Quoting from Godot: trends in contemporary French theatre


Anne C. Murch



In its 1979-1980 season, the National Theatre of Strasbourg (TNS) featured a play inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The text of this play was made up of extracts from the dialogue of the original French version. Such an event obviously constitutes a striking demonstration of the status achieved by Beckett’s play in Western culture. But it also throws light on some of the changes which have occurred in Western drama since the end of the second World War. The present article will examine these two phenomena.


The first performance of En attendant Godot in Paris, at the Théâtre de Babylone in 1953, was received with indignation and scorn. The scorn and the indignation were reminiscent of the treatment meted out to that other revolutionary play, Ubu-Roi, at the Théâtre de I’Oeuvre in 1896. Yet, a quarter of a century later, Godot continues to be performed throughout the world. Starting from the stage and the shelves of bookshops it has reached amphitheatres and classrooms, first as a prescribed text in universities, then as a text for secondary school students. Reaching an ever wider public in terms of cultures, age-groups and social classes, it seems to have thrived on, rather than suffered from, the delicate process of translation and interpretation. It has successfully survived the linguistic and cultural differences/distortions which such a process unavoidably entails. This very resilience confirms its universality.


What seems to have occurred in this singular rise to fame is that the dramatis personae first given life by Beckett’s writing, then, as it were, given a second birth through their incarnation on stage, have rapidly left the narrow precincts of art to become, perhaps subliminally, part of the collective imagination of our time. They have become crystallized into living images which Western or Westernized man in the troubled second half of the twentieth century recognizes: he is moved by them and he identifies with them. Pozzo and Lucky as the master and the slave, functionally interdependent, are to be found in all walks of life. Estragon and Vladimir, as the ineffectual, likeable, incredulous losers bonded in friendship, waiting for the miracle which tomorrow must bring, are also present everywhere.


The personae may have become somewhat simplified in the process. Their metaphysical dimension has lessened as the period has turned its back on metaphysics. Their comic strip features have been exaggerated as the world has turned to ever more simplistic, manicheistic represen­tations of itself. And the detached quality of their irony has sometimes been overshadowed by their simpler, rough and tumble humour, so that the physical ‘gags’ are better remembered and better understood than some of the subtleties of dialogue. But the characters still stand firm as representatives of an existential malaise, epitomes of man’s floundering in the prison of time and space, troubled by the riddle of mortality, the focus of a bewilderment and pain daily experienced and rejected. Thanks to their powerful iconic1 quality, they can be used as models to give concrete expression to instances in the here and now of a plight whose universal dimension they initially articulated. They have become, it seems, a cross between archetypes and stereotypes, inviting identification over a wide spectrum of existential situations.


An early example of this, and one which has been much quoted, was the immediate success of the play with the inmates of San Quentin peniten­tiary in the U.S.A. The dramatis personae, prisoners of the human condition, were received as icons of the prisoners in the penal institution. The personae’s general plight became ;equated in literal terms with the life imprisonment which was their audience’s particular fate. Hence the immediate identification.


Another instance of this process, operating in reverse this time, was seen in an Australian production of the play in Melbourne (Alexander Theatre, Monash University, 3-20 March, 1976; director: Peter Oyston.) In this particular case it was the staging which iconized the particular and the specific. Beckett’s abstracted personae were made to fit the realities of the Australian outback. Vladimir and Estragon were presented as ‘no­hopers’ wandering aimlessly in the bush, deafened by the roar of omni­present cicadas, clinging to each other in a hostile environment which emphasized the rejection of man. Pozzo became the icon of the colonial oppressor; Lucky, an Australian aborigine, the colonial slave. The audience, entirely white and urban, had no difficulty in transcending the regionalist parti-pris and identifying with the plight of the personae. It was experienced as their own malaise in a rootless culture in which they groped unsuccessfully for some life-giving, structuring principle in a big city, urban but not urbane.


Beckett’s play, through a wide range of differences in stage realization and audience reception, has come to offer a structured substitute for the apparently unstructured complexity of raw experience in any one reality. The substitute at once simplifies and clarifies this reality. It takes its place in the collective imagination and operates as a stereotype. I am hence­forth using the term stereotype as positive and implying in my context the presence of an archetypal element.


