First of all, let me stress that The Wrong Side of Eden is not an updated version of the story of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. It is a “radical approach to theater” as promised by the subtitle of the (self) published edition of the play.
I would argue that the best way to experience how the play is ‘radical’ (‘from the root’) can only truly be experienced in its performance. But I will try to show at least one part of the complicated equation here, for those of you who are patient enough to read on and then to reflect about the how this show is different from other theater you have seen. The words presented here are only the beginning….
The idea for The Wrong Side of Eden came to me as I was writing a textbook for a college acting class; I had finished much of the manuscript in various phases and had decided on the title: Acting-Out Theater History: The Origins of Theater in Ritual, Myth and the Improvised Performance. I was re-reading Aristotle looking for pertinent quotes for the chapters and stumbled on this: “To consider whether tragedy is fully developed by now in all its various species or not, and to criticize it both in itself and in relation to the stage, that is another question. At any rate it originated in improvisation—both tragedy itself and comedy. The one came from the prelude to the dithyramb and the other from the prelude to the phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities” (Aristotle, Poetics 1449 a. 1). From that point on, the idea of the play took over; I started re-writing the book.
I started writing the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”–then all hell broke loose….
[From SCENE ONE:]
(JACK and the PEDDLER enter from opposite sides of the stage, and proceed on strong diagonals DC.)
….yeah—you…. You see anyone else?
(Voice over; like a golf announcer. JACK and the PEDDLER look puzzled…)
Now, at this point, not much is happening; but, anything could happen. At this point, the players need to decide where the scene is going to go… In order to do this we can either ask a series of “what if” questions; we can stipulate that something is going to interrupt the apparent stasis of the scene; or we can simply let the scene go forward…
(puts his arm around him)
where ya headed?
…I’m going to the market…why?
Why?—I should be asking you that—Why Jack? Why are you going to market?
…why?—why to sell my mother’s cow of course—
and my name’s not Jack…
–of course—of course—you look like a Jack to me, Jack…. My mistake…. —Off to market to sell the family cow… eh? Well that’s just fine…. –Mind if I tag along with you for a bit—
Well, I don’t know… my mother says—
–and your mother seems like a wise woman too! –just so happens I too am on my way to market….
…Oh? Wait a minute—weren’t you going that way…
— very sensible woman your mother… sending you off to market to sell the family cow….say that’s a nice hat you have there Jack—where did you get that hat?
–it was my father’s hat—
–your father gave you that hat, did he?
…well no, my mother gave it to me…
–well that’s fine—just fine…and your father—how’s he feel about that—you’re mother giving you his hat?
–okay, I guess—he’s dead—
Odd people kept cropping-up (as it were) and before I knew it, poor Jack was beaten, stripped naked and left for dead; a young girl found him they fell in love… . Long story short–all hell broke through again–this time Jack was seduced by the Queen of the Underworld–strapped to a gurney and hauled away–The young girl Jenny had to find him–in order to do so she must [like Innana–the Babylonian queen of Heaven] confront a series of seven gates—at which each of her seven garments are removed–she faced the Great, Sexy Queen of the Dead (Ereshkigal)– naked and was cut into seven pieces–the girl, not the queen–The scene changed again– and Her father (the Sky God, Ea) [Where did he come from?–from another part of the story –of course!!] intervened and both Jack and Jenny (the young girl) were restored to life–they sang a duet about “A Land of Once Upon A Nevermind”–and before I could write “happily ever—after” they were thrown into chaos once again–and landed smack dab in the middle of the Garden Of Eden! Here the old Queen of the underworld was now the beguiling snake who seduced Eve–who then –well you get the idea….
It all makes perfect sense when you see it! A little music, a little screaming–it’ s a comedy!
The Cowpers’ Play
Courtesy of Gerard NeCastro (2007) From Stage to Page, http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/drama/york/play_05.html, accessed 5 December, 2011. (Used with permission.)
Satanas incipit dicens.
001 For woo my witte es in a were
002 That moffes me mykill in my mynde;
003 The Godhede that I sawe so cleere,
004 And parsayued that he shuld take kynde
005 Of a degree
006 That he had wrought, and I dedyned
007 þat aungell kynde shuld it noyot be;
008 And we wer faire and bright,
009 þerfore me thoght that he
010 The kynde of vs tane myght,
011 And therat dedeyned me.
012 The kynde of man he thoght to take
013 And theratt hadde I grete envye,
014 But he has made to hym a make,
015 And harde to her I wol me hye
016 That redy way,
017 That purpose proue to putte it by,
018 And fande to pike fro hym that pray.
019 My trauayle were wele sette
020 Myght Y hym so betraye,
021 His likyng for to lette,
022 And sone I schalle assaye.
023 In a worme liknes wille Y wende,
024 And founde to feyne a lowde lesynge.
025 Eue, Eue.
026 Eva. What es thare?
027 Satanas. I, a frende.
028 And for thy gude es the comynge
029 I hydir sought.
030 Of all the fruyt that ye se hynge
031 In paradise, why ete yoe noght?
032 Eua. We may of tham ilkane
033 Take al that vs goode thought,
034 Save a tree outt is tane,
035 Wolde do harme to neyghe it ought.
036 Satanas. And why that tree, that wolde I witte,
037 Any more than all othir by?
038 Eua. For oure lord God forbeedis vs itt,
039 The frute therof, Adam nor I
040 To neghe it nere;
041 And yf we dide we both shuld dye,
042 He saide, and sese our solace sere.
043 Satanas. Yha, Eue, to me take tente;
044 Take hede and thou shalte here
045 What that the matere mente
046 He moved on that manere.
047 To ete therof he you defende
048 I knawe it wele, this was his skylle:
049 Bycause he wolde non othir kende
050 Thes grete vertues that longes thertill.
051 For will thou see,
052 Who etis the frute of goode and ille
053 Shalle haue knowyng as wele as hee.
[From Scene 9: pp 85-87 The Wrong Side of Eden a play by Kelly Knox]
Satanas incipit dicens.
SATAN (Played by the same Actress who plays JANE)
My brains are wracked and my body pained,
With stifling thoughts my might is drained;
That God could be so petty and contrite
That he could make a creature just to spite
Me, from the purple dirt and dust of his decree!
It is I whom He made first and now am shamed;
It is I among His Heaven’s Angel hosts,
Whom He made fair and sure and bright;
It is I who am among them all, the uppermost;
I who am stricken, cursed and cruelly cast down thus
From golden frame, to Godforsaken flames and fust;
I will not bow and scrape nor stoop to serve and smile
Before this heap of bones and gore, pus and guile!
Not for one damned moment of his bloody little while!
But God has made another fleshly-peckish trifle here,
One whom He and Adam/Mutt hold dear.
She is perfect, pure and pink, she may be the pawn I seek;
From her sweet mouth, the words I speak
Can make mischief strong and Adam weak!
My little works and words are just the thing
Both to shed some light and to some darkness bring
That I will end his pleasure in all of this
With just the simple promise of eternal bliss
With Serpent’s tongue and Wisdom’s eye
Will I trace and tempt his fragrant little miss!
EVE (Played by the same actress who plays JENNY)
ooh…and what are you? …Have you a name?
Alas, not yet—but I am a friend—and to
Your comfort I’ll attend; for I was sent to look for you…
And here you are—at my journey’s end!
Why look at all these splendid trees!
So thick with fruit the branches bend—
Please say you’ve sampled all of them!?
…of all the best and ripest we’ve taken some….
From all these trees except for one…
It’s fruit is death to taste or touch…
Is death a thing that we should fear?
I’ve seen the oceans deep and wide,
And traveled much on land beside,
I’ve known all wonders far and near,
I’ve never heard of death my dear….
No, my –friend, the Lord was clear
The man and I should not venture near
If I eat the fruit borne of that tree,
Then God would surely punish me…
Sweet, sweet girl, be not afraid,
About the things the old boy said;
I’m sure he says a lot of things—
But never all the things he means;
None of us means the things we say—
Everyone knows he’s just that way!
When he says to eat the fruit of all the trees
He means all the fruits –and even these;
And when he says there’s danger here—
He means to say you should take care.
Would he ever deny you this?
I hear it tastes like eternal bliss!
