Two Men Waiting: a Key Trope of Irish Drama

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Anthony Roche

Anthony Roche

Anthony Roche is emeritus professor of English at University College Dublin. His books include Contemporary Irish Drama, Synge and the Making of Modern Irish Drama and Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics.

In January 1953 a new play by a new playwright was premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. It was entitled En Attendant Godot and was written by Samuel Beckett. The play caused a sensation and questions were soon raised about its author. Since Godot was written in French, the assumption was that the author was also French. When he appeared and began speaking in English, the listeners then presumed he was English. It emerged, however, that Samuel Beckett was an emigré Irishman, born in Dublin in 1906; by 1953 he was living in Paris and writing in French. En Attendant Godot appeared to come from nowhere, without visible or obvious antecedents.

The closest comparison was to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos/No Exit (1947), with its existential characters condemned to an eternity of hellish waiting in the company of other people. And Martin Esslin was subsequently to place Beckett at the head of a critical formation of later playwrights in a Theatre of the Absurd. When Esslin’s influential study first appeared in 1961, the critical alignment was compelling;1 in the decades since, it has become clear that Beckett’s plays have managed to survive and transcend most of the absurdists in terms of dramatic and cultural interest. In an interview on 29 October 1973, Beckett denied that he was an absurdist: ‘I have never accepted a theatre of the absurd, a concept that implies a judgement of value.’2

This essay will suggest that Beckett’s play, which he went on to translate into English a few years later as Waiting for Godot, may more meaningfully be aligned with a central trope in Irish drama which I would characterise as two men waiting. This is a tradition of which Beckett was at least partially aware, as indicated by a letter in which he wrote of how much W.B. Yeats’s play, At the Hawk’s Well (1916) meant to him.3 Yeats’s play centres on an Old Man and a Young Man waiting for a miracle to happen. It will be discussed in detail later in this essay. The stage ‘activity’of waiting is central to Beckett’s play, as both its English and French titles foreground. The French title also indicates the nature of the play’s dramatic activities: what to do ‘while waiting for Godot’. Beckett’s two tramps indulge in some physical comic business derived from the music hall and silent film comedians: they endlessly exchange their hats at one point and at another Estragon’s baggy trousers fall to the ground. But mostly they talk. As Estragon succinctly puts it: ‘Yes, now I remember, yesterday evening we spent blathering about nothing in particular. That’s been going on now for half a century.’4 Vladimir and Estragon are ostensibly waiting for someone, the arrival of the offstage figure gestured at in the play’s title. Famously, Godot never appears; accordingly the two men gather in Act Two to repeat the process. When Godot once again fails to put in an appearance, the original French audience must have wondered whether the play would have a third act, and possibly a fourth, and so on, potentially endlessly. No wonder that a good number of the play’s audience at the U.S. English-language premiere in Florida in 1956 headed for the exits before the play had concluded, when they realised the second act was essentially repeating the first.5

The trope of two men waiting has a particular bearing on a play that is in two languages. Essentially the trope has nothing to do with language; rather, it is a theatrical image which stays strongly in the viewer’s mind after the performance because of the physical stasis and absence of movement characterising that activity. As the plays I will discuss accumulate, the images will be layered and deepen one on top of the other until they present something of an x-ray or DNA of a condition fundamental to the Irish psyche and its represenation on stage. Even as the languages change, from French to English or from Irish to English, the focus on two men waiting is unaffected, remaining central to the dramatic effect and not bound, alterered or conditioned by limitations of language. That image is focussed on two men. They are alone together on stage. When Vladimir asks Estragon shall they go at the end of the play and he replies ‘Yes, let’s go’, this joint vocal resolve is contradicted by the stage direction ‘[t]hey do not move’ (88) and by their continuing to stand near the front of the stage. Other characters may briefly appear – such as Pozzo and Lucky – but it soon becomes clear that their arrival does not change anything (though initially appearing to do so) and equally that they will soon depart. To adapt Bert O. States’s marvellous phrase, other characters (Pozzo, Lucky, the Boy) are briefly injected into the zone of waiting;6 but the two men remain. The pair are just that: two men bound together as if joined at the waist. Occasionally, the interdependence is actually physical, as in Yeats’s The Cat and the Moon (1926), where the Blind Man requires the eyes of the Lame Man and the latter lacks the mobility of his partner. This is also the case in Beckett’s next play, Fin de Partie/Endgame (1957), where Hamm is both blind and lame and Clov is the one who supplies physical agency. More often in the trope, the interdependence between the two men is psychological rather than physical (though Vladimir does supply Estragon with radishes and carrots). The fact that the two men are not bound physically may lead them to query what it is that keeps them together. Since each is essentially alone, with virtually nothing in the way of friends or family or the other appurtenances of normal social and family life, they remain with each other for companionship, at the very least, to keep the ever-encroaching silence and darkness at bay.

The Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre, opened its doors for the first time on 27 December, 1904. Several months later, it presented the first full-length play by J.M. Synge, The Well of the Saints. W.B. Yeats revealed where his preferred modernist notions of theatre lay when he wrote: ‘I wanted to get rid of irrelevant movement – the stage must become still that words might keep all their vividness – […]. Perhaps I was Synge’s convert. It was certainly a day of triumph when the first act of The Well of the Saints held its audience, though the two chief persons sat side by side under a stone cross from start to finish.’7 The description of the blind couple in Synge’s play as ‘persons’ disguises the fact that they are a man and a woman, Martin and Mary Doul. Since this is so, what Synge called the ‘sex element’ is crucial throughout,8 especially when a cured Martin Doul pursues the young and vixenish Molly Byrne in Act Two. After a first act in which the two old people spend their time sitting side by side and talking (what Estragon memorably calls ‘blathering’ on more than one occasion in Godot), The Well of the Saints becomes more crowded and more full of conventional theatrical activity as it proceeds. It was the first act that commanded Yeats’s attention and influenced his own dramatic practice after Synge’s premature death in 1909.

