In his biography of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson records an incident from the writers trip to Hitlers Germany in the mid-1930s. In a land where barbarism was rising to a new pitch, Beckett fell in with a man who claimed to be a tailor and who offered to make him a beautiful new suit for 120 marks. The tailor told him tales of woe, winning enough sympathy for Beckett to commission the suit with a hefty down payment. He was promised a garment of unparalleled quality. Once the money was handed over, there were elaborate excuses and evasions, and of course when the suit eventually arrived it was grotesquely coarse and mis-shapen.
But Beckett realised from early on in this entire process of courtship and betrayal that he was being conned. Though he had little money, he was prepared to part with a great deal of it in return for the sheer humour of the scam, the divine comedy of knowing that you are being taken in and watching the process with the detached eye of the amused observer. He wrote in his diary after a meeting with the tailor that It is so flagrant as to be diverting. It is diverting to be thought to be done. One is done but not in the eye. The difference between being done and being done in the eye is that in the first case one knows and in the second not. He thinks he is doing me in the eye, whereas he is only doing me. That is the diverting position that I would not spoil with the east show of discernment.
Within this vignette, there is all of Beckett. The surrounding context Germany under the Nazis is a vicious world where cruelty and power shape the lot of humanity. In Becketts attraction to the tailors tales of woe, there is the extraordinary compassion, the profound sympathy, that animates his work. And in the ability to enjoy the awareness of being done, there is the playfulness that makes him, for all the cruelty and all the compassion, the funniest writer of our times.
What Beckett does in his plays is bring out the innate and inevitable humour of theatre itself. His diary entry on the pleasures of being conned could serve as a rough sketch of the basic situation of an audience in the theatre. A play, if you like, is a con-job. These impostors come before and promise us a world beyond compare. We are done but not in the eye, for we collude in the deception. We go along with the pretence for the sake of the diversion.
Beckett, typically, adds to the humour of the charade by reminding us of what we are doing. Instead of asking us to suspend disbelief, he teases us with our knowledge that our expectations of enlightenment, of a completed story, of a message from the author will be defeated. The running joke of Becketts plays is the audience itself, sitting through it all, too polite or too wedded to habit to spoil the diversion with the least show of discernment.
We have to watch ourselves watching the actors and admit, through our laughter, that we are a peculiar lot. Clov in Endgame looks at us through his telescope and reports: I see a multitude in transports Of joy. (Pause). Thats what I call a magnifier. Vladimir in Waiting for Godot looks at us and says, This is becoming really insignificant, and Gogo replies, Not enough. Estragon surveys the scene: Charming spot. (He turns, advancing to front, halts facing auditorium.) Inspiring prospects. Vladimir, taking his bearings, remarks, All the same that tree (turning towards the auditorium) That bog. Vladimir, looking for a place for his partner to hide, drags him towards the front of the stage: There! Not a soul in sight! Off you go. Quick! (He pushes Estragon towards auditorium. Estragon recoils in horror.) You wont? (He contemplates auditorium.) Well, I can understand that.
This teasing and even insulting of the audience has its roots in the great traditions of music hall and circus clowning. Becketts characters, moreover, bear the same kind of relationship to everyday humanity as clowns do. Are these ageless sons of absurdity, are they human at all? asks Thomas Mann of clowns in The Confessions of Felix Krull. Are they, I repeat, human beings, men that conceivably find a place in everyday life? In my opinion, it is pure sentimentality to say that they are "human too", with the sensibilities of human beings and perhaps even with wives and children. I honour them and defend them against ordinary bad taste when I say no, they are not, they are exceptions, side-splitting, world-renouncing monks of unreason, cavorting hybrids, part human and part insane art.
What Mann put his finger on in this passage is the uncomfortable truth that lies behind all the clichés about the tears of the clown. Clowning exists for our pleasure, but the clown is also a kind of monk, a devotee of a harsh and unblinking god. The great clown always gives the appearance of being only half-human, of existing in rigorous isolation from the rest of society, cut off from the comforting associations that make humanity what it is.
