Bitter Relationships: Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Athol Fugard, and the Culture of Violence

Eugene Ngezem

Eugene Ngezem, Ph.D.

Full Professor. Department of English
Clayton State University. Morrow, GA 30260
eugenengezem@clayton.edu

Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Athol Fugard, who are among the world’s leading modern dramatists and hail from different countries and continents, are attracted, if not repelled, by the culture of violence that has encircled the world. They, in unambiguous terms and with compelling finality, show that our world is a violent place where the weak run the risk of extinction. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame, in Pinter’s The Caretaker and The Homecoming, and in Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island, violence and the pain it inflicts echo, as it were, modern man’s collective experience. The growing doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes and the propensity for the acquisition of nuclear arsenal as deterrence in our world seem to coincide with the perception of violence in these plays. Samuel Beckett (Irish), Harold Pinter (English), and Athol Fugard (South African), perceived by many as icons of modern dramatists, present a grim picture of barbarism in their plays. Their plays, of course, represent Europe and Africa, and by extension the entire world immersed in rampant and random brutality. At the backdrop of this brutality lies the waste of modern civilization, the emptiness of man’s existence, the spiritual barrenness and moral collapse of the world and its weary people. In these plays, humanity drifts through despair, lamentations, and brutality in a world of lawlessness, where the weak have no protection.  In consonance with the belligerent nature of modern man, as seen in the continuing militant legacy of the First and Second World Wars, Beckett, Pinter and Fugard present characters who indulge in both physical and verbal violence.

Like Beckett, who joined the Second World War on grounds that “I couldn’t stand with my arms folded,” his characters are targets and sources of violence (qtd. in Cohn ix). Besides, “Beckett was himself subject to … nightmares, panic attacks, isolation, and numbness” (Tankanka et al 24). In Waiting for Godot, unidentified people frequently beat Estragon. As if to resign himself to his fate, he tells Vladimir: “Certainly they beat me” (7). Estragon, in his second assault, tells Vladimir that it is difficult to prevent his aggressors from beating him:

                        VLADIMIR. (vexed). Then why do you always come crawling back?

                        ESTRAGON. I don’t know.

VLADIMIR. No, but I do. It’s because you don’t know how to defend

 yourself. Wouldn’t have let them beat you.

ESTRAGON. You couldn’t have stopped them.

VLADIMIR. Why not?

ESTRAGON. There was ten of them.

VLADIMIR. No, I mean before they beat you. I would have stopped you

            from doing whatever it was you were doing.

                        ESTRAGON. I wasn’t doing anything. (38)

Estragon’s experience shows insecurity and aggression in the world, a world where one needs to know how to defend oneself, especially as violence is random and unexplained.

Given the growing doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes and the propensity for the acquisition of nuclear arsenal as deterrence in our world, Vladimir may be right to say that one’s survival in the world depends on the ability to defend oneself. The fact that Estragon always crawls back suggests the extremity and persistency of the beatings he experiences in a world that resembles a jungle. Apart from experiencing violence from the unfamiliar people he meets, Estragon is also a target of brutality for those with whom he is acquainted.

He gets a severe kick for his kindness as he tries to wipe Lucky’s tears; he staggers and howls as he bleeds. His ordeal reminds us of Beckett, who, as Lawrence Grave points out, was, for no fault of his, stabbed by a pimp on a Paris Street in 1937 (53). Beckett’s assailant later on confessed that he did not know why he had stabbed him. The world, indeed, is a brutal place, punctuated with daily acts of random violence. Estragon, however, shows the vindictiveness that characterizes our present-day world by seeking revenge on Lucky. He kicks Lucky furiously when Vladimir assures him that he will come to his rescue if Lucky fights back. Vladimir encourages Estragon to retaliate: “You see, you’ve nothing to be afraid of. It’s even an opportunity to revenge […]. Let him have it” (56). His encouragement reflects the fueling of conflict and violence in our contemporary world.

Vladimir professes to defend Estragon; but ironically, he resorts to exerting violence on him: “He shoulders Estragon out of his way, kicks over the tool” (24). He, as is often the case in the modern world, does not reconcile the conflicting parties; he joins the fight thus encouraging conflict and violence. One, of course, understands why Frederick Busi insists: “Waiting for Godot is above all a play that aspires universality, but was not created in a vacuum; to a certain extent it is a reflection of the civilization that produced it” (69).