But the play which absolutely established the template of two men waiting in the Abbey Theatre’s early years was Lady Gregory’s The Workhouse Ward, first staged on 20 April 1908. The scene is centred on two old men in their beds in the Cloon workhouse, Mike McInerney and Michael Miskell. The fact that they have the same first name suggests the degree to which they are mirror images of each other. The comedy and characterisation of The Workhouse Ward are founded upon two old men endlessly squabbling and heaping verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse on each other. The following gives the flavour: ‘I never was a rambler and a cardplayer like yourself, Mike McInerney, that ran through all and lavished it unknown to your mother.’9 When there is a respite in the quarreling, we know it is only temporary and that the two men cannot long cease from goading each other. Words become weapons in a sustained verbal battle which we witness from start to finish and which can clearly be seen to continue long after the curtain. The sense of the play’s duration is of a temporary entering (and leaving) a ceaseless continuum.

The one other character in the play is Mike McInerny’s recently widowed sister. Having lost her husband, she has come to see if her brother would like to leave the workhouse and come to live with her. The audience may think that nothing would suit him better, removing him from the endless company of the man who provokes him so. But then McInerney surprisingly puts in a bid to have Miskell accompany them also, revealing the depth of affection and need between them. The sister at that point recognises the old man in the other bed:

Michael Miskell, is it? That’s worse again. Yourself and Mike that never left fighting and scolding and attacking one another! Sparring at one another like two young pups you were, and threatening one another after like two grown dogs! (103)

This closely echoes Lady Gregory’s own description of the relationship between the two old men in the play: ‘They fight like two young whelps that go on fighting till they are two old dogs.’ (260) The two men, accordingly, share a lifetime of memories in which the verbal re-enactment of what they did to each other can be much more graphically detailed and temporally more extended than anything they can physically do to each other: ‘(W)e are both of us reared in Skeehanagh. Little wonder you to have good nourishment the time we were both rising, and you bringing away my rabbits out of the snare.’ (97)

What animates them is the talk, coupled with the recognition that they cannot exist without each other. Michael Miskell confesses as much in a rare moment of frank emotional disclosure: ‘All that I am craving is the talk. There to be no one at all to say out to whatever thought might be rising in my innate mind!’ (102) Lady Gregory’s play draws on animal imagery to represent how the two men are inescapably bound together in a mutual co-existence founded on verbal contradiction:

Isn’t it a bad story for me to be wearing out my days beside you the same as a spancelled goat. Chained I am and tethered I am to a man that is ramsacking his mind for lies! (99)

Michael Miskell’s claim that he is ‘chained’ and ‘tethered’ to the other man provides a striking metaphor of their relationship, particularly when the audience can see that they are physically independent. The invisible bonds of their psychic and emotional interdependence only stand out by contrast. The same point is made in Waiting for Godot when Estragon asks Vladimir whether they are ‘tied’ to Godot. Vladimir denies it, though in increasingly equivocal terms: ‘To Godot? Tied to Godot? What an idea! No question of it.[Pause.] For the moment.’ (22) The metaphor of one man being tied or tethered to another is, however, made surreastically literal elsewhere in the play by the rope tied around Lucky’s neck and which keeps him bound to Pozzo.

Another strong link between The Workhouse Ward and Waiting for Godot is the unusual fact that each play was written in two languages. Even more unusually each play was written by the same author, rather than by an author and a translator, so that they may best be understood as different versions of the same play. The Workhouse Ward is a reworking of an earlier play in the Irish language, entitled Teacht na mBocht (meaning ‘House of the Poor’ in English). The Poorhouse arose out of a collaboration between Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde in 1903 when they jointly devised plays in Irish. It would be satisfying to think that this could make a case for the ‘two men waiting’ trope being a staple of the Gaelic tradition. But there were no plays in Irish to revive when it came to the new Irish National Theatre in 1904, only dialogues. The legacy can be seen in the fact that Irish plays in English are so completely based on conversations, on dialogue between two people, with very little to get in the way in terms of plot. In this case, Lady Gregory furnished the scenario of the two old men in the workhouse (‘teach na mbocht’) who preferred to remain together and continue to argue until the end of their days and Hyde supplied the dialogue in Irish. But Gregory was never happy with this arrangement and when the opportunity arose, ‘with Dr. Hyde’s full leave I re-wrote The Poorhouse as The Workhouse Ward.’10 What Gregory has done in her version is to move the scenario a definitive step away from social history or realism and render it instead in more self-consciously theatrical terms. As she explains in one of the few passages where she addresses her own dramatic writing in terms of its conscious artistry and determined experimentalism:

I re-wrote The Poorhouse as The Workhouse Ward. I had more skill by that time and it was a complete re-writing, for the two old men in the first play had been talking at an imaginary audience of other old men in the ward. When this was done away with, the dialogue became of necessity more closely-knit, more direct and personal, to the great advantage of the play.11

By removing the on-stage audience, Gregory moves the two old men into a more direct and intimate relationship with the off-stage audience. They present themselves directly to us, as Vladimir and Estragon also do. They bind themselves even closer to each other, such that they begin to resemble a composite personality. As Mike McInerney declares: ‘(T)he both of us together will make one good hardy man!’ (103) For all their squabbling neither of the characters wishes to be on their own. There is an incipient egalitarianism, a base democracy, in the co-equal presence of two people sharing the same stage. Similarly, for the socialist in Bertolt Brecht, it was as much a necessity in the field of social relationships and of society as on the stage: ‘For the smallest social unit is not the single person but two people.’12

