Beckett in Berlin
Introduction: Beckett and
Boleslaw Barlog, formerly the superintendent of the Berlin State Theatres, has written of Beckett as the ‘patron saint’ [Hausheiliger] of
Warten auf Godot was first performed in
Of all these productions, this talk will focus on the 1975 production of Warten auf Godot in
Beckett would have been 100 years old last year, and this was marked in Britain and Ireland by two major productions of Godot: one directed by Peter Hall, 50 years after he directed the first British staging of the play; and one, the Gate Theatre Dublin’s production by the now famous Walter Asmus himself, with the memories of Beckett’s own direction still fresh in his mind 20 years after the famous 1975 Berlin production at which he assisted. And it is striking that not only Asmus’s production, but also that of Hall owed much to the prescriptions Beckett laid down in those two red notebooks. No one aiming to produce Waiting for Godot according to Beckett’s intentions can afford to ignore them.
We can’t truly know this play, or fully understand its themes and questions –whether they are philosophical, religious, psychological or anything else—without knowing about this key production (the first that was Beckett’s own).
The lecture will have the following structure:
1. as an introduction, it will consider the impact of Beckett’s most famous play and explore its reception in different contexts.
2. it will go on to look at Beckett’s relationship with Germany in general and the German influences on Godot.
3. finally, it will foreground the key elements of staging in the Berlin production—the road, the moon, the tree, and the stone—and the instructions about movement that Beckett gave to the Berlin actors, and argue for their significance for interpreting the play’s themes and ideas.
1. Godot: Contexts and Audiences
Godot has become a symbol for all types of waiting for something that may never come… A few examples…
· play had a particular and powerful resonance for the prisoners of San Quentin jail, whose empathy with the characters’ experience of waiting and entrapment informed their acclaimed production there in 1957 (Beckett himself supervised a later production there that was perhaps the darkest of all interpretations of the play).
·Godot’s notorious failure to materialize was turned on its head during the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Prague in 1989, when crowds on the street chanted ‘Godot has arrived’, referring to their long-awaited freedom from communism, still something they could hardly believe in.
· And a still more far-reaching influence… In episode 17 of the third series of the American TV serial Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an infuriated Buffy, tired of waiting for her friend Faith to arrive, says: ‘That girl makes Godot look punctual…’
So you can see how culturally important this play has become!
The expression of the experience of waiting for something (salvation?) that will never arrive (or seems that way).
Most immediate context – experiences that Beckett had just been through hiding in rural France during the second world war? Hugh Kenner argues for this reading:
It is curious how readers and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of the play, that it resembles [occupied] France, in which its author spent the war years. How much waiting must have gone on in that bleak world; how many times must Resistance operatives—displaced persons when everyone was displaced […]—have kept appointments not knowing whom they were to meet, with men who did not show up and may have had good reasons for not showing up, or bad [ones]. (Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett)
Play aims to give the audience this experience of waiting — number of ingenious theatrical techniques to make this happen.
1. Simple but fundamental innovation in theatrical form. Beckett has two acts rather than the more usual three or more. His play cannot follow the formula whereby the first act introduces characters and the situation, the second or middle act(s) present a conflict or crisis, and the final act provides a resolution. The 'stable' structure of the well-made play is disrupted, and so is the idea of development; there are two parallel acts, whose situations mirror one another, and we cannot get beyond them. And as Vivian Mercier memorably said, "this is a play in which nothing happens - twice". The audience feels, very immediately indeed, the experience of waiting, of the same old thing happening.
Think about that title – tragicomedy. Structure means that neither term (in its traditional sense at least) can apply. (Tragedy) There is no catastrophe, and so no realization that follows from it. Neither is there the happy ending of comedy, however, and death haunts the play. Beckett said ironically in a letter to a friend when embarking on the 1975 production: ‘If this doesn’t purge them, nothing will’ – this play offers no Aristotelian catharsis, but something altogether more disturbing and hard to absorb.
2. Within those acts, of course, the use of silence is a key strategy in Beckett’s theatre. Pauses open up like holes in the fabric of this world – for the first theatre audiences, it must have felt as though the play had ground to a halt, or the actors had ‘corpsed’ (in that favourite word of Beckett’s), been stricken dumb by fear – or by laughter.
Anecdote: Beckett said to Peter Hall, the theatre director, about his production of Godot: “It’s fine, but you don’t bore the audience enough. Make them wait longer. Make the pauses longer. You should bore them.’ Hall commented in a BBC interview: “this is dangerous talk, dangerous country in the theatre […] Godot is the only play I’ve ever encountered – up to that date anyway – which made a dramatic use of boredom.”
