An Act of Nothing: Samuel Beckett

by | Apr 7, 2022 | Creative Nonfiction

ACT OF NOTHING: SAMUEL BECKETT by Sydney Friedman

(After Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause.)

 

What drives a man to write nothing?

Why create such bizarre characters, as gray as the scene behind them?

The men wander the stage, waiting their only direction.

 

Samuel Beckett

Beckett grew up in Dublin. He knew the world before and after the wars in Europe. After his father died in the early thirties, Beckett spent two years with a psychoanalyst, which later became apparent through the moments of waiting in Waiting for Godot. In the late thirties he moved permanently to Paris. He wrote most of his plays in French. He preferred “Paris at war to Ireland at peace” and stayed in France as Nazis began to take over. He joined the French Resistance.

 

War in France

He was a courier.

On several occasions he was nearly caught by the Gestapo.

In 1942 he indirectly helped sabotage the Germans in the mountains.

He continued his novel Watt while in hiding.

He referred to the experience as “Boy Scout stuff.”

 

Beckett and Bion

Beckett’s fellowship requirements that allowed him freedom to write on his own also forced him to teach at Trinity College Dublin. He loathed teaching. He fell into a depressed, apathetic state, which worsened after his father’s death. In 1934 he began therapy with Wilfred Bion. Beckett was doubtful of the process, but Bion’s cultural knowledge and intelligence gained his respect. Beckett later terminated psychoanalysis to write. Perhaps this therapy brought forth the questions of existence that Beckett sought to challenge, intentionally or otherwise.

 

Waiting for Godot

Two men wait on stage. One struggles with his boots as the other inspects his bowler hat. The tree in the background is only focused on when they discuss how to best hang themselves. They go back to waiting. Banter drifts back and forth with ease, the duo somehow being entertaining yet stalling as they avoid the topic, which is still just waiting.

Two others arrive. Then they leave. Before the show ends they come again yet don’t remember being there before. The original two are still waiting. They exchange hats and ponder on the man they wait for. By the time the curtain closes they are back where they started.

The boots are placed under the tree. The men swear to part ways. They do not move.

 

Beckett on Waiting

Some speculate that the Godot they wait for is God. He never comes and only sends a boy as a messenger.

Beckett says if he meant for Godot to be God, he would have said God.

Some believe the story is akin to waiting for messages during World War II. Couriers would go into forests and secret places to wait for coded information, never knowing if the message would come that night or the next. Or ever.

Beckett himself may have waited like that.

 

Endgame

A blind man in a chair is unmoving under a white sheet until his servant, slave, friend, comes to lift it off of him. He waits for his painkillers.

A sheet is lifted off of two trash cans in the back. Later, a man and a woman will come out of them. They will ask for food. They will be asked, forced, to listen to anecdotes that are most likely lies.

Two windows on opposite sides of the stage can only be reached by a ladder. The strange man who removed the sheets moves the ladder to look through them constantly, each time seeming more frantic than the last.

Outside this room is death.

The last scene shows the blind man, once again covered by his sheet.

More waiting.

This time it’s for death. For the end.

 

Characters Are Born

Beckett creates characters solely to give them no purpose.

Beckett creates chaos through nothing.

Beckett creates plots only for them to stagnate.

Beckett creates movement through stillness.

 

Names

Hamm. Clov. Nagg. Nell.

Didi. Gogo. Pozzo. Lucky. Godot.

 

Why are such simple names analyzed so heavily? Is that what Beckett wanted?

Hamm may mean hammer. Clov, Nagg, and Nell may relate to the roots of “nail” in different languages.

Would Beckett want his works dehumanized?

 

Didi (Vladimir) and Gogo (Estragon) may relate to “dire” and “go.”

 

Is that what Beckett meant?

 

Pozzo may mean “well” in Italian and Lucky may be an ironic name for a slave. Godot may mean God.

 

Didn’t Beckett explain to us that things aren’t that simple?

 

Beckett on Philosophy

Whether Beckett was actively engaged in using philosophical themes is not entirely clear, but his works blatantly demonstrate certain ideals. Nihilism, existentialism, and absurdism. Life is meaningless, human existence is pointless, and the universe is chaotic and purposeless.

In a time of war this may have been the only way to view the world.

Beckett insisted that Endgame contain this line referring to God: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!” That’s one way to say life is meaningless. Or maybe that’s his criticism of the universe.

 

Maybe God did exist. Maybe He was killed in the wars.

 

Beckett on Meaning

Beckett’s only clear insistence on meaning was that Godot was not God.

Beckett’s characters may thrive without us attaching meaning to them.

Calling Hamm a hammer and Clov, Nell, and Nagg the nails dehumanizes them.

They can’t suffer uncertainty if they aren’t human.

Godot can’t be God.

In Beckett’s world there is no God.

Vladimir and Estragon wait to wait.

Endgame exists to end.

 

 

“What do I know of man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.”

     —Samuel Beckett


Photo by William Murphy, used and adapted under CC.

About The Author

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Sydney Friedman is a writer currently living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She enjoys writing poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction that highlights unusual philosophies and her own personal identity. Some of her works can currently be found published for the Atticus Review and Free Spirit.