This is a religious as well as a social imperative. As Mike McInerney argues with his sister: ‘It is what I have often heard said, two to be better than one.’ (103) The echo of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Beckett’s favourite book of the Bible) is unmistakable:

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth: for he hath not another to help him up. (Ecclesiastes, 8.9)

Both Gregory and Beckett drew on the Bible as a key source for their drama. Vladimir not only discusses the Four Evangelists with a reluctant and ignorant Estragon. He also makes the statement: ‘Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?’ (12) The line is a half-remembered quotation from Proverbs (13.12): ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.’ In both playwrights, the Bible is not something to be read but to be spoken and listened to. That scene of reading (in a Protestant church) is erased and replaced by the Bible as oral folklore. As Protestants writing within an increasingly dominant Irish Catholic culture, both Beckett and Gregory are set at one remove from it. Like Synge in his plays, they are drawn to figures on the social margins, vagrants, tramps, wanderers, characters who are not assimilated within but stand at one remove from the settled community and are presented as a rebuke to it.

This is certainly the case with the next play I will consider, Lord Dunsany’s The Glittering Gate, presented at the Abbey on 29 April, 1909, exactly one year after The Workhouse Ward . To clinch the connection, one of Dunsany’s two men waiting is played by the actor who performed Lady Gregory’s Michael Miskell, the rising Abbey star Fred O’Donovan. The Glittering Gate was a first play by a writer more commonly associated with novels; in 1905 Dunsany had begun his writing career with a fantasy novel, The Gods of Pegana, and followed it in 1907 with another in a similar vein, The Sword of Welleran. Yeats particularly admired Dunsany’s short stories, which he praised as ‘wild little fantastic tales’. 13 Edward John Morton Drax Plunkett, eighteenth Lord Dunsany, with an estate in County Meath, was a member of the Anglo-Irish social elite who was drawn to cultural nationalism but remained politically a Unionist all his life. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he was invalided out of the Coldstream Guards after the South African War and returned home to his Co. Meath estate to begin a career as a writer. On his first visit to Dunsany Castle, Yeats described ‘a handsome young man with a beautiful house full of pictures.’ He went on to praise Dunsany’s ‘very fine style’ and expressed a wish (in a letter to his father) to draw the young writer into ‘the movement’.14 Yeats did so by proposing that Dunsany write a one-act play for the Abbey. Although the idea for the play came from Yeats, its source was Dunsany himself. As he wrote to his wife on 23rd March 1909:

Yeats mentioned an old idea of mine that he must have got hold of through Miss Hamilton [the painter Eva Hamilton, friend of Yeats, neighbour of Dunsany in Co. Meath, who brought them together]. I had forgotten… Yeats said I should write a little one-act play on it, it was such a good idea. I said I knew utterly nothing of the stage or how to write a play. He also said that if I didn’t write it he thought he should have to get someone to steal it from me! Then I thought I’d try.15

Yeats recognised the originality of Dunsany’s idea, which became the basis for The Glittering Gate. Two tramps gather outside the Gate of Heaven and wait to be admitted. It rapidly becomes clear that they are both dead, murdered in the pursuit of their profession (they are both burglars). Yeats outlined the play to his father as follows: ‘Dunsaney is a man of genius, I think. We are doing a little play of his about a burgler who when he gets to the next world burgles the Door of Heaven […] and a burgler whose doom is to open beer bottles for ever and to find them empty and be too thirsty to stop opening them.’16

The Glittering Gate begins in silence with the older burglar, who has been outside the gate a long time, performing a physical mime: ‘The rising curtain reveals JIM wearily uncorking a beer-bottle. Then he tilts it slowly and with infinite care. It proves to be empty. […] JIM uncorks a few bottles.’17 This cannot but recall the opening of Waiting for Godot, where Estragon is alone on stage, engaged in a silent physical mime of pulling off his boot: ‘ESTRAGON, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, begins again. As before.’ (11) In a full mime, Act Without Words 1 (1956), Beckett has a man on stage being taunted by an offstage force or deity: every time a carafe descends from the flies the thirsty man is either unable to reach it or the carafe is whipped away just before he can get his hands on it. In the Dunsany play, the man’s frustration at being repeatedly unable to drink a bottle of beer is accompanied on each occasion by ‘(f)aint and unpleasant laughter off’. The Beckett mime is also marked by cosmic taunting. It emphasises a man’s thirst and his inability to quench it; all of which is anticipated in The Glittering Gate.

At this point, in both plays, the other man enters and what develops is a dialogue centred on the action of two men waiting. With the two friends reunited, Estragon soon suggests they leave but is prevented by what Vladimir points out to him in an exchange that resounds throughout the play:

ESTRAGON: Let’s go.

VLADIMIR: We can’t.

ESTRAGON: Why not?

VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.

ESTRAGON: [Despairingly.] Ah! (15 and ff.)

When the other man arrives on stage in The Glittering Gate, Jim does not at first recognise him. Bill has to remind him of their shared history: ‘I never forgot you, Jim. […] can’t you remember? Can’t you remember the day you taught me a livelihood? I wasn’t more than twelve.’ (84) Jim, despite the prompting, is unable to remember and asks:

JIM. What are years?

BILL. Oh, Jim!

