Beckett versus Brecht in Helsinki, 1979


Clas Zilliacus


The history of what the Germans would call die Godot-Rezeption remains to be written: luckily, the play is still a moving target. The recent spate of productions, however, fully confirms the play’s status as a modern classic. Godot has arrived. It is a reverent renaissance, marked by understanding rather than questioning and it shows great respect for the bounds of Beckett’s precisely notated universe of discourse. On the whole, directors seem willing to be cued by Beckett’s magisterial 1975 Berlin production.


This is a double-edged tendency. On the one hand, it accentuates the formal and structural qualities of the play; it lays great emphasis on the choreography and rhythm of blocking and interaction, on exactitude of verbal delivery, on theatre as a craft. Notwithstanding the supremely atectonic markers that end both acts, it provides for a coherence of persuasive finality. On the other hand, it is as though Beckett’s unwillingness to discuss matters of content had been adopted a shade too willingly by Beckett directors who are not Beckett. This is not to say that the author should stage his Godot as a debate on Godot: his productions are fuller statements than the printed text can convey; they tell us more about the play. But if a tradition of producing Godot should evolve in which the entire wait is but a received metaphor, the once scandalous dictum of the play would be domesticated, at its peril.1


In the sixties, when the world was young, various attempts were made to open up a dialogue with Beckett’s play, by qualifying, opposing, or contradicting it. The first serious ‘counter-play’ plan, however, was sketched by Bertolt Brecht as early as 1956. Brecht was attracted by the play’s Materialwert and repelled by its view of the human condition. He had two ideas, both of which remained ideas; death intervened. One involved staging Godot against a backdrop onto which a specially made film showing the building of socialism in various parts of the world was to be projected; this was to provide a dialectical negation of the wait. The other plan was to emerge into a rewrite, presenting the following dramatis personae: Estragon, ein Prolet; Wladimir, ein Intellektueller; Lucky, ein Esel oder Polizist; von Pozzo, ein Gutsbesitzer; Ein Junge.2


These projects came to naught, and Beckett and Brecht nevertheless occupy interdependent positions in the mid-century theatre, at opposite ends of the spectrum. This contrariety has proved a boon to dualistic thinking. But it can also be used for more constructive purposes, that is, for the light the two dramatists throw on each other. Thus, when working on Brecht’s Exception and the rule, Giorgio Strehler asked his actors to study Godot for a better understanding of the work at hand.3


In the spring of 1979, at the Lilla Teatern in Helsinki, Ralf Långbacka (a leading Scandinavian director best known for his productions of Chekhov and Brecht) brought Godot and The exception and the rule together for a four-hour double-bill.4 According to Långbacka’s programme notes the idea underlying the confrontation was:


            to relate them to each other in a way which we believe will bring

            about results in our spectators, will force them to try the one on

            the other and themselves on both. Both plays [. . .] depict a situ-

            ation which is ‘absurd.’ In Godot absurdity is at one with the

            human condition; it is the air we breathe. But this is not to say that

            what happens in Godot is particularly absurd, in the sense of

            being strange. In actual fact Godot is full of situations which most

            of us recognize, a kind of pointed realism of everyday life if you

            wish, a clown’s realism. The absurdity lies deeper, in the con-

            ception of life, in Beckett’s fundamental attitude. With Brecht it’s

            really the other way around. Taken one by one, the situations

            have the same clown’s realism as you find in Beckett; the

            grotesque desert trek of the merchant and his coolie is just as

            absurd as the wanderings of Pozzo and Lucky in Godot. Pozzo’s

            blindness in the second act of Godot compares with the

            merchant’s ‘blindness,’ his inability to catch sight of reality. But

            whereas with Beckett absurdity is inherent in man, in his condition,

            Brecht’s absurdity is a projection of an absurd social system. This

            system, however, is man-made; it is therefore subject to change.


So much for the dialectics of the enterprise, or juxtaposition. Stating that his notes are to be read ‘not as directions for use but as an outline,’ Långbacka, a materialist, nonetheless made no bones about his own stance: a world mismanaged to the point of absurdity no doubt seems absurd, but its absurdity is epiphenomenal. By showing man’s doings and nondoings through two very different lenses, Vladimir’s ‘But at this place, at this. moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not’ - the production’s adopted motto - was to be brought into its proper perspective. His name, after all, means ruler of the world, and he might make use of his mandate.


The two lenses converged on the same place, ‘this place.’ The joint setting of the two plays was Godot’s road-and-tree set. The lighting of the Beckett play was warm and mellow, whereas Brecht’s play unfolded in a strong white light which befitted didactic drama and desert scenes alike. Stylized heaps of debris served to localize both plays: Godot takes place on the outskirts of suburbia, The exception and the rule plays on the fringe of civilization. Both are marginal localities, exposing life in the waste land where man’s actions and his underlying rules of conduct are brought out with pedagogical clarity.


