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Posts Tagged ‘Absurd’

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

June 11, 2012 17 comments

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. French title: Oh! Les beaux jours!

Obviously, plays are made to be watched in a theatre. Some can be read but I’ve always thought that the Theatre of the Absurd should be watched. It makes more sense, in a way, with the images. This is why I don’t read Beckett’s plays, I’d rather watch them if I have the chance. So far I’ve seen Endgame and a theatre version of Le Dépeupleur (The Lost Ones). I’m waiting for Godot to come to my city.

So here I was a couple of nights ago, attending Happy Days, very excited to watch Catherine Frot playing Beckett.

In Happy Days, Winnie is trapped up to the waist in a hole in the earth. She can’t move, can’t get out. Her husband Willy lives in a burrow near her. The whole play consists in watching Winnie live her curious life. She wakes up, full of rituals. The spectator feels that she cuts her day into small moments to pass the time, clinging to rituals to keep her sanity. She rejoices in slight happy moments, tries to grasp happiness from any positive event. On a purely rational level, it’s absurd. I watched it on a double channel. On one channel, I was just enjoying the ride, having fun at the comic stemming of the Absurd. On the other channel, I was analyzing, comparing the situation to life in general. There are many serious themes in this play.

Winnie works to find the motivation to keep on living. She tries to remain upbeat, shouts at Willy, claiming his attention. He barely acknowledges her presence, sometimes granting her questions with a grunt but most of the time remaining silent. He never actually talks to her. And she talks, talks, talks. She does it to cheer herself up, to fight despair and loneliness. It raises the inevitable question: how do you go on living when you’re trapped into an uncomfortable situation? In a domineering family, in a loveless marriage, in a mind-numbing job, in poverty? In a life you haven’t chosen? And when you’re ill and there is no cure?

Again, as before in The Tartar Steppe, I thought about Gary’s quest on hope and human strength. What makes us keep on living and fighting for it when it is hopeless or useless? What keeps us standing no matter what? Where do we find the capacity to adapt to terrible situations? The fort in Dino Buzzati’s novel, this hole in that Beckett play, concentration camps in Gary’s quest. Gary sees Hope as the big dope that keeps us standing despite the storm.

Winnie also tries to retain her humanity. She needs to know that Willy is hearing her, not necessarily listening, but at least that he’s within earshot. She couldn’t bear to be alone and have no one to acknowledge her as a human. We need to interact with other people to feel human. Like trumps, she tries to remain clean and part of her ritual is to apply make-up and do her hair. Abandoning that is starting to lose the battle against despair and dehumanisation.

Catherine Frot was Winnie. She looked like a siren ensconced in a huge oyster shell planted in the middle of a desert. Her body is locked in her hole and it restrains her movements. Her mind is still the same but she doesn’t have the same velocity, her body’s possibilities reduced by her condition. Old age, that’s what I thought, the body as a fortress for the mind, as Proust describes it is Le Temps Retrouvé. Your mind remains young and your body fails you.

The décor was fantastic, with great lights. As expected, Catherine Frot was excellent. Her face is really mobile; she can show many emotions with a frown, a lifted eyebrow, a pout. Her diction is perfect, no need to shout to be heard in the distance. I’m happy I had the opportunity to see her in that role and to have her as a middleman to approach Beckett’s work.

The Tartar Steppe: from book to play

May 10, 2012 15 comments

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati French title: Le désert des Tartares.

Once again work gave me the opportunity to go to the theatre in Paris. Before discussing the play, let me tell you about the emotion of small Parisian theatres. This time, I attended a play in a theatre Boulevard des Batignolles, Le Petit Hebertot. In these small theatres, the usherettes get only tipped and have no wages – Note for American readers: this is very unusual in France – and you can feel it’s not a show with a big budget but mostly enthusiastic actors and staff who play and run the theatre because it’s their passion and not to make money. It’s an atmosphere Beryl Bainbridge relates well in An Awfully Big Adventure. We were barely fifty spectators in the room, I was seated in the second row, the actors were about five to ten steps from me. Sometimes I was under the impression that the main actor looked straight into my eyes when he was on stage. It’s a strange feeling, the actors are there, so near you could almost touch them and yet far away from themselves, in their characters.

That night, I’d decided to attend the play version of The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. It’s a novel I read a long time ago and the memory I had of it came more from reading Guy’s review than from my own reading. It was made into a play by Xavier Jaillard, who had also made La Vie devant soi into a successful play in 2008. The Tartar Steppe relates the life of the officer Giovanni Drogo. At the beginning of the novel, he is just out of the military academy and sent to Fort Bastiani, a remote place at an undefined border near the Tartar steppe. The place is desolated, isolated. Nothing happens there, it’s near a “dead border”, a border where there is no real danger. It’s in the mountains, there is no city in the vicinity, no distraction at all. Drogo wants to get away from there immediately but his officer convinces him he’d better stay four months before asking for a transfer.

Days pass, a routine settles, life is within a frame of military duties and there is always the hope of an attack from the Tartars and the chance to be useful. Years pass by and the more he stays, the more Drogo is incapable of living in the “normal” world.

It’s a strong text. It reminded me of reportages on prisoners who stay in jail for years and are eventually released. It may be hard for them to leave the prison adjust to their new life. You’d think they’d be happy to be free but they don’t always know what to do with their freedom if nobody waits for them.

The Tartar Steppe also shows the power of hope. How hope can make you stand up and live and at the same time prevents you from acknowledging the truth, cut your losses and run. Drogo always hopes the D-Day will be tomorrow, that he will have an opportunity to fight the Tartars nobody has ever seen. From day to day, sustained by hope, time flows and his life goes by. He doesn’t make the decision to leave because it could happen tomorrow. He’s like a gambler in front of a gambling machine, unable to leave in fear that the next coin will be the one that will make the difference and they will win the lottery. In this, I recognize Romain Gary and his ambivalence towards hope, poison and source of life at the same time.

