Sunday, 31 January 2010

Lucky the Suffering Servant – thoughts on Waiting For Godot

On Friday I attended the West End production of Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” at the theatre Royal Haymarket.  I had read the play in class at school, with little understanding, as one often does reading a play in school.  Then, on finding my daughter studying another Beckett play “Endgame” in her English Literature course, I was interested to revisit the play, which of course it is now possible to do via sites such as YouTube.  I remembered from school that one of the characters, Lucky, has only two lines in the play, of which the second is a tirade of 700+ words – which originally passed us by in class as the ravings of a madman.
Seeing it performed live on stage makes a huge difference to comprehensibility (as it often does in Shakespeare compared to reading it in class).  The production, which featured Sir Ian McKellen in the part of Estragon was quite brilliant – indeed riveting from beginning to end.  I had not expected such a bleak play to be so funny, and I suspect in the production perhaps the actors milked if for all the humour they could get out of it.  The sight of Ian McKellen eating a carrot in the manner of an old tramp, chewing disgustingly and spraying bits all over the place was as hilarious as his ability to produce just the right length of pause before the irony of his question “What are we supposed to do now we are happy?”
Indeed reviews have criticized the production for doing this – does the humour distract from the underlying bleak and terrifying message of the play?
I wonder, too if this different perspective might have something to do with the fact that in order to get the underlying message of the play requires an understanding of Biblical knowledge that has considerably diminished these days.  The incredible lack of knowledge was brought home to me recently watching a quiz show on TV where a contestant was unable to answer the question  “What J follows Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Bible?”
Perhaps it is because I am a Christian that I see Christian parallels (indeed anti-parallels) where in fact there are none to be seen.  I don’t know, but this is how it strikes me.
Throughout the play, the main point of existence of the two central characters, the tramps Vladimir and Estragon is to wait for the mysterious Mr. Godot, who doesn’t show up, twice.  It is not explained just who Mr. Godot is (there are endless debates as to whether Godot is meant to be God, but this is not clear from the play).  There is a repeated section of dialogue, like a refrain in a song of “Let’s go/We can’t/Why not/We’re waiting for Godot/Ahh!”  Is this trying to say that our waiting, perhaps for a salvation or deliverance that is never going to happen is what keeps us trapped and unable to move on?
Into the midst of this interminable waiting for something of which they don’t even know the meaning, enter, twice, two other characters, Pozzo and Lucky.  Pozzo is an overbearing bully, but ultimately a whining and pathetic character.  The ironically named Lucky is his servant, tethered to him by a rope round his neck, and perpetually carrying two heavy bags, which he does not put down, even when standing still.  It seems quite evident on seeing it acted that Lucky could be an analogue of the “Suffering Servant” described in the Bible of Isaiah 52-53.  To the outrage of Vladimir and Estragon, he is treated abysmally by Pozzo, who summons him with barked one-word commands.  When Vladimir and Estragon examine him, they see the clear evidence of mistreatment – the chafe marks of the rope round his neck, his slobbering mouth, his goggling eyes, the appearance of a half-wit, and the overall impression that he is on his last legs.  At this stage it is difficult to avoid the comparison with Isaiah 52:14 from the “Suffering Servant” passage.

... There were many who were appalled at him
   his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
   and his form marred beyond human likeness.