The antipodean ‘tampering’ with the play in the Monash production was minor by comparison with the much more radical ‘tampering’ undertaken in Ils allaient obscurs sous la nuit solitaire, the title of the Strasbourg production.2 In the latter the performing space was a disused hangar, rented by the company in order to free itself from the traditional archi­tecture of its own theatre. The spectators were forced to walk across the actors’ performing area to their seats when the hangar door was finally opened. The whole length of the hangar, and about half its width, were used as performing area. The remaining space accommodated a few tiers of wooden benches for the spectators. The wide performing area thus set up was lost in fog (this artificial fog spread through the hangar while the spectators waited to be let in; water had been poured on the concrete floor across which they had to walk). The fog remained during the performance, though it began to disperse towards the end. The lighting was dim throughout, with no use of light effects of any kind. All the light originated from the props themselves. Surrounding a vast empty area in the centre, the set consisted of a neon-lit bar on the left with large windows through which could be seen a barman, endlessly washing and drying glasses and serving some newly-weds who were the only people entering the bar. There were two cars parked diagonally by the curb in front of the bar, the main façade of which was perpendicular to the audience; the bar occupied a street corner; a number of parking meters were aligned on the pavement. Facing the bar on the opposite side of the stage were two shops, apparently closed, but with their display-windows lit; in one of them a television set was turned on, as was the set displayed in the bar opposite. Another shop, neon-lit and glass fronted, stood along the back of the stage; but from what could be glimpsed through the fog, it turned out to be a dentist’s consulting room with patient’s chair, drill, and the usual equipment. Between the bar and the shop opposite, and closer to these, a row of stacked supermarket trolleys divided the performing area, structuring the space with the props of a consumers’ society already hinted at in the rest of the set. Against the back wall and to the right, a door was just noticeable, with two lighted windows high above it.


This space, marked by diffusion, and therefore quite unlike traditional concentration of dramatic space, was animated, not by four actors and the brief appearance of a fifth one (as in Beckett’s play), but by ten actors. Four of them bore the names of Gogo, Didi, Lucky and Pozzo. The others were: the owner of the Citroen, the barman, the bridegroom, the bride, the man with the Ricard, the man with the clubfoot. The dialogue, consisting of extensive quotes from the original, was distributed in segments among the ten actors, not necessarily following the order of the original. The circular structure of Beckett’s play was retained, though it was much less readily apparent due to the fragmentation of the dialogue. Perhaps in order to compensate for this, the circularity was underlined in powerful visual terms in the finale, where all ten actors filing across the stage suddenly stopped, frozen in suspended animation, in a grim version of a game of ‘statues’ in which no move forward could allow the player to reach his goal. The action, as in Beckett’s play, was marked by repetition and deterioration. However, the clear binary repetition engineered through the two-act structure of the original was abandoned here. The show was performed without interruption. The repetition appeared frag­mented over the micro-structures.


In Beckett’s Godot, the deterioration is shown mainly through the changes suffered by Pozzo and Lucky in Act II. Pozzo has gone blind, Lucky can no longer sing or dance, much less, presumably, think. The change is presented by Beckett as wrought by life itself, by a fate common to all mankind. The perspective changes in the TNS play, which introduces the following added peripeteia: Pozzo and Lucky disappear through the door at the back of the stage into the area indicated by the lighted windows; the play continues without them (as in the original); then a huge explosion is set off in that area, sending bricks and rubble flying in all directions; out of the wreckage cries for help are heard, answered by Vladimir and Estragon’s memorable statements about being called at last; when Pozzo and Lucky are finally dragged out of the ruins, they are in the same condition as the pair in act II of Beckett’s play. The explosion is associated with an act of terrorism by the audience. In other words, the deterioration is ascribed here to a human agency at a particular moment of history, rather than to man’s condition viewed in universal terms and apparently transcending history.


The deliberately makeshift nature of the space used by the TNS points to a rejection of the format of bourgeois theatre, in which a privileged audience may view in comfort a show put on for its entertainment and/or edification. The TNS production undermines the dichotomy of stage and auditorium, in an attempt to elicit from the audience a less complacent reaction. The response of several spectators to the explosion suggests that the project had succeeded: they asked each other in troubled voices whether this was part of the show, or an explosion in earnest; feelings of shock and unease were shared by all. The thin, shifting line between appearance and reality had gone, jolting the audience into an awareness which would have been unthinkable within the traditional theatre archi­tecture. The extension of the performing area altered both the interaction between the characters and the interaction between the characters and their space. Only one section of the area was used for performance by the actors at any one time, except in the case of the final frieze. The principle of a concentrated ‘dramatic’ time-space, emphasizing the importance of the characters, was replaced by a loose space in which the actors’ presence seemed a transgression: the lines they uttered, the gestures they made, were immediately swallowed up by that space and reduced to insignificance. Estragon’s statements in Beckett’s play: ‘Ce n’est pas le vide qui manque’ were here made concrete in the sceno­graphy. In this respect the TNS production is representative of a strong trend in contemporary theatre style, which tends to favour the physicality of the stage as a transmitter of signs, over the actor as the source of the all-important dialogue.


