I often have to be careful to keep my self from conflating the names of Samuel Becket and Thomas á Becket. Part of the reason for my easy confusion is that, while I’ve heard about St. Thomas since high school, Samuel Becket isn’t quite as well known. That sounds odd—Samuel Becket, one of the most famous playwrights of the 20th century, not well known. But St. Thomas is hard to avoid, whether learning about English history, world history, or ecclesiastical history. Or T.S. Eliot.
Like Becket—Samuel, that is—Eliot was a modernist, and inclined to question whether meaning could be found in the changed world of the 20th century. But Eliot ultimately found very different answers. He joined the Anglican Church. Eventually he wrote a play about Thomas á Becket’s death called Murder in the Cathedral. (American author Flannery O’Connor read it while in the hospital, and the nurses concluded that she was a mystery fan. Not quite.)
It was largely the coincidence of last names that brought Eliot’s play to mind after reading one of Samuel Becket’s, Waiting for Godot. To summarize Waiting for Godot is difficult, even ludicrous—two men are waiting beside a country road for a third man, Godot, who is supposed to be coming. As they wait, another man comes by with his human beast of burden on a rope. He stays. He leaves. He comes back. He leaves. Godot does not come. The two men continue waiting. And the play ends.
Becket’s play is notoriously difficult to interpret–in fact, that obscure quality is among the reasons for its success. (Warning to young writers–please don’t try this at home. It doesn’t work for most people.) Is it autobiographical? Political? Focused on ethics? Some have attempted a Christian interpretation, based on the play’s religious references and imagery of a hill and a tree. Becket himself was not at all forthcoming about the play’s meaning. He freely admitted that he was very familiar with the Christian “mythology” and that he used it in his works, but if Waiting for Godot was intended as a Christian allegory, Becket never admitted to the fact. Perhaps there were so many elements that went into Becket’s writing of the play that it isn’t possible to settle on one interpretation. One of the philosophical interpretations–that of existentialism–seems to most easily encompass the others.
Existentialism, to my limited study, involves the belief that there is no inherent meaning in the universe–or, if there is, humans are incapable of finding it. One response to this belief is nihilism–denying meaning altogether. Existentialists reject nihilism and thus, in a universe without meaning, must create their own meaning. And this meaning must be found through living–theory alone is useless.
Becket’s two waiting men, Vladimir and Estragon, are trapped in a pointless world. They have no apparent goals beyond meeting Godot. At the play’s end they consider suicide, but they find that they have no practical way to kill themselves. They talk about leaving, but do not leave. Godot has sent a boy as a messenger, but he has not come, and there is no sure sign that he will come. Yet Vladimir and Estragon continue to stand on the hill, seeming to derive their personal meaning from waiting for Godot, whether or not he comes.
Eliot’s Becket lives a very different existence. Faced with the choice between being faithful to the Church and being friends with the King, Thomas á Becket chooses the Church, and the death that comes with it. St. Thomas, like Samuel Becket’s characters, is doing something that does not entirely make sense. There is no sensible reason for Vladimir and Estragon to wait for a man who clearly isn’t coming. And St. Thomas seems to be risking his life for no benefit, even in the eyes of his fellow clergy.
“You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown….
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.”
On the surface, St. Thomas’s actions appear similar to those of Becket’s characters. He behaves in a seemingly irrational way for the sake of protecting the meaning in his life. Yet there is a difference. Becket seems to have believed that knowing truth is not possible. St. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that truth was knowable because God is knowable. Rather, it is the future that is unknown. And because the future is unknown, we should base our actions on what is knowable–truth. It’s a very opposite way of looking at things compared to our postmodern culture.
I would say that if existentialism were true, then we ought to follow it. The way of Vladimir and Estragon would become necessary. But how can something that denies truth be true itself? It’s a tautology without a solution.
While Becket’s characters waited, Eliot’s Becket acted. He opened the door of the cathedral, refusing to hide behind the physical buildings of the Church. He knew the truth and, as Christ said in the Gospel of John, became free. In the words of the play:
“It is the just man who
Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
I am here.”