Beckett and Godot: A Select Biography

 

Navigate through the main events in Beckett’s life leading up to Waiting for Godot:

Samuel Beckett: At Home With Vagabonds
Samuel Beckett: At Home With Vagabonds

Beckett grew up in an Ireland headed for chaos, and lived through the chaos of World War II France. The desolation and threat of violence that surround Didi and Gogo were not imaginary; they came from Beckett’s own experiences.

Samuel Beckett: At Home With Vagabonds
Vicious Ireland
Vicious Ireland

               Samuel Beckett grew up in an Anglo-Protestant family in Ireland, as the Anglo-Irish war broke forth. He began  Portora (known as ‘the Eton of Ireland’) in 1920, as the Black and Tans ( the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force) rampaged through Ireland “burning and sacking towns and villages and conducting arbitrary reprisals against the civilian population” (Gibson 27).

               Beckett could not have been oblivious to the random beatings on the edges of his world. Didi and Gogo’s own existence of fear, however seemingly disconnected from a specific time and place, still has real historical roots. Beckett experienced the great disconnect between posh Portora and surrounding chaos. His characters “owe some of their acrid tone and hilariously bleak clarity of vision to what Beckett saw around him in and after 1920” (Gibson 29).

Vicious Ireland
Nothing To Be Done
Nothing To Be Done

As Becket grew up, he was surrounded by the beggars and unhappiness which filled the Irish country side. He learned at a young age that there “was therefore ‘nothing to be done’” (Gibson 40). The theme of aimless helplessness which fills Waiting For Godot and other works is “partly an allegory of ‘the process of [the] decay’ of Anglo-Ireland, or an allegory of Irish Protestant self-effacement and destitution after 1922” (Gibson 34).

Nothing To Be Done
Censorship
Censorship

Independent Ireland was born. The new authority, helped by the power of the Catholic Church, passed “singularly dismal laws on divorce, contraception, and censorship” (Gibson 31). The Censorship of Films Act helped purify the country, since, as the Church said, “‘everything contrary to Christian purity and modesty’ in modern cinema was alien to Catholic and Irish ideals’” (Gibson 31). Censorship of literature followed.

Censorship
Paris
Paris

Beckett moved to Paris in 1928 as an exchange lecturer in English at the École Normale Supérieure. He put his roots deep into Paris, becoming as much French as Irish (Cousineau).

Paris
Paris
Paris

École Normale Supérieure was founded after the Revolution, as a “source of pure and abundant light” (Gibson 45). It created academics ready for the Enlightenment, though each successive repressive regime tried to end the school’s liberal leanings. There were several ideas in vogue at the École which influenced Beckett’s work, and highlight the delight and wit underneath the bizarre darkness of Waiting for Godot:

  • canular: elaborate, witty, ironic, practical joke (they were known for antithesis and humor)
  • — “granite point:” intellectual point where one sticks and past which will not budge (Gibson 49)
  • –The school was all about the triumph of the intellect and idea over “ordinary circumstance” (Gibson 50)
  • –the atmosphere of self-effacement increased Beckett’s tendency for the slow destruction of the ego (Gibson 51)
Paris
Surrealism
Surrealism

Waiting for Godot has been interpreted as embodying the dislocation felt after World War II, but Beckett was impacted by other artists as well as by the war. He was strongly influenced by the surrealist authors and artists he had found in Paris. The surrealist movement was founded in the “collapse of traditional values in the aftermath of World War I,” and featured “a radical critique of the ideological foundations of Western civilization” (Cousineau 2). The Surrealist Manifesto, by Andre Breton, articulated the movement’s goal of revealing “the true nature of thought by rejecting any control exercised by reason and logic” (Cousineau 3). Understanding this helps with a full appreciation of the intentional abandonment of logic in Waiting for Godot.

Surrealism
Emotional Attachments
Emotional Attachments

In 1933, Beckett returned to Ireland, as a Lecturer in French at Trinity College. Ireland was moving further towards “hardline Catholic, anti-British … nationalism” (Gibson 58). Beckett’s relationship with his mother was very strained. They had always fought, and her emotional instability drained him. He eventually sought psychoanalysis and began to “detach himself from his mother” (Gibson 63).

Echos of such an attachment appear in Waiting for Godot. Didi and Gogo speak again and again of parting ways and yet can never leave the other’s company. Beckett’s own history suggests that there is an element of unhealthy need in the men’s relationship.

Emotional Attachments
Limbo
Limbo

In London (1933-1935), Beckett was “suspended in a limbo” of immigrant problems–cultural, intellectual, and geographical (Gibson 65). He knew intimately the limbo of not belonging anywhere, and having no real home.

