Saturday 13 February 2016

Two lost jokes

Perhaps you can help me in my search for the full version of two lost literary jokes. The first comes from Waiting for Godot:

An Englishman having drunk a little more than usual proceeds to a brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants a fair one, a dark one or a red-haired one. Go on.
Exit Vladimir hurriedly. Estragon gets up and follows him as far as the limit of the stage. Gestures of Estragon like those of a spectator encouraging a pugilist. Enter Vladimir. He brushes past Estragon, crosses the stage with bowed head. Estragon takes a step towards him, halts.

Does anyone out there know how the story of the Englishmen in the brothel should continue? Beckett scholars seem incurious, although there's speculation that there may be a reference to the English occupation of Ireland. Estragon's wish to hear the story is prompted by his earlier reflection on the English pronunciation of 'calm' as 'cawm' (so we may infer that the story might concern English imperturbability and stiff-upper-lippery). Vladimir rejects the overture so Estragon begins to tell the story, but Vladimir's reaction is to leave the stage hurriedly. It's not clear what he does (The stage direction reads: 'Gestures of Estragon like those of a spectator encouraging a pugilist'.) Vladimir returns ('He brushes past Estragon, crosses the stage with bowed head. Estragon takes a step towards him, halts'.). Has he, aroused by the thought of a brothel, indulged in an act of self-pollution?

It is of course wholly in keeping with Beckett's glum aesthetic that the act of telling a funny story as a form of social lubrication, of male sodality, should fail, and fail utterly.

The second lost joke appears in Auden's poem 'Letter to William Coldstream, Esq,', which appears in Letters from Iceland (1937), the volume he co-authored with Louis Macneice. (William Coldstream was Auden's landlord and the two men were employed at the General Post Office Film Unit, where Auden scripted poetic commentaries for short films including, famously, Night Mail.)

A reminder of Soho Square and that winter in horrible London
When we sat in the back passage pretending to work
While the camera boys told dirty stories
And George capped them all with this one of the major in India
Who went to a ball with dysentery
                                 Told it in action.

'George' was George Noble, a G.P.O. Film Unit cameraman. The Unit director Harry Watt describes him thus:

He wasn’t documentary at all, of course, being a daily free-lance professional, and he thought we were all nuts. But we represented a pretty steady three pounds a day. He was a short very fat Cockney, of magnificent ugliness. He wore, winter and summer, a dreadful plus-four suit with what seemed the stains of a lifetime spread across it. His immense belly oozed out over his belt – usually an old school tie – and his eyes bulged like poached eggs behind enormous pebble glasses. And yet he had more success with women than all of us quite personable youngsters rolled together. He laughed them into bed. He was a genuinely funny man, and I firmly believe that women are much more likely to just give up and give in after a night of laughter than a night of repetitive sweet talk. George had no time for anything highbrow. He always said as we left the office ‘Now, none of that arty-farty crap. Dead on and pin-sharp, that’s my motto.’ He was tiptop at his job. (Harry Watt, Don't Look at the Camera, p. 42)

So what was the joke - or dirty story - about the major in India?  What was the joke about the intoxicated Englishman in the brothel?  

1 comment:

  1. Version I: Scholars have generally accepted the ending of the joke given by Ruby Cohn. In her version, the Englishman replies that he wants a boy. Shocked, the bawd threatens to call a policeman, whereupon the Englishman pleads, 'O no, they're too

    Version II: The rest of the joke (which is cut off by Vladimir’s refusal to tell it) is that the Englishman has to decide whether he wants a blonde, brunette, or red-head. He chooses and is led through one of three doors. He is then faced with two doors and asked to make another choice, this time in regard to the upper half of the female body and size. He chooses and is led through another door. He is then faced with two doors and asked to choose again, this time based on size and the lower half of the female anatomy. At the end, the Englishman walks through a door only to find himself alone and back on the street. The relevance in this theme is that the Englishman makes a series of choices that are essentially arbitrary and cannot ultimately determine the course of his action. Like much of Waiting for Godot.