So, this sample represents the basic contrast between the Cowpers’ play (as it was performed in York and the surrounding region in the 14th Century) and my transliteration; I began by playing with the sounds of the Middle English (which is closer no doubt to what is spoken in the North today—than say in London) which is a polyglot of Germanic languages—until after 1066; I played too, with the way theater developed after it was made legal again by the Church (of Rome) in the 10th Century. Once the plays got kicked out of the Choir lofts and into the public square, a class of professional actors began to train itself to the difficult task of transforming the doctrines of the Church, the stories from the Bible, into presentations which eventually turned into skits and then plays for mass consumption.
A dozen or so stock, chthonic characters emerged—character types—and the actors playing the character types carried with them in their heads a set of standard ‘speeches’, ‘songs’, ‘Latin and foreign language’ phrases—as well as a basic ability to juggle, play an instrument, dance or perform acrobatics—and if need be, in some cases turn a “trick” or two. The structure of my play—and the potential for improvisation depends on the nature and abilities of the actors I find to play the parts.
The Wrong Side of Eden is fully scripted in eleven scenes—there is a musical score (by a professional composer/musician) we have a director (me) but no place to hold auditions, rehearsals or the performances—yet. As we (pompous for ‘I’) cast the show, we will know how the modifications can be made—where the actors can improvise and how the show can be staged to maximum advantage—and the most entertainment for one’s proverbial buck!
For the most part, the script is ‘set’—125 pages or so—and I estimate that we will need to cut about 12 pages of dialogue over all to keep the show taut.
There you have the Cliff’s Notes version of the approach to this play—and to my sense of theater— at least for this play! The interruptions during the play—the intrusions by the ‘real world’ into the illusory world of the play—by the director, the chorus, the prologue and so forth, are a nod to the impossibility of ‘mystery, miracle and moral’ plays today….and a direct reference to the structure and content of the Greek plays—not to mention the Greek audience (who might have gotten into a fist fight over the diction in a play—even though the penalty for doing so was death or banishment…) You ask if others are excited about the show? There are so few others who know about the show right now—because I am keeping it somewhat secret—that I would say no. Although I say I am keeping it somewhat secret—the script is available at Amazon.com—I have formed a small group to do the promotional video—the music of course—and some of the other details of preproduction –but even with all I am telling you—no one has the ‘whole picture’ of what I am doing—except for me. This way—if one part falls away, or is ‘stolen’ by someone else—it doesn’t adversely affect the entire project…because it is only one piece.
Why do I believe that you should invest in The Other Side of Eden? Why should you contribute to the PARADOX project at all? The short answer to this question is because both are Unique. We believe that our outreach efforts are unique as well. We are looking to find the little red button on the back of the collective unconscious hard drive—the one that says DO NOT PUSH –and we are asking “what if we do?”
The Three Faces of Richard III
Between two evils, I always pick the one
I haven’t tried before.
Richard III. Richard Loncraine, Director. Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine, Adaptation and Screenplay. United Artists Pictures. 1995.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enigmatic plays. The editors of Shakespeare’s work, who compiled the first folio, listed the play as a “tragical history”. What they meant by this is not often looked into by theater scholars, theater critics or film buffs. If they have considered the point, it is at least fair to say that the results of their deliberations have not made a substantial impact on the public mind, or on the performance of the play.
What is very much a part of the public’s perception of Richard III (as a character) is that he is “one of those villains you love to hate”. I believe that this is exactly what Shakespeare wanted from his Richard, a villain who was likable but hateful at the same time. After all, Shakespeare was re-writing history to suit his Tudor patroness, Elizabeth I, and the politics of the day. It was debated in Shakespeare’s day, whether the historical Richard was a “villain” or a “tragic hero”. This debate, no doubt, was carried on in hushed tones, because if the wrong person overheard you saying the wrong thing, and word reached her Majesty, you could find yourself quite “divided” on the issue. [Elizabeth I ‘s favorite method of execution was drawing and quartering, after which the corpse was set on fire; the head was often placed on a pike for public display.]
The heads-up on Shakespeare, at least in his own day, was that he was a shrewd business man with a flare for the dramatic, who always kept his wits about him; but who was also a bit of a “hack”. (He stole lines, scenes, whole premises for plays from everyone he could, including his rivals, the so-called “College Wits”. [e.g. Marlowe, Greene and Kydd.] His plays always seemed to be well attended and therefore made money, but not necessarily more so than any one else’s.) Shakespeare and his partners, in keeping with the practice of the day, ran an impromptu brothel and procurement service. The public theaters were also turned into arenas for the blood sport of bear baiting. How Shakespeare, or any other writer of his time, could “shock” the audience, or otherwise arouse controversy from the performance of a play is hard to imagine.
Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet has been the only film production to stay completely faithful to the script. At a little over four hour’s total running time, it is easy to see why. Needless to say, Branaugh’s film was well-received critically, and is now sold as a boxed set, for home video. My point is that to attract a contemporary audience, anyone trying to put Shakespeare’s plays on stage or on film has to cut the script. Ian McKellen is no exception it is just that his shears are larger and duller than most others.
The editors or compilers of the first folio seemed to sense something about this play that continues to haunt every production of it. In every production of Richard III, the director, the actor playing Richard and the audience are confronted by at least three Richards: The Richard of History; Shakespeare’s Richard’ and the Richard of the current production—as imagined and realized by the director and the actor portraying him.
McKellen is a bit too efficient in the task of taking controversy to the box office. He attempts to provoke the sincere Shakespearean scholar he succeeds only in raising a muffled grumble or two. Those muffled grumbles are emanating from him. Yet this may be intentional. All of the lines grumbled by McKellen are well known lines. As was noted at the beginning, this is a well known play.
It is as though McKellen limps his way through the first few scenes, mumbling his lines, daring us to compare his performance of Richard with any other performance of recent memory. The 1956 film version by Laurence Olivier springs to mind (albeit one leg at a time). McKellen must have felt that Olivier had an unfair advantage, in that he was there first (Olivier’s film performance was based on his stage performance at the Old Vic in 1946). And so to break with the squalid, acrid tongued tradition of all of the theatrical greats who ever dragged Richard’s lame leg across the boards—McKellen lifts his.
He delivers part of Richard’s opening monologue standing at a urinal. Had this happened at the end of the play, we might have excused him. But with such a strong opening statement, where can he go from here? He has at this point so totally and completely upstaged himself and his movie that we are not entirely sure we want to see what happens next.
For the most part the cast is British. Two noteworthy exceptions are Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening. They are of course, Americans, [gasp!] And they are not putting on phony British accents [gasp even louder!] In the original script (Shakespeare’s, not McKellen and Loncraine’s screen play) however, Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth, and her brother are outsiders to the court, they were treated with suspicion and mistrust. This is true, just as we might be led to mistrust these American “movie stars” doing Shakespeare. Someone knew exactly what he or she was doing. In case we have missed the point he or she further exploits Downey, by having “Lord Rivers” meet his untimely demise in the middle of a tawdry sex scene. [Actually it was pretty tame—I would have liked it better if it was tawdrier.] River’s gasp is segued into the shrill whistle of a steam locomotive. This is the same locomotive that is carrying the young princes to London, to their doom.
With his editor’s shears still in hand, McKellen gives some of the best lines in the play (given by Shakespeare to “Old Lady Margaret”) to Lady Cicely (the Duchess of York, played by Dame Maggie Smith), Richard’s mother. I am quite sure that McKellen does this to achieve some sort of economy. Lady Margaret, in Shakespeare’s play, hides herself in the castle and presumably works mischief on the house of York. She is Henry VI’s widow, and Prince Edward’s mother, both of whom were killed by Richard at Tewkesbury in the film. (This contradicts the play and the historical accounts.)
The Duchess of York was married to Richard Plantagenet who was killed by Lady Margaret’s men; his head was cut off, crowned with a paper crown and set on a pike on the gates of the city. Her son Edmund was killed before his father’s eyes (and according to Shakespeare’s Richard—Richard’s) and a handkerchief soaked in his blood was smeared on his father’s face before the latter was beheaded. For reasons that Shakespeare and the histories made completely obvious, Lady Margaret is Richard’s chief enemy—McKellen and Loncraine leave her out completely.