Limbo
The Unheroic in Germany
The Unheroic in Germany

In 1936, Becket moved to Germany. He was there for the rounding up of undesirable types (including beggars and vagrants), and witnessed destruction and marginalization. His own penchant for the “fundamental unheroic” (Gibson 79) was likely exacerbated by the German heroic nationalism which was militantly blossoming around him. He aligned further with the outsider.

The Unheroic in Germany
Adopted Country
Adopted Country

 

In 1937 Beckett left Germany for Ireland again, and then in 1939 returned to his Paris. He committed himself to the Frenchwoman Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and to the French language for his writings, at the same time deciding to weather the war with his new country (Gibson 95-97). This language, adopted on the brink of war, was the language with which he later wrote Waiting for Godot.

Adopted Country
Irish Traces
Irish Traces

His movement to Paris did not totally remove Beckett from his past. Despite his seeming disconnect from Irish/Celtic culture, threads of that culture are found ironically twisted within his writings. It is as if he knew the myths that worked on his society, and, instead of simply rejecting them for his new French world, he remade his past into a new identity. Natural pantheistic inclinations and underlying belief in the “benevolently sacred” natural world are found in Irish writings from Gaelic mythology, to legends of Saints, to James Joyce’s imagery in Ulysses (Barge). 

Irish Traces
Irish Traces
Irish Traces

Beckett, on the other hand, uses nature ironically. In Waiting for Godot, the only representation of nature is the tree, which begins dead and bare and then in the second act sprouts leafs. Despite the traditional symbolic association of a tree with the cross and the end of human suffering, this tree offers new life in vain. The waiting does not end, and at the end of the tree the green leafs are ironic reminders of unfulfilled hope (Barge). Without the perspective of Beckett’s Irish roots, the reversed symbolism (and thus a clue to the importance of the tree) is lost.

Irish Traces
Waiting and War
Waiting and War

During World War II, Beckett worked with the Resistance, because of outrage over the Nazi’s treatment of Jews and other outsiders (Cousineau). He lived under Vichy France, and this complicated period shows in Waiting For Godot. Waiting was utterly familiar to those in the Resistance and in wartime French society–waiting for news, for supplies, for word of what would happen next. “Attendant,” the French term for “waiting” which was part of the play’s original title, conjures the attitude of attentisme–a position where one did not agree with the Vichy government, yet also did not think France yet ready to rejoin the war. In short, it was a belief that France must “defer any final decision until the situation ‘clarified itself’” (Gibson 103).

Waiting and War
Waiting and War
Waiting and War

Gogo and Didi exemplify attentisme. They do not make decisions; they simply find was to survive waiting.

Waiting and War
Vagabonds and Darkness
Vagabonds and Darkness

Gogo and Didi do not only reflect the lower classes–they also embodied the once-middle class, including Beckett himself. France was full of deprivations. Rags, the importance of scraps of meat, and random acts of violence were part of daily life for the once-bourgeoisie. In fact, Gogo and Didi-like characters appeared in satirical cartoons of the period, showing the state of the populous (Gibson 105-106).

Waiting For Godot does not provide false optimism. It rather revels in the futility and helplessness of those with nothing. Beckett enjoys the darkness, it seems, and refuses to answer questions about the morally of attentisme.

Vagabonds and Darkness
Food Shortages
Food Shortages

In 1944, food shortages were spoken of in 24% of letters intercepted by the Vichy government. Official ration cards offered only 900 calories a day, which, when compared to the average requirement of 2400 calories per day, bordered on official starvation. If viewed with these circumstances in mind, the choice of carrot or turnip looses some of its entertaining quality and turns deadly (Kitson 583).

Food Shortages
Filthy Humanity
Filthy Humanity

References to the stink of Gogo and Didi also grow more ominous when related to the hygiene complaints that locals registered against wandering Gypsies. According to a 1941 Limoges letter, “They relieve themselves right in the middle of the street” (Kitson 584). The antics of filth through which Didi and Gogo prance do not come from Beckett’s imagination. To understand their world, the real world must be understood first.

Filthy Humanity
Purge
Purge

After a brief stint back in England and Ireland, Beckett returned to liberated, demolished France to work with the Irish Red Cross in 1944 (Gibson 110). Both the French people and the new French government under de Gaulle distributed swift, terrible punishment on those who were thought to have been collaborators with the Nazis (Gibson 112-114). This Purge filled Paris with terror, and suspicion lasted long after the war had ended (Gibson 119).

Purge
The Trilogy and Purgatory
The Trilogy and Purgatory

 

Beckett’s work during this time reflected the horrors and disastrous results of warfare. His three novels, the Trilogy, evokes not only battle, but also the spying and sneaking of the Gestapo and the wild accusations of the Purge (Gibson 119-122). Something has been irredeemably lost, and yet the scapegoat characters in the Trilogy do not simply suffer for the sins of others. They exhibit Beckett’s interest in the “‘continuous purgatorial process’” (Gibson 126)–a state of unending labor to make up for sins of the past. This feeling of purgatory persists in Beckett’s work, and appears in the endless waiting of Waiting for Godot. In the play, the cataclysmic environment is muted, but knowing Beckett’s previous use of war-destroyed imagery helps place Waiting for Godot in deadly context.

