Sunday, November 21, 2010

Required Work: Waiting for Godot

For this week’s post I am going to explore the confusing yet somewhat surprisingly popular play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. As mentioned in the post for Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Beckett wrote in what became known as the theater of the absurd (two pages into the play and you begin to understand what that means). I have actually read several other works written by Beckett, including another of his plays, Endgame. Reading Beckett’s other work did help me better understand this one. And as usual with plays, it is probably a good idea to watch a performance of Waiting for Godot as plays are meant to be seen and not read.


Of course, there is the genre of the theater of the absurd. The play completely violates ordinary expectations, and the characters actions seemingly make very little sense. Beckett’s play has also been described as expressionistic minimalism. There is never a change in scenery, the characters stay in one place, and they seemingly will continue to stay in that place until Godot comes. But the assumption at the end of the play is that Godot never will come, and not only have these characters been waiting a long time for him, but they will continue to wait apparently until the end of time. This endless waiting for something causes many critics and readers to link Beckett with existentialism. They even want to walk away, but are paralyzed in place simply because they feel they have to wait for Godot. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a hope or saving force that will never actually come.

The cover of the play also announces that it is a “tragicomedy in two acts.” This is yet another one of those works on the M.A. list that is funny in spots, but ultimately it is incredibly depressing and void of hope (there seems to be a lot of those on the exam list). The back and forth between Vladimir and Estragon can be quite funny at times. In fact, for me, this play is an example of repetition used effectively (unlike that travesty of a novel I wrote about last week*). But of course, there are darker elements: at one point Estragon suggests that both he and Vladimir hang themselves; the mistreatment of Lucky as Pozzo’s slave; the fact that Estragon seems to spend every night in a ditch and is continually beaten by a group of men; and of course, that awful reality that these men are simply fated to live this same terribly bleak day over and over.


The very first words in the play are “Nothing to be done,” uttered by Estragon after multiple attempts to take his boot off. Beckett was a man that chose his words carefully. He was an Irish born writer who studied in England and spent most of his life living in France. The original text was actually written in French, and Beckett has been quoted as saying that he prefers to write in French because his vocabulary in that language is much more limited than it is in English. I believe (and I could be wrong on this) that his point is that if he writes in French, he has to pay more closely to what he is putting down on paper because the words do not come to him as naturally. Beckett actually loved language and loved words, and for proof of this I recommend you refer to his novel, Watt, where the narrator obsessively explores a situation of issue by playing out every possible scenario or combination (i.e. “my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s father’s…). Apart from a somewhat philosophical soliloquy by Lucky, there isn’t much extensive rambling in this play. Everything is fairly minimal, and a lot of the dialogue is used over and over again as the characters discuss the same issues. I am not sure if these issues of Beckett’s language would necessarily fall under theme, but it is important to the play and something that stands out to anyone who has read or seen it.

The general overarching themes seem to be along the lines of desperation and hopelessness. The mean are desperate enough to result to suicide, but even that means of escape is thwarted, twice. The first time they just realize that they both may not die and that would leave one of them alone, and that is completely unacceptable. The second time their “rope” breaks (Estragon’s belt), leaving them nothing to hang themselves with. They are waiting for Godot, seemingly so they can leave, but because he never shows up, they do suggest that they go without him, yet they never move from where they sit or stand. For me, this is a picture of utter hopelessness.


The original French text was written between 1948 and 1949, and some would argue that it captures a general feeling that followed World War II.

Because of it is an absurdist play, its out of the ordinary dialogue and sequence of events have invited misinterpretation after misinterpretation. Beckett quickly became sick of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations. He asserted that people were overcomplicating things. Nevertheless, there are political, religious, psychological, ethical, and even homoerotic interpretations. And the fact that the play was so open to a variety of readings led Beckett to sanction a famous mixed-race production of the play , which of course led to many more misreadings and misinterpretations. So my advice, do not try to fight the text. If you feel like you are trying to “win” or “defeat” it, then you are probably trying too hard.

Next week there will not be a posting as it is Thanksgiving break and I will be enjoying time with my family. So I will say Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading.