There is evidence from the Berlin notebooks that the famous ‘pauses’ in Godot are not intended just as a stylistic flourish or an attack on the audience: the silence is for Beckett and for the characters a tangible threat. Language constantly threatens to fail them.
· Questions that cannot be answered open up: Do you think God sees me? What are we doing here?
In the absence of these answers, of any meaning or purpose, speaking begins to appear increasingly futile.
Beckett said once:
Silence is pouring into this play like water into a sinking ship.
This strategy is illuminated and developed in Beckett’s notes to the
Most striking feature in this production – what Beckett called Wartestellen – frozen tableaux in which the actors fall silent and motionless –sitting on the stone, looking offstage, lying on the ground in a heap... Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson comments of this production:
…how electric the still, silent, waiting tableaux [Wartestellen] became, as Estragon and Vladimir tried to conjure up other ways of cheating the threatening silence. (Knowlson, 609)
3. Immobility – as the Wartestellen suggest, there is a link between speech and movement (or rather their negative others, silence and immobility). One of the most famous interactions between dialogue and stage direction in theatrical history:
End of both acts:
Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.
Beckett even more insistent in the
In this minimal disjunction, this playful stage direction, a deep philosophical dilemma opens up.
Fundamental question about human existence for Beckett – how far are we free, do we have free will? Are we compelled to act, to speak, by some external authority or by some framing design? Or are we absolutely free?
The tag, the category most often applied to Beckett’s theatre is that of Absurdism. Martin Esslin’s influential book of 1961, The Theatre of the Absurd,
Esslin emphasizes the idea in Absurd theatre, deriving from the thought of French philosopher Albert Camus, that without God, humanity has a kind of dizzying freedom. He sees these writers as giving dramatic form to Existentialist ideas – idea that we make our own future, improvise our identity, start from existence, the condition of being thrown into the world (rather than having some pre-determined essence, a ‘soul’ given to us by God).
In one sense misrepresents Beckett’s work.
This situation may look like freedom, but one of the great mysteries of Beckett’s writing is that his characters do not experience it as such. Inertia the condition of his plays – a disabling of the will that is a general condition. They feel constrained. They still ‘tie’ themselves, as Estragon says, to belief in another; they have, as Vladimir says, ‘given up their rights’.
What might this mean?
- That we persist in believing in salvation, in an external authority, against all evidence?
- That we cannot do anything without believing ourselves in a larger framework of meaning?
- That we cannot act without being asked or compelled to by another?
- That we cannot speak without this speech being invited by someone else?
à Lots of ideas that come to light in philosophy, not to mention poststructuralist theory, but they have a concrete, immediate, and psychologically convincing embodiment in Beckett’s play. These dilemmas are not philosophical and abstract in this play, but real and pressing, as this talk will demonstrate.
Appropriately, then, the first element of staging that I want to think about is the road by the side of which the itinerant characters in the play have come to rest, and the connotations of journeying that this presents.
The very first stage direction for Waiting for Godot is, famously, ‘A country road.’ Journey – trope in many of Beckett’s works. It is a trope that he first explores, however, in his letters and diaries, however, while himself travelling rather aimlessly through Germany in the 1930s, and in response to German Romantic writing about the journey to self-discovery.
Beckett felt that this journey through Germany was a failed one. There is evidence from his diaries that the young man was trying to escape the restrictive influences of his home life—the dominance of the Church in Ireland, his domineering mother, the conservative Anglo-Irish community—and, in a familiar narrative, discover a more authentic self. Beckett is, however, perfectly conscious—as one might expect—of the naivety of such an endeavour. He knows full well that he will never ‘arrive’, and cannot even define what he is looking for. His comments on this journey at the time are fascinating, and knowing. He writes to Mary Manning of his travels that:
It has turned out to be a journey from, and not a journey to, as I knew it was before I began it. (Letter to Mary Manning, 13 December 1936)
His engagement with German Romantic literary depictions of this kind of sentimental journey is similarly sceptical. Reading Walther Bauer’s novel, Die notwendige Reise, and noting its ‘inevitable business about the journey to self’, he goes on to comment:
Journey anyway is the wrong figure. How can one travel to that from which one cannot move away [the self]. Das notwendige Bleiben is more like it. (German diary, notebook 4, 18 Jan 1937)]]
Knowing oneself turns out for Beckett to be knowing one’s limitations and the relationship of self to where one comes from, as Beckett’s spell of psychoanalysis just after this period indicates.]]
This experience of failing to arrive, of travelling to no purpose and becoming stalled (literally, in the various rather aimless stops he made in German cities), informs both Godot and many of Beckett’s other works. There is to be found there frequently the image of a journey, as I’ve said, but it is always a journey that is negated, cancelled, circular or suspended. In the words of Beckett’s 1958 prose work From an Abandoned Work: ‘I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way.’