In the Strasbourg version the setting of Beckett’s Godot has changed from ‘a country road’ to a suburban landscape; the tree, an ironic reminder of nature even in the original, has been eliminated. The change reflects a change from the abstracted, timeless, metaphysical clowns of Beckett’s play to the present-day urban dwellers of disintegrating cities. The passage from the rarefied, neutral set to one displaying the signs of consumption and technology also points to a change of focus in terms of the relative importance of man and the non-human furniture of the world. The plays of the American Bob Wilson carry this growing trend to its logical conclusion, erasing the human hero and replacing him by tech­nology, presenting the new hero attended by a bevy of human puppets.


The stage-lighting of the TNS was also significantly different. The waning daylight was replaced by the neon-lights from the shops and the bars; no additional lighting was used. The semiotics at work here are unambiguous: the creatures on stage receive light from the worlds of consumption and technology only; they are conditioned by a cultural bondage whose interruption would spell their doom. The fog pervading the whole set reinforced the ghostlike character of the humans groping in it- as they grope along, directionless, through their lives .3


Finally, Beckett sets the action of his play in the evening; his characters await the arrival of night which will bring temporary oblivion. In Pautrat’s play the night has already come, but it has not brought relief. Night is no longer a time for rest and sleep, for tending the wounds inflicted by the day; under the man-made lights, which are never extinguished, aimless living continues. The demands made on man in the Strasbourg version are ever greater, the returns ever smaller, and man’s compliance appears boundless. From the 1950s to the 1980s, theatre has more and more tended, it seems to me, to portray the sigh of resignation, rather that the cry of protest, the dull hopelessness of life rather than the lucid appraisal of it.


The Strasbourg choice of pre-existent material as subject-matter for a play is itself of considerable significance. ‘The Dramaturg’ explained in the programme notes that the play was neither an adaptation nor a new staging of Beckett’s play, but rather a work for the stage grafted on to extracts from Beckett’s text. He was concerned to present ‘not an original or wiser version of the play, but a faithful, black picture of our time, following the tone set by all of Beckett’s works’.4 In achieving this the remarkable iconic quality of the Beckettian stereotypes was further vindi­cated. Beckett’s play and his personae were used as mediators, truer than life, to reach out to, and to describe, the ever more elusive reality of our times.


This use of pre-existent material may be seen (as in certain comparable Brecht plays) as a kind of vast quotation from a product of the incriminated culture. The product itself is incriminating, but in universal terms. Here it is inserted more pointedly in history. Quoting is usually a privileged terrain for irony. Not so here, where it is used both referentially and deferentially. Yet it would obviously be wrong to see it simply as a homage to a writer, for the ‘grafting’ is also a transgression of the cultural taboo which sets up works of arts as sacred and untouchable. The quoting, here, acknowledges the fact that Beckett’s work, by its exceptional resonance, has broken free from such constraints. It confirms its passage into that category of the collective imagination in which it appears truer than life. But in addition to being a comment on the work’s impact, the process of quoting is clearly a comment on life itself. Offering the `show of a show’ as a faithful picture of that life, it suggests that life itself has become a show which can only be apprehended through the mediation of the spectacular, i.e. the mediation of the alienating culture. A society celebrating its own finality in narcissistic fascination, vampirizing in so doing the individual and his natural environment, is mirrored in a theatre about itself - a theatre delighting in quoting itself.


Here again the TNS play, far from being aberrant in contemporary terms, acts as a paradigm of a trend to be found in plays by many present-day dramatists. Their invention stems not from the observation of nature, or from the workings of society, or from the now-discredited individual psychology, but from the reflections arising from, and the inspiration provided by, secondary sources: cultural artifacts, including dramatic texts.5 This process of self-quotation is not, of course, limited to theatre: it is self-evident that there has emerged in our time, not so much an art for art’s sake, as an art about art, which acts as a comment on, an access to, but also a shield from, a reality whose remoteness and complexity are experienced by man no longer as a challenge, but increasingly as a threat.


