributed, referring only to some critics, not all. For the middle premise to be distributed, there would have to be a conspiracy among all the world’s critics! (Are there meetings of the International Association of Theatre Critics at which such plans are discussed and developed? Does Homeland Security know about this conspiracy?)
Furthermore, when Patrick argues against artists he doesn’t like, he makes sweeping generalizations about them, committing the fallacy of nonqualification. While some artists like Beckett--meaning, I presume, Postmodern, experimental, and non-traditional writers--may be mediocre, Patrick cannot hold that all such artists are mediocre. (He obviously doesn’t think Williams is a mediocrity, yet Camino Real and many of Williams’s later plays are extremely experimental and non-realistic.) In tandem with nonqualification, then, Patrick commits the fallacy of composition by determining that since Beckett is a mediocre artists (if we accept Patrick’s judgment for the sake of argument), then all similar artists--that is, Postmodern experimentalists--are also mediocrities. Even if Patrick’s estimation of Beckett were correct, you can’t assert that what’s true of the parts are necessarily true of the whole. In logic, one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.
And as far as the critics’ promotion of mediocre artists, including, in Patrick’s estimation, Beckett, the fallacy here is the false cause. Just because some critics have praised Beckett and Godot, and even if many of them have, there is no proof of a connection between that fact and Beckett’s or Godot’s acceptance into the canon. First of all, as I pointed out above, not all critics concur on the merits of Godot. Second, other groups have also embraced the writer and his play, such as academics, other artists (including other writers), and, ultimately, audiences around the world. Have they all been led by the nose by a cabal of “ambitious” critics bent on “making mediocrities a cause” through “standards tossed out cynically”? Patrick asserts we all have been “hypnotized,” but is there proof? He claims that “young people . . . drove themselves nuts delving into these mediocrities” and “accepted as great a whole stable of writers, painters and composers whose work is variously pleasant, witty or vacuous” because they were “tangled in seaweed strands of abstruse criticism.” I, for one (perhaps atypical), can attest that I fell in love with Godot as a teenager when my college theater staged it when I was a freshman or sophomore, and I had never read any criticism of either Beckett or Godot at that time. As for the more mature of mind (“the old”), Patrick believes they “tried or pretended to understand” because they were embarrassed by the rejection of “the original avant-garde,” the Impressionists. Ummm, how old does Patrick think these people are? Impressionism arose in France in the 1870s, 110 years before Patrick wrote his column and 80 years before Godot hit the stages of Paris. (After Impressionism emerged--and was at first disparaged, as Patrick notes--several other artistic movements came along, more proximate to theatrical Absurdism, and were similarly rejected at first. Consider Dadaism--1910s and ‘20s--and Abstract Expressionism--1950s and ‘60s.) Isn’t it just as likely that various individuals simply gravitated to this new form of theater in the culturally stagnating ’50s (even as others were being repelled by it) and embraced something that excited them?
There are other emotional fallacies in Patrick’s argument as well. For one, he engages in a (perhaps mild) version of the argument to the club (there are long Latin names for all these fallacies--this one’s argumentum ad baculum--but I’m not inclined to use them here if I can avoid them) which implies a threat of harm (though in this case, not actual violence) if the proponent doesn’t get his way. Here Patrick suggests that our whole culture is headed for hell in a handbasket if we continue to listen to the nefarious critics and boosters of Absurdism. We’ll be “submerged in trash and trivia” as we “produce . . . meaningless muck,” devaluing the meaningful art that is overshadowed and will “remain unknown.” “We face a world of sorcerers’ apprentices in the emperor’s new clothes,” declares Patrick. “Our common culture is barbaric.” (Danger, Will Robinson!) His final warning: “We have turned the earth over to idiocy and we may not turn it back.” At the same time, Patrick indulges in a lot of name-calling, a form of ad hominem attack. He belittles Beckett as a “collegiate skit writer” and a “mediocrity.” He dubs Godot as “vacuous” and “trash and trivia.” He labels the critics he blames for Beckett’s elevation “charlatans” and “careerists” and the art they praise as “space junk.” Thus Patrick makes sure that we know his targets are unworthy of defense or even attention. Most of his attack is deadly serious in tone, but there is also a touch of ridicule when he invokes such silly images as “the emperor’s new clothes” and calls the press attention a “wee brouhaha,” making light of the issue. Silly things aren’t worth our consideration, after all.
Somewhat more subtly, Patrick also engages in an argument to the people, a kind of last-refuge-of-scoundrels approach. The abused artists, the ones who are neglected and ignored, are all American, while the artists promoted over them are foreigners--and so is the one critic Patrick names. Now, he doesn’t say this overtly, of course, and he implies, in fact, that some of the boosters of Beckett and the experimenters are domestic transgressors, but the only name he gives us is Kenneth Tynan, an Englishman, whom Patrick names twice and implies is the ringleader and instigator. Beckett, of course, was not only Irish, but he wrote in French. Patrick never mentions nationality in the essay, but by embracing artists who are all American (not to say all-American) and denigrating artists and their supporters who are all foreign, the (jingoistic) point is made. And Patrick reinforces this tactic by calling up a little pity (fallacies often reinforce one another): the poor, neglected home-grown playwright--he's being snubbed in favor of interlopers who are getting all our grant money and stage time. (Patrick doesn’t raise the issue of grants and funding in the Times directly, but he’s very specific on the subject in the Chronicle interview.)