The Tartar Steppe criticizes the absurdity of military life. Lives sacrificed to keep a stupid border where nobody goes. Blind obedience to discipline, deathly routine that kills any willpower left. Last year I visited the Fort de l’Essaillon in the French Alps. We did a kid tour with questions and heard lots of explanations about military life at the time. Fort Bastiani reminded me of this place. The Fort de l’Essaillon was never used; it kept the border between France and Italy in the 19thC and nothing happened there.

Furthermore, Buzzati points out the absurdity of life, the way you start on a road by chance, keep walking, try to turn away sometimes only to realize that the gate closed behind you and that there is no turning back. You can only keep on walking the same path. It’s a desperate book in a way and it surprised me that I had the same reaction as the first time I read it as a teenager. I wanted to shake Drogo, to urge him to react, to tell him “Do something!” Passivity is something I can understand with my brain but not with my guts. And yet, I do know it’s not easy to make a radical change in one’s life.

The novel was well adapted into a play, I think. The décor was simple but I could imagine easily the Fort and its life of duties. The novel is worth reading.

The story of the man who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong

October 7, 2011 20 comments

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol. 1836

In The Breast, Philip Roth refers to The Nose by Gogol and you’ll understand why when I write the review of the Roth. As it is a short-story, I decided to read it. The Nose is the story of the a barber who finds the nose of his client Assessor Kovalev in his breakfast bread one morning, while Assessor Kovalev wakes up and his nose is gone: 

Collegiate Assessor KOVALEV also awoke early that morning. And when he had done so he made the “B-r-rh!” with his lips which he always did when he had been asleep — he himself could not have said why. Then he stretched, reached for a small mirror on the table nearby, and set himself to inspect a pimple which had broken out on his nose the night before. But, to his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been! Greatly alarmed, he got some water, washed, and rubbed his eyes hard with the towel. Yes, the nose indeed was gone! He prodded the spot with a hand — pinched himself to make sure that he was not still asleep. But no; he was not still sleeping. Then he leapt from the bed, and shook himself. No nose!

It is a terrible drama for him who is seeking social ascension. He needs to find a good position as a civil servant, he wants to socialize with the high society and he hopes to marry Alexandra Potdochina’s daughter. All this cannot be achieved without a nose!

Even loss of hands or feet would have been better, for a man without a nose is the devil knows what — a bird, but not a bird, a citizen, but not a citizen, a thing just to be thrown out of window. It would have been better, too, to have had my nose cut off in action, or in a duel, or through my own act: whereas here is the nose gone with nothing to show for it — uselessly — for not a groat’s profit!

The poor man will try anything to catch up with his nose. Once he meets his Nose on the street – a most funny encounter and chases him. He goes to a newspaper to advert and have someone bring his nose back. He tries to find a reason to this disappearance and ends up thinking Alexandra Potdochina is responsible for his loss. It’s surreal, absurd and really funny. I’ve read that Gogol’s aim was to point out all the rules we need to abide by to be part of some social circles. Here, in this society, it would have been admitted to have only one leg but not to have a nose, unless you can be proud of the way you lost it. It questions our identity and how our physical appearance matters when it comes to relationships. The need to look “normal” is powerful and poor Kovalev carries a handkerchief to hide the place where his nose should be, in a vain attempt to keep nosy people away. Gogol isn’t really introspective here, Kovalev has no real internal turmoil and he doesn’t linger on the effects this event have on his inner mind. He emphasizes more on the social consequences and the risk to be an outsider.

The French translation includes play-on-words related to noses and other parts of the face. For example: The Nose says Je n’y comprends goutte and it was translated into English as I cannot apprehend your meaning, which is the same meaning, except that in French, avoir la goutte au nez means to have a runny nose. Well, in French, it’s rather witty. A moment later, when Alexandra Potdochina writes him a letter, the French version says “Vous me parlez d’une histoire de nez. Si vous entendez par là que vous avez essuyé un pied de nez, en d’autres termes que vous avez essuyé un refus de ma part, laissez-moi vous dire que c’est précisément le contraire.” and the English version is “You speak, too, of a nose. If that means that I seem to you to have desired to leave you with a nose and nothing else, that is to say, to return you a direct refusal of my daughter’s hand, I am astonished at your words, for, as you cannot but be aware, my inclination is quite otherwise.” Does that mean that the original is also full of nose-related play-on-words? I heard that Russian grammar can be bent – much more than the French one – and I can only assume that Gogol’s prose is witty too. I also enjoyed the comic effects such as the advertisements clerk offering some snuff to Kovalev to comfort him: the poor man has no nose for it! Or the moment when Kovalev tries to fix his nose back in the middle of his face. Btw, in French we say, “ça se voit comme le nez au milieu de la figure”, literally, “it’s visible like a nose in the middle of a face”, ie it’s obvious. This story is a gold mine for play-on-words.

I really enjoyed this short-story and I’m glad I read it as it is indeed useful to understand the Roth.

PS: I have a question. When Kovalev meets Madame Potdochina and his daughter on the street, he think je n’épouserai pas la gamine… si ce n’est de la main gauche, which means he won’t marry the daughter but might have an affair with her. The English translation says “I’m not going to marry the daughter, though. All this is just — par amour, allow me.” Does “par amour” have a negative connotation and actually means an affair? If yes, fortunately I didn’t read the English version, I would have thought it was a love marriage i.e., the exact opposite.

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