Thursday, 10 October 2013

Beckett and slapstick

Slapstick (inverted)

The other evening I listened to the author Mark Billingham on Radio 4's  Pick of the Week, a selection of the preceding seven days' broadcasting.

Something he said made me scribble a note - the basis of this blog. Speaking after a clip from a documentary about film music he somehow got on to Samuel Beckett and, in the chortling stand-up comic register that seems to be the default setting for Radio 4 presenters, said: "[Beckett] was rubbish at slapstick, which is why they cut the custard pie scene from Waiting for Godot."

Billingham was wrong. Beckett was supremely adept at slapstick, as any reading of his novels and plays will confirm. There was, to be sure, no custard pie scene in an early draft of Godot but the mechanics of slapstick are certainly there. The term 'mechanics' is the mot juste. Here's an extract from Henri Bergson's Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique (Laughter, an essay on the meaning of the comic), first published in 1900:

Laughter can be caused by ugliness, but ugliness is not always comic. To laugh about ugliness, we need to have a naive, immediate, original approach, not to think. We also have to focus on a specific feature of the person and to associate the person with this feature. It is the same with cartoonists, who exaggerate physical and natural features of people. Our imagination sees in everyone the efforts of the soul to dynamise materiality, the soul or the mind give flexibility, agility and animation to the rigid body and to materiality. However the body tend to rigidify itself, and it produces a comic effect: When materiality succeeds in fixing the movement of the soul, in hindering its grace, it obtains a comic effect. To define comic in comparison to its contrary, we should oppose it to grace instead of beauty. It is stiffness rather than ugliness.



Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

So - as Bergson goes on to argue - humans are comic to the extent that they embody the mechanical. Hence Wyndham Lewis in his comic masterpiece Tarr describing one character as 'a bag of pickled rods' . . .

Bergson's phrase ' the efforts of the soul to dynamise materiality'  applies to Vladimir and Estragon and their desperate exchanges. The music-hall syncopations of their speech combine with their physical gestures to incarnate the slapstick. Waiting for Godot contains a wonderful stage direction in which Vladimir and Estragon exchange three hats (one of which was abandoned by Lucky in the first act):

Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Vladimir's hat in place of his own which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Estragon's hat. Estragon adjusts Vladimir's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Estragon's hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Lucky's hat. Vladimir adjusts Estragon's hat on his head. Estragon puts on Lucky's hat in place of Vladimir's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes his hat, Estragon adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on his hat in place of Estragon's which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes his hat. Vladimir adjusts his hat on his head. Estragon puts on his hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Lucky's hat. Estragon adjusts his hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Lucky's hat in place of his own which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's hat on his head. Estragon hands Vladimir's hat back to Vladimir who takes it and hands it back to Estragon who takes it and hands it back to Vladimir who takes it and throws it down.

You can see Beckett's mechanistic slapstick schtick performed here. Then watch Chico and Harpo Marx do the same kind of routine with Edgar Kennedy (master of 'the slow burn') in Duck Soup (1933), twenty years before Beckett recycled it in Godot. Nothing new under the sun.



Stage directions from Waiting for Godot © The Estate of Samuel Beckett


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