The Duchess, his mother, suspects that Richard is responsible for the deaths of her other sons (Edward IV, late the King of England and George, late the Duke of Clarence) her two grandsons (Edward V, late the heir apparent to the King and Richard, late the Duke of York) Certainly Lady Cicely has no maternal love left for Richard, but Lady Margaret is so much more fun! McKellen assumes perhaps, that his audience does not know the play or the history and so will not miss the second most important character in the play.
Another radical departure from Shakespeare’s play is the treatment of Richard’s turbulent night before the critical battle of Bosworth Field. Shakespeare’s Richard is visited by the ghosts of all of those whom he has slain, and each of the ghosts curses him and invites him to think of them in the battle, and then to “despair and die”. Shakespeare’s reminder to the audience why Richard (who some might have still considered a hero) was about to be handed his head. It is also another break with the Olivier film, in which the dream sequence is presented according to the technology of the day. A glass panel, smeared with Vaseline is moved in front of the camera to visually indicate the segue into a dream sequence.
Other cosmic forces conspire against Richard as well, as he prepares to fight Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s play. It is noted that the sun is late in rising. This is crucial to an Elizabethan understanding of the outcome of Shakespeare’s play, and the historical outcome. The situation also calls back to the opening lines where Richard puns on the sun-like device of the house of York and his brother Edward as the favorite son of the same house (whom he has made King). Now on the morning of the battle that once again pits York against Lancaster, cousin against cousin, the sun refuses to rise. Shakespeare suggests this as a portent, but we are not quite sure whether for good or ill. Do the forces of nature side with Richard? By refusing to rise, the sun is delaying Richard’s demise. McKellen omits the lines completely, thereby avoiding the confusion and possible subversion planted in Shakespeare’s words.
In McKellen and Loncraine’s film, Richard spends a fitful night, he tosses and turns and dreams he has been transformed into the boar on his standard. We hear snippets from the dialogue of the film that we can not quite make out. And Richard awakes in a cold sweat. Richmond, by contrast, awakes with his naked young wife Elizabeth (the daughter of Edward IV). God and McKellen have given her to him a little early, as a portent for the battle. In the play the marriage takes place after the battle as the falling action of the play. Here I suppose we would have to consider it “pre-climactic”.
The battle is set (as is the film) in the wartime Nazi-fied England that McKellen and Loncraine have devised for the movie. I have not talked about this much, because it is just so obviously wrong. Hitler was not a villain we love to hate—Hitler was pure evil. There is about Richard, a sense that had his circumstances been different he could have been redeemed. In one of the more ludicrous moments in the film, during this battle Richard’s jeep stalls and will not re-start. This is McKellen’s justification for one of the most famous lines in the history of the English stage: “A horse, a horse—my Kingdom for a horse!”
The final confrontation of the battle is a scene devised by McKellen and Loncraine as perhaps the primary reason for retelling the story. (Because the two wanted to see this particular scene played out.) After much confusion in the battle scene, and a bit of running around by both actors, Richmond sees Richard opposite him, apparently fleeing the scene (after chewing-up most of the scenery). (This is Richmond’s big scene.) Richard turns and sees Richmond. Richmond takes aim at Richard who has no gun. Richard smiles, extends his hand toward Richmond and says “let’s to it, pell mell; if not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” Richard leaps backward off of the beam he has been standing on. Just before Richmond shoots, Richard jumps into a pillar of flames and certain death. Richard smiled at Richmond, now Richmond smiles too; in that moment we are supposed to see that they are somehow the same. Richmond is no better, no worse than his predecessor was. They are both opportunists. Richard jumps as a final act of defiance, not in desperation. Richmond wins, but only because Richard won first and best. The machine of the state engulfs both of them—eventually neither wins.
All in all it’s a rather bloodless attempt to put a “post-modern”, “hip” turn on an early modern story. Richmond lives, Richard dies, the state remains the same. This is consistent with McKellen’s handling of Shakespeare’s other subtleties. Almost all of these are transformed into steam-roller clichés. Shakespeare’s play is not history play, nor is it a tragedy, even by Elizabethan standards. Who is the “tragic hero”? The McKellen and Loncraine film is neither history nor tragedy. Both are a kind of hapless melodrama; the play also doubles as propaganda for the Tudors’. We are supposed to boo the villain and cheer the hero at the end. Richmond does not even show up in the play until the final act—in the film he is in a crowd scene or two. We are intended to leave Shakespeare’s theater certain in the knowledge that Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather saved the Kingdom from a cruel tyrant. When we leave the theater after seeing McKellen and Loncraine’s film, all we feel certain about is that Loncraine and McKellen have succeeded in breaking with some long standing theatrical traditions; and that, at least McKellen feels relieved.
The Goddess of Sovereignty in Richard III
Of the two principals who met in battle at Bosworth Field on that day in 1485, when the sun was late in rising, as Richard notes: “He disdains to shine; for by the book/he should have brav’d the east an hour ago/ a black day will it be to somebody (V, 3). Black indeed! Shakespeare seems to drop his façade of loyalty to the Tudor cause, when in the next few lines Richard says, “For the selfsame heaven/ That frowns on me looks sadly upon him” (V, 3). Shakespeare seems to be winking at us as if to say that he knows better than to think that either cause was totally just or entirely in the right and that there were perhaps villains enough to go around. And indeed, it may be argued that Richard’s claim to the throne was much stronger than Henry Tudor’s. Richard’ claim was based on direct descent from Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund Langly as well as Edward’s third son, John of Gaunt’s ill-gotten Beaufort line; it should be remembered too, that his paternal grandmother was descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp.
Owen Tudor was lucky enough to have served in France as the Keeper of the Wardrobe for Catherine of Valois, the widow of Henry V. Owen’s later marriage to Catherine perhaps did more to set his (and his sons’) fortunes as an important player in international politics. While it is true that Richmond’s mother belonged to the Beaufort line that hardly trumps the fist-full of paint cards held by Richard. It could be reasoned, that everybody alive at the time and even in Elizabethan times knew it. Henry Tudor certainly knew it. His first act as King was to fix the date of his accession to the throne to a date before the battle at Bosworth Field. Then, he had all of the nobles who fought against him declared traitors, executed and then he seized all of their lands and men. What Henry VII had started with his headsman’s axe, his son continued with the pen and press.
Henry VIII commissioned several histories, notably from Sir Thomas Moore and Raphael Holingshead. These histories served as the official record, and were one of the sources used by Shakespeare and the other writers of chronicle plays. We can all be sure that Henry VII smiled down on his son from whatever corner of heaven he was ensconced in, when the last of the Plantagenets fell to the headsman’s axe. She was by then a little old lady and hardly a threat to the crown: Margaret Pole, the daughter of George, the ill-fated Duke of Clarence, and the niece of Richard III. It is uncertain when exactly or how Richard became the misshapen fiend of the Tudor myths; whether in the chronicles commissioned by Henry VIII, where they first appeared in writing; or in the popular imaginations of folk lore; or in nightly whispered warnings of good Tudor mothers at their good Tudor children’s bedsides; we do not know.
Shakespeare seems to have wondered about this too; he has little York two or three times refer to stories that he has heard about his uncle Glouster (II, 2). His aunt, the Queen and his grandmother, the Duchess of York, are sitting by, and they ask him how he came to hear these stories. At first the boy lies and says he heard them from his uncle’s nurse. When the Duchess points out that the nurse is long since dead, the boy says he does not know who it could have been. Then he implies that these stories were on the order of common knowledge.
I suppose that Shakespeare might have felt that since Henry Tudor’s lineage was not sufficient to found his claim to England’s seat, and the gossip of children, household help and common people not sufficient to erase the title from Richard, he set out in a much subtler way, to provide “otherworldly” support for Elizabeth I’s grandfather.