Lucky, apart from suffering from Estragon’s kicks, also experiences a new wave of violence from Pozzo, who jerks him consistently and violently with the rope fastened to his neck. He also whips Lucky when he is asleep and urges Estragon to pull Lucky with the rope as violently as possible, provided he is not strangled. Without showing any restraint, Pozzo urges Estragon to “give him [Lucky] a taste of his boots to the face and the privates as far as possible” (56).  In addition, Lucky shouts and struggles as Pozzo, Estragon, and Vladimir press him on the ground. Such bestiality compels Estragon to request that Vladimir should kill him “like billions of others” (40). He chooses death over a life of constant aggression and pain. Understandably, he contemplates suicide twice in the play. Writing about Beckett, Christopher Langlois, in Samuel Beckett and the Terror of Literature, says “[n]nihilism is resurrected, if not at the genocidal endpoint of the destruction of humankind, then precisely where the indestructibility of humankind is turned around as the point of commencement for the endless of humankind’s vulnerability to destruction” (56).

Modern man’s brutality is again discerned in Vladimir’s song. He sings a song about a dog that had stolen a crust of bread from a kitchen and the cook beat it to death, after which other dogs dug a tomb and buried it. His song portrays violence and its consequences. Killing a dog is evidently too severe to be a response to the theft of a crust of bread. Nevertheless, the incompatibility between the act of stealing a crust of bread and its attendant punishment is a reflection of the extreme force modern man uses in response to insignificant issues.

The dogs’ solidarity manifests itself when they dig a tomb for the dead dog. Such solidarity is rare among human beings in the play. The fraternity of these dogs contrasts with the abrasive relationships between Pozzo and Lucky, Godot and one of his Boys, and Vladimir and Estragon. The relationships of these characters show more in conflict and violence than in anything else. In fact, conflict and violence are their daily routine, even as they confront a very harsh life and normally should support each other. To David I. Grossvogel, Beckett’s characters “spend the night apart and are certain only of intervening beatings, since they are breathing and life is an endless rain of blows” (89-90). These blows are reminiscent of Beckett’s Act Without Words, 1 where an unnamed character is flung violently on stage several times by some mysterious person or force. The character falls at least eight times in this one-act play. While the fall signifies the effects of brutality, it also symbolizes the collapse of modern man in a world of arbitrary violence. Endgame, which seems an extension of Waiting for Godot, deals with violence and death.

Endgame opens with Clov violently hitting the head of the crippled Hamm in a wheelchair: “He [Clov] gets down precipitatively, looks for the dog, sees it, picks it up, hastens towards Hamm and strikes him violently on the head with the dog” (76). Similarly, Hamm’s parents lost their legs because of a violent accident. In this state, Hamm, surprisingly, starves them and locks them in bins. Nagg, as expected, dies in her bin.  Unfortunately, the disabled, who need protection the most, are as vulnerable to violence as anyone else. Hamm’s bleeding wounds suggest violence and are reminiscent of the gushing and harrowing wounds that both civilians and soldiers incur in persistent wars in our world. Hamm, as seen in the following dialogue, wants life to be terminated brutally:

CLOV. There is a rat in the kitchen!

                        HAMM. A rat! Are there rats?

                        CLOV. In the kitchen there’s one.

                        HAMM. And you haven’t exterminated him? (16)

Hamm, evidently does not want any creatures to exist in the world. He wants nothing that may enable humanity to regenerate. He wants anybody around him to experience his viciousness and wants life, as seen in the case of the rat, to be violently stopped (53).

Like Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, who has been involved in violence himself, considers the world as a brutal place:

The world is a pretty violent place; it is as simple as that, so any in the plays comes out quite naturally. It seems to me an essential and inevitable factor. Everyone encounters violence in some way or the other. It so happens I did encounter it in quite an extreme form after the [Second World War], in the East End, when the fascists were coming back to life in England, I got into quite a few fights down there. (qtd. in Ganz 15)                                                                         

Before the age of fifteen, Pinter faced two tribunals and two trials for refusing to fight in the Second World War. He saw brutality as counterproductive in any meaningful life: “I was aware of the suffering and the horror of war, and by no means was I going to subscribe to keeping it going” (qtd. in Tynan 33).  He risked going to prison for his commitment, and it is evident that his plays depict the absurdity of violence.

 In The Caretaker, Davies, who fought in the Second World War and might have been “chucked out by the Salvation Army,” is both a source and target of violence (40). He says a Scotsman pounded on him at a café, and Aston’s arrival and timely intervention saved him: “I was lucky you [came] into that café. I might have been dead more than once” (21) or “I’d be inside the hospital now” (19). Davies says his tobacco tin was knocked off “on the Great West road” (17). Davies seems to experience violence at every turn. The Monk, who would seem to embody non-violence and charity, threatens to “kick [Davis] all the way to the gate” when he begs for a pair of shoes (23). Nobody, by implication, seems to restrain from violence in a world where people are unsafe both in the streets and in the house.