However, this apparent parallel is the beginning of an anti-parallel.  It becomes more than clear that Lucky offers no hope, no salvation, and that there is no point to his suffering.  When commanded to dance, Lucky performs a bizarre and ungainly dance, which Pozzo reveals is called “The Net” – that Lucky believes he is entangled in a net.  Again one is reminded of the Biblical narrative of Jesus promising to make his disciples, who are fishermen that they will become “fishers of men” – those who are caught will be saved.  And yet the net in which Lucky is entangled is a prison from which he cannot escape.
When Lucky is commanded to think out loud, there follows a famous tirade, in a parody of academic discourse of over 700 words.  Some actors make the mistake of delivering it at breakneck speed as written in the text as a single sentence without punctuation.  However if delivered slowly and thoughtfully, the bleak meaning of the lines becomes clear; no matter what we do, we shall eventually fade away and die, and our labours will be left unfinished.  It is perhaps significant that the last line of the speech before the others silence him is the single word “unfinished ...”.  Again, as a Christian I cannot help but compare this to the final words of Christ on the Cross – “It is finished” (in some translations given as “It is accomplished”).  What had been accomplished was salvation – freedom from the slavery of sin and so forth.  But it is clear from Lucky’s tirade that nothing has been accomplished, nothing finished, nothing achieved.  Furthermore the other characters, especially Pozzo cannot even bear to hear the message, and protest and groan loudly, till they remove his hat, which robs him of the ability to think.
After the removal of his hat, Lucky falls to the ground face down.  The characters wonder if he is dead.  But they are commanded by Pozzo to “raise him up”.  Is this a parody of the Resurrection?  Lucky is raised up with his arms placed round the shoulders of the two tramps, almost as in a cruciform position, and he is given back the burden of the two bags that he has carried throughout.  If this is a mock “death and resurrection” it is clear that nothing has been accomplished by it – the same situation continues, and the hapless Lucky is required to continue bearing his burden (contrasting with the Christian view that the burden of sin was broken and destroyed by the action of Christ’s death on the Cross).
Pozzo and Lucky depart, prompting Vladimir to comment that this at least has passed the time, and Estragon to rejoin “It would have passed anyway”, for some reason – perhaps McKellen’s brilliant timing, drawing a large laugh from the audience again.  The first act closes after they receive a message from a boy that Mr. Godot will not meet them today but he would surely be there tomorrow, and they are to meet him in the same place.
In the second act, Pozzo and Lucky return again, but this time Pozzo is blind, and Lucky is dumb.  One is again reminded that in the biblical accounts Jesus made the blind see again, but here Pozzo complains that he once had marvellous eyesight, but then one morning woke up blind.  It is not clear, and the character cannot even remember if this happened the day before, or even if the events of the second act are a day after those of the first act.  Perhaps in the meaningless, pointless existence that is depicted, all the days blur into one.
The theme of suicide is regularly visited and referred to in the play, from the early mention of jumping off the top of the Eiffel Tower, to the final slapstick scene, where they test Estragon’s belt to see if it would be strong enough to suffice for hanging; the rope breaks and simultaneously Estragon’s trousers fall down, a corny and over-used comic gesture that is effective here in the dark context in which it is made.
In summary, it seems to me that what Beckett is trying to say in this play is that God, once perceived as powerful and giving purpose to existence is powerless to help us, and that Christ is powerless to save us.  All that is left to console us is the power of human companionship, as seen in the relationship between the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon.  At the end of the play, a second message comes from the boy, exactly the same as the first; Mr. Godot will not see them today, but surely tomorrow.  The two characters decide to return with some proper rope to hang themselves, if, as now seems inevitable, Godot will yet again not turn up.
In the current production, there is a small additional “number” that has been inserted at the end of the curtain calls – Vladimir and Estragon dance together to “Underneath the Arches”, and in a nice artistic final touch, disappear from opposite wings, and the last thing you see is their two hats tossed into the centre of the stage.  In a way this seems again a consolation, celebrating the friendship of the two of them; I am not sure, however, that Beckett would have intended this more optimistic final touch.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A damp trip!

This picture was taken from the HST between Didcot and Reading. Due to the snow we decided to take a combination of taxi and train to get my daughter back to Reading University. The taxi at the other end was unable to drop us at the hall of residence. We had one huge case on wheels that didn't wheel too well through the impacted snow. The train to return was cancelled and we had to get a slow service. Then on nearly freezing to death waiting for a bus to Didcot we succumbed to the temptation to get a taxi back home. A damp and hassle-bound trip. The only redeeming feature being the obtaining of this spectacular sky at 125 mph from the fast train.
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Below is a picture of St. Patrick's Hall, Reading in the snow.  It was a lot warmer inside than outside!

From Jan2010

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Peace that Sustains

I  have been attending Quaker meetings over the past few months.  Although I still also attend a lively evangelical church as well, I am drawn to silent contemplation as a way of worship, self-discovery and discovery of God.  Perhaps in modern churches there is insufficient time put aside for silence, or maybe that is simply an expression of my preference.  Many seem to find spiritual fulfillment in the popular style of worship, with modern choruses and modern instruments, clapping hands, or raising them in the air in affirmation and worship.  But for me, I have often found that it does not fulfil that feeling of "otherness" that one expects from the truly sacred. I have seen such things happening at rock concerts, for example. And while people can be transported to a different place at a rock concert, for me, I want the transport experienced in contemplating the sacred to be different again from the secular.  But that, of course, is my own preference - my own best method for finding God is in silence.  Many might find the Quaker style of worship, with its long, long periods of people sitting in utter silence, to be too austere, or perhaps too lacking in direction.  Tastes and needs differ.