JIM. You see there isn’t any hope here. And when there isn’t any hope there isn’t any future. And when there isn’t any future there isn’t any past. It’s just the present here. I tell you we’re stuck. (85)

Estragon is never able to remember anything of his shared history with his friend and has to be repeatedly reminded. But the time- and history-obsessed Vladimir is himself unable to remember any specific details about any occasion from their past he is trying to recall:

VLADIMIR: But we were there together, I could swear to it! Picking grapes for a man called… [He snaps his fingers] … can’t think of the name of the man, at a place called… [Snaps his fingers]… can’t think of the name of the place, do you not remember? (57)

Where the older Jim seems resigned to remaining outside the gate, the newly arrived Bill brandishes the tools of his trade and is determined to break through. The delights of what he imagines awaits him on the other side are sensuously evoked and incarnated in the figure of a barmaid from their past called Jane; although finally Jim hopes to be reunited with his mother. Eventually, the gate is prised open and the result is not a miracle but a resounding anti-climax: ‘The gates swing heavily open revealing empty night and stars, […] Nothing in which far stars go wandering.’ (91) Bill protests by expostulating: “Stars. Blooming great stars. There ain’t no heaven, Jim.’ The Glittering Gate concludes with this vision of the void and the sound of ‘cruel and violent’ laughter. Jim’s response is less his companion’s surprise and disapppointment than a characteristic verbal shrug: ‘That’s like them. That’s very like them. Yes, they’d do that.’ The two men throughout are subtly differentiated, as are Vladimir and Estragon. One is more in tune with earthly comforts (drinking beer, chewing carrots), the other more driven to enquire into metaphysical absolutes. Bill wants to pry open the gate and Vladimir is (deliberately or no) echoing Hamlet when he asks: ‘What are we doing here, that is the question.’ (74)

Yeats was full of hope for The Glittering Gate, describing to Lady Gregory the stage imagery just prior to its opening: ‘The scene for Dusaneys play is a great success – the lighting is most mysterious, and the stars in the blue night sky are perfect.’18 The bleak philosophical comedy was not one that was going to appeal to the ultra-Catholic and frequent Abbey attender, Joseph Holloway. Holloway may as architect have designed the theatre but he frequently complained about what was staged inside, especially works like Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen and Synge’s The Well of the Saints which he regarded as anti-Catholic. In his diary, Holloway gleefully recorded the response of the Abbey audience to Dunsany’s play: ‘With most people The Glittering Gate is a piece once seen never to be rewitnessed. Numbers fled each night.’19 This sounds not unlike the initial response of audiences to Beckett’s Godot in the U.S.A.. But Dunsany’s strange and original little play may well have found an audience over time, since it was still being revived by the theatre well into the 1920s. And Gregory’s The Workhouse Ward remained one of the most popular plays in the repertoire, frequently revived and touring to the U.S.. In the interviews he gave to his biographer James Knowlson in the last year of his life, Samuel Beckett spoke revealingly about his frequent visits to the Abbey Theatre during the 1920s and 1930s: ‘I was a weekly visitor to the Abbey. I always occupied the same seats.’20 He regularly chose a seat in the stalls which was one of the cheaper ones but offered a good vantage on the stage. His friend Geoffrey Perrin recalls: ‘I had no idea he was to become an intellectual genius. The only sign I can recollect was hus enthusiasm for the Abbey Theatre and his liking for abstruse plays.’21 This was where Beckett would have seen productions of the plays he names in the letter to Cyril Cusack: Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well ; Synge’s The Well of the Saints and Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock,‘to go no further’. But had he gone further the evidence suggests Beckett may well have cited the Gregory and Dunsany plays. As it is, in a letter to Thomas McGreevy of 25 January 1931, Beckett questions whether he will be back in Dublin in time to catch a revival of Gregory’s play, which clearly he has read and wishes to see performed: ‘I suppose The Workhouse Ward is off.’22 For Yeats, as we have seen, The Glittering Gate was an impressive piece of work and one which influenced him. In At the Hawk’s Well, which I will now consider, the two men waiting are not roughly the same age, as in Godot, but an Old Man and a Young Man, as in The Glittering Gate. One of them has been awaiting a miracle for years; the other arrives for the first time at the beginning of the play.

At the Hawk’s Well was the third play Yeats wrote about the exploits of the warrior Cuchulain, the stories of whom were translated from the Irish by Lady Gregory and published as Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1904). But the play is the first chronologically, showing the hero as a young man at the outset of his career. It was also inspired by the shock of Yeats’s discovery of the Japanese Noh drama. He spent several winters with the young American poet Ezra Pound in Stone Cottage in England. While Yeats worked on annotating Lady Gregory’s last and largest folklore collection, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Pound was working on another writerly obligation to a widow: putting in order the materials gathered over a lifetime by the late American scholar Ernest Fenollosa on the Japanese Noh Theatre. Yeats came to a rapid knowledge of the Noh and, shaping it to his own ends, plunged back into playwriting with greater zeal than ever. As Roy Foster records: ‘He began writing At the Hawk’s Well in January 1916; by 4 February he had hit upon the right form for it; by 16 February he was planning its production.’23 The premiere was staged in April 1916, coincidentally the same month as the Easter Rising back in Dublin. Seamus Heaney has remarked on the coincidence that ‘we might find an allegory of Yeats’s inner conflict at that moment of political crisis.’24

With the introduction of the Noh, Yeats severed his always tenuous links with naturalism; the form is avowedly artificial, overtly theatrical. Masks are worn, costumes are stylised, language is formal and poetic: the Noh play comes to climax in a dance. It is therefore in line with the moves away from naturalism required to stage the trope of two men waiting. This first emerged in Lady Gregory’s rewriting of Douglas Hyde’s original to make the drama less realistic, more self-consciously abstract and theatrical. Dunsany’s The Glittering Gate engages much more fully with the metaphysical: the characters are dead and the play is set in a non-realistic realm. Although Godot appears to conform to the norms of realism, however minimally, that appearance comes to seem more and more deceptive as the play unfolds. Night may follow day but it falls all at once and is signalled by a lighting change; bare trees sprout leaves overnight. Ezra Pound writes in his introduction to the play Suma Genji in The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan: ‘I dare say the play […] will seem undramatic to some people the first time they read it. The suspense is the suspense of waiting for a supernatural manifestation – which comes.’25 With the discovery of the Noh, Yeats has found a set of theatrical conventions to deliver absorbing plays about two men waiting. The trope is not just to be found at the heart of At the Hawk’s Well but is also central to The Cat and the Moon, already referred to, where a blind man and a lame man gather at the well of St. Colman to await the miracle of a cure for their ailments.

