25 January 2018

"Beckett by the Madeleine"

by Tom F. Driver

[One of the most important Samuel Beckett documents is Tom F. Driver’s interview with “Beckett by the Madeleine” in which Beckett stressed the distress, the mess in the world today, and dismissed any overt religious interpretation of Waiting for Godot.   This text is reproduced  from: Stanley A. Clayes, ed., Drama and Discussion (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 604-7.  Diver’s interview was originally published in Columbia University Forum 4 (Summer 1961): 21-25.]

Nothing like Godot, he arrived before the hour.  His letter had suggested we meet at my hotel at noon on Sunday, and I came into the lobby as the clock struck twelve.  He was waiting.

My wish to meet Samuel Beckett had been prompted by simple curiosity and interest in his work.  American newspaper reviewers like to call his plays nihilistic.  They find deep pessimism in them.  Even so astute a commentator as Harold Clurman of The Nation has said that “Waiting for Godot” is “the concentrate . . . of the contemporary European . . . mood of despair.”  But to me Beckett’s writing had seemed permeated with love for human beings and with a kind of humor that I could reconcile neither with despair or with nihilism.  Could it be that my eyes and ears had deceived me?  Is his a literature of defeat, irrelevant to the social crisis we face?  Or is it relevant because it teaches us something useful to know about ourselves.

I knew that a conversation with the author would not settle such questions, because a man is not the same as his writing: in the last analysis, the questions had to be settled by the work itself.  Nevertheless I was curious.

My curiosity was sharpened a day or two before the interview by a conversation I had with a well-informed teacher of literature, a Jesuit father, at a conference on religious drama near Paris.  When Beckett’s name came into the discussion, the priest grew loud and told me that Beckett “hates life.”  That, I thought, is at least one thing I can find out when we meet.

Beckett’s appearance is rough-hewn Irish.  The features of his face are distinct, but not fine.  They look as if they had been sculptured with and unsharpened chisel.  Unruly hair goes straight up from his forehead, standing so high that the top falls gently over, as if to show that it really is hair and not bristle.  One might say it combines the man’s own pride and humility.  For he has the pride that comes of self-acceptance and the humility, perhaps of the same genesis, not to impose himself upon another.  His light blue eyes, set deep within the face, are actively and continually looking.  He seems, by some unconscious division of labor, to have given them that one function and no other, leaving communication to the rest of the face.  The mouth frequently breaks into a disarming smile.  The voice is light in timbre, with a rough edge that corresponds to his visage.  The Irish accent is, as one would expect, combined with slight inflections from the French.  His tweed suit was a baggy gray and green.  He wore a brown knit sports shirt with no tie.

We walked down the Rue de L’Arcade, thence along beside the Madeleine and across to a sidewalk cafe opposite that church.  The conversation that ensued may have been engrossing but it could hardly be called world-shattering.  For one thing, the world that Beckett sees is already shattered.  His talk turns to what he calls “the mess,” or sometimes “this buzzing confusion.”  I reconstruct his sentences from notes made immediately after our conversation.  What appears here is shorter than what he actually said but very close to his own words.

“The confusion is not my invention.  We cannot listen to a conversation for five minutes without being acutely aware of the confusion.  It is all around us and our only chance now is to let it in.  The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess.  It is not a mess you can make sense of.” 

I suggested that one must let it in because it is the truth, but Beckett did not take to the word truth.

“What is more true than anything else?  To swim is true, and to sink is true.  One is not more true than the other.  One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess.  When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me.  I am not a philosopher.  One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess.”

Then he began to speak about the tension in art between the mess and form.  Until recently, art has withstood the pressure of chaotic things.  It has held them at bay.  It realized that to admit them was to jeopardize form.  “How could the mess be admitted, because it appears to be the very opposite of form and therefore destructive of the very thing that art holds itself to be?”  But how can we keep it out no longer,  because we have come into a time when “it invades our experience at every moment.  It is there and it must be allowed in.”

I granted this might be so, but found the result to be even more attention to form than was the case previously.  And why not?  How, I asked, could chaos be admitted to chaos?  Would that not be the end of thinking and the end of art?  If we look at recent art we find it preoccupied with form.  Beckett’s own work is an example.  Plays more highly formalized than “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame,” and “Krapp’s Last Tape” would be hard to find.