The most striking alteration effected by the TNS play is, of course, the atomization suffered by the dramatis personae, now ten in number. The Beckettian motif of the couple has proliferated and in the process the gruff tenderness linking Gogo and Didi has disappeared. The four pairs, two of which are now heterosexual, operate according to the bare imperatives of power in a shifting master-slave rapport. Between them, physical violence erupts suddenly and subsides likewise, in short bursts. The maimed personae seem to react to stimuli beyond their control and beyond even their awareness, as if caught in a dimension of discontinuity, a disconnected present. The most powerful exemplification of this occurred in the episode of the ‘rape’ of the bride which the TNS introduced into the play. Dressed in her wedding-gown, standing in the rain, pressed against the wall of the bar, the bride was subjected by the bridegroom to a brief coitus, his aggression followed by her flight into the night, leaving behind the bridal veil to be trampled mindlessly underfoot and reduced to a muddy, torn rag.


In the TNS play the characteristics embodied in Estragon and Vladimir are distributed over three pairs. The man with the club-foot and the man with the Ricard, living in one of the cars, have assumed Estragon and Vladimir’s tramp-like quality and their physical infirmities. The two hetero­sexual pairs feature chiefly the grimness of the couple association. They represent two stages of the couple in time. The wistful allusions of Beckett’s pair to better times known in the past are now belied by the stage impersonation of the bride and bride-groom, whose youth and youthful compact is presented as no less hopeless. If the repeated reference to waiting is restricted to the older doubles of Didi and Gogo, this in no way deters from the utter failure of their younger doubles. Significantly the leit-motiv of waiting shifts from waiting for to just waiting. The mode of waiting, transitive in Beckett, has become intransitive here.6 Accordingly there is no messenger as such, although the lone, silent barman constitutes an avatar of the missing messenger - or even a degraded incarnation of Godot himself. He dispenses the solace of warmth, light, and alcohol to the privileged few, here the bride and bride­groom, i.e. the young. The bar is a derisory version of the stable yearned for by Beckett’s tramp. Perhaps the bar, heavenly stable on earth, stands for all that was once waited for, for all the grand hopes of earthly fulfillment proffered by the messianic ideologies of social justice and affluence. The owner of the Citroęn appears as an offshoot of the pair retaining the names of Pozzo and Lucky, and it appropriately falls to him to voice the philosophizing ascribed to Pozzo in the original. He appears as a kind of seedy, disillusioned ‘guru’, a familiar specimen in the modern urban fauna.


In the Strasbourg version the Beckettian stereotypes have been weakened, split up, and their charisma destroyed. Allowing the spectator a measure of identification, Beckett’s Godot gave his own feelings of despair and bewilderment a face, confirming him still in the notion of a personal identity, however precarious. The TNS play bears witness to the crumbling of even that residual, desperate, useless and hopeless notion of identity and singularity - of that lost persona. The Beckettian stereo­type remained lucid and ironic, the irony led to dignity of a kind. There is little irony here, little dignity in the atomized stereotypes;7 they are shown as completely dominated by their cultural environment and their appar­ently mindless behaviour and relationships. They are at once bewildered and angry - out of phase: like shadow-puppets barely silhouetted against the dim light, whose manipulator has lost control of the rods, yet who somehow still manages to jerk them into bursts of convulsive action, brief acts of bravura followed by more despondency and powerless resentment.


Intent on presenting a `faithful, black picture’ of our time, the play, in atomizing the personae, reflects the further deterioration of the individual in our time, his more deeply problematic status in the culture which manipulates him - a manipulation which begins to show signs of faltering. Indeed the TNS play offers a striking demonstration of a process which is widespread throughout contemporary theatre: the dis­appearance of the character. The demonstration is especially striking in this instance because the audience is constantly receiving a double message: one from the atomized personae moving about the stage and the other from the Beckettian characters in absentia. The loss of power suffered by the original personae is ever present in the minds of the audience as the comparison is set before their eyes through the quoted dialogue. The TNS play achieves a telescopic rendering of the startling passage from the death of God to the death of man, the former embodied in the dialogue, the latter in the exploded original characters.


As far back as the late plays of Strindberg and the German Expressionist theatre of the twenties, the dramatic character was subjected to a process of fragmentation; but the fragmentation, the result of an Ich-­Dramatik, was as much an affirmation as a questioning of identity in crisis. The fragmentation witnessed in theatre since no longer asserts or defends that Ich, but rather celebrates its demise.


