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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11 thoughts on “A Bowler Hat

  1. Fascinating insights, Stefy, as always: like insanitybytes22 I had no inkling Beckett had based his tramps on Laurel and Hardy, and now I see them in a new light. Also the clothes which “symbolize that tramps are no longer fit to be part of the system” is a masterful metaphor which I’d never considered consciously before. Excellent points.

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