“What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art.  It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.  The form and the chaos remain separate.  The latter is not reduced to the former.  That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates.  To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artists now.

Yet, I responded, could not similar things be said about the art of the past?  Is it nor characteristic of the greatest art that it confronts us with something we cannot clarify, demanding that the viewer respond to it in his own never-predictable way?  What is the history of criticism but the history of men attempting to make sense of the manifold elements in art that will not allow themselves to be reduced to a single philosophy or a single aesthetic theory?  Isn’t all art ambiguous? 

“Not this,” he said, and gestured toward the Madeleine.  The classical lines of the church, which Napoleon thought of as a Temple of Glory, dominated all the scene where we sat.  The Boulevard de la Madeleine, the Boulevard Malesherbes, and the Rue Royale ran to it with a graceful flattery, bearing tidings of the Age of Reason.  “Not this.  This is clear.  This does not allow the mystery to invade us.  With classical art, all is settled.  But it is different at Chartres.  There is the unexplainable, and there art raises questions that it does not attempt to answer.” 

I asked about the battle between life and death in his plays.  Didi and Gogo hover on the edge of suicide; Hamm’s world is death and Clov may or may not get out of it to join the living child outside.  Is this life-death question a part of the chaos?

“Yes.  If life and death did not both present themselves to us, there would be no inscrutability.  If there were only darkness, all would be clear.  It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexplicable.  Take Augustine’s doctrine of grace given and grace withheld: have you pondered the dramatic qualities in this theology?  Two thieves are crucified with Christ, one saved and the other damned.  How can we make sense of this division?  In classical drama, such problems do not arise.  The destiny of Racine’s Phèdre is sealed from the beginning: she will proceed into the dark.  As she goes, she herself will be illuminated.  At the beginning of the play she has partial illumination and at the end she has complete illumination, but there has been no question but that she moves toward the dark.  That is the play.  Within this notion clarity is possible, but for us who are neither Greek nor Jansenist there is not such clarity.  The question would also be removed if we believed in the contrary—total salvation.  But where we have both dark and light we have also the inexplicable.  The key word in my plays is ‘perhaps.’”

Given a theological lead, I asked what he thinks about those who find a religious significance to his plays.

“Well, really there is none at all.  I have no religious feeling.  Once I had a religious emotion.  It was at my first communion.  No more.  My mother was deeply religious.  So was my brother.  He knelt down at his bed as long as long as he could kneel.  My father had none.  The family was Protestant, but for me it was only irksome and I let it go.  My brother and mother got no value from their religion when they died.  At the moment of crisis it had no more depth than an old-school tie.  Irish Catholicism is not attractive, but it is deeper.  When you pass a church on an Irish bus, all the hands flurry in the sign of the cross.  One day the dogs of Ireland will do that too and perhaps also the pigs.”

But do the plays deal with the same facets of experience religion must also deal with?

“Yes, for they deal with distress.  Some people object to this in my writing.  At a party an English intellectual—so-called—asked me why I write about distress.  As if it were perverse to do so!  He wanted to know if my father had beaten me or my mother had run away from home to give me an unhappy childhood.  I told him no, that I had had a very happy childhood.  Then he thought me more perverse than ever.  I left the party as soon as possible and got into a taxi.  On the glass partition between me and the driver were three signs: one asked for help for the blind, another, help for the orphans, and the third for relief for the war refugees.  One does not have to look for distress.  It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London.”

Lunch was over, and we walked back to the hotel with the light and dark of Paris screaming at us.

The personal quality of Samuel Beckett is similar to qualities I had found in the plays.  He says nothing that compresses experience within a closed pattern.  “Perhaps” stands in place of commitment.  At the same time, he is plainly sympathetic, clearly friendly.  If there were only the mess, all would be clear; but there is also compassion.

As a Christian, I know I do not stand where Beckett stands, but I do see much of what he sees.  As a writer on theater, I have paid close attention to the plays.  Harold Clurman is right to say that “Waiting for Godot” is a reflection (he calls it a distorted reflection) “of the impasse and disarray of Europe’s current politics, ethic, and common way of life.”  Yet it is not only Europe that the play refers to.  “Waiting for Godot” sells even better in America than in France.  The consciousness it mirrors my have come earlier to Europe than to America, but it is the consciousness that most “mature” societies arrive at when their successes in technological and economic systemization propel them into a time of examining the not-strictly-practical ends of culture.  America is now joining Europe in this “mature” phase of development.  Whether any of us remain in it long will depend on what happens as a result of the technological and economic revolutions now going on in the countries of Asia and Africa, and also of course on how long the cold war remains cold.  At present no political party in Western Europe or America seems possessed of a philosophy of social change adequate to the pressures of current history.

