Prologue over the Atlantic
I couldn't sleep. The Laker plane glided smoothly, its movement imperceptible, through the blackness over the Atlantic, invisible somewhere below. The New World and Kennedy airport were far behind, and now it was approaching its destiny: Gatwick airport. It was mid-December 1977 and I was 28 years old. Why couldn't I sleep?
The plane was almost empty. I had a row of seats to stretch out on; I had extra pillows, blankets, thermal socks, earplugs and velvet eye shades; I had no turbulence and relative quiet. But my sleeplessness was of a different sort from that caused by being in a vibrating steel box ten thousand metres over the earth. I couldn't sleep because I was obsessively taking stock of my life, and the balance wouldn't come out even remotely positive. Under all the main headings - the grand ones like Destiny, Fatherland, Fulfilment, God - showed zero, or even a debit. There was nothing there that I could accept, let alone feel proud of.
I had once wanted to be a musician - a pianist or a composer, or at least a conductor. I'd had to accept the fact that I would never be any of those things because I lacked the talent. Later I'd dreamed of becoming a physicist or a mathematician; I was drawn by the world of numbers and abstract theories, by the mysteries of matter and the universe. But this, too, came to nothing: my grades in science at school were far too low for me to attempt to go down that path. I took the route of the humanities and chose literature as my field. But here, too, my achievements had been meagre.
I was born and raised in post-war Poland, ruined by the war and now occupied by Soviet communism. Life in it was depraving and soul-destroying. The world I lived in was a web of fictions, spun from lies and myths, and when you opened your eyes and recognised it for what it was, you found yourself confronted by brutal, naked force. You were powerless against it. And if, knowing this, you made no attempt to escape (for there was no legal emigration then), you resigned yourself to a life of vegetation, absurdity and constant humiliation. Life in People's Poland, in real socialism, was the life of a scurrying rat, schizophrenic, nasty, brutish and poor. But I couldn't find it in me to break the ties that bound me to it; I hadn't the courage to burn my bridges. I continued to thrash around in that bog, stagnating, fruitlessly flailing about, with a growing burden of complexes and diminishing hope that a change for the better would ever come.
But history, politics and the regime, however dreadful and however insistent in imposing their hateful presence, can't usurp all areas of life. There is the private sphere: people, emotions, expectations, the irrepressible hope of happiness, dreams, desires, the ties of friendship. Yet here, too, I could find no comfort or satisfaction; there was nothing there that seemed worthwhile. I was crippled, in a way: internally torn and confused, artificial, bloodless and cold. Irony and paradox, mockery and doubt were my element; I was the eternal joker, the clown. What joy can such a creature expect in life, and what hope that someone would accept me the way I was? Only God, perhaps, could do that - if I believed in Him.
As I was indulging with masochistic relish in this séance of despair and self-flagellation, I was suddenly reminded of a grotesque little sketch that depicted a very similar scene:
A silent figure stands at the open window of a flat on the seventh or eighth floor, taking stock of his life before leaping to his death. His internal struggles are represented by a dialogue between two bureaucrats, each of whom represents one side of the scales of justice: for the leap (the prosecutor) and against (the defense). The arguments for and against are drawn from the prospective suicide's book of life, which contains every detail of his existence - all the facts as well as all his words and thoughts. The prosecutor's conclusion is as follows: "Work, family, third fatherland, cunt, finances, art and nature, heart and concience, health, housing, conditions, God and man, so many disasters."
The sketch with this ironic vignette is by Beckett. I had translated it into Polish a while ago and had had enormous fun doing it. Now, unexpectedly, I saw myself reflected in it, as in a distorting mirror.
The thought led to others. Beckett was a master of mockery and irony, especially directed at himself. From his earliest writings he had made fun of his own tendency to gloominess and pessimism. The protagonist of his early novels and stories, clearly a self-portrait, is called Belacqua - after the Florentine lute-maker in the Divine Comedy, a man known for his gloomy and phlegmatic nature. For these sins - and especially for his tardiness in the matter of penance - Dante, viewing him with a measure of sympathy, though tinged with irony, consigned him to the antechamber of Purgatory. Before a sinner embarked on the path of Purgatory, he was consigned to this antechamber for a period of time equal to the span of his life. Life being a gift from God, pessimism and joylessness were grievous sins; the punishment, appropriately, was another full dose of apathy and gloom. After two lifetimes spent in this way, the sinner was cured: he abandoned his previous nature and embraced joy.