‘A country road.’
Here too, of course, however, this motif is a symbol that is negated. The two men’s journey has stalled, and they do not know very much about what they are looking for or where they are to find it. Their philosophy is Bleiben rather than Reisen but the text refers to them ironically as ‘wayfarers’ or ‘die Weggefährten’—on some weary journey by foot. The frozen tableaux, or Wartestellen, introduced into the German production emphasize this capacity that the men have to come to a standstill; alternatively, when they tried to leave the stage in this production (apart from Vladimir’s piss) they take a run at it, but seem to bounce back from within the wings as if they are unable to generate the momentum to leave this spot. Indeed, offstage is only ‘the wings’, and Beckett refers playfully to the actual geography of the theatre itself, rather than allowing us to hope that this is the ‘real world’ where things might be different. His characters are trapped in the eternal present of this performance. Life is not progress, a cumulative acquisition of knowledge, the accomplishment of a purpose; a new (and more negative) perspective on our relationship to time and space is introduced in this play.
The trip to Germany did also have some more positive influences on Beckett’s creative work. At the Alte Alkademie in Dresden, he encountered the work of Caspar David Friedrich, confessing in his diaries to having ‘a pleasant predilection for 2 tiny languid men in his landscapes, as in the moon landscape; that is the only kind of romantic still tolerable, the bémolisé [in Moll; the minor key]’ (German diary, 14th February 1937). The ‘moon landscape’ was Caspar Friedrich’s Two Men Observing the Moon. He later told Ruby Cohn (as they were looking at a similar painting, A Man and a Woman Contemplating the Moon, in a
The ‘tiny languid men’ gaze up at the moon—one of the most significant (and only) visual images in Beckett’s spare Schiller-Theater production. This setting opens up a pattern of visual and poetic reference in the play. It is, in fact, as Beckett called it a ‘moonlight play’: the most striking element of the staging is the moon that rises up the backdrop with comic abruptness, but casts a melancholy light over the stage. James Knowlson’s notes on the Schiller production in the ‘Theatrical Notebook’ support this: ‘The atmosphere of evening was maintained by attaching blue gels to the lights, thus giving the grey set a cold, colourless effect.’ He writes: ‘The play emerges from the dark, is played in the deepening twilight, finishes in moonlight and then fades back into the dark’.
There is more to this than atmosphere, however. The moon’s own languid and melancholy aspect has often been linked in Western culture to the poor spectacle of humanity that it is condemned to watch (or even to love). In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The Moon’, as the play reminds us, the moon finds ‘no object worth its constancy’ when it surveys the earth; Beckett’s is no different. Estragon makes a pointed allusion to this work:
P. B. Shelley:
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy? (‘The Moon’)
Estragon: Pale for weariness
Estragon: Of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us. (Godot, Act I)
We remember with this allusion to the English Romantic Beckett’s early predilection for what he calls the Romantic bémolisé, or in a minor [musical] key. This is a situation without grandeur or majesty, and the moon follows suit rising quickly and jerkily up the backdrop, in a comical, music-hall appearance). Humanity in this play has lost its centrality in the world, and so its stature. Their story is melancholy but it is also pathetic in both senses of this word. What Beckett objected to in Walther Bauer’s Die notwendige Reisen and other German novels he read was the idea of a ‘heroic’ journey to discover oneself; in fact, for Beckett, humanity is chained down by its own inadequacies.
The heroic postures of all of the characters are constantly undercut in the dialogue. Vladimir’s grand statements, in particular, are immediately deflated, either by others or by himself.
Vladimir: …We have kept our appointment. Who can boast as much?
Vladimir: We’ve arrived.
Pozzo: Who are you?
Vladimir: We are men.
These characters stubbornly refuse to come into focus as special in any way: as any more heroic or more tragic than anyone else. Hence Beckett’s title for the play: ‘a tragicomedy’.
Another German influence, Beckett’s ‘favourite philosopher’, whom he read throughout the 1930s, comes to mind. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung:
The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy […] Thus, if fate wished to add mockery to the misery of our existence, our life must contain all the woes of tragedy, and yet we cannot even assert the dignity of tragic characters, but in the broad detail of life, are inevitably the foolish characters of comedy.
