By Daniel J. Holmes
Critics attempting to evaluate the comedic elements of Waiting for Godot often become swept up in Samuel Beckett’s concept of the risus purus. This mode of comedy is described in Beckett’s 1953 novel Watt as “the mirthless laugh… the laugh of laughs… the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy” (Beckett, 53). It seems clear that much of the humour in Godot is this type of self-referential metacomedy, jokes that take for a punch line their own identity as a joke. But many otherwise insightful critics (I might mention Theodor Adorno) have been so satisfied with the ability of the risus purus to explain the play’s humour that they have overlooked a very different form of laughter evoked by Godot. We laugh more freely and naturally at the slapstick capers of Vladimir and Estragon than we do at their metacomedic wordplay, and we cannot ignore the physical comedy of Godot without missing half (and one might even say the better half) of the play. Those wishing to perfectly appreciate Beckett’s use of slapstick would be advised to turn to a source that, although perhaps not well-remembered for literary opinions, can speak with the highest possible authority on all matters of clowning: the legendary 20th Century comedy pairing of Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy. When we consider Didi and Gogo to be the absurd, tragicomic reincarnation of Stan and Ollie, we gain an invaluable insight on the play – and a compelling perspective on the nature of slapstick as a comedic medium.
There will be two chief goals of this evaluation. One will be a speculative definition of tragicomic slapstick as the burlesque of consciousness, a form of comedy that uses the awkwardness of corporeal existence to comment on our discomfort with our own consciousness. Simultaneously, this paper shall attempt to demonstrate how the concept was present as a prototype in the classic comedy films of Laurel and Hardy, and how Beckett consciously borrowed from the duo in order to create the most significant presentation of existential slapstick in the history of absurdist theatre.
It seems prudent to offer a preliminary note on my methodology. This paper draws on Godot and also several selected films from Laurel and Hardy. Because many of these films do not have a surviving script, I have frequently been forced to rely upon transcription when quoting dialogue from the movies. This means that the occasional clerical error may appear. Finally, my research has been so substantially aided by Jordan R Young’s Laurel and Hardy Meet Samuel Beckett: The Roots of Waiting for Godot, that it seems appropriate to mention him here. Young’s book directed me to the most relevant scenes from the Laurel and Hardy filmography, and provided me with valuable information regarding Godot’s production history, and this paper accordingly owes him a great debt.
There is overwhelming evidence to support the notion that Didi and Gogo were inspired by the comedic capers of Laurel and Hardy. In the first place, Beckett was one of many 20th century writers (the list also includes Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and JD Salinger) to have been deeply enamoured of Laurel and Hardy as a child. Beckett even uses a Joycean device to refer to the pair in Watt, with the same character that defined the risus purus later describing a healthy bush as a “hardy laurel” (Young, 3). Godot is packed with references to specific scenes and motifs from the Laurel and Hardy filmography, but it may be helpful to offer some general resemblances before discussing these details at length.
The first similarity concerns the taste in headwear of the two pairs, both of which favour the bowler (the title of this paper being taken directly from the stage directions for Godot). Another likeness is in the naming of the characters: both pairs are known by their Christian names (Vladimir and Estragon, Stanley and Oliver) and by a nickname shared as a symbol of affection (Didi and Gogo, Stan and Ollie). Finally, we may assume from Vladimir’s statement to Estragon that “I’m lighter than you” that Beckett intended a noticeable difference in weight between the characters playing his lead roles, another probably reference to Laurel and Hardy. Indeed, many of the most famous casts of the play, including Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel in the 1961 televised film version, have made the character of Didi substantially heavier than his friend, and even given him a moustache, evocative of Oliver Hardy’s own facial hair (although no major production has given Vladimir a toothbrush moustache, the actual style sported by Hardy, we may assume the reason for this to be the connections between the moustache and Hitler made inevitable by World War II).
The very first lines of Godot are, in fact, a direct reference to Laurel and Hardy’s 1931 short film Be Big!. The central gag of the film involves Stan and Ollie mixing up their boots, with the smaller shoes of Laurel becoming stuck on the famously rotund Hardy. After struggling to remove the shoe by himself, Hardy calls out to his friend for help, and an extended slapstick routine follows as the two attempt to remove the boot together. This scene resembles Godot not only in content, but in tone. Halfway through the episode, Hardy counsels his pal with this advice, which sounds at least like Tom Stoppard, if not like Beckett himself:
OLLIE: Let’s get together. There’s nothing to getting a boot off. You don’t have to drag me around the room – it’s most embarrassing. Let’s concentrate and use our brains. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Remember the old adage? “A task slowly done is surely done.” … Now, just follow my example and see how easy, how simple, how free from care everything will be.