The TNS play also sheds light upon the dialectic obtaining between drama (here representative of literature and art in general) and critical activity. For concurrently with the ever-increasing attacks waged on the dramatic character by the playwrights themselves8 in this, the ‘age of suspicion’,9 a critical approach has developed which ceases to take the personae in their individual situation as valid units for the analysis of a play’s structure. This critical re-appraisal finds its most coherent expression in the exponents of a semiology of theatre.10 As early as 1963, Roland Barthes in his Racine stated that characters were mere ‘masks, figures gaining their differences, not from their social identity, but from their place in the general configuration in which they are caught’ (the ‘configuration’ being that of the play).11 Patrice Pavis, in his Problèmes de sémiologie théâtrale,12 urges: ‘We must abandon the anthropo­morphic position which makes us posit that the character is at the centre of the action, while the decor is relegated to [the status of] passive characterization’ (p. 101). Anne Ubersfeld, in her Lire le Théâtre,13 like­wise states that the autonomy of the subject is to be excluded; according to her, when this autonomy appears ‘it can only be [as] an illusion or a trick serving a reductive ideology’ (p. 82). These critics may be taken as an index of the growing consensus that only the basic subject-object relation is meaningful.


The ‘character’ discredited as a functional model is replaced in a semio­logical theatre by the concept of the actant, a term taken from narratology. The actant, in a given play, may be an abstraction, or a collective persona, or a group made up of several characters. A character, in turn, may assume, simultaneously or in succession, different actantial functions. An actant may even be scenically absent. The actant is never ‘a sub­stance or a being, it is an element in a relation’ (Ubersfeld, p. 79). The interaction of the actants orients the play towards its conclusion; it is the actants which move the characters, and not vice-versa.


This critical approach shifts critical analysis from an animate to an inanimate vortex - from man as the independent engineer of his fate in an anthropocentric construct to man as a meeting-ground of forces, some internalized, with which he interacts. Or, as Pavis puts it: ‘each character is a transformation and an externalization of the actantial code’ (92). Furthermore, the belief in a meaning pre-existing in the dramatic text and merely actualized - or betrayed - by the performance, is also rejected. This erroneous belief, due to a logocentrist attitude’, must be replaced by an approach [which considers] theatre not only as the staging of the word, but also as the verbalization of the stage’ (Pavis, p. 12, my emphasis).


This actantial model is clearly the inspiration behind the TNS version of Beckett’s play. The TNS break down the original personae into their components, then redistribute some of their physical, gestural, and verbal characteristics to create new stage incarnations. They dispose of the parent generation, retaining their names as a kind of in memoriam for some of their offspring. This, a disrespectful treatment in the eyes of the old-time theatre-goer and critic, follows the logic of the actantiat model in demystifying the importance of the characters as such. The original Beckettian personae were already highly problematic, with none of the individual psychology beloved of bourgeois drama. Now they become mere shadows of shadows, whose precarious hold on reality is further weakened. At no time can this pale progeny be mistaken for the moti­vating forces of the play - for the actants. The spirit of the TNS adaptation is congruent with the dominant critical ideology of our time, and must have been influenced by it.


The TNS play, fragmenting the dialogue of the original, changes its status. The quotation is presented as a montage. The conventional tendency to endow dialogue with individual psychology is checked, the temptation to interpret it as an expression of autonomous subjects removed.


Since the dialogue is played down, the non-verbal elements of the message are developed and diversified. The language of the stage, the set, the lighting, the gestures and movements of the actors, costumes, the sound effects, the music, the semiotic aspect of the dialogue as sound as against its semantic dimension, are all painstakingly emphasized as the quoted dialogue becomes a ‘verbalization of the stage’ in Pavis’s terms. The theory is reinforced by the praxis which, in turn, is vindicated by the theory. Nowhere are the changes wrought upon the original by the TNS more illustrative than in the treatment of the pair retaining the names of Pozzo and Lucky, which is worthy of comment on three main counts: (i) the nature of Lucky’s burden; (ii) the nature of the violence suffered by him; (iii) his monologue and the reaction it elicits.


(i)                  Lucky’s burden in Godot is the timeless burden of man’s oppression by man. With the TNS it becomes specific and socio-economic: Lucky’s suitcase has been replaced by a supermarket trolley which the exhausted drudge pushes and drags with great difficulty. In the dim light of the stage the trolley with its inseparable retainer also connotes a child’s perambu­lator, with a suggestion that the precious life-burden has been replaced by the gross burden of merchandise. The original suitcase still features among the props: the female Didi carries it. It points to her personal subjection within the couple. The transfer of the sign from Lucky to her is itself a statement to the effect that all couples are variations on the Pozzo-Lucky compact.