Like The Glittering Gate, At the Hawk’s Well begins with only one man on stage, and stresses his extreme age. Wearing a mask, his bodily condition is conveyed by the movements with which he crosses the stage. The Old Man longs for companionship, complaining of this to the one other figure present on stage, thr largely silent Guardian of the Well: ‘Why don’t you speak to me?’26 He complains that ‘the Sidhe’ (the supernatural beings from Irish mythology who innfluence human affairs) might have chosen ‘somebody/That can be pleasant and companionable/Once in the day.’ (403) All he gets back from her are banalities about the weather. But the dramatic situation is altered by the arrival of another man on stage to join him in his waiting. This figure, like the Old Man before him, comes on not from back stage (as in conventional proscenium presentations). The stage directions explicitly indicate that he enters ‘through the audience’. This not only stresses that the two men are in a sense versions of Everyman, having an absolutely representative human or social function, not figures of hierarchical authority to be gazed up at and admired, kings and queens (as in the more conventional representation of the Ulster court from the Cuchulain legends). In reaching back hundreds of years to the Noh tradition, Yeats was paradoxically moving his theatre away from the nineteenth-century inheritance into a modernist form of staging, one which abolished the proscenium frame and moved the performers into a closer and more intimate relationship with the audience. As Yeats stressed, the Noh did not require any artificial lighting or elaborate scenery. Rather, it simply needed ‘any bare space’ (398). This opening stage direction of Hawk’s Well foreshadows the title of director Peter Brook’s seminal study of modern theatre, The Empty Space. The closeness of audience and players in the Noh is more akin to a circle, its audience attending a ritual in which all are participants, rather than seating themselves in a large auditorium and looking up at the stage. In his essay, ‘Certain Noble Plays of Japan’, Yeats argued that this new form of drama he was devising was a means of establishing ‘intimacy’ in the theatre.27 The audience in the 1950s arriving to see Samuel Beckett’s two-act tragi-comedy Waiting for Godot stared at the stage and waited for the play they had seen advertised to arrive. That audience was in turn confronted by two men onstage who spent much of the time staring back at them. We have all kept our appointment. Anybody coming to the theatre that night expecting a conventional evening of theatre is going to be disappointed; they are going to be kept waiting.

The reason for the two men in At the Hawk’s Well arriving at this particular place emerges in the course of the ensuing dialogue between them. The Young Man has come seeking a legendary well. Wells had long been associated in pre-Christian Irish mythology with miraculous cures. Often they were Christianised by being given the name of a local saint: St. Colman in Yeats’s The Cat and the Moon. The well in this pagan Yeats play significantly goes unnamed. Its miraculous property is not the curing of blindness or any other particular physical ailment. Rather, coming into contact with its magical properties is said to confer immortality: ‘He who drinks, they say,/ Of that miraculous water lives for ever.’ (406) The Old Man confirms that the Young Man has found the place he is seeking. The Old Man’s side of the story is how he has spent a lifetime, fifty years, waiting for the well to bubble up. On each of the three occasions on which it has already done so, the Old Man has been cheated of the promised miracle: ‘I have lain in wait/ For more than fifty years, to find it empty.’ (405) When he hears this, the Young Man declares his intention: ‘I will stand here and wait’, which can henceforth be taken as the central dramatic action of At the Hawk’s Well.

Initially, the Young Man is uncertain as to whether he has successfully gained his goal because, looking around, he is unable to see the well. The Old Man logically points out that the ‘hollow’ place is where the dry well is located and where the waters will bubble up. Even when the water returns, the most that can be hoped for are a few drops. It is more a case of listening for the ‘plash’ than of looking at a place which is currently ‘stones half-full of leaves’(405). This is the point in my argument where I would like to consider the role of setting not just in At the Hawk’s Well but in all of the ‘two men waiting’ plays so far discussed. Yeats praised the Noh form for getting rid of the nineteenth century stage’s fetishisation of elaborate stage settings, clearing away all the clutter to leave a bare or empty space. The viewer’s imagination will be filled with images supplied not only by the onstage characters but even more by the three-person chorus of the Noh form fashioned by Yeats. The chorus of women accompany the action with musical instruments but also serve to set the scene: ‘I call to the eye of the mind/A well long choked up and dry/And boughs long stripped by the wind.’ (399) These lines clearly impressed themselves on Beckett since he cites the opening line in one of Winnie’s speeches in Happy Days (1962); further, he goes on to copy out meticulously in his own production notebook the next seven lines of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well.28 What is brought to the fore in the frequent evocations of the play’s setting is its barrenness, its sterility; it is a rocky place in which nothing grows. The site of the well is currently dry and crammed with dead leaves. In the past, there was water; and in the future it is hoped there will be again. The Glittering Gate is also in a barren place devoid of hope, meaning and fecundity. All of that lies on the other side of the gate: ‘There’ll be […] orchards full of apples as far as you can see, and the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, so the Bible says.’29 In Waiting for Godot, the open ‘country road’ (11) minimally specified in the stage directions has two properties to supplement the setting: a large stone on which Estragon sits to take off his boot and to have a nap; and a tree. The tree in the first act is bare, its branches stripped of leaves; in the second act, ‘(t)he tree has four or five leaves’(52). In Hollywood films set in Ireland, such as John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1951), what is foregrounded are lush pastoral settings, with a predominant hue of green. All of these Irish plays in contrast are marked by an absence of lushness and fertility: the predominant colour is grey, not green. Emilie Morin in writing of Beckett has noted the degree to which Irish plays have been marked by the historical experience of the Great Famine in the mid nineteenth century. She mentions Gregory’s Workhouse Ward and its setting of poverty and want. Morin claims that in arguing for psychological interdependence between the two men waiting in these plays I downplay the fact that, ‘since resources have been almost entirely depleted, scarcity is what creates interdependence’.30 The foregrounding of physical scarcity, of a historical legacy of hunger and thirst, is worth emphasising in the context of the ‘two men waiting’ plays: the burglar craving drink but condemned to remain endlessly thirsty; the two tramps subsisting on a diminishing supply of carrots and radishes; two old men in a workhouse characterised by an insufficiency of means.