Pinter, described in Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism, as one of the most important and perplexing of modern playwrights, chooses the setting for The Caretaker prudently and the attitude of his characters show that they fear the streets, strenuously look for security in a room, and cling tenaciously to what shreds of any room they could handle. These characters are thoroughly terrified at the intrusion of others into the personal universe they have built for themselves. To protect their space and comfort, they use violence to respond to any unexpected visitor. Mick, astonished to find Davies in his room, “seizes his [Davies’] arm and forces it up his back. Davies screams…Mick swiftly forces him to the floor, with Davies struggling, grimacing, whimpering, and staring” (37).

Frequent violence in the world of Pinter explains why Davies is armed with a knife, always on the alert and ready to defend himself: “The figure [Mick] takes out the electrolux plug from the light socket and fits the bulb. The light goes on. Davies flattens himself against the wall, knife in hand” (54). He also threatens to knife Aston: “I’LL STINK YOU! He [Davies] thrust his arm out, the arm trembling, the knife pointed at Aston’s stomach… Davies draws the knife into his chest, breathing heavily” (78). The violence Davies experiences seems a corresponding response to his furious and brutal nature. Pinter, maybe to show his hatred of violence, makes violence a boomerang for Davies. In many instances, the threatener (Davies) becomes the threatened. After all, according to Frederick Peason and Martin Rochester in their study of 20th Century international relations, “regardless of whether one wins or loses, [violence] can involve enormous human…costs for the participants” (274). To John Arden, in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, violence, whatever the rationale behind it, is a futile and cruel exercise.

Cataclysmic effects of violence explain man’s perpetual fear of insecurity, even in the hospital where the injured are expected to be cured.  Aston tells us that medical practitioners were rough with him in the hospital, and he fought them: “I was much stronger than I am now, I was quite strong then, I just laid one of them out and I had another one round the throat” (65). The ease at which violence is practiced in the plays of Pinter manifests in the The Homecoming where Lenny boasts of having killed a woman:

Well, this Lady was very insistent and started taking liberties with me down under this arch, liberties which by any criterion I couldn’t be expected to tolerate… So I clamped her one. It was on my mind at the time to do away with her, you know, to kill her… Well just sliding down the wall following the blow I’d given her. Well, to sum up, everything was in my favour, for a killing. (3)         

Lenny is a bitterly angry man who brags of his savagery and brutality toward women. Like the two hired killers (Gus and Ben) in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, Lenny takes delight in killing. His attitude affirms S.H. Wood’s view that the world is “a very savage and brutal place” (17). Like the dog in Waiting for Godot that is killed for merely stealing a crust of bread, death is too draconian to be a response to a woman who proposes love to a man. The bitter experiences of this lady are akin to that of our contemporary women, whose male counterparts beat them to death both at home and in the streets. Similarly, in The Homecoming, Max is extremely violent as he brutalizes his children and everyone around him.  Max wields the sad male hegemony in his world. “While Pinter sought to stage the individual’s plight against the demands of tradition and orthodoxy, he does not construct villains who are immune from the dysfunction that such systems pervade” (30).

Lenny says Max used to tuck Joey and him in bed every night and that he takes delight in “tucking up his sons” (17). In fact, Max tells Lenny (an adult in his early thirties): “I’ll give you a proper tuck up any of these nights, son you mark my words” (17). The use of the word “tuck” suggests severe brutality. Max’s violent nature is also seen when he hits Sam and Joey: “Max turns back, hits Joey in the stomach with all his might. Joey contorts, staggers across the stage. Max, with the exertion of the blow begins to collapse. His knees buckle. He clutches his stick. Sam sits, head in hands. Joey, hands pressed to his stomach, sinks down at the feet of Ruth” (43).

Max’s brutal actions to his sons resemble those of abusive parents in our present-day world. Again, like Estragon in Waiting for Godot, whom Lucky almost cripples when he attempts to wipe his tears, Sam gets a blow across his head as he tries to help Max, who is collapsing. Ironically, Max calls his sons “bloody animals” (16) but ends up behaving like a wild unprovoked animal as he hits Sam and Joey violently without cause. He blames Joey for not knowing how to attack and insists “boxing’s a gentleman’s game” (17). Like his father, who, according to Max, was a butcher, Max may be a butcher of men, especially as he threatens to chop his son’s spine.

