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.






Texting like Godot

godotbeckettIn these last years I have noticed that my students’ approach to Beckett‘s “Waiting for Godot“, has changed, or better, improved. It seemed as if they as if they could recognize in its obscure, fragmented language and complex themes something somewhat “familiar”. Strange indeed. You know,  my “audience” is mostly composed of students of about nineteen, who are about to graduate and naturally look at their future with the defying eyes of optimism and youth. How can it be that such themes as the absurdity and the meaninglessness of living and the absence of prospects, typical of modern existentialism, might  become all of sudden “attractive”, when it is Beckett to speak rather that Eliot, for example?  Besides, the plot of Waiting for Godot can’t be actually defined captivating: two men who keep on waiting for another man, who will never show up for two acts. That is all.

8Nevertheless, the bare lines of the play seem to touch and charm their young souls in a very natural way. Oh yes, I have also thought that I might have just underestimated them. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe they were more sensitive and mature that I thought, but still I knew there was something I was missing. Then one day I understood. Do you want to have a clue? Here are a couple of lines from the play with only a little touch of modernity added:
 Estragon:”Why will you never let me sleep?” 👿
 Vladimir  :”I felt lonely.” 😦     (from Waiting for Godot, Act 1)
Estragon :”You wanted to speak to me?” 😕
Vladimir  : “I’ve nothing to tell you”   😮 (from Waiting for Godot, Act 1)
There it was: the bare, informal language of the play, actually recalled the lexicon employed in modern communication, the one my students have been fed with, since they were born. They immediately recognized it and loved it.

family gatheringYet, wait a minute…….,  Beckett ‘s use of language did not actually serve the purpose of communication at all, but rather the breakdown of communication. The dialogues, in fact, are only sketched, the words never result in actions and each character, who usually follows his own thoughts, seems to be perfectly aware that whatever he says, is just a way to fill his endless waiting. Somehow the ridiculous dialogues the protagonists are engaged with, are necessary to them to have the impression they exist and their mutual dependence confirms their existence. Therefore, if the language of modern communication resembles so much the sterile and ineffective one created by Beckett, I can’t help but wonder: what is the quality of our communication, since nowadays we have the habit of using tweets of 140 characters or sms of 160 to give voice to our thoughts? What can we communicate in such a short space? And moreover, haven’t you ever had the feeling that all this modern “communicative addiction” might be a sort of “mutual dependence” that  “confirms our existence”?