The otherworldly help that Shakespeare enlists for Henry is not the Christian God, nor Jesus his son. From the outset of the play Shakespeare tips his hand and shows his intentions: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York…(I, 1). The reference is obliquely to the two devices of the warring houses of York and Lancaster, and to Edward IV and lastly to himself. Shakespeare and most of his audience knew that Edward was a drunk and a womanizer and that it was Richard who won the battle at Tewksbury. The audience also knew that it was Richard who was responsible for the death of Henry VI and of his son Edward the Prince of Wales. The third part of the trinity is not invoked by Richard until the end of the play when the sun refuses to shine and he proclaims that “A black day will it be to somebody”. Red, white and black are the colors of the triune Goddess Sovereignty. In ancient times the King was ritually married to her at his Coronation and was thereafter seen as her consort. Each of the colors has a corresponding goddess: Black is Calleigh, the wise and mystical old woman; Red is Morrigan (Morgan), the matron and goddess of war; White is Brigghid (Bridgette), the virgin. Together these are the Great Goddess Sovereignty and she alone has the power to make Kings. For Shakespeare and his audience the goddess religion was still very much alive in folk lore and folk wisdom. King Lear is based on a welsh myth about the god of the sea who comes to Britain with his three daughters, whom Shakespeare calls Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. The three “weird” sisters that dominate the “Scottish play” [hey, I’m an actor; it’s bad luck to name it outside the theater] are said to chant actual spells and incantations.
If the reader is still in doubt and needs further convincing, one need only look to Act IV, scene 3; Old Queen Margaret styles herself a black faced crone:
Queen Margaret: [enters]
So now prosperity begins to mellow
And drop into the rotten mouth of Death.
Here in these confines slyly have I lurk’d
To watch the waning of mine enemies.
A dire induction am I witness to,
And will to France, hoping the consequence
Will prove as bitter, black and tragical.
Withdraw thee wretched Margaret. Who comes here? [retires]
And that’s it; Shakespeare makes the whole appearance solely about Lady Margaret, dead King Henry’s widow’s revenge. Shakespeare’s audience would have remembered that Margaret was the driving force behind Henry’s throne; they would have known this because she often led Henry’s troops into battle. She is Richard’s proper foil in the play, not the insipid Richmond—who shows up as almost an afterthought in the last act. (Except for a very brief scene in which he is told to go to France to secure a French army. Margaret is after all, Margaret of Anjou.) For Margaret and for Shakespeare, Richmond is a mere functionary—he is in the play just to save the day and marry young Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, thus uniting the white and red houses of York and Lancaster. The true victory belongs to Margaret as the embodiment of the Calleigh who by providing the connection to the French army, chooses and makes Henry the King.
As Margaret watches “the waning of” her enemies, she reminds us of all of the curses (that become prophesies) she visited on them to “pierce the clouds and enter Heaven” (I, 3). [Granted, as curses go, this is a rather polite way to wish your enemies dead.] The fruition now of these curses, proves her role as Calleigh; for it is only Calleigh who can prophesize or confer the power to prophesize. Calleigh also ensures the efficacy of curses she deems to be worthy.
As Act IV scene 4 continues, we see the triune goddess almost complete in paradigm and in persons. Lady Margaret, Queen Elizabeth and Cicely the Duchess of York sit around and talk about their grief. Margaret has lost her husband and son; Elizabeth has lost her husband and two sons but still has a daughter; Cicely has lost her husband and four sons. Her surviving son is Richard III. Margaret is responsible for the deaths of Cicely’s husband and eldest son. Richard is responsible for the deaths of everyone else, as well as the death of his wife and cousin the Duke of Buckingham. [At the end of the play the body count is thirteen.]
These three should be mortal enemies but the audience sees that they are joined by their grief. The first topic of their discussion is their grief. In fact for a while the women seem to be quarreling over whose grief is the greatest. This is not a pity party though; this is a chthonic, maternal recitation of pedigrees that establishes, not their worthiness as adversaries, as would a patriarchal recitation of pedigree; but in the depth of their grief they establish their unity against their common enemy Richard, and their affinity with the great Goddess.
Margaret establishes her primacy: “If ancient sorrows be/ Most reverend/ Give mine the benefit of seniority…” (IV, 4). Then continues “If sorrow can admit society…” she identifies Cicely as the matronly aspect of the goddess: “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept/A hell hound that doth hunt us all to death…” (IV, 4). Continuing further, she introduces us and Queen Elizabeth, by referencing Princess Elizabeth through her mother: “I’d call thee then, vain flourish of my/Fortune…”(IV, 4). Shakespeare is using an older meaning derived from both Latin and French of “flower”, not necessarily “flowering” or “thriving”. Thus the reference is to the red and white flowers of Lancaster and York, the “flower” of virginity and foreshadows the “flowers” of the wedding bed. She also implies that Queen Elizabeth will play the role of Calleigh; this sets-up first a confrontation scene between Cicely, Elizabeth and Richard and then an attempted seduction by Richard of first the younger and then the elder Elizabeth.
In the action that follows Richard enters accompanied by men with horns and drums. The two women confront him about his many crimes against them and their families but Richard instructs the men to start playing to drown out the women, saying “Either be patient and entreat me fair/Or with the clamorous report of war/ Thus I will drown your exclamations”(IV, 4). Richard represents the paternalistic new order, and the women represent the chthonic order of the great Goddess. Cicely confirms Richard as her vassal and her son, by asking “Art thou my son?” And thus puts back on Richard his burden and bargain with her; she had once chosen him as her Champion and he betrayed her.
Thou cam’st on Earth to make the Earth my hell.
A grievous burden was thy birth to me;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful-kind in hatred.
What comfortable hour canst thou name
That ever grac’d me with thy company? (IV, 4).
Effectively, Cicely, as matron now renounces both that role and her progeny. The cycle of her tenure is complete and she must prepare to pass the mantle on, and become in her turn the Calleigh. The last gift she gives is first prophecy she makes, “Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end/Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend”(IV, 4). And with that she leaves; and as she leaves, Elizabeth picks up the mantle Cicely has left behind her: “Though far more cause, yet much less/Spirit to curse abides in me; I say amen to her.” Elizabeth identifies herself as the new matron of the triune Goddess, if we extraneous words she is telling Richard that there will be a new champion for Sovereignty—and obviously it is not him. As the scene continues, the emasculated Richard continues trying to seduce her as he once seduced Lady Anne. (Who was the wife of Edward the Prince of Wales.)
Elizabeth is now possessed not only of a “cause” but of all the knowledge of all of her predecessors. She easily beats Richard at every point: she knows it, he knows it and we know it. Richard is being refashioned an emasculated foppish failure—a dark parody of his former self. Elizabeth sees him for what he is and now in spite of her grief (potential loss of her daughter’s maiden-head, the actual loss of her two young sons, and her own loss of innocence) she is almost moved to laugh at him. Richard meanwhile fails to woo her and sues to woo her daughter—the maiden of the triune goddess—through her. In a lengthy scene, rich with meaning and confirmations for our purpose here, Elizabeth appears to lead Richard around by the nose in the argument, until in his frustration (Richard is not used to being bettered, especially by a woman.) He is moved to say: “Be not so hasty to confound my meaning/I mean that with my soul I love thy Daughter/And do intend to make her Queen of England”(IV, 4). Even if Elizabeth does not laugh at him at this point, which she might—the audience should. Most people in Shakespeare’s audience would have known that while the goddess Sovereignty can make any man she chooses, King; no King, no matter how powerful he is can make a woman sovereign Queen. It is as if Richard is telling Elizabeth that he will get pregnant and have the baby himself.
Elizabeth shows more restraint, she merely continues to taunt him: “Well, then who dost thou mean shall be her King?” (IV, 4). Here again she is pointing to his crotch and saying that he does not have the right equipment. He has been unsexed by the goddess, he can neither bear children nor get children; yet now he is promising to do both. The scene is repeated (as he attempts to seduce both mother and daughter) and may seem overly long because Shakespeare does not want us to miss his point. Nor does he want us to miss the connection between this scene and Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?”(I, 2). Not only did Richard not win, but he has lost everything: his manhood, his Kingdom, and his life. If he were not writing a five act play, Shakespeare could have stopped here as he ends the fourth scene:
Richard. Bear her my true love’s kiss; and so farewell.
[kisses her] [EXIT Queen Elizabeth]
Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!(IV, 4).
Richard has addressed his aside to Elizabeth, but we know that Shakespeare aimed those lines at Richard. The rest of the play is written in a rapid series of short vignettes; this gives one the impression that events are happening very quickly—hastening Richard to his fate; fate that was already settled in the last act. Even the parade of the ghosts of Richard’s victims is not a very convincing device compared with his encounter with the Calleigh and Morrigan. I would suggest that Shakespeare realized that it was important for us to see Richard die. And it is important in order to establish Henry Tudor on the throne, and thereby keep the royal patroness happy.