Beckett also makes fun of the whiner?s characteristic tendency to harp on the most depressing aspects of his life. In their testimony, the prospective suicide's friends stress that he had always tended to exaggerate the bad things, dwelling at length on failures and problems, while belittling or even ignoring the good ones. For instance, his ex-wife recalls that of their whole marriage he remembered mainly those (few and brief) times when she was indisposed, which disturbed the pattern of their love life, but "on the subject of their happiness... the first fifteen minutes of their wedding night... not one word". His mother declares that he would erase from his memory the rare moments of happiness granted their unfortunate family but would dwell lovingly on the misfortunes, which were countless, as if they were precious relics: "not a joy, they were few, that was not irrevocably dissolved, as by a corrosive. Not a tear was known to fall in our family, and God knows they did in torrents, that was not caught up and piously preserved in that inexhaustible reservoir of sorrow, with the date, the hour and the occasion." And a schoolfriend reports a similarly one-sided approach to history lessons: "Of our national epos he remembered only the calamities, which did not prevent him from winning a minor scholarship in the subject."
Was I not guilty of something very similar? In the circumstances, which were admittedly far from favourable, I had had more good luck than bad. My path so far had been fairly smooth. There had been no calamities, not even failures of any importance. I did well in my studies; I had friends. On the whole people liked me. Raised as I'd been among the intelligentsia, among writers, historians, critics, I'd had the opportunity to meet a number of interesting people. And after university I'd achieved independence: I was earning my own living. It was a modest life but I was free, unhampered by mundane worries and considerations of family, job, career. Most of my time was my own, and this was the most one could hope for in a system where you were a prisoner. Even my trip to the West was in many respects quite different from the standard experiences of most Poles. I'd gone to America on a comfortable fellowship, and had been allowed to work as well. I'd earned enough to live on for almost two years back in Poland, or to buy a really good car. But I didn't want to go back. I didn't care about cars. I'd rather spend my savings on a longer stay in the West. I was flying to London because I had somewhere to stay there - a room in my cousin's Jasia's house in Belsize Park.
None of this made me feel any better about myself. The list of reasons for contentment, supposed to demonstrate the disingenuousness of my complaints, did not convince me; it was false consolation, I decided, a way of comforting myself - a typical defensive mechanism. I dismissed it. Nevertheless, I broke off my séance of masochism and doubt, for my thoughts had wandered in a quite different direction.
Beckett. The man and his work. If there was a seed of something positive in my life - something truly worthwhile that I had done, some genuinely good choice that I had made - then it had to be the fact that from among the many voices I heard around me I had chosen his and concentrated on it, had made the effort to understand his work, had been able to expound it to others, had become, in time, his follower and pupil. This choice had been independent of anyone's opinion; it reposed on no voice of authority, no institution, no collective judgement. It was entirely my own; it flowed from what I felt and from what Beckett?s work gave me.
But what exactly was it? And when did it begin?
Godot at the Modern Theatre
It wouldn't be quite true to say that that was when it began; it's hard to believe it happened at all. But it did.
It was 1957. That memorable golden autumn. For over a year, ever since the famous speech at the Party rally in the square - the speech where much was said about the wrongs that had been done and the mistakes that had been made, and solemn promises made that such things would never happen again - the whole country has been gripped by a strange, festive mood. I am eight years old, in second grade, and I don't understand any of it. Most of my attention is absorbed by stamp collecting: the technique of unsticking them, the ways of arranging them in my albums, duplicates, swaps. But I can't help noticing the changes around me. For instance, there's less red: fewer flags, placards and posters. The streets seem more colourful, the people on them freer and somehow more cheerful. There are new radio programmes, with a different tone to them. Even the music is different. But above all there's a new atmosphere at home, entirely unlike any I'd known before. My parents come home from work in a good mood, looking lively and cheerful; friends drop by much more often; long, intense conversations take place deep into the night. Foreigners visit, speaking English or French; there are Western books and newspapers, foreign cigarettes and wines. There are my father's first trips beyond the Iron Curtain, the homecomings, the presents. Excitement. Hope!
Until, at the beginning of the new school year, a new, poisonous wind starts to blow. The authorities close down a journal - a small but well-known bastion of (relatively) free speech; a student demonstration against this, in front of the Polytechnic, is dispersed. There are arrests and beatings; a lot of people are hurt. And suddenly the festive mood is gone. The adult conversations I overhear - though I still don't understand much of what is being said - are full of mysterious and disturbing expressions like "the return of the new" or "clamping down", or "finita la commedia?" said with a bitter laugh, and especially the enigmatic "waiting for Godot". I hear this last phrase more often than the others, until it seems like a leitmotif, or a sort of incantation. An incantation that sounds ominous somehow, like "waiting for the scaffold". It's intriguing, but in a horrible, slightly creepy way.