(ii)                The new Pozzo does not display the physical viciousness of Beckett’s character. He appears a gentle, thoughtful man in speech and manner. The only time he actually uses force on Lucky is when he compels him to drink water until the slave chokes. This, however, is done in order to keep him alive; with laudable intent in other words. Yet Lucky is subjected to a far more refined form of violence, which can dispense with brute force. Pozzo’s courtesy towards his knouk hides a subtler form of repression, which has become institutionalized. In this conception slave and master alike are reconciled with, and secure in, the order of things; they no longer expect, in fear or hope, a transformation of that order. Pozzo’s gentle ministering to Lucky as he wipes his brow epitomizes the careful ministering of the prevailing powers to the complacent masses tamed by consumption - even when the consumption amounts to the prescribed quenching of an obligatory thirst.


(iii)               Lucky’s monologue, a climax of the let-down in Beckett’s play, is usually staged in accordance with the author’s painstaking directions. The tempo is marked by acceleration and leads to a convulsive crescendo. The semiotic level of the physical speech is privileged, the semantic level played down. Any attempts to give precedence to the meaning of the speech by spelling it out tend to fail in dramatic terms as they weaken the climax and lessen the pointedness of the frenzied response to the monologue. In the TNS production, thanks to the montage, it has been possible to give the monologue an entirely new impact. Lucky is seated on the pavement throughout the speech, propped up against the façade of the bar; the monologue is carefully enunciated, in a thoughtful, edu­cated voice; the ka-ka-ka phonemes take the form of wild stutters, the repetitions appear as a natural effect of the fastidiousness of thought and speech; there is nothing frenetic or hysterical about the delivery, and it does not climax in uncontrolled acceleration. The sub-text surfacing in the silences and superficial non-sequiturs is fully actualized; the tone is one of lucid, illusionless, intelligent appraisal of the totally adverse fall-out left by the explosion of knowledge witnessed by our times.


Changes have also been made in the reactions wrought by the speech on the other characters. These, multiplied as we have seen, attempt to listen at first to the free entertainment provided by Pozzo; but they quickly tire of the effort required; one of them lights a cigarette, another follows; soon they turn their backs on the disappointing performer, and form a circle punctuated by the red dots of their cigarettes. At first they jeer at Lucky, then they forget him altogether, indulging in the fleeting con­viviality of their circle, exchanging a few words, laughing intermittently, smoking. Lucky, meanwhile, painstakingly pursues his diagnosis of failure; and when exhaustion finally overtakes him, reducing him to silence, he slumps further into the night, with his chin resting wearily on his thin chest. Later Pozzo, in his quiet, knowing voice, informs Gogo that he may remove Lucky’s hat ‘as he will no longer think now. . .’-a far cry from the original ‘gag’ in which the hat has to be forcefully removed in order to put a stop to the threatening logorrhea.


The frenzied, climactic character of the episode in Beckett’s play has been replaced by one of calm and resignation in Lucky, boredom and unconcern in the onlookers. The same ‘defusing’ process is used in the sequence in which Lucky dances the dance of the net. The dance is performed by him in a sitting position, the movements reduced in scope and limited to his arms and hands: clearly the hold of the net has tightened over the years, leaving him less room for movement. The dance elicits no unease or bewilderment in the spectators, merely an eruption of hilarity shared by all - noisy, prolonged, mindless and physical - and the episode is forgotten.


Lucky’s monologue and the reaction to it on stage become a vignette for the whole TNS play: both the play and the monologue attempt to raise the consciousness of the audience - and fail. The monologue, in being given such prominence, presumably contains a plea to the audience not to dismiss it as their doubles on stage have done. But the plea is half­hearted, the utterance merely an echo, quoting what already amounted to bravura in the original: its appeal is aesthetic, rather than rhetorical.


The TNS experiment, intrinsically interesting as it is, should not be conceived of as standing alone. Rather, it is an illustration of a growing trend. Three more examples of this semiologically conscious theatre may be quoted from my own experience during the 1979-80 French season. In all cases, the theory of the actant has been heeded in the dramatic praxis.


