Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Amounting to a Hill of Beans

I watched a production of Endgame to-day for British Literature class. The play's by Samuel Beckett, another Irishman included in the course. On Tuesday the teacher remarked that he didn't used to teach T.S. Eliot because he thought Eliot was an American. Indeed, T.S. Eliot is included in both the Norton Anthology of American Literature and the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Just like Olaudah Equiano, who lived in the U.S. as a slave before living as a free man in Britain. It's a good thing the class isn't called English Literature which, depending on whether you're talking about the language or the country would either be too narrow or hopelessly broad. Why authors from South and Central America, Mexico, and Canada aren't represented in the anthology of American literature I can't say. Yeats, another Irishman, lived in the U.S. for a while, but I guess not long enough to be included, ending up in the English anthology instead.

And Beckett, of course, lived in France for most of his adult life. His mentor, James Joyce, also lived mainly on continental Europe. In Japanese, the term for trivia is 豆知識, mame chishiki, literally "bean knowledge".

Certainly "The Waste Land" reflects observations on English culture more than American. Though of course it also features several references to Wagner I somehow missed in my first read through--I read it through on its own first before going back and reading through both the text's footnotes and Eliot's own copious footnotes. I can plainly see now the references to Rheinmaidens, though I'm not quite clear on the direct relationship to Tristan und Isolde, except in a general thematic sense. Tristan und Isolde is about two people only realising their passion when broken out of their social spheres by a love potion and much of Eliot's work seems to be about a desire in the human heart for something greater than life can supply. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" maybe demonstrates this better.

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Endgame follows this sense of life's meaningless and inadequacy, too. And, like "The Waste Land", it features references to chess, the endgame of the title apparently being a chess reference. The play has just four characters--Hamm, who can't walk, bound to a chair and seemingly blind behind his dark glasses, his servant, Clov, who can't sit, and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who live in a pair of dustbins. "Me--to play" says Hamm, as though announcing his turn at chess, and most of the play he spends trying to interpret and find meaning in the barren existence presented. Every now and then Hamm asks Clov what is happening, to which Clov replies vaguely only that something is taking its course. All the characters routinely belittle one another, perhaps not realising that they're belittling themselves by casting disparagements on the only agents of reflection available.

I was supposed to read it for class but I generally feel plays are meant to be watched performed. I watched this production with Michael Gambon as Hamm, which I thought was pretty good;

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