Finally I can bear it no longer and ask. Oh, no, it's nothing, they say; it?s just the title of a play people are talking about now. It's being staged everywhere, all over the world. It's on here too, at the Modern Thatre.
"But what does it mean?" I insist. "Who, or what, is Godot?"
"It's someone, or something, that isn't there. Someone who was supposed to come but never came. Something that was supposed to happen but never did, and probably never will."
"You mean the end of the world?"
"No, no, nothing like that." This assurance is accompanied by an indulgent smile. "Absolutely not. If you want to know any more, you'll have to wait until we manage to get tickets. Then we can tell you all about it. But for now it?s sold out."
I sense that this answer is somehow evasive. It explains hardly anything; it puts things off until later. But what can I do? Grown-ups are like that. If for some reason they don't want to tell you something, then nothing on earth will make them.
In any case, it's not that important. Vastly more important is the fact that a satellite has just been launched into space for the first time. Admittedly by the despised Soviets, but in this case it doesn't matter: an achievement like that, a step beyond the Earth, belongs to humanity; it opens the way to the stars, to other worlds, worlds that people have dreamed about since the beginning of time. Maybe we'll finally find out what's up there above our heads. Does anyone live there? Is the sky really blue, the way it looks on a fine, clear day, or is it black and empty, like a starless night? Frightening to imagine that endless emptiness; frightening, too, to think that one might never come back from such a trip into space. And you can't help thinking about it, because hardly a month goes by before the first living creature is sent into space: the dog Laika. "Man's best friend", he's always called in the papers. Exactly: a friend. Loyal, trusting, faithful. "Faithful as a dog", we even say. And this is the fate we've reserved for our loyal friend? We look after him, pet him, earn his trust, and then we shut him up in a capsule and send him off into the vast unknown? The dog, after dozens or even hundreds of trial runs, thinks, or rather senses, that it won't last long; that his confinement in this nasty little box, stuffy and dark (surely there's no light inside, why would there be?) will shortly end, and that soon, very soon, these good, kind people, his masters, will open the hatch and pick him up, stroke him and cuddle him, give him his favourite titbits as a reward. But they don't. Hours pass, then days, and nothing happens. Just silence. Silence (what noise could there be? the Sputnik doesn't have an engine) and darkness. The food runs out, the oxygen comes to an end and then the world - not even with a whimper.
One Sunday the phone rings. It's Mr. Jerzy Kreczmar, a good friend of my parents', once a teacher and a lecturer in logic, now a distinguished theatre director, an illustrious figure in Polish theatre and the director of the Waiting for Godot now playing at the Modern Theatre. The play has had a successful run of over ten months and his staging has met with unanimous enthusiasm and praise. Mr. Kreczmar apologises for not having invited them earlier and for doing so now at the last minute: his invitation is for that night. But that's how it is, the tickets are sold out weeks in advance and even he, as director, has a very limited number of seats at his disposal. So would my parents like to go to the theatre tonight?
Of course they would; unthinkable to miss such an opportunity!
"You'll just have to stay at home by yourself," they say coolly when I object to this plan. "You're not a baby any longer. You can read a book or listen to the radio. And you can go to bed later than usual if you like, and wait up for us. And then, as a reward, you'll find out all about Godot and who he is."
But the name Godot immediately brings to mind the unsolved mystery, and it occurs to me that this might be my chance to obtain an answer firsthand - directly from the stage, by watching the play. And I'd finally get to see real theatre, to experience for myself the magic I've heard so much about. Of course I know what theatre is, I've been to the theatre before, but only to children's shows: puppet shows, stories about goblins and dwarves, Little Red Riding Hood. Adult theatre is supposed to be something different, something amazing! When will another opportunity like this come along?
"I won't stay at home by myself," I announce firmly. "I don't feel well. I'm scared."
"Scared?" Astonishment, incredulity and horror vie for dominance in my parents' voices. It's true that I have never before displayed tendencies of this kind. "And what exactly is it you're so scared of?"
"It's hard to say," I mumble. "I don't really know myself. Maybe that dog they sent into space?"
"You're scared of a dog in space?" my father says, trying to make a joke of it.
"Not of the dog. I'm just scared if he'll come back."
"All right," says my mother, scenting an opportunity for self-sacrifice, "I'll stay with him. You go," she says to my father, "and take someone else in my place."
But my father seems to have different plans. He shuts himself up in his study, talks to someone on the phone and then announces curtly that I am coming with them.
