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The power of fiction in theatre and the transformation of reality -4th installment

Futoshi Sakauchi
Associate Professor of School of Culture, Media and Society, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University

A technician friend of mine told me the readings he took from his own dosimeter daily in an area about 20km from the nuclear power plant in question. The figures were unnerving. In a break from fervently removing undoubtedly contaminated soil, I was shown around a nearby zone by a local. There were debris and rocks strewn as far as the eye could see, and the sole remaining tree from a windbreak reminded me of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. After that, I couldn't get the opening line to this play out of the back of my mind. This was also at a time when this play was receiving fresh attention with a performance of a sprightly new version at the New National Theatre, Tokyo.

Waiting for Godot openings with the short line,"Nothing to be done." These words at the beginning of the play of a man despairing over being unable to take off his shoes, initially reverberates as a weak man who can't take care of himself lamenting over his incompetence."

But, what rings as pessimistic at the character level, is turned around at the actor's level and is exhibited in a comical manner. When the curtain comes up, because the actor on the stage opens with "Nothing to be done," to the keen-eyed viewer who feels the existing rules of drama have already being invalidated, this opening line may have induced refreshing laughter. As an indication, on his own stage, of breaking the code of drama and performance, the opening line is actually thought of as first-rate. (Even in Beckett's own French version, « Rien à faire » is translated as "Nothing to be done.")

But, when you go past these two levels, and look at the actor as a person and society as a whole, including the theatre, it is turned around again to display a gruesome meaning, capable of turning the audience's laughter into gloomy contemplation. Beckett was influenced through contact with fellow Irishman, James Joyce. Everything in the world which was catalogued in Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, published between the world wars, were almost all reduced to ashes in Beckett's postwar Godot With this extraordinary destruction which penetrates the individual and society being put to the front, it has so many things which should rightfully be done, but on the contrary, I can personally understand the feeling of "there is nothing that can be done" which it embraces.

But why did he choose the expression,"Nothing to be done"? Couldn't he have inserted the subject "I", and used the expression "There is nothing I can do"? When human efforts have a total setback, even when there is the dismal idea that a humanly significant result can not be reached, we cannot give up the will to act as a person. It is possible that the word "I can't" wasn't chosen for that reason. As words for a person of that mind, trying to grasp the total destruction of the vast space in his world, I believe that Beckett's sentence was not pointless to the extreme and accurate in its cold-heartedness.

However, room for an even crueler interpretation remains. That is because the opening line, by the creator of the world of Godot, can be taken at a level of being the first words of a prophecy. In other words, the opening line predicts that no matter how determined one is, and how one struggles, there is no significance in their actions after all. Certainly, the characters in this play repeatedly let things take their own course as a stopgap while waiting for the end to come, also indicating they are just filling in time. So is any urgent conduct by the characters, any performance by the actors on stage, any actions by people throughout the world that follow the opening line, simply a realization of the vision portrayed by that prophecy?

Beckett has one of the characters in Godot say, when doing up the front button of his trousers which have opened by carelessness, "Never neglect the little things of life." With humour that includes actions suited for erotic humour, this playwright simultaneously expresses convention and intellect, vulgarity and profundity, displaying the traits he inherited from Joyce. And when this plot, the materializing of the cruel prophecy, seems to close with a clear image, words, like a small wedge resisting the void, are inserted. The linguistic behaviour of this kind of playwright is, without doubt, included in the review of the role of drama. In the face of vast reality of destruction, a role that can be accomplished by artistic and aesthetic creations can also be left self-referentially in such details.

Futoshi Sakauchi
Associate Professor of School of Culture, Media and Society, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University

The author received his doctorate from the Doctoral Program in the School of English, Drama and Film at the University College Dublin (UCD). He is currently an associate professor of Studies in Media, Image, and Body at the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University. His areas of expertise are physical representation theory and theatre theory. His major theses include Staging Bankruptcy of Male Sexual Fantasy: Lolita at the National Theatre" (published in Ireland on Stage: Beckett and After) and "Not I in an Irish Context" (published in Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui No. 19).