Waiting For Godot at the Barbican: The Death of the Old White Man

POZZO: Who are you?
VLADIMIR: We are men.

Samuel Beckett –  Waiting For Godot

For all of Samuel Beckett’s keen insight into general existential questions, Waiting For Godot is a play with an all-male cast, and therefore reveals something of the deep-seated insecurities of being an older man, a deeper sense of purposeless which lies behind flaccid penises and enlarged prostates. In 1988, a Dutch judge ruled that the play was sufficiently about ‘the human condition’ to permit an all-female production of it, whereas Beckett (via his lawyers) used the analogy of different musical instruments to emphasise the importance of his characters’ physical sexual difference, memorably claiming a woman couldn’t play Vladimir because ‘women don’t have prostates’.* It was immaculate timing that I should go see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot in the aftermath of the Twitterstorm reacting to Craig Raine’s poem ‘Gatwick’, published in the London Review of Books at the beginning of June. The first viral reaction to poetry on Twitter I can remember, it might just be poetry’s biggest moment of public controversy since Tony Harrison’s V. Emerging as it did firmly out of step with the contemporary mindset on issues on sex and femininity, there is much to be written about the poem and I will probably do so at some point in the future. In the interim though, the furore over Raine’s poem can help us colour in sometimes overlooked details of Beckett’s play, and appreciate a 2015 production of it.

The second stanza of Raine’s poem sets the scene in London Gatwick airport, a transport hub used as a metaphor for the mundane reeling in of old age. The humdrum formality of waiting around in queues for passport checks finds a companion in Beckett’s all-encompassing anteroom that is the desolate road where Vladimir and Estragon wait. Raine’s experience is momentarily lit up by flushes of youth, whereas Beckett’s run-down tramps find their only source of entertainment amidst their various ailments – urge to urinate, sore feet – to be vaudeville patter and mime, a brand of comedy which stands out (and did so during its stage debut) largely for being so out of date. Godot comes to represent something, anything, which ends the monotony and slow decay of growing old as a man – like death.

Having this in mind also gives a new interpretation of the boy who appears as Godot’s ambassador at the close of both acts; an envoy of youth, someone whose innocence stands apart from the chaos wrought by the older figures on stage. Lucky initially appears to be a slave whose prime of life is spent serving Pozzo, but is revealed to be far older than he first appears. This was impeccably done in the STC’s portrayal at the Barbican, as Lucky’s hat is knocked aside to reveal long, silvery hair betraying his real age (as a tangent, the fact that an Australian Theatre company is putting on the play raises valuable questions about Lucky’s role in relation to native cultures, and how subjugated they are). At the end of Act 2 the Boy seems to preempt the interpretation of Godot as God by describing the only physical description of Godot we are afforded in the entire play – that he has a beard, and that it could be white. I don’t discount that interpretation of Godot, but just as important is the white beard and its attachment to the chin of a Creator (whether God or Zeus) as the apotheosis of masculinity which has been upheld for centuries through art history, and which Vladimir and Estragon cannot inhabit in their detumescent ennui. As far as Craig Raine is concerned, the women he encounters provide different forms of reading to the ones he is familiar with. The shamanic status of poet as oral storyteller, or as any public commentator, hangs forlornly in the background as one girl immerses herself in a Kindle, and another at the immigration service moves from studying his poetry at ‘uni’ to scanning his passport, pinning down the aura of the artist to zeroes and ones. The seemingly oxymoronic final stanzas capture this, as the poet recognises the distillation of his voice. For all of the controversy that the poem provoked, much of it is anticipated in the verse. Raine knows full well that a man in his position is obliged to be silent about certain topics, ones which he has presumably ‘grown out of’ as he reaches an asexual whitebearded stage of his career.

Tension between the old and the young is not limited to Godot in Beckett’s oeuvre – it is more evident in the familial push-pull of Endgame, the layers of memory in Krapp’s Last Tape, and in the novel Molloy, where Jacques Moran has an irritable relationship with his son. One of the defining characteristics of Beckett’s works is the sense of prior catastrophe – this is where his true (if inflexible) genius comes in writing for the stage, because its fixed dimensions become a cage for characters who are trapped by oppressive circumstances. Sometimes the membrane is pierced to allow a memory to venture outwards. In Godot’s case, it is Vladimir and Estragon harvesting grapes on the banks of the Rhone. That occasion is memorable for Didi and Gogo because the latter fell in and had to be rescued by the former. Such memorial reconstructions intimate glory days long gone, distantly seen through the mud of what, in Estragon’s case, could be dementia, explaining why he is unable to remember immediately previous days. The woman on the bus who is ‘so young today’ that it is ‘almost painful’ in ‘Gatwick’ is portrayed in a quite sinister fashion, but this are inseparable from the feelings of a man who realises he has permanently left youth behind, both his own and the people he has relationships with.

Hat-tips should be given to the actors of the Sydney Theatre Company, (especially Philip Quast, who channels his inner PT Barnum as Pozzo), and the staging, as the floor is lit up with dusty pockmarks like a lunar surface which emboldens the actors’ forms upon it. The Barbican is a wonderful space to put on plays for their Beckett Season, as its gutted concrete innards feel like a subterranean cocoon from the city of London.

