Monday, April 18, 2011

Theatre of the Absurd Suitcases

I wasn’t much liking Donald Ogden Stewart’s “The Crazy Fool” until it dawned on me I’d read it before.

So, not necessarily “it,” but something highly similar to it. And I liked it very much, thank you.

What I’d read – and what astute readers will notice bears a striking similarity to Stewart’s tale of two hapless souls on a train that never goes anywhere in a station populated by workers who don’t really rather care if the train or the passengers or the moon or the stars of the sky go anywhere for that matter – is Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

And while it is true that I subscribe to the Dave Barry Theory on English Majors, which is if you can consistently come up with idiot interpretations of literature (pronounced, of course, litterachoor) you have the chops to become a professor of English. If only I could turn back the clock fifteen or so years, oh I’d have fodder for a wonderfully absurdist essay.

Beckett, in Godot, brings us the wandering souls of Estragon and Vladimir, anxious to leave their wasteland but doing little to depart. Here’s a scene:

Donald Ogden Stewart similarly presents us with Charlie and Horace, two denizens of the railway station where trains come to die. Here’s one of their stronger Godot moments:

Suddenly, as though a thought had just come to her, she wrote something on a piece of paper, got up and walked past Charlie to the front of the car and out, and when Charlie looked down he saw that the slip of paper was in his lap.

“There is a man in the third seat back of you,” he read, “who has been annoying me. If he follows me out of the car, and you are an American gentleman, you will take care of him for me.”

“Say, listen – “ said Charlie, but she had disappeared, so he slowly and cautiously turned around to look.

The gentleman in the third seat back of him was one of the largest men Charlie had ever seen. And as he looked, the fellow slowly got up out of his seat and started forward.

When he was opposite Charlie, Charlie stood up.

“Take that, you cad,” he said, and aimed a blow at the man’s jaw, but missed.

“Down where ah come from,” said Charlie, “they string ‘em up for less than that, “ and he swung, and missed again.

“Say, listen,” said Charlie. “How can I knock you down if you don’t hold still?”

“All right,” said the man. And he stood still and Charlie knocked him down.

“Now you hold still,” said the stranger, getting up, “and I’ll knock you down.”

“What for?” asked Charlie.

“I don’t know,” said the man. “I’ve never been down South,” and with that he knocked Charlie down.

“Now what do we do?” he asked, picking Charlie up.

“I don’t know,” confessed Charlie. “How do you feel?”

“My jaw hurts a little,” said the man.

“So does mine,” said Charlie. “I tell you what – if you apologize to the lady, my honor will be satisfied.”

“All right,” said the man. “I’m sort of shy with the ladies, though. Who is she?”

“Why, don’t you know?” and Charlie looked at the big man angrily.

“No, I was just going up to get a drink of water,” explained the man.

“Well,” said Charlie, you want to be careful about that in the future.”

“Yes sir,” said the man.

As I read, I kept waiting for them to stop even this minimalist stuff and just stand there, taking off each others’ shoes.

Stewart wrote “The Crazy Fools” in 1925; Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” in 1953. We had absurdist theatre in the United States a full quarter century before we had absurdist theatre, and I thank Louis Untermeyer for including this bit in his book.

By the way – if you’re a cult film buff like me, I’m sure it’s really bugging you to find out who is that actor in the opening scenes of the Godot clip. Wonder no longer:

May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.


  1. Brian, you are a brilliant writer. Sometimes I quietly hate you...but then I remember..."There's pudding in the mix."


  2. Yes. I'll be truckin' along just fine, feeling good, and then suddenly my brain will go into Full Bore Linear Humility Mode and instantly recall something stupid I've done and play it in slo-mo several times as my feeling of good will and bonhomie crashes to the ground. Why does my brain do that?