Wednesday 27 April 2016

Beckett list

No prizes for identifying the source of the following exchanges:

ESTRAGON:  That's the idea, let's abuse each other.

They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.

ESTRAGON:  Vermin!
VLADIMIR:  Abortion!
ESTRAGON:  Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
VLADIMIR:  Cretin!
ESTRAGON (with finality): Crritic!

He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

This second act exchange does not appear in the original French text of En attendant Godot, in which Beckett gives only a stage direction: (Echange d'injures. Silence.) I wonder if any Beckett scholars out there can tell me why that is. The author was fluent in French - practically bilingual - so it cannot be that he felt unable to manage Gallic invective.  But the insults seem random. Is it that Beckett did not trust English actors and directors to improvise and exchange appropriate insults? That they would go, as it were, off book?

The progression moron / vermin / abortion / morpion / sewer-rat / curate / cretin and the coup-de-grace crritic would be, in a literal French translation: idiot / vermine / avortement / morpion / rat d'égout / vicaire / crétin / critique.

'Morpion' is the word for a crab louse (the one that nests in the pubic regions) and more commonly used in French, so it remains unchanged. Do not look for an image of one of these creatures online (as I did) as they tend to be photographed in their natural habitat, and in stomach-turning High Definition. Perhaps there's a niche market for this sort of thing - but yuk.

'Morpion' has an aural echo of moron, of course, as does 'cretin' of 'critic', while 'curate' links obliquely to cretin's root word 'Christian'. Is there anything else going on during the exchange of insults?

I've written before about best production of Waiting for Godot I've ever seen (or am ever likely to see),  at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre in 1908. It ran for five weeks from mid-November before transferring to London and I must have seen it a dozen times (front row day seats were less than a quid at a time when pint of bitter cost about 35p. Directed by Braham Murray it starred (that really is the word) the great Max Wall as Vladimir and Trevor Peacock as Estragon. 

Wall was perfect. His music hall background and broken vaudevillian presence enriched the role and his personal back story (messy divorce, public obloquy and a shattered career) brought the depth and pathos to the part that regular actors cannot approximate. His timing was astonishing, his physical movements spellbinding - a great clown. His nasal voice, relishing Beckett's dialogue while seeming to despise it, and the play, and the audience, and the very building in which we sat, is the voice I hear when I read the play todday. His performance was intensely memorable and very funny. That generation has gone - there are barely a handful of performers who started their careers in what was then a fading tradition. Could Ken Dodd be Vladimir? To (say) Michael Barrymore's Estragon?

Text © The Estate of Samuel Beckett / Les editions de minuit

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