Samuel in style

Writing about Samuel Beckett, Irish playwright and novelist is an act of supreme dilemma. Because, here is a man who gambled with meaning-making, eschewed verbosity to manufacture silence and played upon language to extract its hidden humour and cruelty. When the war-weary mid-century Europe was looking for a structure of belief, a frame of reference, Beckett gave it none and instead recalled even the last strain of certainty that could hang on to literature’s hoary claims. So homage to him on his centenary birth anniversary should have been like him —absurd, funny and furtive. But alas, we live in more ‘meaningful times’. And that is what I learnt when I was teaching Beckett to college students at a suburban Calcutta college. 

Beckett had burst into the scene with Waiting for Godot, a play whose absurd and enigmatic theme stunned the audience on whom the aftertaste of Shaw and kitchen-sink realism lingered loud. To my students, even Shaw was thorny and alien. So the play about a couple of vagabonds, Gogo and Vivi, who find themselves in a nameless, faceless place waiting for a certain Godot was beyond any culpable comprehension. Or was it? 

Who is Godot sir? A sharp-looking chap in cheap bush shirt asked me in the fifth class on Godot. They had had it enough. Gogo and Vivi went on and on, twice over, repeating the same dialogue that was nothing more than funny banters and appalling jokes and despite spelling it out, again and again, Godot did not come. Just did not come. I had my share of absurdity looming large over my face. A college in the middle of nowhere where life moves on a snail’s pace and teaching English is like talking mountain to those who live in molehills. 

I vaguely tried to explain, Godot is God, God-like idiot or God as idiot, (Godot=God+Idiot). God is there, either chilling or absent and not of much help to us. But sir, that means he is the CPM leader, who is never seen, only heard about and who promises riches if we meet him. Oops! You have got me on the wrong foot dear, I thought. This is a government college and to raise a voice against CPM is close to dissent against Stalin in the 1930s. I said, well, Beckett wrote Godot while Stalin was in power. But I am sure his critique is a philosophical one. “Beckett transported Camus’s themes of an alien individual in an absurd universe into a farcical denouement where living is itself is an act of heroism”. “Oh! So you mean the working class’ one claimed to have the answer! I looked outside; a couple of that Marxian specimen was toiling in the heat outside, carrying party posters to be pasted for local elections. I said, no they can be any individual, only that in Godot they were without a state and a society. Somebody, a local SFI lad (who attended night classes by senior comrades) said, but isn’t that the ultimate proletarian aim? He had got his Marx right. 

I said, yes it is. That is why at the end of the play, the vagabonds have nowhere to go. They still believe their tryst with Godot was bound to happen. The students, those who enlightened me and those who listened, left the class utterly satisfied. So Beckett’s absurdity is only nominal, I thought. My students have got all of it figured out. Only I got it wrong. All awhile.