‘The Plays of Samuel Beckett’ by I.K. Masih, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press Inc., 1981, 127 pages


Pierre Astier


Published in the United States, printed in India, the native country and present residence of Dr. I.K. Masih (Ph. D. 1978 from Magadh University where he is now teaching), this short and panoramic study of Beckett’s plays (from Godot to the pieces included in Ends and odds) is, often painful to read and hard to follow. Probably a poorly revised, hastily and incompletely updated doctoral dissertation, it is not only made up essentially of a confused and confusing patchwork of superfluous plot summaries, quotations, paraphrases and comments that seem to appear sometimes out of the blue and are too frequently irrelevant, but it is marred also by numerous typographical errors or plain misspellings, devoid of any recognizable system of references. In addition and, unfortunately, at the very start of his study, the author even has his facts mixed up. In the first paragraph of his Introduction he declares: “He [Beckett] appeared on the European literary scene with the premier [sic] of En attendant Godot in 1955” (11).


As for the author’s interpretation of Beckett’s plays it is, to say the least, unusual. According to Masih, all critics of Beckett so far—whether “champions” and “admirers” or “deriders” and “scoffers’―have simply missed the ‘major message’ of his plays, namely ‘the need of love and compassion’ that is expressed in them by Beckett ‘again and again’ (15). Recognizing in Beckett’s works the presence of such negative aspects as ‘existential despair’ (21), ‘terror and anguish’ (22) or ‘futility and smallness of life’ (33), but unconditionally determined to stress above all the ‘positive aspect of Beckett’s search of Self’ (14), the author, as he goes along, includes in his ‘thesis’ (15) a number of other themes, all equally positive, to be looked for and supposedly found in the plays: ‘humility and tenderness’ (16), ‘companionship and love’ (22), ‘inner beauty and love’ (22), ‘splendour and magnanimity’ (29), ‘energy and joy’ (39), ‘love and piety’ (99), etc....


Although the author, being completely and, I think, sincerely convinced of the validity of his thesis, tends to state flatly rather than demonstrate the presence of such positive aspects or ultimate goals in Beckett’s plays, I would perhaps have felt more inclined to sympathize with his views, had he not willfully ignored or naively missed one obvious and undeniable feature of all Beckett’s works: irony. If he had tried to show (as has been done in the case of an ironist like Anatole France) that beneath Beckett’s irony there lies ‘compassion,’ that the one cannot be taken without the other, his argument in favor of a positive message in the plays might have been more readily acceptable. But by denying or refusing to see irony in them the author, far from reinforcing his thesis, weakens it to the point of incredibility. How can we, for instance, take him seriously when he talks admiringly of the ‘dignity and gaiety’ of Winnie who ‘even in her affliction . . . can sing her song’ (15), and whose ‘urge to pray in a hopeless situation’ is so genuine: ‘Some critics call her attitude mock-religious, but they forget that it makes her enduring it possible, otherwise she might have collapsed. Winnie has a vision of life’(54). Another instance of such blindness to irony occurs in Masih’s interpretation of Waiting for Godot. To him, Didi and Gogo appear as some sort of real Camusian heroes whose ‘waiting in a sense is futile and meaningless’ but still ‘provides them with a dignity and grandeur’ (22). Obviously the author, while approaching the play ‘against the background of the myth of Sisyphus,’ (30), did not know or realize that in the French version there is no indication of a ‘low mound’ that could suggest ‘the hill of Sisyphus’ (29), and that the only allusion to the myth, as interpreted by Camus, is purely ironic, namely when Estragon suggests at one point: ‘Alors? Si on s’estimait heureux?’ (En attendant Godot, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1952, 108) This little phrase is all the more ironic because it immediately evokes Camus’ famous closing statement at the end of his Mythe de Sisyphe: ‘La lutte elle-meme vers les sommets suffit a remplir un coeur d’homme. II faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux’ (Essais, Paris: Gallimard, 1965, 198).


By the end of his essay the author, having thus identified Beckett with Camus the great humanist, is ready to go much further and compare him with one of the great humanitarians of our time, Mother Teresa: ‘The Beckettian concern to rehabilitate the homeless, in these plays, has a missionary zeal. It may lack Mother Teresa’s practicality, but as a writer of the present era he has honestly presented the need of the time to have compassion for the helpless’ (97). All I can say in conclusion is: AMEN!