The battle at Bosworth Field does not seem to hold much fascination for Shakespeare, except maybe to include some of the famous lines he pilfered from Holinshead and More’s histories. Included among these are the famous “A horse, a horse my Kingdom for a horse!” (V, 4). Since this line is included in the chronicles it had somehow passed into the popular imagination first. This line and others like it, along with Richard’s deformities could have simply been made-up, but the authors of the chronicles and Shakespeare could not omit them—they are just too good!
The final bit of Royal propaganda comes at the end with Richmond’s final speech:
Richmond: Inter their bodies as becomes their births.
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled
And then, as we have ta’en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red (V, 4).
That this is revisionist history has already been visited above. Henry killed the nobles, stole their lands and this made him wealthy and powerful. But it did not make him as wealthy or as powerful as Princess Elizabeth the daughter of Edward IV. Had he not married her the Wars of the Roses could have continued in her name. As the Virgin aspect of the goddess, Elizabeth made Henry King. She and he together united the houses of York and Lancaster in the person of Henry VIII.
Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth saw herself as the incarnation of Sovereignty. Elizabeth I had flaming red hair and translucent white skin; she prided herself on her virginity and was called with respect and fear, the Virgin Queen. [Although most historians link her to at least two romantic relationships whether or not she was a Virgin likely went to the grave with her.] She gave her name to an age in History. In short she became all that her forebears could not, Shakespeare knew this, and so Richmond ends his play abruptly: “That She may long live here Gods say Amen! (V, 4).
When I teach Richard III, I try to teach the history from the late fifteenth century and before; I teach about Elizabethan stagecraft; and I focus most of my attention on the differences between the actual history and the “history” presented by Shakespeare. As a historian, Shakespeare was a very good poet. And I teach about the political and social realities of everyday life in Shakespeare’s England. I teach simple truths like Elizabeth the First’s half sister Mary I was responsible for the deaths of some 300 Protestants; Elizabeth was responsible for the deaths of some 10,000 Catholics. Yet History records her sister as “Bloody Mary” and Elizabeth as “The Virgin Queen”. I also teach that “History” and historians cannot be trusted. It is not that historians tell lies, it is worse; they tell partial truths. The English Navy for example, did not defeat the Spanish Armada; the weather and the “gulf stream” did [Oh, and the really gnarly rocks off the English coast did not help!]
I want my students to be a suspicious: of the texts, of authority and even a little suspicious of me. [It is my sincere hope that 100 years from its publication, juvenile delinquents will be sentenced to cross-reference and annotate this book for a year—of course in 100 years people may have forgotten what it means to cross-reference or to annotate. Hey, I was good throughout the whole last section, not one sneer! I have a lot of pent-up snide energy to vent!] These “histories” that are written by victors are only believed by idiots! [For you history teachers out there: you can use this line, but you had better quote me or I will hunt you down! If I’m dead, I’ll haunt you; if I’m alive I’ll make you eat this book—page by page and then the hard cover!!]
As I have written previously, History is not a series of facts or truths; History is an informed interpretation of events. The more remote we are from those events or the people who participated in them, the closer “history” moves to myth and legend. To further complicate the matter, written accounts of events are often accompanied by oral accounts or traditional accounts that change over time with re-telling. There are many studies by forensics experts that detail just how unreliable “eye-witness” accounts can be. The best we can hope to do as students and teachers of history is to read as many accounts as possible and then try to determine which ones are more reliable or more likely to be true.
There are for example, records of Richard’s activities that are independent of the accounts given in the chronicles of Holinshead and More. There are no mentions of deformities in these; in fact Richard is represented as a poet, an able soldier, a fair magistrate and a good administrator. The Richard of these independent records served as a “Viceroy” under his brother Edward IV, especially in the troublesome north of England. Their brother George, the Duke of Clarence led an insurrection against Edward and by extension, Richard. The rebellion was put down and George was arrested but Edward apparently forgave him. Perhaps Richard did not, perhaps Richard was responsible for George’s death but it is doubtful that he was drown in a butt of malmsey as Shakespeare would have us believe. That is the kind of detail that is often added to an oral account to make a “real event” more like “poetic justice” or simply more dramatic. People in Shakespeare’s audience were superstitious; it is true that for the late-medieval, early modern, superstitious mind it was easier to believe that a King might be murderous, treacherous or “twisted inside”, if he was deformed or “twisted” on the outside.
When we think of medieval warfare, we think of large numbers of troops on opposing sides charging at each other and engaging in hand to hand combat. The image comes to us from Hollywood, not from history. With some exceptions, the Wars of the Roses were more like a series of “gang rumbles” or “terrorists insurgencies” than organized warfare. There were alliances made and broken or switched; often these alliances were sealed with weddings or other bribes. There was plenty of treachery and “king-making” going on behind the scenes as well. But in the final analysis, because the main issue is about Royal bloodlines and power, wealth and land, the Wars of the Roses were at the most a family squabble that lasted about 30 years.
The above are scans of the transparencies[i] I use in class to try to sort out the major players in the Wars of the Roses. I have edited these genealogies from several sources for the sake of “clarity”. There are still problems and inconsistencies, many of which I am probably not aware of because the sources I drew from may have been inaccurate. I am aware that some of these discrepancies lead to interesting speculations about the official histories and Shakespeare’s play. For example, the year of Anne Neville’s death is variously given as either 1484 or 1485. Anne’s first husband Edward the Prince of Wales, the son of Henry VI was killed in battle in 1471. Sometime between 1471 and 1483 she married Richard the Duke of Gloucester, who later became Richard III. Together they had a son, Edward, Prince of Wales; Edward’s death is also variously given as either 1484 or 1485. Shakespeare and the official histories imply that the evil Richard killed his wife to marry young Elizabeth, his niece. This simply does not make sense.
What are the odds that mother and son would die in the same year? Why would Richard kill his wife if she had produced a legitimate heir? Is it not more likely that once Henry VII won at Bosworth Field he had Anne and her son killed to remove them from the picture? Anne after all, had switch allegiances and married her childhood friend (they grew up together in the Neville household) Richard; her grandfather had married into the Beaufort line; and her father had betrothed her to Edward of Lancaster, and her sister Isabelle to George the Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother as a shrewd political move. So it is not as far-fetched to think that she should marry Richard as Shakespeare would have us believe. And it seems even less likely that Richard would kill his wife since he had known her almost all of his life and she had given him a male heir.
There is another matter for some speculation, the deaths of Edward IV’s heirs Richard the Duke of York and Edward the Prince of Wales. The traditional date of their deaths is given as 1483. This is the same year that Richard acceded to the throne. Shakespeare and his sources tell us that Richard, their Lord Protector, had them killed in the Tower of London. However it is a curious fact [well, let’s say “thing” since “facts” are not always facts.] that Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham is also listed as having been killed by Richard that same year.
But in Shakespeare’s play and presumably in his sources, Buckingham is Richard’s closest advisor and confident. Buckingham deserts Richard only just before the battle of Bosworth Field and Richard has him killed in 1485 as a traitor. Is it possible that Stafford dispatched the young princes in his own play for the throne? This would certainly help to explain why Elizabeth was not killed along with her two brothers. Of all of the heirs of the five sons of Edward III the Dukes of Buckingham had the weakest claim to the throne and were last in line. However, if Stafford could marry (or could marry his son) to Elizabeth the daughter of Edward IV, he could legitimize his claim through her, just as Henry did. The reason for Buckingham’s defection in the play is that he is angry at Richard who promises him an Earldom, and does not deliver—in other words Buckingham is denied a powerful position!
Of course this is all just speculation. However it is speculation that fits reported facts. And while we must remain suspicious of facts from the late 15th century, we also should not accept wholesale, the “histories” presented by Holinshead, More and Shakespeare. History teachers can present this material to their classes as an interesting exercise in the study of English history. Literature teachers might present this material as a way of interpreting Shakespeare’s plays. And Drama teachers can present this material as “subtext” to allow their actors to layer their performances in greater depth. (Certainly an actor playing Richard who “knows” Richard is guilty would play him differently than one who believes that he is innocent.) My point here is that as teachers and students in academic disciplines we can look to the arts (in this case Drama) to add texture, meaning and context to those disciplines.