Since so little water will manifest itself, there is a good deal of squabbling between Yeats’s Old Man and Young Man. Each tries to claim the portion for themselves. The Old Man’s argument is underwritten by the fact that he has so little time to live; the Young Man is in favour of sharing:

Old Man. If you are good you will leave it. I am old,

And if I do not drink it now, will never;

I have been watching all my life and maybe

Only a little cupful will bubble up.

Young Man. I’ll take it in my hands. We shall both drink,

And even if there are but a few drops,

Share them. (408-9)

In the event, the Old Man once more falls asleep. The Young Man, who has been revealed as the warrior Cuchulain at the outset of his career, is confronted by the alluring yet threatening figure of the Guardian of the Well, who draws him off stage by a seductive dance. The Old Man awakes to find the stones are dark and wet: ‘The water flowed and emptied while I slept.’ (411) The Young Man returns to say that the woman has eluded him. The miracle has occurred in his absence. There will be no more standing and waiting for Cuchulain; he will now gain immortality through a lifetime of heroic action. The Old Man simply ‘goes out’, most likely now to await a death that is imminent.

The final play I would like to discuss is Purgatory, the last play of Yeats’s to be staged in his lifetime. It received two performances in August 1938 at a conference on world theatre at the Abbey organised by playwright Lennox Robinson. The aged Yeats, frail, white-haired and with skin of parchment, went on stage afterwards to discuss the play. In the audience at the Abbey Theatre at the first performance was the 32-year-old Samuel Beckett, whose first novel Murphy was also published in 1938. All of the Beckett biographies had merely related that Beckett was back in Dublin from Paris for the month of August that year, to look after his mother (who had contracted Alzheimer’s), and attend several theatre productions while he was there. The first volume of the letters, finally published in 2009, confirmed that Beckett had been present for Purgatory. Writing to fellow Irish poet and London publisher George Reavey on 3 August 1938, Beckett spoke with some anticipation of how ‘I hope to be here [i.e. in Dublin] for the first night of Yeats’s new play Purgatory next Wednesday week at the Abbey.’31 There is no direct or immediate response to Beckett’s attendance at the performance of Purgatory. The profound and long-meditated response was to come a decade later in the writing of En Attendant Godot.

A Dublin theatre-goer with a taste for the avant-garde who attended both Purgatory at the Abbey in 1938 and Samuel Beckett’s English-language version of Waiting for Godot in Dublin’s little Pike Theatre seventeen years later would have been struck by the similarity of setting. What the Yeats and Beckett plays have in common visually and in terms of design is a bare stage, stripped of representational scenery and with a minimum of props. Beckett’s Godot briefly gives the setting: ‘A country road. Tree. Evening.’ (11) Purgatory is no less terse: ‘A ruined house and a bare tree in the background.’32 What is most similar in the two stage settings is the presence of the single tree, standing out against the surrounding bareness. The text design supplies more specifics when one man urges the other to ‘(s)tudy that tree’(1041) and says that he ‘saw it a year ago stripped bare as now’ (1042). The two tramps in Godot subject their tree to a similar scrutiny as they try to work out what kind of tree it is; the salient and similar point is that it too is stripped of leaves. Yeats’s Old Man remembers the bare tree fifty years before when it was covered with ‘(g)reen leaves, ripe leaves, leaves thick as butter,/ Fat, greasy life.’ In the second act of En Attendant Godot, the bare tree is now ‘couvert de feuilles’, which Beckett both specified and reduced in his English language version to ‘four or five leaves’ (53). Vladimir becomes agitated on how it is naturalistically possible for a tree to spout leaves overnight; but in a theatrical world where props are man-made rather than natural all that’s required is for a props person to glue them on during the interval. In both plays also, the minimal stage properties must be extended to provide a stone large enough for one of the characters to sit on. In Purgatory, the Old Man enjoins his young companion at one point to ‘sit there upon that stone’ (1043); and Godot opens as we have seen with Estragon sitting on a stone, struggling with his boot.

