SINCE his death in 1989, Samuel Beckett’s fame has continued to rest on his plays, in particular Waiting for Godot. First performed in Paris in 1953, it remains one of the most significant plays of the 20th century.
It is a tragicomedy in two acts, in which nothing happens except a frenzied and relentless conversation between two tramps, waiting for a stranger (Godot) who never arrives. The play distils Beckett’s bleak view of existence, and exposes the emptiness and fears that attend human wanting and waiting.
Godot is about killing time and clinging, however tenuously, to the belief that deliverance may be just around the corner. If not today, then perhaps tomorrow. . .
Beckett’s friend and publisher, John Calder, described him as a writer searching for meaning in the world, but “unable to come to any conclusion about purpose or believe in any creed”. An Irish Protestant, Beckett was familiar with the Bible, and traces of it inform his work.
St Augustine was another influence: the first part of his famous aphorism “Do not despair — one of the thieves was saved; do not presume — one of the thieves was damned” found its way into Beckett’s first novel, Molloy.
The Church, however, held little appeal for him. He rejected the “very small God” of Christian worship, who took credit for the good things of life but “was never blamed for the multiple evils of the world”. It is more than coincidence that Beckett began to formulate the idea behind Godot after the Holocaust and the absent God who ostensibly permitted it.
IN PRIVATE, Beckett was courteous and compassionate, given to long silences, and revered by the actors who performed his plays. He was also generous and brave. In 1969, after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is understood that he gave away the prize money to struggling writers. Having joined the French Resistance during the Second World War, he received two awards for his efforts in fighting the German occupation.
Earlier, in Paris, he had been stabbed and nearly killed by a man who approached him in the street, asking for money. After recovering, Beckett visited his assailant in prison to ask him why he had attacked him. The man replied: “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur.”
Beckett’s pessimism and antipathy towards religion have complex origins. He was born on Good Friday, and never quite eluded its long shadow. At the age of 14, he went to the Portora Royal School, in County Fermanagh, before studying for his BA in European Languages at Trinity College, Dublin.
After relatively short spells lecturing in Paris and Dublin, he embarked on a period of restless travel through Europe, writing poems and stories and doing casual work in order to get by. The lost souls whom he encountered lurk behind the characters in his later novels and plays: bewildered individuals, just about surviving in a perplexing world.
Beckett read widely, particularly the writings of the 19th-century German philosopher Schopenhauer, who depicted life as a perpetual swing “between pain and boredom”. Buddhism also interested him, with its insistence that all life was suffering, which could be diminished only by the elimination of desire.
In contrast, the preaching and rituals of Christianity appeared verbose and insubstantial. Beckett saw part of his task to engage with “the questions the priests never raise”, and to probe “where the human imagination quails or retreats”.
IN THIS respect, Beckett continues to represent a legitimate challenge to forms of Christian proclamation which rest on unexamined assumptions and the need for certainty, especially in dark times. As a child of Good Friday, he is sensitive to the often unheeded cry of the maimed, confused, and inarticulate, and refuses to despair in the face of the void or the prospect of extinction.
Paradox surrounds him, and this represents part of his importance for religion. Apparently convinced that life is meaningless, he writes poignant, honest, and darkly amusing works that suggest the opposite. And, as noted earlier, he was prepared to risk his life to combat fascism.
Unable to leave the question of God alone, or to deny the attested human capacity to endure and hope in the face of calamity, he treats his memorable characters with sympathy, inviting his audience to do the same. In his play Happy Days, the central character, Winnie, is buried to her waist in a mound of earth which eventually threatens to engulf her completely. Despite the fact that she has little or nothing to feel happy about, no day passes without her trying to look her best and carry on.
BECKETT is a secular “man of sorrows”, acquainted not only with grief, but with the reality of a seemingly ineradicable evil within ourselves which we cannot overcome. In his voice it is possible to hear intimations of Original Sin and the anguish of the first Good Friday — a world gone wrong, when innocence was betrayed, friendship denied, and goodness excised from the earth. His plays lay bare the human predicament that preaching often fails to fathom or studiously ignores.
Beckett’s plays lack a saviour figure, but they serve as a terse and necessary reminder. If our gospel presumes to speak of the love and benevolence of God in a world polluted by innumerable ills, it must be earthed in the darkest areas of human life. However well-meaning, cheap proclamation and facile sincerity are not enough.
Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.