A montage on Molière entitled Molière Molière was performed in Paris by the Theatre de la Jeune Lune as an open air show in August 1979. There were two moments when the actantial model came clearly to the fore. In the monologue of The miser the famous lines were no longer spoken by one actor impersonating the character or subject. This miser was in the centre of the stage surrounded by half a dozen or more other actors. The miming of the scene and the distribution of the dialogue among the actors were such that the driving force behind the miser’s behaviour became actualized. The actant(s) took precedence over the character and his personal obsession. Miserliness was exposed not primarily psycho­logically as an individual failing, but rather in its sociological aspect in a society where acquisitiveness constitutes a virtue. Secondly, the seduction scene in Tartuffe, which was part of the montage, featured a similar approach. On stage, in addition to Elmire and Tartuffe, were half a dozen actors wearing masks and long, black robes, who were present through­out the seduction scene. The mimicry of these scarecrows standing in a threatening, grimacing group behind Tartuffe showed them up as his doubles and his mentors. Thus physical embodiment was given to the actant at work through Tartuffe, the influential faction of the power-­hungry bigots who pursued Moliére himself. Here again the autonomy of the character was exposed as `an illusion’ through the actualization of the other element of the relation, the real force at work through him. In both cases the concrete actualization of the abstract actant made explicit the ideology implicit in the plays, grounding them firmly in history.


In the autumn of 1979 the Théâtre de Lucernaire in Paris offered a theatrical adaptation of Flaubert’s Un coeur simple. Had it tampered with Flaubert’s prose merely in order to extract a dramatic dialogue from it, it would have been of little interest. Instead, it reproduced the text without any changes, the creative effort being directed at the forces at work in the narrative - at the actants. These, elements of the code, were acted out in preference to the characters of Félicité, Madame Aubyn etc., who belong to the message. The text was apportioned accordingly, not to the characters following the dictates of superficial realism, but to these actants given stage incarnation. Here again, the ideological context and sub-text of Flaubert’s ‘conte’ were made visually explicit in a rendering in which the ideological stage of the time was verbalized through the text, rather than the verbal element staged.


A third example was four Molière plays (L’Ecole des femmes, Tartuffe, Don Juan, Le Misanthrope) staged by Antoine Vitez.14 Vitez’s production highlights the change in theatrical style in France away from a naturalistic rendering. He retains the text in a position of pre-eminence, but at the same time he introduces an extensive gestural element in the per­formance. This ‘body language’ is neither a gratuitous concession to fashion nor a superficial acknowledgement of the dictates of theatricality. Instead, it gives expression to what is left unsaid in the dialogue, namely its hidden dominant ideology and the way in which the characters accept it, reject it, struggle with it. This, mostly unknown to the characters themselves, caught in spontaneous ideology (so that it is fitting that it should not surface in the dialogue) is shown critically through the physical messages their bodies send out. It is thus possible to show at once the false, or at least biased, questions which the characters ask themselves and the real questions which the play lays open to the spectator’s scrutiny. In this way the audience is offered a double, dialogical15 decrypting. Vitez’s practice cannot be divorced from his theory, which it vindicates. Belonging to the mainstream of French Theatre, his work may serve as a fitting example of the growing acceptance of a new style of dramaturgy and a new kind of criticism.


I have dwelt at some length on this aspect of the TNS rendering of Beckett, because the contrast it highlights is consistent with the process of change in French theatre over the last thirty years. The theatre of political commitment featuring man as an active agent of history (Camus, Sartre) was superseded, as disillusionment set in on the political scene, by the ‘theatre of the absurd’, which was contemporary with Beckett’s first plays. This brought with it the return of universal man alienated in the cosmos and seemed to ignore his place in history. However not all theatre followed that trend. Standing alone, and perhaps closest to Artaud’s vision, was Jean Genet’s theatre of ceremony. And partly under the influence of Bertolt Brecht, there has emerged a theatre with socio­economic preoccupations, applying the ideological tool of historical materialism to demonstrate the lessons of history (e.g. Adamov, Cousin, Gatti). This theatre, often labouring under difficulties because of its didactic aims, only occasionally succeeds in capturing the imagination of its public. The allegiance it forms is often the result of its ideological stand, rather than its dramatic qualities. It sometimes seems as if its subject-matter, not always theatrical, might be treated more felicitously by the mass-media. These, however, controlled by the state apparatus, only churn out the dominant ideology. With universal man, that figment of the bourgeois humanist tradition, largely discredited, and man as a victim of history not finding his voice in drama, theatre seems to have reached a dead end. It has been reduced to turning to itself for its themes - to quote from Godot. But the quotation can itself become a new statement. As such, it also casts light on the direction drama is taking thematically. Using Beckett, the TNS play re-inserts universal man into history - but re-inserts him no longer as a maker of history, but as a disillusioned, resigned victim of the historical process. A victim, not so much alienated in a faulty consciousness of his society, as aware of it, yet wearily bowing to its inevitability. A victim, catatonically absorbed in the daily routine of couples, of waiting, of consuming, still. Crushed by history, but gently so, nearly painlessly so, so far. However, the shattering explosion featured in the TNS play suggests the end of deceptive gentleness, the beginning of searing pain. These already feature, for instance, in the recent plays of Michel Vinaver, showing the victim trampled down by worsening socio­economic conditions and uttering a muted cry of bewildered pain.