Into this bare, minimalist setting step two male characters who travel the roads together. As the younger man complains in the opening speech, ‘(h)ither and thither, day and night,/ Hill or hollow, shouldering this pack,/ Hearing you talk’ (1041). The Old Man, his father, later describes himself as ‘a pedlar on the roads’ (1045). The two men are tramps, as Vladimir and Estragon are likewise, sleeping in the open, spending the night in ditches, surviving on scraps of food. The figure of the Tramp was a favoured persona for Protestant Anglo-Irish playwrights to project themselves into the scenarios of the peasant plays they wrote. In place of the rigid class divisions which a more direct representation of their background would have put in place, the figure of the tramp was essentially unmoored, déclassé, a wanderer free to enter and leave the households of the Catholic characters who predominated in their plays. J.M. Synge identified closely with the figure of the tramp. Signing letters to his fiancée, Abbey actress Maire O’Neill (Molly Allgood), ‘your old Tramp’. Synge proposed the following comparison in one of his essays: ‘In the middle classes the gifted son of a family is always the poorest – usually a writer or artist with no sense for speculation – and in a family of peasants, where the average comfort is just over penury, the gifted son sinks also, and is soon a tramp on the roadside.’33 This passage conveys the sense of alienation Synge experienced as a writer/artist from a middle class family. In Godot Estragon gestures at his tramp’s rags and says: ‘I was a poet. Isn’t that obvious?’ (15) And when the Irish critic Vivian Mercier remarked to Beckett that some of the more erudite remarks from Vladimir and Estragon made them sound as if they had Ph.D.s, Beckett flashed back: ‘How do you know they hadn’t?’34 It is clear that the two tramps have undergone some sort of financial and social decline but in characteristic Beckettian fashion no specific details emerge. In Yeats’s play, however, far from being obscured or elided, the class dimension is foregrounded. The Old Man tells a life narrative of how he is the product of a mésalliance between the aristocratic young woman of the Protestant Big House and a ‘groom in a training stable’ (1043), working class and Catholic. The Old Man has continued and accelerated this process of degeneration by identifying his son in brutal language as ‘a bastard that a pedlar got/ Upon a tinker’s daughter in a ditch’(1044). Although the terms of ditch, tinker and tramp are Syngean, the tone is about as far as one could get from Synge’s Romanticism, much closer to Beckett’s earthy and realistic idiom.

In Yeats’s Purgatory, when the two tramps wander on stage, it turns out that the place they have arrived at, where they are destined to wait for the remainder of the play, is not random. They have come to this location for a purpose which one of the two men discloses (to the other and to the audience) and which he strives to see accomplished in the course of the action (and hence to put an end to their waiting). In the Beckett the purpose of the two men waiting is to achieve a rendez-vous with the enigmatic Mister Godot. It is Vladimir alone and consistently who insists on the meeting with Godot, even though when pressed for details by Estragon he remains vague. He does assert, however, in language with metaphysical overtones, that when Godot comes the two tramps will be ‘saved’ (88). Similarly, it is the Old Man in Yeats’s play who is solely responsible for their being there and who explains the reason to an uncomprehending auditor; but also a refractory one who insists his companion is mad and argues repeatedly that they should move on. The Old Man believes that the spirits of the souls in Purgatory are doomed to a cyclic recurrence, reliving their transgressions ‘not once/But many times’ (1042) and that the living can help release them from their bondage. Such, he believes, is the case with his mother’s spirit and he has arrived on this night, the anniversary of his conception, to prevent its ever taking place.

As he reveals that ‘this night is the anniversary […] of the night wherein I was begotten’, a stage direction – and Yeats has supplied very few – requires that ‘a window is lit showing a young girl’ (1045). The designer of the 1938 premiere was the eighteen-year-old Anne Yeats, the writer’s daughter. She once described to me how the ruined house in Purgatory was represented: by a large white sheet stretched out and set back, with a square cut out near the top to represent a window. That window was reached from behind the sheet by means of a ladder.35 When the Young Man is again urged to look at the woman in the window and replies that he sees nothing, the stage representation says otherwise. The Old Man’s primary engagement is now with the alluring image of his mother as he directly conjures her in Oedipal terms not to let his father touch her. While he is thus engaged, the Young Man attempts to slip away with the ‘bag of money’ (1047) but is intercepted by his father. Their struggle is complemented by the fact that ‘the light in the window has faded out’, signifying that the act of conception is now under way. Father and son stand facing and looking at each other in murderous confrontation. As they do so the window lights up again and ‘a man is [now] seen pouring whiskey into a glass’ in post-coital relaxation. This time, however, the Young Man no longer assumes the Old Man is hallucinating since he too can now avouch that ‘somebody stands there, although/ The floorboards are all burnt away’ (1048). In the climax of the scene, the Old Man kills his son with a knife in a frenzied attempt to end the cycle of social and sexual transgression. Far from bringing this complex drama to a close, as he intended, the Old Man’s act of murdering his son causes the structure of Purgatory to begin to repeat itself. Once more, the ghostly hoofbeats of the groom’s horse as he comes to the bridal chamber are heard by the Old Man:

Hoof-beats! Dear God,

How quickly it returns – beat – beat!

Her [his mother’s] mind cannot hold up that dream.

Twice a murderer and all for nothing,

And she must animate that dead night,

Not once, but many times! (1049)

The Old Man’s tragic recognition that he and Irish history are caught in an endlessly repeated cycle which acts of violence perpetuate rather than end, prompts the anguished cry, half-blasphemy , half-prayer, of the play’s resounding final lines: ‘O God,/ Release my mother’s soul from its dream!/ Mankind can do no more. Appease/The misery of the living and the remorse of the dead.’ (1049) The ending of the play discloses that Purgatory is not a tale told in a linear sequence, driven through an escalating plot by a determined denouement. Rather, it is like all of the ‘two men waiting’ plays, in which the hoped-for miracle which the two men await, never arrives, or if it does only in an ironic, mocking parody of fulfilment. Like Waiting for Godot in particular, Yeats’s play is one whose ‘progress’ is based on repetition and cyclic recurrence. As Emilie Morin points out in relation to Beckett’s Godot and Endgame: ‘linear chronology has disappeared along with all material comforts. Something is certainly “taking its course”, as Clov emphasises[…] (h)istory can no longer be disguised as a telelogical movement and can be represented only as waiting.’36