*See the title of last week’s blog post.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Optional Work: American Pastoral

I am going to start off by saying that I do not like this book at all. The only other book I have read by Philip Roth is The Counterlife, and I didn’t care for that one either. American Pastoral does not make any sense, has absolutely no closure at the end, and it is a book that employs painful repetition and run-on sentences as literary devices. I can’t for the life of me understand how this book won a Pulitzer, but nevertheless, it made it onto the M.A. list. This is the type of book that makes me ask the question I posed in my second blog post.*


Genre becomes an interesting subject with this book because of its title. When it comes to literature, a pastoral typically portrays real life as an idyllic condition. But the characters in this book have lives that are anything but idyllic. For some of them, their lives may look idyllic on the outside: Swede was the popular blonde haired, blue eyed jock from high school who grew up to marry Miss New Jersey, have a baby girl, and inherit his father’s business, but this isn’t the whole story. Without giving too much away, things make almost a complete 180 for the Swede and it is clear that this is not the ideal. The point may be that the American pastoral does not really exist, and to portray anyone’s life as such is a lie. Swede Levov is part of a Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S. looking for the American dream, and at one point it would appear that they had achieved it. But in reality, they have gone from the first generation being poor immigrants, to the latest generation being terrorists. So the question really becomes how much have the actually accomplished?

The novel is of course fiction, but to take it one step further, this isn’t just a book telling the story of Swede Levov. It is actually the story of Zuckerman, a man who knew of the Swede in high school, imagining what the Swede’s life was really like, and that is the story the reader is getting. So we aren’t even getting the story by way of the usual narrator, but we are getting a story of what one of the characters imagined had happened. But in the end, he is simply doing what fiction writers do, and that is he is making everything up.


The main theme for me is what I mentioned under genre, which is the idea that the American dream isn’t real. But of course, there are many more themes that can be taken from the book.

For me, it is kind of weird to think of conflict as a theme, as all stories inevitably have some sort of conflict going on. But one of my classmates pointed this out and there are a few good points that can be taken from this. The characters, and mostly the main character Swede Levov, are trying to resolve the conflict between their past (the paradise remembered), and what has happened since to give them their future (the fall, and the paradise lost). There is conflict between people, generations, personal histories, family histories, and even American history.

Roth also makes use of repetition, mostly to emphasize a point, and a lot of the time it will be at a high intensity moment. The points could have been made in a different (and often much shorter in my opinion) way, but Roth chooses repetition instead. The repetition occurs usually when a certain character is making a speech or ranting, or when two or more characters are arguing. Instead of the argument being resolved, at least one character, and usually the one that is the most aggressive, will end up reiterating the same point over and over, therefore causing the argument to go nowhere.

There is also a running theme of shifting perceptions. On first sight, the Swede’s life can be seen as idyllic, but a deeper look will prove that it isn’t. The reader can see Swede as an idealist always trying to believe the best. However, his brother is a cynic and sees reality for what it is. However, this can also show cynics to be as deluded as idealists are, but in a different way, as nothing is purely either one way or the other. There is a real difference between perception and reality, for everyone. Jerry, Swede’s brother, actually says it best on page 35:

“…you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re meeting them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.”

Perhaps if the Swede was able to see this, and also his other limitations, he may have been able to better cope with the tragedies that befell him.


American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain are part of a trilogy, as all of them include a character by the name of Zuckerman. They are also a part of a bigger collection of Zuckerman books that are nine books in total. In most of the other Zuckerman books, the character is known for frequently being in and out of the beds of different women, and he often gets in trouble for it. In this book however, Zuckerman is both impotent and incontinent after having surgery on his prostate for prostate cancer. Plus, he isn’t even the main character of the book, Swede is.

Also, the real Upsala College (the college the Swede attends and where he meets his future wife) closed its doors in 1995 due to financial difficulties. The book was published in 1997.

There is a part near the end of the book where Swede’s parents are obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Nixon will end up being the first American president to resign in disgrace, and this disgrace happens to link up with the deterioration of Swede Levov’s life.
After World War II, there was a rise in ethnic literature in America. Roth was often lumped together with other Jewish authors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (which Bellow began to resent after awhile). Roth actually did not appreciate having his literature tagged as Jewish-American fiction. He felt that it was a label “made up to strengthen some political agenda.”

So, if you actually liked and appreciated this book and choose to use if for your exam, then I really do hope this post will be of use to you, despite buy personal objections to the novel. As for my class, this was the last book we are covering that is on the M.A. exam; therefore, next week I will cover a different work on the list, and most likely one that is required.