(The World as Will and Representation¸ Vol. 1, Section 58, p. 322)
This view of humanity informs the play as it does so much of the rest of Beckett’s writing. Beckett insisted to Roger Blin, the first French director, in a letter that the men’s behaviour must be ridiculous—that Estragon’s trousers must fall right down at the end:
The spirit of the play, to the extent to which it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic. One must express it up to the end, and especially at the end. (Beckett in a letter to Roger Blin)
What the moon, and Beckett’s audience, sees is ‘the likes’ of Didi and Gogo – a poor spectacle.
However unenthusiastically the moon watches the earth, she is still one in a range of potential watchers to whom Estragon makes appeal. The play shows that it is necessary to identity and even to existence to be seen, or perceived in some way, by another. In a favourite philosophical slogan of Beckett’s, the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley put it succinctly: ‘esse est percipi’ [to be is to be perceived]. This is both a burden and a sustaining element of life, as the ambivalent relationship between Didi and Gogo expresses so vividly, Vladimir approaching and distancing himself from Estragon in carefully choreographed movements ‘as though on a rubber band’ in Beckett’s words in his notes on the Berlin production. This movement is not naturalistic, nor is it meant to be – but it is born of, and expresses, the psychology of the men’s relationship (and for Beckett all human relations).
Estragon: Don't touch me! Don't question me! Don't speak to me!
Stay with me!
Vladimir: Did I ever leave you?
Estragon: You let me go.
Vladimir: Look at me. (Estragon does not raise his head. Violently.)
Will you look at me!
Once, of course, the ultimate watcher was God, who intervened to sustain human existence at every moment. Alphonse de Lamartine could still write in the nineteenth century:
God has seen me! the glance of life
Has humbled itself on my nothingness!
Estragon, on the other hand has profound doubts about whether or not God might be looking at him: as he hops around on one leg doing his yoga pose, ‘The Tree’, he asks plaintively: ‘Do you think God sees me?’
He can no longer be sure God is watching, and this episode ends with the men fighting for a scarce and uncertain pity.
And if God is watching, what does he see?
Humanity cut down to size....
4. Tree and Stone
Estragon’s yogic ‘tree’ of course mirrors the blasted tree on the stage. And as these few elements of the staging are, the most trivial and ridiculous action in this play is also imbued with significance.
Estragon makes the sign of the crucifixion, Beckett’s Berlin notes tell us, in the process of taking up (or trying to take up) his yogic position.
Alongside all the allusions to hanging oneself, discussions of the crucifixion, and references to Christ as an ‘example’ to humanity, Beckett created visual reminders of the state of being crucified, and suggested that humanity all followed Christ in this respect.
The cross is a pattern repeated at every level of the production he directed in
Christ, as Estragon has commented in the first act, was ‘crucified quick’, but Vladimir points out that he ‘can’t compare himself with Christ’.
Human existence is instead a long, slow, crucifixion…
Pun (a favourite of Beckett’s) on ‘quick’ – the quick (the living) and the dead.
Christ’s death a lively one compared to their own?
Life for humankind is, as Mrs Rooney puts it in Beckett’s radio play, All that Fall, ‘a lingering dissolution’.
The tree that is the venue for their hanging is also a cruciform image. Tree that brings death…
But – Beckett’s symbols never one thing, never straightforward relationship to a system of meaning.
Tree for Vladimir – hope of life too… (leaves growing on it over night – moment of hope or at least diversion… Vladimir – unlike Estragon – gravitates towards it).
The second visible element in the scene at the beginning of the Schiller production was a grey stone on which Estragon sits (and occasionally V joins him – though never enough room for him). This was originally just a ‘low mound’ in the play-text but crucially a stone in this and later productions of Beckett’s work, and Beckett insisted on this change when he was able.
In fact, Stone and tree: two poles of stage – contrasted with one another. Mineral existence of death; vegetable existence of life.
Beckett’s rehearsal notes to the
Estragon is on the ground; he belongs to the stone. Vladimir is light; he is oriented towards the sky. He belongs to the tree. (Asmus, ‘Beckett Directs Godot’)
Estragon returns to sit on the stone in this production more often than he does in the printed text; Vladimir never sits there alone and has little room to sit down when they sit together. Characters, as well as stage, polarized by these connections, as Beckett’s notes on the Schiller production show. The two men are constructed by a series of opposites:
Often argued- Estragon body – body in Beckett always a reminder of mortality – broken, failing, grotesque.
What is humanity if it takes such different, opposed forms?
But the men also barely distinguishable (‘We are men’).
What do we make of this apparent contradiction?
Perhaps the play asks whether these differences are so very significant.
Even the difference in the attitudes of desire for life or wish for death is perhaps a difference that is irrelevant and meaningless in the face of the inevitability of the end.
