Bottoming out Beckett

Samuel Beckett in a rare interview revealed the impetus of his work to be ‘…there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express’. ‘Nothing’ however appeared to be a complex subject and starting from 1929 extends to 101 publications, posthumously rising, which includes papers, poems, plays and novels. In response to a plea from the director Alain Schneider for guidance he wrote, ‘My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.’ Beckett would appear to be playing a game of obscuring rather than revealing the ‘truths’ of the human condition, an inward looking nihilistic stance very different to the more accustomed role of the writer as a storyteller exploring emotion within contexts and relationships.

Beckett’s work, perhaps unsurprisingly given the above, is frequently described as complex or difficult and placed within the literary canon of High Modernism, implying elitism, intellectuality and academia. Engaging with his themes requires for example extensive knowledge of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and one can approach reading as a dry exercise in referencing sources and weighing up their significance, a disentangling almost akin to the unravelling of a cryptic crossword. In a production of Happy Days, a bewildered Billie Whitelaw pleaded with Beckett to explain the meaning, a problematical question given the theme of ‘nothingness’. But what all this misses is that Beckett is funny, very funny. His work became associated mostly via Martin Esslin’s 1965 essay with a genre labelled “The Theatre of the Absurd”. The circumlocutory meandering of life, the directionless wandering, the absence of moral authority, the sheer pointlessness of measuring meaning is a huge and hilarious joke.


My argument is that such Beckettian absurdity and the humour arising should not be confined to, and labelled as, High Modernism but should be recognised within popular culture, particularly sitcoms. As a general point, what better example of two men muddling through a life of mishaps and misunderstandings as exemplified by Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot than Laurel and Hardy? They achieve little, are unable to make sense of their world, unintentionally create mayhem but somehow survive and in doing so make us laugh. In Bottom, Rik Mayal and Adrian Edmonson play a similar role albeit a more violent one. Religion, misunderstandings, bewilderment in a sparse stage set akin to Endgame reflects the Absurd as illustrated below. A child is left outside their flat one Christmas:

Richie:      Look, don't cry little matey! Coo-ee!  [puts a towel over his head, playing peek-a-boo from behind it]  Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooo! Hoo-hooooo! ...I think he likes me.

Spudgun:   Poor little blighter. His first Christmas, no family, no friends, no Christmas presents.

Richie:      Well he's got us now. We'll look after him.

Spudgun:   Yeah, he can have my Christmas present. It's a box of Terry's All Gold. We'll have to wait for his little teeth to come through before he can manage the chewy ones.

Eddie:       Yeah, look, he can have my Frankenstein mask I was going to scare the shit out of Richie with later.  [shows it to Richie]

Richie:     Ooh, oh!

Hedgehog:   Yeah, and he can have my bottle of after-shave. It's a new one. It's called "Grrr".

Richie:      Gold... Frankenstein... and Grrr! And you're all wearing crowns. ...And I'm a virgin!

Eddie:       I thought you said you weren't?

Richie:     No, I know, but I am really, I was fibbing to look hunky.

Eddie:      Oh. Didn't work, did it?

Richie:     No. But enough of that.

Eddie:      All right.

Richie:      Guys, if I was you I'd stay on my knees. This is it. This is the second coming. Oh look -- the three kings... Gold, Frankenstein, and Grrr... the virgin birth... and look, a blue head-scarf! I mean, that really tops it off! It's all slotting into place. I knew I was special. I always knew I was different from the other people. That's why I never got a shag! I was being kept pure, because I'm better than everyone else in the whole world! Oh, I had a few pretty narrow squeaks though, oh oh yes! ...No I didn't really, I'm lying to myself. Guys, I think that we should pray.

 

Pure Beckett. Complete absurdity and very funny. The characters misinterpret their world and attempt to define their role. Or what about The Royle Family? A family sits in a room in a void separated from the outside world in a contemplative existence defined by emptiness? Conversation is muted, the topics are banal, there is never a resolution, the nearest connection to any understanding of themselves is via the television. Homer in The Simpsons would be another easily recognizable example. And so on. Beckett is part of our everyday and his themes figure largely in our entertainment. Remember, as Nell says in Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."

 

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David Kitchener

 

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