In the Beckett plays, time does not go forward.  We are always at the end, where events repeat themselves (“Waiting for Godot”), or hover at the edge of nothingness (“Endgame”), or turn back to the long-ago moment of genuine life (“Krapp’s Last Tape”).  This retreat from action may disappoint those of us who believe that the events of the objective world must still be dealt with.  To say “perhaps,” as the plays do, is not to say “no.”  The plays do not say that there is no future but that we do not see it, have no confidence about it, and approach it hopelessly.  Apart from messianic Marxism, where is there today a faith asserting the contrary that succeeds in shaping a culture?

The walls that surround the characters of Beckett’s plays are not walls that nature and history have built irrespective of the decisions of men.  They are the walls of one’s own attitude toward his situation.  The plays are themselves evidence of a human capacity to see one’s situation and by that very fact to transcend it.  That is why Beckett can say that letting in “the mess” may bring with it a “chance of renovation.”  It is also why he is wrong, from philosophy’s point of view, to say that there is only “the mess.”  If that were all there is, he could not recognize it as such.  But the plays and the novels contain more, and that more is transcendence of the self and the situation.

In “Waiting for Godot” Beckett has a very simple and moving description of human self-transcendence.  Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo) are discussing man, who bears his “little cross” until he dies and is forgotten.  In a beautiful passage that is really a duet composed of short lines from first one pair of lips and then the other, the two tramps speak of their inability to keep silent.  As Gogo says, “It’s so we won’t hear . . . all the dead voices.”  The voices of the dead make a noise like wings, sand, or leaves, all speaking at once, each one to itself, whispering, rustling, and murmuring.

vladimir.  What do they say?
estragon.  They talk about their lives.
vladimir.  To have lived is not enough for them.
estragon.  They have to talk about it.
vladimir.  To be dead it not enough for them.
estragon.  It is no sufficient.
vladimir.  They make a noise like feathers.
estragon.  Like leaves.
vladimir.  Like ashes.
estragon.  Like leaves.

In this passage, Didi and Gogo are like the dead, and the dead are like the living, because all are incapable of keeping silent.  The description of the dead voices is also a description of of living voices.  In either case, neither to live nor to die is “enough.”  One must talk about it.  The human condition is self-reflection, self-transcendence.  Beckett’s plays are the whispering, rustling, and murmuring of man refusing merely to exist.

Is it not true that self-transcendence implies freedom, and that freedom is either the most glorious or the most terrifying of facts, depending on the vigor of the spirit that contemplates it?  It is important to notice that the rebukes to Beckett’s “despair” have mostly come from the dogmatists of humanist liberalism, who here reveal, as so often they do, that they desire the reassurance of certainty more than they love freedom.  Having recognized that to live is not enough, they wish to fasten down in dogma the way that life ought to be lived.  Beckett suggests something more free—that life is to be seen, to be talked about, and that the way it is to be lived cannot be stated unambiguously but must come as a response to that which one encounters in “the mess.”  He has devised his works in such a way that those who comment upon them actually comment upon themselves.  One cannot say, “Beckett has said so and so,” for Beckett has said, “Perhaps.”  If the critics and the public see only images of despair, one can only deduce that they are themselves despairing.

Beckett himself, or so I take it, has repented of the desire for certainty.  There are therefore released in him qualities of affirmation that his interpreters often miss.  That is why the laughter in his plays is warm, his concern for his characters affectionate.  His warm humor and affection are not the attributes of defeatism but the consequences of what Paul Tillich has called “the courage to be.”

[Tom F. Driver (b. 1925) was the Christian Century’s drama critic and a Union Theological Seminary faculty member.  I have posted several pieces about Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot on Rick On Theater; see “History of Waiting For Godot,” 30 March 2009; “Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 1 April 2009; “More Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 3 April 2009; Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April 2009; Waiting for Godot,” a performance report, 31 October 2016; and “Beckett Trilogy: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby,” another performance report, 1 May 2016.]

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