Toilet humour

Samuel Beckett estate, you have made me sad.

I came to Beckett in the most unliterary of ways. I was fifteen, there was a boy, he was older than me and probably very, very pretentious. And I wanted to know what had excited him so much and I read Company, then some of the shorter plays, and it went on from there. At seventeen I thought the fart-counting in Molloy was hilarious and got raised eyebrows from friends. In college I writhed in a back bench when gloomy classmates whined about the depressingness of Waiting for Godot which I had finally read, a few years after I’d started reading the man’s work.

There’s a wonderful introduction by Salman Rushdie (who I love most when he’s talking about other writers he loves) in one of the Grove Centenary Beckett collections that expresses a lot of what I feel for this writer. Here’s a bit:

Death was as you might say still a word in a book to me. I had not at that time washed my father’s short, heavy corpse or murmured a farewell to the open-mouthed body of the first woman I ever loved or wept tears of rage when I was denied by circumstance the right to stand beside my mother’s grave. Consequently, I still felt immortal, and immortals deal differently with the subject of mortality, knowing themselves to be immune from that strange, incurable affliction. Thus, when as a young man I first faced these texts that deal so intensely with the matter of our common ending, which Henry James had called the Distinguished Thing but which, in Beckett, is always grubbily undistinguished, a bleak prat-falling business made up of flatulence, impotence and humiliation, I experienced the books, their ferocious hurling at death of immense slabs of undifferentiated prose, as essentially fabulous, fantastic tales told by the voices of antic ghosts. I experienced them, in sum, as comedies, and so they are, they are comedies, but not of the sort I then imagined them to be, darker, and, yes, even heroic, for all that comedy scoffs at heroes, pulls down their drawers and pushes custard pie into their faces, still there remains, in the comedy of these broken, scrabbling personages, a stale whiff of odorous heroism. Some of this I when green in judgement only half perceived or neglected entirely to grasp. However, in failing to respond glumly to an oeuvre that wears glumness like a favourite unwashed shirt, I got something half right, at least.

I’m 23, and I suspect that over the next howeversomany decades my way of reading Beckett is going to change too. And that’s fine. Because I’ve always felt welcomed by his work; it has never situated itself above me. And that is at least partly because it’s never been on its dignity with me. The slapstick, the toilet humour, the banana peels; they’re important .

I know that the technical aspects of the plays are vital as well, and that Beckett himself did not like even minor deviations from his directions in productions with which he was involved. And I don’t blame him. But I can’t imagine that the man who wrote Murphy (whose main character wants his ashes flushed down a toilet – the novel ends instead with them scattered on a pub floor “with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”) would be particularly bothered by this version of his play.

[Fun fact: On the evening I first heard about this story I discovered "wait for me Godot!" scrawled on the inside of a pub toilet wall. Positively copasetic.]

One Comment to “Toilet humour”

  1. I love the last sentence about toilet poetry :-) Sometimes you can find great stuff there.

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