So, out of my list of 39 logical and emotional fallacies, Patrick employs 13, a full one-third of those available, in his indictment of Beckett and Godot. For me, that makes a very weak argument and I don’t think I’m being too biased if I add, a totally invalid one. I’m sorry Patrick doesn’t like this writer and this play; I think he’s missing something way terrific, but, as my father used to like to point out, de gustibus non disputandum est--there's no accounting for taste. I doubt Patrick could ever get me to agree with him, but “’Godot’ and Other Trash” doesn’t even leave the starting gate.
In his essay “The Abstractions of Beasts,” Carl Sagan, rebutting John Locke’s affirmation that “Beasts abstract not,” posits that animals do, indeed “abstract,” only they do so in a form and at a level different from humans. Sagan suggests that our conviction that animals don’t reason is based on the assumption that since we can’t understand other species, they must not be communicating anything at all. Sagan contends that “we simply equate the absence of our style of expression of intelligence with the absence of intelligence.” Then he quotes French philosopher Montaigne: “The defect that hinders communication betwixt [animals] and us, why may it not be on our part as well as theirs?” In other words, just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless--maybe it’s our fault for not speaking the right language, as it were. This always reminds me of the Russian word for ‘German‘: nemets. You see, the Russian adjective nemoi means ‘mute’ or ‘dumb’; to the Russians who first met Germans, the German tongue was unintelligible, so they concluded that those Teutons just couldn’t speak a proper language and must be mute. Because the Russians couldn’t understand German, they simply decided that Germans weren’t capable of intelligent communication. (In contrast, the ethnic group to which Russians belong, the Slavs, may get its name from the Slavic word for, well, ‘word’: slovo in Russian. So to the Slavs the Germans were “people who can’t speak” while to themselves Slavs were “people who know words.”) Is that what Patrick’s engaging in with Absurdist and other experimental theater? Maybe, like the animals in Sagan’s essay or the Germans who first met the Russians, they just communicate in a different way from his “style of expression” and he fails to comprehend. If he wants to walk away from Absurdist theater in disgust or frustration, fine, that’s his prerogative. But he doesn’t get to proclaim that it’s “meaningless muck,” its creators are “charlatans,” and its supporters “hardboiled careerists.” Not without evidence, he doesn’t. (Sagan also quotes George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher, who suggested, “If the fact that brutes abstract not be made the distinguishing property of that sort of animal, I fear a great many of those that pass for men must be reckoned into their numbers.” Hmmmm.)
The late Julian Beck, co-founder (with Judith Malina) of the Living Theatre, depicted avant-gardists as artists “who took the risk of exploring strange lands and of bringing back the unfamiliar things they had created out of their discoveries for all to see.” But Beck also perceived that “because [the avant-gardist] makes this voyage, he is mocked as an alien is usually mocked. Because he rejects the popular way of doing things in favor of new forms that may aid him to make his discoveries, he is regarded with hostility.” My impression is that Patrick simply doesn’t understand the Absurdists and Postmodernists, so he rejects them. In his Theatre of Mixed Means, artist, critic, and writer Richard Kostelanetz submits that “a truly original, truly awakening piece of art will not, at first, be accepted as beautiful” and observes that audiences are more willing to “acknowledge” familiar art than to consider something they do not understand. Patrick asserts, for instance, that plays like Godot don’t “relate to life,” but, of course, they do--even profoundly. What could be more relative to human life than the feeling of helplessness, the irrepressible nature of hope, the yearning for salvation, or the instinct to survive? Kostelanetz points out that Patrick’s is the kind of judgment of Postmodern theater often made by observers who anticipate a traditional theatrical performance, do not get one, and are unwilling or unable to probe an unfamiliar form. Viewers knowledgeable about only one performance genre, says Kostelanetz, are “monoliterate,” which is the same, in his estimation, as “illiterate” with respect to Beckett’s kind of theater. Those who judge this theater by what they’ve always seen (or created), Kostelanetz cautions, should glean what a particular piece is attempting. Because Patrick doesn’t understand the medium these artists use, he dismisses their work as meaningless drivel instead of copping to his mystification--or setting out to learn something. (He puts down those who have tried to learn and says of those who get it that they only “pretend to understand.” In Patrick’s epistemology, responding to Postmodern theater is either a fruitless attempt or a pretense.) Perhaps it’s viewers like Patrick whom Russian playwright Mark Rozovsky had in mind when he said: “There will be some who understand thoroughly, and some who understand nothing at all”--or as philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus put it: “Many people learn nothing from what they see and experience, nor do they understand what they hear explained, but imagine that they have.”