All of these factors and more ensure that watching Waiting For Godot is a valid exercise in 2015. To spend two hours in the company of Vladimir and Estragon is an act of witness to the kernel of pathos which lies at the heart of the old white man as the marbled busts are taken down from their pillars and we begin, at long last, to reimagine culture and history in the popular mind according to different standards of arbitration. Still, there is a certain irony at work here. Vladimir and Estragon as long-forgotten vaudeville entertainers, the Hamm actor at the centre of Endgame, the 17 copies sold of Krapp’s latest book – these are failed artists at the centre of Beckett’s view of art as a heightened form of failure, and perhaps copies of Beckett himself. The inherent mystery to his plays has nevertheless helped create an icon of the visionary artist, and if there is one practical lesson to take from a 2015 performance of Godot and its attendant concerns with aged masculinity, it should be to reconsider the role of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, Beckett’s partner through marriage and partner in crime during the French Resistance. As indispensable to his work as Dorothy Wordsworth was to her brother WIlliam’s poetry, she took Beckett’s manuscripts to publishers, gave him the incentive to produce work in the first place, not to mention the financial security to do so. Less of a muse, and more of a colleague.

From the Götterdämmerung of the old white man we can forge new icons. The time is right to re-evaluate who the guardians of culture really are, but we must be careful not to overlook abandoning other corners of human experience in our withdrawal, corners where age and sex are not just abstract tokens of privilege, but are also responsible for physical incapacity and mental disenchantment, leading to a ballooning of the suicide rate in men over the age of 45.

*Beckett’s insistence on strict sexual roles in his plays is ripe to be challenged now though, following the watershed moment of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. It should also be considered how writing about ‘the human condition’ is nearly always the preserve of male writers in the popular mindset, because there is this lingering belief that men write about the human experience, and women write about the female experience.

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Underappreciated Albums #3: Beady Belle – Closer (2005)

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3.23 on Rate Your Music (Artist Ave = 3.67)

1. Skin Deep (4:03)
2. Pillory-Like (4:18)
3. Goldilocks (4:51)
4. Airing (6:10)
5. Never Mind (5:41)
6. Closer (3:18)
7. Irony (6:15)
8. Stools & Rules (6:00)
9. Tomorrow (2:47)

It’s tempting to knock Jamie Cullum: indie kids think he tries too hard to be in their gang, and jazz nuts think he’s not authentic enough for them. Yet there can be no greater advocate for bridging the two sounds, and he has done a great job in drawing attention to the (predominantly Scandinavian) groups who mix the two aesthetics. This leaves bands like Beady Belle caught between two stools though, as it is unclear exactly who takes responsibility for them – Down Beat? Pitchfork? They fall through a gap which makes it hard for them to come to public attention. This is a great shame, when their songs are so well-crafted and Beate Lech’s vocal delivery is brimming with such white-girl sass.

Lech’s voice is sensual, but poised with a stern distance as she occupies a variety of different female personae, all of whom have a disaffected air of control. ‘Life will go on tomorrow’ she sings in the closing track, paraphrasing Scarlett O’Hara, summarising the carefree confidence she expresses throughout the whole album. She occupies the mind of strong-minded women from literature; Goldilocks and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in ‘Goldilocks’ and ‘Pillory-like’ respectively. Lech’s sultry whispering, poised atop echoic (Rhodes) piano, seeps into your ear, but the electronica programming grabs you by the hip and makes you gyrate. In the best nu jazz tradition, this is music for coming down from the club as well as the living room.

Lech’s relaxed intimacy sets the tone for the entire LP, which cannot help but bring you under its spell. She described in an interview how the name of the album represented its goal to get the listener in a more personal space with the music, instead of using lush string orchestrations as a largely passive backdrop. The end result is like a more relaxed Jazmine Sullivan, a wittier Portishead, Sarah Vaughan with a drum machine.

‘Irony’ is the song Alanis Morrissette couldn’t write, while ‘Skin Deep’ is one of the more arresting album openers out there – it’s rare that I am hooked on an album instantly through the words alone, but on my first listen Beate Lech’s wry ideal of aesthetic perfection – ‘I like the sugarcoated’ – caught me on the sly and left me wanting more. The lyrics match the atmosphere of the record: dotted throughout are twists on the pull of superficial sound, held up as the antithesis to Lech’s honest intimacy.

The ubiquitous Rhodes piano of nu jazz now comes off as quite cliche and dinner party-ish, but there is enough variation in the texture of the songs – ranging from traditional jazz band set up in the smoky ‘Pillory-like’ to programmed beats in ‘Stools & Rules’ – to keep each track fresh. Purists might not appreciate me saying this, but Closer has something to offer everyone who occupies a corner of the indie-electronica-jazz triangle, and the self-assured delivery of their front woman is very appropriate for our present moment – at the time PureMusic described it as ‘Beyonce goes electronica’. As with fossil fuel exploration, social democracy and melancholy, Norway were years ahead of the game.