The centrality of the stone to Beckett’s play is made clear, of course, in Lucky’s monologue which is, as Beckett commented, ‘all about stones’. Often seen as the centre of the play, Lucky’s fractured monologue winds down, as the earth itself is doing, towards a depiction of a world turned to stone. The play itself seems to depict a world getting colder, a future foreseen in Lucky’s speech. The Irish actor Jack MacGowran, who played Lucky under Beckett’s direction also observed that the speech culminates in ‘the petrification of the world’: ‘the great cold, the great dark of old stones’. This is an image that Didi and Gogo must silence at all costs: the vision of a future beyond a ‘personal God’ or a Godot who will come and offer them haylofts to sleep in. A vision of the end of life for the whole planet - an apocalyptic image unredeemed by God’s salvation.
5. The Net
We have looked at the way in which the road, the moon, the tree and the stone frame and underpin the play, allowing for a complex of allusions and themes while resisting a simple singular meaning. Perhaps the most significant image in the whole play, however, is an invisible one. It is ‘The Net’, the title given to the dance that Lucky finally performs. The
When in Schiller production, V and E go offstage during Lucky’s ‘think’, as I have suggested, they merely beat their arms in Knowlson’s words ‘like birds trapped in the strands of a net’, bouncing back, as if on elastic, into the stage space to which they are inextricably tied.
Likewise Beckett speaks in his Schiller notebooks of the stage space as a ‘cage’:
‘general effect of moves especially Vladimir’s, though apparently motivated, [in fact] that of those in a cage’ (Preliminary Schiller notebook, BIF MS 1396/4/3, Facing Page 1).
The men move like the ‘caged apes and bears’ of Beckett’s earlier fiction. He even contemplated at one moment having ‘faint shadow of bars on stage floor’, in the end deciding against this level of what he called ‘explicitation’.
Alan Schneider, Beckett’s American director, wanted to put the play on in the round once, but Beckett dissuaded him, commenting:
I don’t in my ignorance agree with the round and feel Godot needs a very closed box.
The proscenium arch was necessary, he went on to Schneider, in order to give the impression that the characters were ‘all trapped’.
Even the vast Schiller stage, then, comes to seem too small for these men. They are both lost in the huge landscape, comically trying to hide behind the spindly tree for protection, and struggling to escape from the claustrophobic confines of the world itself. The stage space, the ‘leerer Raum’ of the theatre, Beckett’s preferred translation for the idea of ‘void’ spoken of in the play, gives its audience this feeling in a very immediate way. This is the reach of Beckett’s metatheatre – both completely literal and a metaphor for the world itself.
The idea of the net likewise constitutes a mise-en-abîme, a central motif for the whole play, bringing to light its psychological and philosophical themes. Klaus Herm, the German actor who played Lucky in the 1975
As Klaus Herm has also remarked, in one sense Lucky is the lucky one: he is the only one of the men who ‘has a concrete task’. Herm:
Pozzo says: ‘In reality, he carries like a pig. It’s not his job.’ But he does it. That is a declaration of existence. And one naturally extrapolates from that and asks, why do we live? Why are we here, anyway? You’d die if you had no raison d’être, so Lucky clings to his task. (Herm, in Beckett in Performance, 99)
Lucky is luckier than the rest of us because he can see the net that the rest of us cannot see, and he accepts it. He ‘has no expectations’, as Beckett puts it, of freedom or purpose. And that is, in the context of this play, indeed lucky.
We have seen, then, how the self-conscious theatricality of Beckett’s play—the visual poetry and formal design of the Schiller production—are not at odds with psychology and human feeling but express it in a way new to the theatre.
The minimal décor of road, moon, tree and stone all refer to the characters’ predicament and offer a schematic picture of their differing attitudes to life (indeed the poor options that any of us have in this respect).
The characters’ movement, almost dance at times, is clown-like and artificial, but reveals the fundamentals of their relations with one another and the world: their repeated attempts to part from one another, and their inevitable reuniting, the axis of the stone (death, mineral existence) around which they circle; the gravitation towards the tree as both a source of life and a means of ending it.
Thirdly, the stage itself offers a space that seems both impossibly large, dwarfing the insignificant presence of humanity, and also too small, confining, a ‘cage’ or a ‘box’ that entraps them and keeps them in the present, unable to move forward or retreat into the past.
Most obviously, and yet most ingeniously of all, the play (the metatheatre) explores and makes us experience the predicament of being seen, of being always on view:
· the terror of running out of things to say,
· the anxiety of the spectacle that we make for other people,
· the guilty apprehension that we feel (whether or not we believe in God) that someone is watching our every movement, and judging us.
We live through this, like Didi and Gogo, when we watch this play, and come out not purged but healthily disturbed.