Like Pinter’s, Fugard’s plays depict violence. As a premonition to the violence in his world, Fugard’s character, Styles states in the opening of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead: “…storm buffets natal. Damage in many areas” (3). Styles’ studio is infested with cockroaches that resist insecticide and he resorts to brutality by using a cat, Blackie, to eliminate “All the bloody Survivors” (11). The cockroaches’ determination in resisting insecticide symbolizes that of Black South Africans during apartheid and that of the oppressed in general. Using a cat to eliminate the surviving cockroaches also symbolizes the Whites’ use of Totsis to kill the Blacks in the apartheid era in South Africa. The resistance and death of cockroaches are, therefore, metaphors for the struggle and death of South Africans during apartheid and by extension, that of all the oppressed in our world. In his study of Fugard’s drama, Russell Vandenbroucke observes that on March 21, 1960, police killed sixty-nine blacks and wounded one hundred and seventy-eight during a peaceful demonstration against a pass law at Sharpeville, South Africa. To him, “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is an indictment of the depravity and inhumanity of apartheid” (123).

Thus, it is understandable when Buntu and Sizwe Bansi see the corpse of Robert Zwelinzima and immediately conclude that he has, as usual, been murdered. The corpse of Robert Zwelinzima, like the wings of cockroaches Styles finds on the floor of his studio, irrefutably indicates the lethal nature of the violence. Cockroaches that have lain in peace in an abandoned studio, like the Black South Africans on their land, suddenly face a wave of violence during which every resistance invites more crude methods to deal with them. The strongest, such as Styles and Blackie, survive, whereas the weak, represented by cockroaches and Robert Zwelinzima, perish. Brutality here relates to the one in The Island, where Hodoshe, a prison administrator, wears out the political prisoners under his care.

The Island, as the name implies, is isolated from society but surrounded by crude torturing machinery. Hodoshe, knowing he cannot be held accountable for his actions, beats prisoners and forces them to empty the sea into a hole and to break stones with a hammer. But the violence in this Island is not solely a phenomenon of South Africa; it is everywhere evident in the world. To Dennis Walder, “Brutality and degradation are, of course, to be found elsewhere than in South Africa…. His [Fugard’s] plays make us aware not only of South Africans but of man’s inhumanity to man [and] the secret pain we all inflict upon each other in the private recesses of our closest relationships” (2-3).

Brutality is too rampant and random so that characters tend to joke with it. In Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Buntu mimics the police by grabbing Man “roughly by the shoulder” (42). Buntu’s action demonstrates that security agents are brutal when dealing with the people they are supposed to protect. The Police’s “loud knocking” on Zola’s door and the fact that the police headman drags Man on the floor suggest, ironically, the brutality of those in charge of maintaining peace and order. The headman, an embodiment of authority and discipline in the police force, is even more violent than those under him (23). Man is discovered sleeping in Zola’s house, and he only manages to grab his shirt as the police push him violently into a van while he staggers in half-sleep. Such reflects the excruciating pain during apartheid. In fact, “Fugard’s anti-apartheid missiles, even though often theatrically decorated, were no less potent” (Rao Sujatha 100-103).

One of the fundamental problems the characters of Fugard, Pinter and Beckett experience is that they hardly sleep without being victims of some sort of violence or perturbation. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir wakes up Estragon twice, and Estragon angrily asks him: “Why will you never let me sleep?” (11). In this same play, Pozzo whips Lucky in his half-sleep, and in Endgame Clov uses a loud alarm to wake up Nagg. Similarly, Davies perturbs Aston’s sleep in The Caretaker and immediately blames it on “them Blacks” next door (32). Aston, on his part, coughs violently to wake Davies up; and the latter abruptly jumps out of bed. Lenny’s sleep is also perturbed in The Homecoming, where he complains: “[…] it’s just that something keeps waking me up. Some kind of ticks” (25). To him,

The trouble is I’m not all that convinced that it was the clock. I mean there are lots of things which tick in the night, don’t you find that? All sorts of objects, which, in the day, you wouldn’t call anything else but commonplace. They give you no trouble. But in the night, any given one of a number of them is liable to start letting out a bit of a tick […]. (28)

Modern man, by implication, is the target of violent problems triggered even by negligible things. But apart from the foregoing forms of violence, verbal injury is another form of violence in the plays of these playwrights.