The common décor, then, was the principal provider of iconic spillover in this double-bill. It continually reminded the spectators that the two dramatic events which it was to accommodate are not only different but also similar. A vessel for polemics, the set conferred upon the whole a sustained dialectic. In terms of semiotics it was the basic sign, along which two second-degree sign sequences unfolded.


The succession as determined by the director—first Beckett, then Brecht—was an integral part of the evening’s statement: ‘a tragedy is followed by a satyr play’ (Långbacka). This may not be overly precise so far as genre labels go, but it does give a fair indication of what was being done: the myth of man’s fate burlesqued, as it were, in the clear light of his reason.


Godot was followed by The exception and the rule which, while unfolding, contained (double-entendre intentional) the former, commenting on it by bringing new elements into its universe of discourse. It reminded us of Didi’s and Gogo’s hat-exchange routine: if a new element is introduced the ‘quantum of wantum’ is altered, and the premisses of the wantum swim into focus.


The Godot performance was straightforward, unmannered, and controlled. The carrot-eating was cut, as were some of the music-hall stichomythies. The principal duo were successfully cast against type: the Lilla Teatern’s perfect Vladimir played Estragon, and vice versa.5 The tree/stone dichotomy outlined by Beckett was still there, but it was infused with vivifying moments of characterization running counter to it. I-Angbacka, in line with his numerous Chekhov productions, instilled a great deal of warmth, even empathy, into the Godot tramps: their doings may be risible but this does not prevent them from being lovable people. Långbacka did not underestimate what I understand was his target. Godot presents what seems; what seems is that which is familiar; that which is familiar is credible. Appearance, by virtue of the physical nature of the theatre, prevails over essence. A critique of Godot can hardly be effected from within the play as a critique of the tramps. The situations which they enact would lose their force, and the rephrased statement of the play, enfeebled as drama, would carry no conviction. Even Brecht, in Mother courage, didn’t quite pull off the trick of rendering his heroine unheroic, and yet the play was his own. Godot has to be alienated from without.


Apart from the Godot set, the constellation of dramatis personae reappeared, mutatis mutandis, in The exception and the rule. Vladimir and Estragon turned up as two policemen in their Beckettian costumes plus a few cop’s props. Forced out of the wait in their road-and-tree atopia, jenseits von Gut and Böse, they had to take sides and be exploited to uphold the existing order, and in the tribunal that ended the play they figured as assessors, as mutes or audience to the act but accomplices nevertheless. More important, and less crude, was the parallel with Pozzo and Lucky supplied by the merchant and his coolie and under-pinned by using the same actors. This homology proved consistent and also theatrically viable, but for all its explicitness and explanatory irony the master/slave relationship as construed in the Brecht play did not provide a very fertile comment on the corresponding couple in Godot.


In actual fact, Godot retaliated. By himself the coolie as envisioned by Brecht for his play is of acceptable depth; his social function in the drama is commensurate with what he does on stage. After Godot he is not; it is not. This has nothing to do with the rules of psychological drama, to which neither play adheres. It has to do with the rules of mental conduct of a normal modern Western audience reared on the actual or alleged difficulty of being on earth. Such an audience, if they have just been treated to the poetic uncertainties of Godot, are less than likely to accept a simple solution—and a hortative one at that—even if it happened to be valid and deduced in an irrefutable manner. In this sense the Beckett/Brecht programme, if I have understood its aims correctly, was something of a self-destructive proposition.


There was a further obstacle to the undertaking, apart from the psychological one. The exception and the rule is, in Brecht’s own words, ‘ein kurzes Stück für Schulen.’ Godot is not; it is a major play. In terms of drama the evening was retrogressive. Beckett has no teaching to impart, just an image to mould. The basic clash as staged may be that between two views of the world, but the opposition as received is that between metaphor and lesson, between denotative and connotative artistic statements. Certain contraries do not lend themselves to being paired off; it will never be established whether a yard is heavier than a gallon. This is not to say that the two greatest writers of the mid-century theatre should not be tried on each other; but this production was a highly competent indication that this specific way of doing it won’t work.


1 Cf. Peter von Becker, ‘Das Endspiel immer weiterspielen? Beckett in Stuttgart und München,’ Theater heute 12 (December, 1978) 12-13.

2 For the subject of Beckett vs. Brecht see, e.g., my ‘Three times Godot: Beckett, Brecht, Bulatovié,’ Comparative drama IV: 1 (1970), 3-17; John Fuegi, ‘Beckett and Brecht,’ in Hans Mayer and Uwe Johnson (eds.), Das Werk von Samuel Beckett. Berliner Colloquium (Frankfurt/Main, 1975), 185-204.

3 We are reminded that in 1950, at the Théâtre des Noctambules, Brecht’s play inaugurated the era of Brechtianism in France, together with La cantatrice chauve, another first. Hand in hand they affronted the playgoing public.

4 The Lilla Teatern is a Swedish-language, intermittently experimental theatre.

5 Cf. Godot in Berlin: between the Mendel and the Beckett productions the Wladimir and Estragon actors exchanged roles.