"Oh, wonderful!" cries my mother in outraged tones, "just what he needs! What an extraordinary idea! It's not a play for children, especially high-strung and neurotic ones."
"For children probably not," concedes my father, attempting to pacify her, "but for neurotic ones it might be just the thing."
Her objections make no difference. It's decided: I'm going.
The theatre is full to bursting, every seat taken, people standing in the side aisles. Mr. Kreczmar tells someone to bring a chair for me and set it up in the aisle next to my parents' row. My mother leaps at this new opportunity for self-sacrifice: she will sit there, she decides, while I sit next to my father in a proper seat in the stalls.
The lights dim. A gong sounds and the curtain rises.
I'm astonished from the very beginning. I thought serious theatre, adult theatre, was something serious, with "romantic" characters: kings, queens, great lords and ladies ? real heroes, and all of them speaking in rhymed verse. But this - what's this? A pair of clowns! Slapstick and crude gags. A circus. One clown is sad and pathetic, the other is cleverer. And there's another pair, one fat, one thin, a master and his servant. You can tell they're clowns from their costumes, which are made of brightly coloured material in checks of one kind or another and are either too big or too small. All the stupid clown's clothes are too big for him, while the clever one's are all too small. And then their hats - like something Charlie Chaplin would wear. And their shoes! Pointy and too big, or white and high-heeled. And their names: Didi, Gogo, Pozzo. Like names of circus clowns!
There are differences, though. Circus clowns, apart from just clowning, usually do tricks of some sort: they juggle, walk on their hands or turn somersaults. But these two don't seem to have any such talents. Their clown acts are hopeless, at best awkward and incompetent. And another thing: circus clowns are rarely sad; most of the time they're cheerful. But these two are sad almost all the time. Even when they lose their balance or fall over, which makes them either ridiculously happy or ridiculously frightened, the emotion they inspire most is pity. We're sorry for them; they seem such a wretched, hopeless pair. And at the end, when it turns out that they've waited all this time in vain, that the mysterious Godot has cried off once again and wants them to go on waiting, we're more than just sorry for them: we really pity them. For what can be sadder than unfulfilled hope, especially hope nurtured for so long?
But there's another difference, and it's this that makes the biggest impression on me: the Messenger Boy who brings the news that Godot can't make it that day. It's not only his costume - a white shepherd's cloak, a hat like a sombrero and a pair of sandals that look very familiar (I have a pair just like them!) - that distinguishes him from a circus figure; above all there is the fact that his role is played by a child. At the circus you might see dwarves, whom we call lilliputians, but never children; at least I've never seen any. But here, on stage, is a boy - a boy my own age! Yes, definitely my age; you can tell things like that.
Which means that I could play him too! What a pity the theatre - or rather, Mr. Kreczmar - didn't pick me for the role. He could have done: he knows my parents, he's a neighbour. What a wonderful adventure it would have been! Getting to know the actors, going to rehearsals (getting off school!), coming out on stage, hearing the applause, taking our bows. But that's not all. The Messenger Boy could influence the action; he could change the story! Godot can't come because there's no such character in the play, but at the end of the play he could send the Boy with a different message: that he wouldn't come the following day, but would like them to come to him. The Messenger Boy's key lines could be just slightly altered: "Mr. Godot told me to tell you that he can't come, but he would like you to come to his house. Let's go! Follow me, gentlemen! I'll take you there."
Wouldn't that be a much better ending?
On the way home I confide this idea. We're riding in an old tram that shudders and shakes.
"It would be a nicer one," my father replies, with emphasis. "But it wouldn't be true."
"But why wouldn't it? All you have to do is write it that way. And then act it that way."
"It would be false." My father comes to the defence of the author. "The play reflects real life; that's what real life is like."
"I wish you wouldn't poison his mind," my mother objects. "That kind of philosophy makes you want to give up on life."
My father is unconvinced.
"Not necessarily," he says. "Sometimes it makes you stronger. Lots of things are easier to bear if you're prepared for something worse rather than expecting something better. Especially if you're prepared for the worst."
The rest of the trip home passes in silence.
After a light late supper, my father turns on the radio and listens to Radio Free Europe. After "Facts" there's a newsflash.
The Soviet Press Agency TASS reports that the dog Laika was humanely put to sleep according to plan - they put something in his last meal in space. Then, on his return to earth, he burnt up along with the satellite.
"Too beautiful to be true,-"my father comments.
"What do you mean? What's beautiful?" says my mother. "Think what you're saying!"
"That he was put to sleep."
Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska