A Bowler Hat

At the dawn of the golden era of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the most popular on-screen character was: “the tramp”. Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy and also the Italian comedianTotò, who often played  this role ( he was actually a Neapolitan nobleman: Prince Antonio De Curtis), were those who gave life to the most memorable ones. Being no longer part of the productive system of society “the tramp” endeavours to survive taking whatever paying work is available or using cunning either to get what he needs or to escape the authority figures who wouldn’t tolerate his behaviour. Somehow, he is modelled on the Spanish pícaro, a roguish character whose travels and adventures are used as a vehicle for social satire, but “the tramp” is a more clumsy, generally a good-hearted sort of man, who looks at the world with the innocent eyes of a child. Even if he has been relegated to the margin of society he endeavors to behave as much as possible with the manners and dignity of a gentleman.

The clothes he wears are the sign of his marginalization. They never fit properly as to symbolize that tramps are no longer fit to be part of the system. The jackets may be too loose or too tight, the  trousers too long or too short and the shoes are often clownish. However, there is an accessory it seems they cannot do without: the bowler hat. It is that hat that makes those characters comic and tragic at the same time. The bowler had become one of the most popular hats in the early 20th century as it was more informal and practical than the top hat, thus becoming a distinctive symbol of the middle upper class of the time. The Belgian painter Magritte, who had made bowlers the protagonists of many of his paintings said:

“It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.”

On the head of those outsiders bowlers represented the memory of a more dignified past, what they used to be: middle class men, that is, part of that “anonymity” that now rejects them. Uprooted and hopeless they are doomed to try and survive in an inhospitable world. This kind of humanity thus represented fitted perfectly Beckett’s idea of the Absurd of living, that’s why he chose to model Vladimir and Estragon, the main characters of ” Waiting for Godot”, on Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy .

Beckett was an enthusiast of cinema, silent films and of Stan and Ollie, in particular. He borrows, in fact, many distinctive elements of the two comedians, along with their gags and routines. Apart from wearing bowler hats, Vladimir and Estragon are known by their Christian names, just like Stanley and Oliver, and use their nicknames Didi and Gogo as Stan and Ollie. We also understand from Vladimir’s statement to Estragon: “I’m lighter than you” that Beckett intended a noticeable difference in weight between the characters playing his lead roles, just like Laurel and Hardy. Many of the play’s stage directions and the slapstick routines concerning their hats or boots sound as though Beckett is quoting from a Laurel and Hardy shooting script. Even the theme of suicide by hanging  which appears at the end of each act echoes a similar scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 motion picture: The Flying Deuces. Hardy is heartbroken because the woman he loves has rejected his marriage proposal, so he decides to drown himself, and expects that Laurel to do the same :

LAUREL: What do I have to jump in there for? I’m not in love!

HARDY: So that’s the kind of a guy you are? After all I’ve done for you, you’d let me jump in there alone! Do you realise that after I’m gone that you’d just go on living by yourself? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you! Do you want that to happen to you?

LAUREL: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Ollie. I didn’t mean to be so dis-polite.

HARDY: There, there, Stanley. Let bygones be bygones. This is going to be easier than you think.

Just like in Waiting for Godot, the two fear that one of them may live while the other dies. In this tragicomic vision Laurel and Hardy provided Beckett the key to express on stage the fear of remaining lonely in an absurd world where the presence of a companion is the only real comfort and certainty that can give you the impression of being rooted somehow. With a laughter they could exorcise for a moment the fears and the doubts of those post war generations who felt marginalized just like them and were unable to find meaning in the world they lived. Without a real prospect of a future but the illusion that a Godot one day may show up, they could not but long for that “anonymity” represented by the bowler hat they don’t want to part with.

 

 

 

 

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A Matter of Time

When the twentieth century novelists decided that those plots which frame our
lives and those masks we wear every day for the sake of conventions and society were no longer “interesting”, but rather, what’s hidden behind those masks, the very first victim to be sacrificed to the altar of modern narrative was time, or
better, chronological time .

As Sterne taught us, under the mask there is not hypocrisy, but chaos, the freedom of
thought, no fear of judgement, it is exactly what we are: naked. In that precious
tabernacle which is our mind, time flows free and ruthless. Hence, whoever dared
represent it should have employed new writing techniques, as the old ones could not go under the surface, the mask. Freud, with his studies on the unconscious, Bergson,
with his theory on mental time processes called ” la Durée” and William James, who
theorized “the stream of consciousness” gave those writers what they needed to forge the modern novel.

Rather than following actions linked by a cause-effect pattern, readers were involved by the train of thoughts of the characters that caused those actions. Therefore, at the beginning of a modern novel we don’t find any longer introductory pages with all the information we need to have about the central character/s, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example:

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me(…)”. (Robinson Crusoe Chpt.1)

Or Jane Austen’s Emma:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”(Emma Chpt.1)

The heroes that people modern novels may remain without a face or details about their personal lives for many pages till those details cross the mind of the character and only then it is possible to attempt a picture of one of them. Novels become as treasure chests that chronologically may last even one day only, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, chests that keep together the warm, virulent, indomitable power of the characters’ thoughts which freely skip from one way to another thanks to their association of ideas.

The fresh morning air of London”( What a lark! What a plunge!“) and the sound of the hinges of the doors which are to be removed to make more room for Mrs Dalloway’s party, take her to the past when she was eighteen at her summer-house by the sea and the ghost of Peter Walsh appears without any introduction, just few lines she remembers which are apparently meaningful for her, but absolutely meaningless for us :

Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh.” (Mrs Dalloway Chpt.1)

Peter Welsh is a central character of Mrs Dalloway’s life, even he is physically distant, he is constantly present in her mind, in fact he is the very first person we meet in her train of thoughts.

In Dubliners, Eveline has been motionless at the window for some time when she hears somebody’s footsteps:

“The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.”

The sound of the footsteps, which turns from cracking to crunching takes her to the red houses where once there was a field, where she used to play with her brothers and friends and was happy. In that memory the censorious shadow of her father materializes, with a “blackthorn” stick in his hands. Her father is first in her thoughts rather than Frank, the young man with whom she had consented to an elopement that very night, as it is Eveline’s relationship with him the core of the story.

In this new way of writing, pages may chronologically cover few seconds, while a
line hours, as for the individual, time may speed up or slow down even if for the clock pace remains the same. Joyce tells us that “She(Eveline) sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue“, however, how long had she been sitting there? Hours? Maybe, as we are brought to understand that there was still light when she sat there, but the day had then become night as pointed out by the alliteration of the “w”, which turns into a “v”, and the vowel sound, which grows darker and darker word after word. The incoming night presses her to go while her sense of guilt keeps her there, at the window motionless. Eveline feels both as an invasion of her soul. Very likely she would have preferred a third option, but hadn’t we plunged into the secrecy of her thoughts, we would have seen only a girl sitting at the window and not a word would have been spent on her.