The lines admit the absurdity of the problem facing the two but at the same time recognise it as a clear and distinct obstacle to be overcome. This is a critically important aspect of the tragicomic idiom. Tragedy emphasises its own seriousness whereas comedy openly confesses its own absurdity. The seriocomic, then, recognises both at the same time. Its subject matter is the insoluble non-problem – either situations that have only one potential outcome or the problematic lack of a situation. This leads to another important aspect of tragicomedy. Tragedy can never admit itself to be a work of art: the ability of the audience to take seriously the woes of the characters would be severely compromised were one of those characters to confess their ultimate unreality. Comedy, on the other hand, can only exist openly as a work of art. At the very least, the comic depends upon the laughter of his audience as a part of the play – a comedy at which nobody laughs is an incomplete play. This laughter must come from the audience, in fact, because the actor, conscious of the unreality of the events confronting him, must never laugh himself. The displayed emotions of the tragedian ought indeed to be tragic, because he believes in his created world, but the comedian may only laugh at the peril of his own joke.
If tragedy obscures its created nature and comedy proudly accepts it, then tragicomedy, we might say, takes unreality as its tragedy. The chief conflict of the seriocomic is the absurdity of unreality and the characters will frequently make efforts to escape it. One of Oliver Hardy’s most famous non-verbal trademarks is the deeply pathetic, heartbroken look he makes directly to the camera after any instance of particular absurdity. The stare acknowledges the unreality of the situation by addressing itself directly to an unseen audience, but still despairs of any solution to whatever fine mess Stan and Ollie have gotten into this time. It is a look that silently expresses its wish to escape from the confines of a cinematic prison, but finds the screen a more effective barrier than any wrought iron bars. In Godot, Vladimir, frightened by the second approach of Pozzo and Lucky, offers a rash solution for escape:
VLADIMIR: We’re surrounded! (Estragon makes a rush towards back.) Imbecile! There’s no way out there. (He takes Estragon by the arm and drags him towards front. Gesture towards front.) There! Not a soul in sight! Off you go! Quick! (He pushes Estragon towards auditorium. Estragon recoils in horror.) You won’t? (He contemplates auditorium.) Well, I can understand that. Wait till I see. (He reflects.) Your only hope left is to disappear.
There is another, even more drastic form of escape which Didi and Gogo consider. Each act has a short dialogue in which the friends discuss the possibility of committing suicide by hanging, and both times they rule it out due to the fear that one of them may live while the other dies (Estragon boils this down to “Gogo light—bough not break—Gogo dead. Didi heavy—bough break—Didi alone”). These farcical suicide attempts echo a similar scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 motion picture The Flying Deuces. Early in the film, Hardy has his heart broken when the woman he loves rejects his marriage proposal. He decides to drown himself, and expects that Laurel will commit suicide with him – an idea to which Stan replies with feeble protest:
LAUREL: What do I have to jump in there for? I’m not in love!
HARDY: So that’s the kind of a guy you are? After all I’ve done for you, you’d let me jump in there alone! Do you realise that after I’m gone that you’d just go on living by yourself? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you! Do you want that to happen to you?
LAUREL: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Ollie. I didn’t mean to be so dis-polite.
HARDY: There, there, Stanley. Let bygones be bygones. This is going to be easier than you think.
These seriocomic suicide attempts provide a valuable insight into the nature of the friendship in question. Both sets are horrified by the notion that one of them should outlive the other, leaving someone alone to make sense of his own identity. Their discomfort with self and spirit can be lessened by the pleasures of friendship (though both sets of friends seem to abuse each other with an alarming frequency), but the fear of being left alone is even worse than the fear of death. Of course, neither Dido and Gogo nor Stan and Ollie succeed in killing themselves. The belt that was to hang the Estragon and Vladimir snaps during testing, and Laurel and Hardy are prevented from their designs by a concerned passer-by. The physical laws and circumstances of a tragicomic universe prevent the escape of any consciousness trapped within it.