The now frequent phenomenon of quoting in theatre may be linked with the increased dominion of a culture alienating the individual from himself and the world. Extensive quoting, in a creative work, however interpretive and critical, acknowledges this alienation in submitting to the power of the cultural mediation which only mediates back to itself. Such a process points to a refinement, but also an impoverishment, of invention. Further­more, its appeal is necessarily limited - the quotation used as subject ­matter only fully speaks for an audience conversant with the original; there is a real danger of theatre becoming a cult for the initiated few. One might view in the same light the present favour enjoyed by the classics of the repertoire and see them as subjected to similar limitations. They do not escape the principle of quoting because of the cultural mediation required for their full understanding.


The struggle of theatre over the last few years confirms its state of crisis. We may indeed be reduced to ‘quoting from Godot’, and we may be tempted to accept that in our bankrupt cultures the truly seminal power of theatre is also spent. Except that, as a rose is a rose is a rose, theatre is theatre is theatre, conjuring up in the multi-layered complexity of its signs the memory of man’s mythical appurtenance to the world; briefly healing, through the physical immediacy of its message, the mediate character of contemporary man’s experience of this world: re-incarnating him through the flesh and blood of the ritual of performance, even when the starting point is quoting from Godot.







1 ‘The iconic is that which exhibits the same quality, or the same configuration of qualities, as the object denoted - for instance, a black spot for the colour black; onomatopoeia; diagrams reproducing relations between properties’. (Ducrot, O., Todorov, T., Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage; Paris, Seuil,

1972, 115) (My translation, as are all subsequent translations, unless stated otherwise.)


2 With, as its sub-title, ‘D’apres En attendant Godot de Samuel Beckett’. The director was Andre Engel, the ‘Dramaturg’ Bernard Pautrat. I shall henceforth refer to it as the TNS play.


3 ‘Un monde s’eteint, un monde au regard las qui ne voit, du present, que son rideau de brume’. (Bernard Pautrat, Programme notes).


4 ‘Variations sur deux thèmes, l’attente, le couple, afin de proposer, non de la pièce une version originale et plus intelligente, mais de l’époque un tableau juste, noir, à quoi l’oeuvre entier de Samuel Beckett donne lui-même le ton’. (Bernard Pautrat, Programme notes).


5 In Arrabal’s The Tower of Babel (shown at the Odeon in 1979 in a remarkable production by Jorge Lavelli) a large proportion of the dialogue is made up of quotes from Cervantes, St. Theresa of Ávila and Che Guevara; Arrabal’s own dialogue is characterized by clichés taken from the cultural vortex. The whole of the dialogue is undercut by the adoption of a grossly derisive tone. A play such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are dead, based on Hamlet, follows a similar process of quotation, though in a very different spirit. Ionesco’s Macbett and Edward Bond’s Lear are other instances that come to mind.


6 As Pautrat states in the programme notes: ‘l’époque attend, mais elle n’attend plus rien’.


7 With the exception of Lucky, as we shall see later.


8 For a recent study of these trials, see Robert Abirached’s La crise du personnage dans le theatre modeme, Paris, Grasset, 1978.


9 Natalie Sarraute, L’ere du soupqon, Paris, Minuit, 1953.


10 Using, among others, for its theoretical elaboration in France, the findings of Souriau, Gouhier, Propp, Greimas, Mauron and Barthes.


11 Quoted in Patrice Pavis, Problemes de semiologie theatrale, Les Presses de I’Universite du Quebec, 1976, p. 94.


12 Ibid.


13 Paris, Editions sociales, 1978.


14 Created by the Théâtre des Quartiers d’Ivry at the Avignon Festival in 1978, since shown throughout France and Europe, with its latest repeat season at the Theatre de la Porte St. Martin in the autumn of 1979.


15 By this is meant the simultaneous presence of two voices inside the same literary text, exposing a contradiction. (v. Ubersfeld, op. cit., p. 97). The most obvious example of this is Vitez’s treatment of the female roles in Molière, gesturally exposing woman’s state of subjection in a patriarchal society, which requires a ‘dialogical’ reading.