[i] Richard Neville is accorded the wrong title; instead of the Earl of Salisbury it should read the Earl of Warwick. [Even I make mistakes!] He was known as “The King Maker” in part because he switched allegiances so often. Originally loyal to Edward, he helped George raise an army against his older brother. Then when the coup failed he threw his allegiance to Henry and Margaret. He died in battle at Barton.
Waiting for Godot: Silence Beyond Understanding
who may tell the tale
of the old man?
weigh absence in a scale?
mete want with a span?
the sum assess
of the world’s woes?
Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in 1946. Europe lay in ruins and people were in an advanced state of shock all over the world. The same impulses that led artists to experiment with what art meant and who could be an artist, led Beckett to experiment with theater. Beckett chose a bleak setting for his play: “A country road. A tree. Evening” (6). He also chose a minimal cast: “Estragon, Vladimir, Lucky, Pozzo, a boy” (4). Beckett calls his play “A tragicomedy in two acts.” I suspect that he is following an Ancient Greek formula for a “Satyr” play. The small cast, the lack of scenery and the composite label for his new form, all tend to support this idea. We could argue that Shakespeare viewed mankind as Hamlet, full of promise, indecisive and in the end full of words. Beckett on the other hand may see mankind as a twisted race part Laurel and Hardy, part Hitler and Eichmann. Beckett might add that this dual nature is responsible for the existence of what Marx saw as the “material dialectic”; and what Sartre later exploited as the “Subject-Object” relationship [as in Huis Clos, for example]; or Martin Buber styles as the “I-Thou” relationship. Beckett presents us, as we shall see with three sets of pairs; Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky, a boy and Godot.
Beckett’s landscape is full of literal minded, literary potholes, lost leaders and vague allusions designed it seems to mire the would-be interpreter of his work in their own exegesis of his gallery of allegorical images and allusions. This may be why he’s structured his play so that effects precede causes, punch lines telegraph their set-ups and references are illuminated by passages that lead nowhere, or back to where one started. The title is itself the punch line to which all of the other punch lines refer or defer. As if to drive his point home, early in the play Beckett shows us what will become the central point of reference and “jumping-off point”:
He spits. Estragon moves to center, halts with his back to auditorium.
ESTRAGON: Charming spot. (He turns, advances to front, halts facing auditorium.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot. (10)
As inauspicious as it seems, we will later come to realize that this vignette is the central theme and punch line of the play. It justifies the title, and in the set-up for the joke, shows us Beckett’s modus operandi. It’s what some comics call a “timing gag”: “Charming spot”, (pause) “Inspiring prospects” (longer pause) “Let’s go.” Also, Beckett has Estragon in the two “strongest” positions one can assume on stage: center stage with one’s back to the audience and extreme down stage facing the audience this is all in the space of a few seconds. Clearly, whatever is being said or done by the characters here, Beckett want to be sure that we notice.
In fact, Beckett is so certain that we will catch on to the centrality of this joke, he begins to use the line itself as a device—jokes within the central joke, that rely on the punch line “We’re waiting for Godot”. But he does not deliver it, because he knows the audience will. As he ends the first act, Estragon says “Well, shall we go?” Vladimir agrees, “Yes, let’s go”. Beckett directs, “They do not move.” This little snatch of dialogue according to Beckett’s stage directions follows a long slow cross by Vladimir; this is again something to call our attention to what is being said as significant, just as before—except this time it is not said, because (at least in our heads) we say it for him.
Just in case we are afraid we might have read too much into the words and actions taking place and in keeping with the cyclical nature of the play, Beckett repeats the same basic scene with stronger images, so as to make sure that we get his point:
ESTAGON: Well? Shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers.
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers.
ESTRAGON: You want me to pull off my trousers?
VLADIMIR: Pull ON your trousers.
ESTRAGON: (realizing his trousers are down). True.
He pulls up his trousers.
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Two things are notable for our discussion here: first, Estragon usually initiates talk of going, but the diversion of his pants being down, creates for Vladimir his first opportunity to assume this role, instead of his usual role of detractor; (he usually explains to Estragon that they can not go and why) here secondly, at the end of the play, nothing has changed, they still can not go, as we all know—but now Estragon is expected to play Vladimir’s part and explain to Vladimir that they can not go and why not. Estragon has not suddenly wised-up; the change is to signal to us as the audience that we are a part of their universe too—because we are the ones who are expected to explain to them that they cannot go and why not. Beckett has thus made “Waiting for Godot” and the impossibility of going, because of one’s active waiting, a universal condition.
Having once understood this point—that we’re all waiting for Godot, who never arrives and who thereby forces us to fill our lives with meaningless diversions, (ranging from theater to less oblique methods of suicide and other nocturnal beatings) there is a great temptation among many critics or interpreters to stop waiting, believing they can now move on. This is, I believe why Beckett uses the clunking metaphor of Vladimir “catching” Estragon with his pants down—what should be obvious is not—which is why Estragon answers “True” instead of any of myriad other possible answers. It was a “true/false” test as it were, and we failed. Beckett is sending us back to the start; Vladimir says, “Yes, let’s go” and so we all head back to where we started in the realization that there is more to it that simply waiting, or what we do while we are waiting. Implicit of course in his reprimand, is that if we do not get it right this time, we will just have to do it all over again. To check this reading, we must return to the first lines of the play, keeping in mind this discussion:
ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart.)
I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All
my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying,
Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried
Everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He
broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to
Estragon.) So there you are again. (7)
Just on the face of it, it seems that our analysis is correct and we have been sent, along with Vladimir and Estragon, back to the beginning, to try once more to find out where the “hidden meanings” lie. Vladimir also comments that this has been going on all of his life. Here Beckett is being both literal and ironic—Vladimir’s life is after all limited to the play. Vladimir reasons that he has not tried every possible solution and so it seems reasonable to him to begin again. As he continues, (later after a short digression over where Estragon has spent the night; and the fact that he was beaten, as usual during the course of the night—this is literally one of the potholes of diversion I referred to earlier. Vladimir acknowledges that this is a diversion by returning to his previous topic, concluding: )
VLADIMIR: …On the other hand what’s the good of losing heart now,
that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million
years ago, in the ‘90’s (7).
What is it that they should have thought of? Two answers are possible—suicide, as Vladimir describes when he says “hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower,” (8) and the rest. This seems a non-sequitur because it fails to address what the “struggle” is—i.e., the search for meaning—it simply provides a way to end the struggle. Besides, later in the play, Beckett suggests that even death is not necessarily a release from the struggle, thus leaving us still having to answer the question of what the struggle is. This leads us to conclude that they should have defined what the subject of the struggle is as “life”; this is the second and less obvious answer.
For example, as they decide to hang themselves, “immediately” as Estragon exclaims (because Vladimir tells him that hanging themselves will give them erections.) Vladimir then balks at the idea, saying that he does not believe that the branch is strong enough—they argue more and the situation deteriorates into deciding to wait for Godot, to see what he says about it. Vladimir says: “I’m curious to hear what he has to offer. Then we’ll take it or leave it” (12). We must ignore the fact that this sounds more like a business proposition than a suicide pact. We can conclude that it does demonstrate that death would not be a release from the “struggle” Vladimir is talking about—but it still does not directly address what the struggle is.
Beckett is oblique. He provides a possible parody of this struggle through an association with Estragon’s “struggle”—which up to, and beyond this point has been to free his foot from his boot. We find out a lot about Estragon’s boots and his feet as well as the advisability of going barefoot in appropriate contexts. I doubt that this is the source of Vladimir’s metaphysical ponderings. Although Beckett does refer to “Gogo’s” feet and boots, and Christ walking barefoot, these issues are temporarily put aside in favor of a more general statement about the state of mankind:
ESTRAGON: There’s nothing to show.
VLADIMIR: Try it on again.
ESTRAGON: (Examining his foot) I’ll air it for a bit.