The inability to abide by unreality and the powerlessness to escape define the tragicomic actor in everything he does, including slapstick. The effective agent in all slapstick comedy is the problematic disconnect between our minds and the bodies to which they have been rather clumsily attached. We see reflected in slapstick the universal discomfort with physical existence – we equate our essential self with our internal, spiritual self, an ideal which must then be expressed through the awkwardness of a corporeal form. One of the most common nightmares involves the sudden inability of the mind to effectively control its body: we perceive of some vicious creature or other imminent threat, but when we attempt to run our legs betray us, going in every which direction except the one commanded. Slapstick is the antithesis of this horror. The slapstick comedian must make us laugh at the rather unwieldy vehicles we have been given. His heart of hearts believes firmly in the Cartesian Cogito: that his self is his subjectivity which has, through no fault of his own, become imprisoned in the ultimately unreal body of a buffoon.
We see, then, the problem with an understanding of slapstick as physical comedy rather than the comedy of the physical. In his Comedy is a Man in Trouble, Alan Dale claims that “slapstick is a fundamental, universal, and eternal response to the fact that life is physical. Of the two components, body and soul, we have empirical proof of the first alone. It’s the body we can see interacting with physical forces and objects, and our intense exasperation that this interaction doesn’t run smoother… stimulates the urge to tell a story in a slapstick mode” (Dale, 11). Dale has it exactly backwards when he postulates that slapstick assumes the body to exercise a higher level of reality than the spirit. As a matter of fact, no true form of comedy could admit of this. It is tragedy that takes as its precondition the heightened reality of corporeal existence, with the genesis and terminus of dramatic tragedy being the condition of human mortality. Comedy, by its very nature, runs opposite this theme. It debases the reality of physical existence by virtue of the absurd. Comedy openly flouts the conventions of temporal existence, especially the laws of probability (we will accept not only one pair of long lost identical twins with the same name being reunited at Ephesus, but also the reunion of their servants, another set of twins with matching names) and physics (perhaps expressed in its most classic form by the amazing power of the common banana peel to eliminate friction when trodden under foot).
This is not to claim that tragedy is unable to utilise the power of the absurd. On the contrary, the great playwrights are capable of slamming their character with the full force of outrageous fortune, abusing the odds to have their hero slay his father and marry his mother. The essential difference is that tragedy always approaches the absurd with reverential awe. The external situation is always the victor in a tragedy; the idealized self is always overwhelmed by the flow of causality. Comedy, on the other hand, is essentially about the assertion of the self over the causal. It plays out as the victory of the internal over that which stands against it. More than that, it scores its victory by causing us to laugh at the absurd, thereby robbing it of its sting. Slapstick takes the most immediate physical problem of our existence, the pain of having a body, and allows us to laugh at it.
Tragicomedy refuses to bend reverently before the power of causal absurdity, but it also refuses its character the victory allowed in a truly comedic situation. The seriocomic hero exists in a narrative limbo in which the events facing him are just as weak and meaningless as his own sense of self. When slapstick is presented in this tragicomic mode, it becomes what I consider the burlesque of consciousness: a form of physical comedy that uses the body (itself the thin border between consciousness and temporal life) to express a deep discomfort with the burden of existence. Didi and Gogo are not only souls trapped in bodies, they are souls trapped in the very fact of their own existence. Considered in this light, the entire play is a sort of slapstick on several different metaphysical levels.
Samuel Beckett certainly drew on themes from Laurel and Hardy when he created his tragicomic vision, especially on the duo’s unique approach to slapstick comedy. Stan and Ollie, along with Charlie Chaplin (for whom Stanley Laurel had originally served as an understudy), defined a new idiom in slapstick during America’s Golden Age of Comedy. The self-conscious aspect of this new method not only gave an unprecedented depth to the practise of slapstick (which always runs the risk of superficiality), it gave rise to an important theme within absurdist theatre. For all of the fine messes they find themselves in, Stan and Ollie provide us with an excellent lens for interpreting Waiting for Godot. Even more than that, they teach us much about laughter – and through laughter, at least as much as Beckett can about our fears, our desires, and our puzzling identity as human souls.
Be Big. Dir. Hal Roach. Perf. Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Blackhawk Films, 1931.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. N.p.: Sceptre, 1993. Print.
Dale, Alan S. Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000. Print.
The Flying Deuces. Dir. A. Edward Sutherland. Perf. Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy. RKO Radio Pictures, 1939. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shQhsCo5dlI.
Young, Jordan R. Laurel and Hardy Meet Samuel Beckett: The Roots of Waiting For Godot. Vol. 1. 2012. Past Times Film Closeup. Kindle.