It is not for nothing that the archetypal clown persona is that of the tramp, the homeless wanderer without money or family, stuck in the spotlight with an eternal sidekick. Not for nothing, either, that Beckett, in his search for a theatrical image of human isolation in the world took his first heroes Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot straight from the tradition of clowning.
And yet, Becketts clowning also has a kind of realism. Waiting for Godot, for example, bears an uncanny relationship to the kind of jokes that people in Ireland were making about the rather bleak nature of the place in the 1950s, when isolation and emptiness had a literal resonance in the depopulation of the countryside. Before Samuel Beckett shocked European culture with theatrical images of things that were not happening, there were people in Ireland who had images in their heads of a theatre like his, not as an exercise in the avant-garde, but as a description of reality. Irish reality itself had a surreal quality. The image of the country as a vast stage set, a cultural performance space lit by the twin glows of faith and fatherland, but with fragmented and obscure characters playing on it, seemed not like a dark absurdist fantasy, but like an only slightly exaggerated version of the real Ireland.
As emigration became a flood, people began to imagine Ireland as a place in which what was absent and unseen was as real as what was present and visible. A book called The Vanishing Irish suggested that soon there might be no one left on the island. A cartoon in the Irish Times showed one unsuccessful entrant in an Abbey playwriting competition telling another, I suppose my dramatisation of The Vanishing Irish was a bit avant-garde: just a set no actors. Equally, in 1950, the critic Thomas Hogan wrote in the magazine Envoy that among my unwritten plays there are two designed for what I thought would have been the finish up of the tradition of economic and relatively motionless acting. One is to be performed with a black curtain across the proscenium arch with holes cut in it so that the actors can shout their lines unwinkingly at the audience. The other presents possibly insuperable technical difficulties for it is designed for no actors at all. Becketts minimalism, in other words, embodies the black humour of the society from which he had come.
Within the parameters of his exploitation of the humour of theatre itself and the dark comedy of a bleak and depressed society, Beckett uses a dazzling range of comic tones. There is gallows humour (literally so in the pathetic attempts of Didi and Gogo to hang themselves). Slapstick (that multitude in transports of joy). Comic deflation (Gogos wonderful reply to Didis rhetorical question about how many people can boast, as they can, that they have kept their appointments: Billions). Anti-climax (as when the stark image of Winnie buried in the sand in Happy Days becomes the image of a woman stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground). Elements of farce (the elaborate business with boots, carrots, hairbrushes, ladders, telescopes and all the inanimate objects that cause so much trouble throughout the plays). Comic irony (the blind Hamm in Endgame lavishing his affection on a three-legged toy dog). Mock-heroic posturing (Didi and Gogos absurdly grave discourse on radishes). Mock-epic satire (the way, for example, that Endgame makes a mockery of Hamlet). Sheer absurdity (Krapps banana). Above all, the bittersweet humour of people attempting to convince themselves that everything is just fine (Winnies What a curse, mobility!). Becketts comic range, in other words, is virtually limitless.
And it is not peripheral. Becketts humour never takes the form of comic relief. It is never a way of punctuating the horror, of giving the audience a break from the pervasive despair. It exists, rather, right at the heart of Becketts vision. For the best way to misunderstand Beckett has always been to see him as a mere purveyor of thrilling bleakness, beating his breast about the sorrow of the world and the awfulness of existence. His real interest, rather, is in the endless ways we think up to stave off despair, the fabulous, perverse energy we bring to the task of keeping going. The words and gestures with which his people defy the darkness may, because they are pointless, be utterly tragic. But, because they can have no effect, they are also free and loose light, utterly gratuitous and gloriously excessive and therefore, in the end, funny.
Fintan OToole is a columnist for the Irish Times and drama-critic of the New York Daily News. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He is born in Dublin in 1952, and have published four volumes of essays on Ireland (most recently The Lie of the Land). Also studies of Shakespeare and the Irish playwright Tom Murphy; Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, and The Politics of Irish Beef; A Traitor's Kiss, and a Biography of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He was also the editor of The Irish Times Book of the Century.