My discussion of the ‘two men waiting’ trope in Irish drama only covers the first half century of the twentieth century (although not staged until the 1950s, Beckett’s En Attendant Godot was written between October 1948 and January 1949).37 All of the playwrights considered – Yeats, Gregory, Dunsany and Beckett – were Protestant Anglo-Irish, members of a caste whose power was fast disappearing as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. Part of the attraction of the trope of ‘two men waiting’ for these writers derived from their increasingly marginalised position in the society, which they romanticised and represented in the figure of the Tramp. But as I have also sought to suggest, another part of the trope’s theatrical attraction, which I am inclined to call ‘necessity’, derives from their status as Irish rather than English playwrights. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that the ‘two men waiting’ trope continues into the second half of the twentieth century, though now with Irish dramatists who were raised as Catholics rather than Protestants. Two brief examples will have to suffice, from the two greatest playwrights of those decades. Brian Friel’s early masterpiece, Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), has a twenty-five year old Donegal man waiting to emigrate to the U.S.A. One man becomes two because Friel the playwright was inspired to represent young Gar O’Donnell’s conflicted feelings about leaving home by means of two separate male actors playing a psychologically divided character: ‘The two Gars, Public Gar and Private Gar, are two views of the one man. Public Gar is the Gar that people see, talk to, talk about. Peivate Gar is the unseen man, the man within, the conscience, the alter ego, the secret thoughts, the id. Private Gar, the spirit, is invisible to everybody, always. Nobody except Public Gar hears him talk.’38

In his very first play, written in 1959 with his friend Noel O’Donoghue, Tom Murphy’s On The Outside is set outside a dance hall in the West of Ireland, with two young men waiting to get in. Financially challenged, they try various stratagems to effect entrance, including getting the women to pay for them; none of their ruses succeeds. And at the end of the one-act play the two young men are still financially and socially on the outside. And yes, of course, the late 1900s saw the arrival of the ‘two women waiting’ play: Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow (2006) would be an outstanding example. But in regard to all of that, sin scéal eile, as we say: that’s another story.

1 See Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (London: Penguin, 3rd edition 1980), 19-91.

2 See Charles Juliet, ‘Meeting Beckett’, TriQuarterly 77 (Winter 1989/1990), 17.

3 The Irish actor Cyril Cusack had asked Beckett to write a tribute to George Bernard Shaw in French. In his reply of 4 June 1956, Beckett gave a cool response to the request and its subject, saying that he ‘would give the whole unupsettable apple-cart for a sup of the Hawk’s Well, or the Saints’, or a whiff of Juno, to go no further.’ The latter two references are to J.M. Synge’s The Well of the Saints (1904) and Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 623.

4 Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 61. All future references to Waiting for Godot are to this edition and will be incorporated in the text.

5 See Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 19-20.

6 Bert O. States, The Shape of Paradox: An Essay on ‘Waiting for Godot’ (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1978), 72.

7 W.B. Yeats, ‘An Introduction for my Plays’, Essays and Introductions (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1961), 527-8.

8 ‘(O)n the Irish stage the people you agree with want the other elements without sex. I restored the sex-element to its natural place, and the people were so surprised they saw the sex only.’ Letter to Stephen MacKenna, 28 January 1904. The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, Volume One 1871-1907, edited by Ann Saddlemyer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 72.

9 The Comedies of Lady Gregory, Being the First Volume of the Collected Plays, edited and with a foreword by Ann Saddlemyer (Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, in association with Colin Smythe, 1971), 98. All future references to The Workhouse Ward are to this edition and will be incorporated in the text.

10 Lady Gregory, Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1972), pp. 56-7.

11 Ibid.

12 Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, translated by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang; London: Methuen, 1964), 197.

13 Letter to John Butler Yeats, 29 April 1909. The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats, Volume Five 1908-1910, edited by John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 506-7.

14 Ibid.

15 The Letters of W.B. Yeats, Volume Five 1908-1910, 478-9.

16 Ibid., 506-7. Yeats’s erratic spelling has been retained by his editors.

17 Lord Dunsany, The Glittering Gate, Five Plays (London: Grant Richards, 1914), 83.

18 The Letters of W.B. Yeats, Volume Five, 507.

19 Ibid., 765.

20 Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett, edited by James Knowlson and Elizabeth Knowlson (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 30.

21 Ibid., 29.

22 The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929 – 1940, edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 62.

23 R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 34.

24 Seamus Heaney, The Place of Writing (Atlanta, Ga.: The Scholars’ Press, 1989), 68-9.

25 Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (New York: New Directions, 1959), 26.

26 W.B. Yeats, At the Hawk’s Well, The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W.B. Yeats, edited by Russell K. Alspach (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1969), 402. All future references to At the Hawk’s Well are to this edition and will be incorporated in the text.

27 W.B. Yeats, ‘Certain Noble Plays of Japan’, Essays and Introductions, 222.

28 See Happy Days: The Production Notebook of Samuel Beckett, edited by James Knowlson (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 60-1.

29 Lord Dunsany, The Glittering Gate, Five Plays, 85.

30 Emilie Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 189. The essay of mine she is referring to is Anthony Roche, ‘Reworking The Workhouse Ward: McDonagh, Beckett, and Gregory’, Irish University Review 34.1 (2004): 176-9.

31 The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One 1929-40, 640.

32 W.B. Yeats, Purgatory, The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W.B. Yeats, 1041. All future references to Purgatory are to this edition and will be incorporated in the text.

33 J.M. Synge, ‘The Vagrants of Wicklow’, in Collected Works Volume Two: Prose, edited by Alan Price (London: Oxford University Press, 1966; rept. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982), 202.

34 Vivian Mercier, Beckett/Beckett (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 46.

35 For more on the design of the first production of Purgatory, see Richard Allen Cave’s informative notes in his edition of W.B. Yeats, Selected Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1997), 374-9.

36 Emilie Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness, 98.

37 For a reproduction of the notebook in which Beckett wrote the play, see Dirk van Hulle and Pim Verhulst, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’/’En Attendant Godot’ (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

38 Brian Friel, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Collected Plays Volume One (Oldcastle, Co. Meath: The Gallery Press; London: Faber and Faber, 2016), 89.