*Please see the title of my second blog post

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Optional Work: Glengarry Glen Ross

Once again I am covering a play that is on the M.A. list, but one that I did not choose myself. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play that has also been made into a movie starring a good amount of Hollywood Heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey. If you do choose this play for your exam, I highly recommend you see a production of it, or at least the movie, as, like most plays, it was meant to be seen and not necessarily read. Also, because of the plays pacing and rhythm that has become to be known as distinctly Mamet, it is actually quite difficult to read.


Mamet did not write in the Theater of the Absurd as Harold Pinter did with The Homecoming. Mamet’s plays have been viewed as realism as it is possible to relate to the characters, despite the language being somewhat exaggerated and the pacing of the dialogue far more intense while still maintaining a sort of poetic form. With Pinter, the characters were almost completely unpredictable, and it was difficult to know what their motives were. With Glengarry Glen Ross, it is clear that these are desperate men just trying to make a living.


Profanity and lots of it. Not really a theme as much as it is a literary device on Mamet’s part. There really is no need to go into it…if you read or see the play, you’ll encounter it. The use of it is intentional, brutal, aggressive, and in your face, just like the characters.

The way Mamet uses the language in general is brilliant in its simplicity. You can tell who is speaking by the dialogue. All characters use ellipses, but in different ways. You can immediately tell by the first page that Levene is someone who is generally struggling – to communicate, to sell, and to live. Williamson is always in control. He pauses, thinks before he speaks, is always calm, and always has a point, while many of the others are just talking. Aaronow is too weak to communicate his own ideas, and can only seem to repeat everyone else’s.

All of them, with the exception of Baylen, the detective, are always trying to sell something: Levene tries to sell Williamson on the idea of giving him the good leads even though he isn’t that great of a salesman; Moss tries to sell Aaronow on the idea of stealing the leads and making some real money for the both of them; Roma attempts (and almost succeeds) is selling Lingk a piece of property down in Florida; and the Roma oddly takes the place that Levene held at the beginning of the play in trying to sell Williamson in giving him the good leads, thus leading to the idea that Levene is what Roma will be in about ten years.

Another theme is the Neurosis of Masculinity. All of them want to be the top dog. They are all hunting, but instead of hunting in a pack, they are each going solo and turning on each other. In this scenario, Williamson would be the symbolic female of the group as he is the only one is on salary and has no need to hunt, instead, he lives off of the collected revenue of everyone else. Williamson can also represent women in the workplace and how men react when they are forced to deal with this new sort of competition. Even Lingk, who is not a salesman but a potential customer, wants to be a top dog like Roma. Even after he realizes he has been betrayed, he is the one who apologizes and states that it is his wife that doesn’t want to buy the property.

Two solid quotes on the issue of manliness in this play: 1. P. 75 Levene: A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours (interestingly enough, so is he); 2. P. 20 Leven: Now I’m a good man (meaning not necessarily a moral man, but good at being a man).

This play has also been viewed as both capitalism without mercy, and capitalism gone awry.

It also seems to address that eternal question: How much of life is free will, and how much of it do we have absolutely control over? Is there such a thing as free will, or is some unknown entity pulling the strings all of the time? Levene seems to believe in luck and streaks, while Roma believes in making his own luck, and he is the one who is currently the successful salesman. So who is right? What do you do with the hand you’re dealt?


Bill Bryden, the director of play at the National Theater, described Glengarry Glen Ross as “a way of explaining Nixon’s America through seven of its citizens.” This play first premiered on stage in 1983, which is of course well after Nixon’s America. However, the 1980s were the “me” decade and the men in this play are definitely looking after themselves and no one else.
The 1960s saw the creation of the Peace Corps. There was also John F. Kennedy’s altruism and the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” In the 1970s, the economy went south, the Vietnam War was over (and we lost), and Jimmy Carter is mocked for his attitude of self-sacrifice. Enter the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan emphasizes trickle down economics, the central idea of which I will very loosely summarize to mean that if you look out for your self and do well, everything else below you will fall into place. Also the age of excess and of never having enough. This is the America that these seven men are attempting to survive in.

This play has also been considered a sequel to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman because here are four salesmen (plus Williamson) with very little hope, nothing left, nothing to grasp at, and get you get the sense that even for the ones that are doing well (like Roma), the success is short-lived and they all eventually end up like Levene.

So, for all of you Mamet enthusiasts, I hope this was at least somewhat helpful. This play was definitely easier for me to grasp that The Homecoming, but I can’t say that helped me like it any better. I do appreciate what Mamet has done here, but I probably need to at least see it performed before I can say that I “get it.”