During the Meeting today, only two people spoke during the entire hour, and yet, at the end, when the meeting formally ends with handshakes from the people sitting either side of you, I was taken by surprise that the end had come of an hour unusually full and fulfilling, during which I was totally awake and aware, and at no time wondering how much of the hour had passed, or tempted to glance at my watch.

The second person to speak reflected on a current theme being discussed in Meetings; sustainable living.  The Quaker movement is very "green" in nature, and there had recently been some special studies on sustainable energy, and so forth, where the normal silent worship was supplemented with a prepared talk.  But this person wanted to reflect more on what sustained us. No dogmatic answers were given; it could perhaps be a spiritual belief, or a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature.  However Nature's beauty, it was pointed out, could seem like a mockery if one is in a bleak place, for whatever reason.  So what does sustain us?

I started thinking about this, in the silence that followed.  I suppose the first question to ask in thinking about this is "what is Us?", or "what is Me?"   I recalled a friend of mine who suffered a prolonged period of depression, often to the point of suicide.  What was clear was that she had no inner peace, and furthermore, no sense of the inner self.  Indeed she once told me "When I look inside myself, I see nothing."  This seems to be a common experience of people who suffer from depression.  The biologist Lewis Wolpert describes this in his book "Malignant Sadness", which is partly about his own depression.  It is interesting that Wolpert, who is an atheist, still finds it useful to use spiritual terminology to describe the exeperience of depression.  He writes:

If we had a soul - and as a hardline materialist I do not believe we do - a useful metaphor for depression could be 'soul-loss' due to extreme sadness.  The body and mind emptied of the soul lose interest in almost everything except themselves.  The idea of the wandering soul is widely accepted across numerous cultures and the adjective 'empty' is viewed across most cultures as negative.  The metaphor captures the way in which we experience our own existence.  Our 'soul' is our inner essence, something distinctly different from the hard material world in which we live.  Lose it and we are depressed, cut off, alone.

I find the passage extraordinary, in that this morning, in the quiet of the Meeting, I experienced the exact opposite - the exact thing that Wolpert says is lost during depression.  As I sank further into myself, I became more aware of a "me" that was inside all the time; that my body and mind were not empty, but were in fact very full of this inner essence, this "me", which indeed is distinctly different from the hard material world.  While a scientist may be able to describe what is going on in terms of electrical signals inside one's brain, that is not how we perceive it.  Moreover, Wolpert recognizes, albeit only as a metaphor, that the inner essence, or "soul" is a distinctively different thing from the mind.

It occurred to me that this inner self is something that perhaps we rarely experience to the full.  Instead, robot-like, we spend most of our time, and our conscious thoughts, reacting to things.  We feel excitement, anger, hunger, sadness, happiness, mirth,  intoxication, or we think about what we shall do next, where the next meal is coming from, and so forth.  But none of this is the "me" that is buried inside all of this.  When that "me" is experienced fully; when one is aware of this thing that fills us, what we feel is peace.

For those of us with religious beliefs, that peace equates to the Peace of God which passes understanding.  The reason it passes understanding is because it goes beyond thought, towards just being, and being aware of oneself, as a created being.  The philosopher Descartes famously said "I think, therefore I am".  But I would take it further than that.  "I am therefore I am" might be a more appropriate (albeit maddeningly mystical) way of putting it.  And in using the phrase "I am", one is also  reminded of the biblical verse Exodus 3:14, where God describes Himself: "I am that I am".  And as one of the tenets of Quaker worship is to find the light of God in oneself, this seems an appropriate place to end the development of the argument.

So what sustains "us"?  I don't know if I have the fullest answer (can any question be said to be answered fully?)  But I do think a big part of it is that Peace is what sustains us.  Anyone, believer or not can experience that peace, perhaps just by becoming more aware of the self that lies often buried under the automaton-like existence that results from the Hurly-burly of everyday life.

Having known it for what it is, I can still feel that peace as I write these words.  It does indeed sustain.