VLADIMIR: There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the
faults of his feet. (8)
In settling this quibble, Beckett not only gives us one of the best lines of the play, but he also points us back to our primary issue—to discover the meaning of the play. The aphorism is of course ironic in many ways. Estragon is looking to identify the cause of a pain or an odor, Vladimir the source of the struggle, and we the audience the meaning of a play—so Beckett serves up an aphorism that again puts all of us in the same proverbial boat—where we inevitably miss the obvious. Beckett seems to want to underscore this point—because he has Vladimir change the subject to the thieves that were crucified with Christ and the questionable accounts of the gospels (9). Of course Beckett is pushing Estragon’s boot in our faces as we read or watch the play. He is taunting us for still missing the point that this whole process of analysis (and of looking for meaning) is a weakness of human nature. And if we are looking for a statement from him about the “human condition”, he offers us: “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his shoes the faults of his feet”! Surely, if we are going to make any headway in understanding Beckett’s play, we are going to have to change our approach to one that is less literally minded.
Two of the other major characters, Pozzo and Lucky are probably intended by Beckett to represent on one level, his relationship to James Joyce. The two characters are bound together by a rope. It is not necessarily clear whether the rope restrains Lucky, or who is leading whom. Lucky carries bags and “performs” for Pozzo in the first act; Lucky leads a blind Pozzo in the second act. Many critics have focused their attention on this relationship and the relationship between Joyce and Beckett, but I believe this to be just another pothole on Beckett’s country road.
In the second act, the arrogant and officious Pozzo is replaced by a more contrite, even pitiable Pozzo; but we are suspicious of both, as we will see, so are Vladimir and Estragon. Among the first things that happen in the second act, is Pozzo and Lucky fall down:
Enter Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo is blind. Lucky is burdened as before. Rope is as before, but much shorter, so that Pozzo may follow more easily. Lucky is wearing a different hat. At the sight of Vladimir and Estragon he stops short. Pozzo, continuing on his way, bumps into him.
POZZO: (Clutching onto Lucky who staggers) What is it? Who is it?
Lucky falls, drops everything and brings down Pozzo with him. They lie helpless among the scattered baggage (49).
We have seen before, that Beckett often uses his stage directions to not only direct the action on stage, but to direct the attention of the audience and reader to some key point. Here, in this case, Beckett redoubles his efforts to call our attention to this scene, not only by directing half of the cast to fall down—but after much discussion—he directs the rest of the cast to fall down as well. And then the entire cast, after considerably more discussion, is at some pains to extract themselves from their entanglement. In fact, this business of getting up and falling down consumes much of the rest of the action of the play—surely it is an important image.
Now, we understand that there are problems with trying to pursue linear progressions in the play, if we are trying to discern patterns that might yield Beckett’s meanings and intentions. So as we proceed cautiously, we note that Pozzo is lying on the stage tangled up with Lucky, crying for help. Estragon is noting Pozzo’s cries; and Vladimir seems oblivious to the other two; Vladimir has turned thoughtful:
VLADIMIR: We are no longer alone, waiting for the night, waiting for Godot, waiting for…waiting. All evening we have struggled, unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already to-morrow.
VLADIMIR: Time flows again already. The sun will set, the moon will rise, and we away… from here (50).
We notice through Beckett, through Vladimir, references the central joke; this is perhaps to give authority to our realization that this is a pivotal scene that holds some meaning for us or is a key to understanding the play. Vladimir continues with his complaint from the beginning, “all my life” has been changed to “all evening”; and “I” has become “we” but (importantly) “we have struggled”. And as Vladimir references the “struggle”, we have before us the physical enactment of a “struggle” between Pozzo and Lucky, which as noted, will soon ensnare Vladimir and Estragon and then occupy our attention throughout much of the rest of the show. This should, if nothing else, confirm us in the opinion that the scene is crucial to opening up subtler meanings of the play, but how?
Vladimir gives us the clue: “Time flows again already.” Were we ever aware that time had stopped; and if so, at what point? And how much attention does Beckett want us to pay to this occurrence? If we continue with Vladimir’s observation, we might find another clue: “The sun will set, the moon will rise, and we away…from here.” The setting of the sun and the rising of the moon makes obvious reference to twilight. Then we realize that Pozzo had “explained” the twilight in the first act:
POZZO: …(He consults his watch.) But I really must be getting along, if I am to observe my schedule.
VLADIMIR: Time has stopped (24).
So, guided by Vladimir’s reference to time flowing again, and keyed-in further by his reference to twilight, we have been directed by Beckett almost half-way back from the “distance” we have “traveled” thus far. Vladimir announces rather generally and casually, that “time has stopped”. Already this sounds like more than coincidence, but to continue:
POZZO: (Cuddling his watch to his ear) Don’t you believe it, Sir, don’t you believe it. (He puts his watch back in his pocket.) Whatever you like, but not that.
ESTRAGON: (To Pozzo) Everything seems black to him to-day (24).
With his careful attention to details such as stage direction, Beckett does not direct Pozzo to show his watch to Vladimir, or let him listen to the watch to prove to Vladimir and to us that time has not stopped. Instead Beckett directs that Pozzo should put his watch away. We and Vladimir are supposed to take Pozzo at his word; we can believe anything else, except that time has stopped. Because Pozzo is so adamant that we not believe that time has stopped and because he offers no proof despite having a watch, surely Beckett wants us to believe that time has indeed stopped. As he continues, Pozzo will attempt to explain the twilight—and we will be led to believe that the stoppage of time is in fact a function of the twilight. It is at this point too, that Beckett, through Pozzo will establish the twilight as the primary metaphor of the play:
POZZO: Except the firmament. (He laughs, pleased with his witticism.) But I see what it is, you are not from these parts, you don’t know what our twilights can do. Shall I tell you? (Silence. Estragon is fiddling with his boot again, Vladimir with his hat.) I can’t refuse you. (Vaporizer) A little attention, if you please. (Vladimir and Estragon continue their fiddling. Lucky is half-asleep. Pozzo cracks his whip feebly.) What’s the matter with this whip? (He gets-up and cracks it more vigorously, finally with success. Lucky jumps. Vladimir’s hat, Estragon’s boot, Lucky’s hat, fall to the ground. Pozzo throws down the whip.) Worn out, this whip. (He looks at Vladimir and Estragon.) What was I saying?
VLADIMIR: Let’s go. (24-25)
Beckett calls attention to Pozzo’s reference to the firmament in his gloss. He calls it a “witticism” and in the context of Estragon’s statement it is. But I believe that Beckett wants to call attention to the fact that what follows will be a cosmological argument. The firmament refers to the night sky, the stars, planets and the celestial spheres. In short, it is an out-dated medieval view of the Cosmos. The universe that Pozzo refers to is one in which the spheres of the heavens still made music as they circled in concentric order around the earth. Pozzo is not asked to explain the cosmos—he takes it upon himself to do so, while insisting that he cannot deny them.
One way to interpret Pozzo and Lucky is as God and man, in an obscure way. Pozzo has special knowledge that the rest do not have. God leads man in the first act and Man leads god in the second act. But they are still tied to each other; neither could survive alone. Beckett also reinforces the association of certain objects with each of the characters in the scene: Estragon’s boot, Vladimir and Lucky’s hats, Pozzo’s whip and vaporizer (and his watch). Each object is a faux symbol; a badge of office signifying the importance or station of each of the characters—but in an obscure way. This obscurity is perhaps a deliberate choice by the playwright.
We must proceed cautiously here because the potholes of literary analysis still surround us, but I think it is safe to say that Pozzo uses his whip to ensure his authority—like a (n impotent) Jovian thunderbolt; and he uses his vaporizer to indicate that he has something important to say. Beckett imputes intangible qualities to the objects that each character has; and he uses Pozzo’s whip to drive them all to the ground, whereupon Pozzo throws his whip as well. All four end-up deliberately on the ground; just as in the second act, all of the principle characters end-up on the ground. There is something significant about this, only if in that these events take place, they seem significant and yet are not.
We would expect that if this scene were of central importance to the play, that Beckett would once again reference the central joke; and he does. Pozzo looks at Vladimir and Estragon and asks, “What was I saying?” and Vladimir says “Let’s go”. Even in the context, unless we prefer to believe that this is a mere non sequitur, there is no other way to understand this reference: Vladimir associates Pozzo’s speech with the set-up for the central joke, and thus the main metaphor, and thereby the meaning of Beckett’s play.