Their characters inflict psychological pain on each other through insolence. In The Homecoming, Max and his children consistently bandy bitter words. The play opens with Lenny asking his father, Max: “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” (7) He also styles him a dog cook and tells him to “pop off” (35). Lenny’s insolent attitude depicts both verbal violence and filial ingratitude. Lenny’s insults to his father are similar to those of Hamm in Endgame, who calls Nagg, his father a scoundrel. Like Harold, in “Master Harold”… And the Boys, who insists “If there is a God who created this world, he should scrap it and try again” (35), Hamm refers to God as bastard.  According to Max, Lenny is a “lousy stinking pig” (71). He also calls Joey a deaf. Max, in several parts of the play, refers to Ruth as “smelly scrubber,” “stinking pox-ridden slut,” “filthy scrubber,” “tart,” “disease,” “slopbucket” and “bedpan.” Such insolence compels Bernard Dukore to infer that “In The Homecoming, characters savagely mock each other from the outset” (23-34).

Similarly, Waiting for Godot starts with an antagonism between Vladimir and Estragon, who exchange bitter words. They, in a comic manner, insult each other. While Vladimir refers to Estragon as “ceremonious pig,”moron,” “abortion,” “sewer-rat” and “cretin,” Estragon calls him “punctilious pig,” “vermin,” “morpion” and “curate” as “they draw closer for a fight (48). Their strange and conflicting attitude may be a consequence of what William Haney calls living “in the aftermath of a great calamity” (39).  In the midst of insult, they cling to illusive and hurtful humor, perhaps, to temporarily conceal and forget the void on which their lives are perched.                     

            Considering life to be a joke, Beckett’s tramps torture themselves and each other as they seek the meaning of life through injurious language and action toward one another. Vladimir calls Estragon an ape; Estragon says Vladimir is a pig; and Pozzo names Lucky a pig. These animal imageries give these characters bestial qualities that explain their violent nature. In view of the brutal attitude of Beckett’s characters and its place in our lives, Romona Cormier and Janis L. Pallister conclude that “Their [characters’] broken-down moral codes are mere remnants of civilization, ineffective in coping with the nothingness their existence represents. Happiness, a supposed outcome of moral codes, is for these men a mirage in the desert of their lives…these men are meant to stand for the lives of all men” (80-81).

These characters hurt each other through insults.  Similarly, in The Caretaker, Davies is physically frail but verbally violent. He tells Mick he will insult Aston: “I tell you I’ve half a mind to give him a mouthful one of these days” (71). He puts his threats to action as he tells Aston to go back to the mental hospital for proper treatment. He also calls Aston’s room a “lousy, filthy hole” (76). Davies refers to most of the people he comes across as bastards or “gits.” He calls Mick a “thieving bastard…thieving skate” (48).

However, Davies is not the only character in The Caretaker who exhibits verbal injuries. His insolent attitude haunts him as Mick assaults him verbally. Mick refers to him, in various parts of the play, as a “bloody impostor,” “wild animal,” “old rogue,” “old scoundrel,” “old robber,” “old skate,” and an “old barbarian.” These insults point to modern man’s calumny; he injures through slanders or malicious false statements. On the basis of this outrageous behavior, Robert Brustein suggests that modern man’s attitude causes his image to become that of “a dungeon-gray, filthy, squalid, forbidding-where man labors interminably, in the poisoned air, at humiliating tasks” (7-8).

As violence becomes too rampant, characters tend to target very delicate parts of the human body. In The Caretaker Aston says that he had hit the throat of a medic; in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo urges Estragon to kick Lucky severely in the privates; in Endgame Clov hits Hamm’s head violently; in The Island Hodoshe wounds Winston’s eye and John’s ear and in The Homecoming Lenny gives an old lady a jab to the belly, while Max threatens to chop Lenny’s spine off. References to the throat, male sexual organs, head, belly, spine and the eye as targets of violence suggest modern man’s brutality, as well as his willingness and capacity to kill.

Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Athol Fugard yoke their plays to violence in manifold forms and demonstrate the kind of brutality that holds our world hostage. The recurrence of words such as “knock,” “tuck,” “hit,” “jab,” “box,” “chucked,” “thrust,” “attack,” “storm,” “buffets,” “kick,” “beat,” “strikes,” “exterminated,” “barbarian,” “hammer,” “wild,” and “abortion” in their plays, points to violence. Armed characters, surprised, and random attacks in the plays of these dramatists suggest insecurity, chaos and characters’ fears of being victims instead of victors in a world where arbitrary assault seems everywhere evident. These attitudes reflect patterns during the Cold War and resemble the doctrine of pre-emptive attacks and yearnings for secret development of nuclear arsenals as deterrence in our world. Beckett’s Vladimir states it well when he insists: “At this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not” (51). Martin Esslin collaborates Vladimir when he says what we find in these plays “seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time” (4). The traumas the characters of Beckett, Pinter and Fugard exert and experience, indeed, are topical and universal.


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