The Trilogy and Purgatory
Waiting For Godot
Waiting For Godot

Between writing the second and third books in the Trilogy, Beckett wrote En attendant Godot “as a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time” (Norton Anthology 844). It opened in 1953 at the “230-seat Theatre de Babylone in Paris on January 5” (Norton Anthology 845), and became an astonishing success, despite confused critics. Beckett became internationally famous, and transitioned from a Frenchman to an international star (Gibson 129).

Waiting For Godot
And then….
And then….

 

Beckett lived the rest of his life. But that life came after the play, and cannot be retroactively applied to it.

 

Why don’t Didi and Gogo hang themselves?  The answer may lie in Beckett’s own life.

When asked why he didn’t hang himself, Beckett replied that for his mother, “Christianity was no more consolation to her than an old school tie (which might have meant more than one supposes)” so death “might not have been worth it” (West 2). Beckett’s mother held great power over him throughout his life, and despite their fights, her ambivalence towards her religion likely rubbed off on him (Gibson 63). Beckett was no stranger to death, yet his experiences of it seem to have left him with no consolation of redemption or of joyful afterlife. Instead, just as with the ending of Waiting for Godot, only questions and uncertainty are left.

Perhaps for Beckett, like Hamlet, the fear of something after death kept him living in the midst of civil war, world war, and personal strife. Beckett’s life transected bleak times. Putting Waiting for Godot in the context of war, poverty, and violence helps rescue it from the dangerous terrain of generalities and amorphous location, and grounds it instead in a world of survival.

Beckett knew about failure. He saw political systems fall, and comfortable lives tumble to destitution. As one Beckett scholar says, Beckett’s work emphasized “the failure to get anywhere though forever striving;” though meaning was absent, there was triumph in “technics … [and] fruitless doings” (West 2-3). Didi and Gogo do things; they simply accomplish little. In the abstract, their actions are entertaining or insipid, but when related to the fruitless actions of so many vagabonds in the Irish country side or of the constant waiting in Vichy France, they resonate with humanity.

 

For more information on the man who created this world, see this rare 1994 documentary which traces his life and discusses his works with both Beckett himself and close friends and collaborators:

 

Sources:

Barge, L. “Out of ireland: Revisionist strategies in beckett’s drama.” Comparative Drama. 2000 Vol. 34(2), 175-209. 10 March 2014.  http://search.proquest.com/docview/1669845?accountid=351.

Cousineau, Thomas. Waiting for Godot: Form in Movement. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990. Print.

Droits réservés. “archivebeckett.”archivebeckett. The Estate of Samuel Beckett. , n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://arttattler.com/archivebeckett.html

Gibson, Andrew. Samuel Beckett. London: Reaktion Books td, 2010. Print.

Haynes, John. Samuel Beckett. 2013. The University of Reading, Reading. Beckett International Foundation. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

“Historical Wallpapers: Samuel Beckett (1906-1989).” Historical Wallpapers: Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://historicalwallpapers.blogspot.com/2011/04/samuel-beckett-1906-1989.html>.

Kitson, Simon. Rev. of The Politics of Everyday Life in Vichy France: Foreigners, Undesirables and Strangers, by Shannon Fogg. French History; Dec 2012, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p583-585, 3p. Web. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=d0ff60b3-fd05-455d-a252-5577c2bc4f85%40sessionmgr4005&vid=11&hid=4112>.

Punch. “WW2 Cartoons from Punch magazine by Bernard Partridge | PUNCH Magazine Cartoon Archive.” WW2 Cartoons from Punch magazine by Bernard Partridge | PUNCH Magazine Cartoon Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I000>.

“Samuel Beckett Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://www.biography.com/people/samuel-beckett-9204239>.

“Samuel Beckett.” The Norton Anthology of Drama, vol. 2. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 843-849. Print.

The Nobel Foundation. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1969.” The Nobel Prize in Literature 1969. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lit

“That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth – but does it float.” That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth – but does it float. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://butdoesitfloat.com/That-s-how-it-is-on-this-bitch-of-an-earth>.

Waiting for Beckett: A Portrait of Samuel Beckett. Dir. John Reilly and Melissa Shaw-Smith. 1994. Web. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyjvYByB6vA&list=PL4F92AEE3EDC87DE1.

West, Paul. “The Beckett Seminar.” Yale Review. Oct 2013, Vol. 101 Issue 4, p94-103. Online. http://ejournals.ebsco.com/Direct.aspAccessToken=7DLLLT3B395VJLMXRM9XIJLXLR0NBI9LDD&Show=Object.

 

Megan Behnke, 2014