Before we let Pozzo resume his lecture / performance we should point out that just as his use of the vaporizer is Pozzo’s way of letting us know that he has something to say, it is also Beckett’s teasing way of telling us he may or may not clue us in on what he means. Both are asking for “a little attention”:
Pozzo: (Who hasn’t listened) Ah yes! The night. (he raises his head) But be a little more attentive, for pity’s sake, otherwise we’ll never get anywhere. (He looks at the sky.) Look! (All look at the sky except Lucky who is dozing off again.) Will you look at the sky, Pig! (Lucky looks at the sky.) Good, that’s enough. (They stop looking at the sky.) What is there so extraordinary about it? Qua sky. It is pale and luminous like any sky at this hour of the day. (pause) in these latitudes. (pause) When the weather is fine. (Lyrical) An hour ago (he looks at his watch, prosaic) roughly (lyrical) after having poured forth even since (he hesitates, prosaic) say ten o’clock in the morning (lyrical) tirelessly torrents of red and white light it begins to lose its effulgence, to grow pale, (gesture of the two hands lapsing by stages) pale, ever a little paler, a little paler (dramatic pause, ample gesture of the two hands flung wide apart) pppfff! finished! it comes to rest. But—(hand raised in admonition)—but behind this veil of gentleness and peace night is charging (vibrantly) and will burst upon us (snaps his fingers) pop! like that! (his inspiration leaves him) just when we least expect it. (Silence. Gloomily,) That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth. (p.25)
Of course what we must notice first is that Pozzo has described the twilight without making any reference to the sun or the moon. Twilight is a contraction of twice-lighted, and it refers to that time of day when both the sun and moon are in the sky and the earth is twice-lit. Having neglected the presence of the sun and the moon, Beckett leaves us wondering where they might have gone. The only source of illumination is the sky itself. The sun and moon are missing from the twilight sky as Pozzo describes it. Beckett directs that Pozzo gesture with both hands to indicate that the light is lapsing in stages. This is not a gesture where one might indicate the setting of the sun and rising of the moon. This gesture can only indicate the waning light of twilight. Pozzo draws his hands closer together. When his hands come together he is directed to fling them wide apart again—like an explosion. He then describes the night as “charging” “bursting” and “popping” at us “when we least expect it”.
This is a very violent image for the sunset or for twilight, we might think. Perhaps Beckett is suggesting that there is some underlying, unknown power in the night that has swallowed the sun and moon—or perhaps literally blown them out of the sky. Perhaps Beckett intends for us to see this as Pozzo’s account of how he and Lucky were overcome by the powerful force of night and blown forever from the sky, and then came to rest on “this bitch of an earth.” The earliest cosmologies tied the sun and moon together in eternal struggle; first one leading and the other following and then the other leading. They were competing in mortal combat for right of consort with Mother Earth. It is a tantalizing prospect—or possibly a gigantic pothole, from which we might not emerge….
Now there is only twilight. “An hour ago” Pozzo recounts and then checks his watch to make sure; but time has stopped, so he cannot be sure and so admits by interjection, “roughly” because he can no longer know exactly. “ Having poured forth even since say ten o’clock in the morning”; Pozzo starts the twilight “an hour ago” but guesses that the light started at ten o’clock in the morning, because he and they only know twilight, evening and a country road; hats, shoes, whips, vaporizers and watches notwithstanding. There is no talk of the dawn, of sunrise or daybreak—time is only twilight or night: and the sun and moon have been blown from the sky and landed on this “country road” of a horizon populated by humanity and either a tree of life, of knowledge or of the absurd:
Vladimir: To all mankind they were addressed, those cries of help still ring in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What we are doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this that we happen to know the answer. Yes in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—[later as he continues] Or for night to fall. (pause) we have kept our appointment and that’s/n end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much? (51)
Vladimir’s tone is bombastic, like Pozzo’s; his language is heroic, like Pozzo’s and his speech is a pedigree of his accomplishments—he has kept his appointment, and he has waited for Godot, and for night to fall. And the battle that he steels himself for—is to help Pozzo stand up…. And as we know Vladimir’s heroic deed ends in failure and eventually all four of them will be writhing around the stage in a tangle trying to extract themselves—and to thereby stand up. All in all, we must see that the universe is in incompetent hands, or as Vladimir puts it: “Well I suppose I’ll get up by myself. (He tries, fails.) In the fullness of time” (52).
If Beckett drew no other parallels between his characters we could conclude that he intended that we should link them together on our own. Each has a badge of office that confers special powers on him; and each participates in a heroic effort to stand-up. In some sense the explosion in the twilight sky has landed them all on the same road, evening after evening in perpetual twilight that is interrupted only by periodic and chaotic night—which occurs at unpredictable intervals, and will perhaps, eventually eradicate everything:
POZZO: (Suddenly furious) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day I’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant then it’s night once more. (He jerks the rope.) On! Exeunt Pozzo and Lucky. Vladimir follows them to the edge of the stage, looks after them. The noise of falling, reinforced by the mimic of Vladimir, announces that they are down again. Silence. Vladimir goes towards Estragon, contemplates him a moment, then shakes him awake (57).
Because the parallel structure he’s established needs completion, Beckett gives Vladimir similar thoughts:
VLADIMIR: Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? To-morrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (he listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (pause) I can’t go on! (pause) what have I said? …. (58)
If our analysis has been correct, at this point everyone in the audience makes the association and screams “LET’S GO”! Certainly, if we have skirted all of the potholes, we are screaming this and so is Beckett. He has given us the puzzle. The beatings that Estragon receives every night are his burden; just as Pozzo tells Estragon how to wake up Lucky: Pozzo asks where his menial is; Vladimir tells him that he seems to be sleeping and maybe he is dead. It is decided that Estragon should wake him up; Vladimir asks Pozzo for directions of how to do this; then Vladimir will supervise and offer encouragement:
POZZO: Well, to begin with, he should pull on the rope, as hard as he likes so long as he doesn’t strangle him. He usually responds to that. If not he should give him a taste of his boot, in the face and the privates as far as possible. (56)
Estragon’s nightly beatings are the same as Lucky’s; more importantly, somewhere, someone is watching Vladimir, someone is saying that he is sleeping, and to let him sleep because he knows nothing. Beckett wants us to identify the two pairs as sun and moon gods, as questing heroes of the patriarchal order, or as one order of deities succeeded another—but he also wants us not to be too careful in distinguishing one pair from the other. As if to say one does this function or that; one is dominant, one submissive—all of them are victims in the night, of the Night. We should see what they have in common—and not just the distinctions; because, inevitably, in the end only Night will remain.
In the end all of the distinctions dissolve and render all of the characters anonymous. Estragon becomes Lucky; Vladimir becomes Pozzo; or vice versa. Memory fails, identity is fleeting; characters fall as night falls—they are the perpetual twilight with nothing more to do until nightfall than to wait for Godot, who will not come today, but will perhaps come tomorrow. Characters may come and go; they may dance, sing, think, wear hats and boots, doff hats and boots, stand on one leg, fall and struggle to get up—in the end they all will succumb to Night. To all of this we are supposed to say “Let’s go”! Should we fail to reply, (and remain silent) it is no particular fault of ours, it is simply our acknowledgement of the onset of night:
VLADIMIR: We met yesterday. (Silence) Do you remember?
POZZO: I don’t remember having met anyone yesterday. But to-morrow I won’t remember having met anyone to-day. So don’t count on me to enlighten you.
POZZO: Enough! Up pig!
VLADIMIR: You were bringing him to the fair to sell him. You spoke to us. He danced. He thought. You had your sight.
POZZO: As you please. Let me go! (Vladimir moves away.) Up! (Lucky gets up, gathers his burdens.)
VLADIMIR: Where do you go from here?
POZZO: On. (Lucky, laden down, takes his place before Pozzo.) Whip! (Lucky puts everything down, looks for whip, finds it, puts it into Pozzo’s hand, takes up everything again.) Rope! (Lucky puts everything down, puts end of rope into Pozzo’s hand, takes everything up again.)
VLADIMIR: What is there in the bag?
POZZO: Sand. (He jerks the rope.) On!
VLADIMIR: Don’t go yet.
POZZO: I’m going.
VLADIMIR: What do you do when you fall far from help?
POZZO: We wait till we can get up. Then we go on. On!
VLADIMIR: Before you go tell him to sing.
POZZO: To sing?
VLADIMIR: Yes. Or to think. Or to recite.
POZZO: But he is dumb.
[This of course leaves us with the character with the largest part in the play:]