34 NO LACK OF VOID
Near the beginning of the teaser in the first episode of Breaking Bad Walt makes a confession on his mobile phone to his family. His attempt at meth making has ended in disaster. Walt has lost his trousers and is undressed. He has been denied physical dignity. There is nothing to be done but for Walt to confess and accept defeat. Waiting for Godot begins with Estragon pulling off his boots. Later we discover his feet stink. His friend Vladimir has prostate trouble and needs to urinate often. His breath smells. Like Walt seen naked in his white underpants, vomiting and being ill, these two men are also denied physical dignity. The first words we hear in Waiting For Godot are ‘nothing to be done’. It is an admission rather than a confession but only because in the purposeless world of Samuel Beckett there is no reason to confess to anything.
Waiting For Godot premiered in 1953 in Paris. Audiences in the European cities booed and hissed. In London a member of the audience stood up and said, ‘This is how we lost the colonies.’ No doubt his unhappy descendants still vote Tory. In 1959, Waiting For Godot was presented to the inmates of San Quentin Prison and was as well received as the concert that Johnny Cash gave there ten years later. Maybe the inmates were starved of entertainment but a Samuel Beckett play group was established in the prison. There have been all kinds of explanations for the positive response by the prisoners. This is one. Nothing much happens in Waiting For Godot. Two men are obliged to wonder how they can fill time and understand a world in which there is no explanation. Take away the pretensions and diversions we create and this is our existence. Sophistication does not help an audience understand Beckett, just honesty and self-awareness. The prisoners of San Quentin understood.
Breaking Bad was created by an imagination or imaginations reared on cinema. In the beginning showrunner Vince Gilligan said to his cameraman John Toll that he wanted the series to look like, whenever it could, the Westerns of Sergio Leone. A lot of the time it could not because much of the drama existed within an American family. The imagination of Samuel Beckett had literary and theatrical sources but the slapstick cinema of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy was also in his memory. The scene in Waiting For Godot where Estragon and Vladimir have three hats for two heads and are not sure which ones to wear is comedy borrowed from the silent comedies. Waiting For Godot insists on recognising bleak existence but adds humour. Beckett said that he wrote the play in French because it made him think more clearly yet the comedy is at its most effective when played by actors from his native Ireland.
Breaking Bad and Waiting For Godot have existential concerns but different viewpoints. Breaking Bad refers to the 19th Century American poet Walt Whitman and his notion, which Sartre later shared, that a human being had the responsibility to shape a life that was authentic to his or her spirit, although in those days it was mainly his. Sartre argued that when we were born we were nothing more than an essence and that meant we could, providing we were bold enough, find authenticity. Beckett agrees that human beings are not very much when they are born but also argues that death and time will mean they will never be very much. This is an obvious simplification of existential theory but we are talking about a popular TV show, It will do.
Apart from talking nonsense Estragon and Vladimir do little harm. Someone described Waiting For Godot as a play in which nothing happens twice. In the play Estragon and Vladimir encounter Pozzo and his servant Lucky. There is also a boy who works for Godot. The boy appears at the end of each act to say that his master will not appear that night. Pozzo is an oppressor, he treats Lucky like a slave and a creature of burden. Pozzo is obsessed with time. He looks constantly at this watch. In the same way Godot can be regarded as God, or whomever we expect to give an explanation or meaning to our lives, Pozzo is a symbol of how time mars our existence. Pozzo before the end of the play becomes blind. The abuser shapes his own metaphysical abuse. Pozzo can oppress others but he realises that power is no substitute for explanation. In a play written by an Irishman it helps if Pozzo is played by a middle class Englishman.
Walter is unlike Estragon and Vladimir. Walter White does a lot of harm. For him there is no need to wonder how to fill the time while waiting for explanation. After the teaser in episode one we hear Walt define chemical processes and assert that they explain life. Walt is a scientist and schoolteacher. He has knowledge and is convinced all he has to do is search through the information and understanding his brain has accumulated. Inside a knowledge filled brain he will find an answer to his problems. His waiting consists of what Walt regards as productive analysis. Walt refuses to endure without answers. Most of the serious thinking by Walt is done beside the swimming pool at the side of his house. The USA premiere of Waiting For Godot happened in Miami and somewhere on the planet there should be a theatre director planning a bold version of the play that takes place beside a swimming pool in a luxury hotel. This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.
Walt is a loyal family man. He does not consider extra-marital affairs but the habit of suburban life oppresses his spirit. He needs ‘to feel alive’ in the way Whitman and Sartre demanded. Beckett in Waiting For Godot suggests that we all rely on habit. We accumulate habits and believe we have an understanding. What we are really doing is distorting the perspective of our reality. This is why the bleak set of Waiting For Godot is important. The landscape may be a thing of beauty but it does no more than reflect mystery. Even its beauty is a mystery. Estragon and Vladimir are not a married couple but they behave like one. They bicker and establish habits but in their case the habits are short lived and redundant.
Memory loss adds to the confusion of Estragon and Vladimir. Estragon has a particularly poor memory. There is not only no explanation for what will happen next there is confusion about what has occurred in the past. This leads to doubt about where, who and what they are. In Breaking Bad there are moments when Walt recalls to Jesse some of the incidents of the past. These moments are rare. Whilst not evidence of confusion they do demonstrate the inadequacy of memory. So much has happened since Walt and Jesse decided to become meth maker partners the pair of them cannot remember everything that happened. And because Walt and Jesse are different personalities their memories are different. The experiences that Walt imagined might have bonded the two men do not exist for Jesse.
Waiting For Godot was considered revolutionary when it appeared. Unlike most drama it refuses to progress action, explain the place and define the time. The experimental theatre that emerged after the end of the second world war to challenge dramatic requirements was called the theatre of the absurd. It included Waiting For Godot. Breaking Bad was created to be a popular TV show. 60 years after Waiting For Godot premiered many of its innovations had drifted into popular culture. Action is defined in Breaking Bad but the teasers both complicate the action and exist out of time. Elsewhere the TV show is at least vague about time. We know time passes because we see baby Holly age but how much time elapsed between Walt becoming a meth maker and his death is unknown as is the period between many of the events.
The playful and repetitive or circular dialogue of Beckett was adapted and adopted by Harold Pinter. Refined again it appeared in the crime novels of Elmore Leonard and the movies of Quentin Tarantino. Waiting For Godot also challenged what are understood to be two dramatic principles. These are the hierarchy of comedy and dramatic irony. The theory behind the hierarchy of comedy is simple. We laugh at people to whom we feel superior. In Breaking Bad we laugh at Walt but few of us can feel superior to him because he is clever and knowledgeable. Breaking Bad, like Waiting For Godot, is a tragedy that has many comic moments. Tragedies also require dramatic irony. For his tragedies William Shakespeare liked superior monarchs. The audiences could not feel superior to these characters. If they did, they would laugh, and that would prevent the play being a tragedy. Instead the audiences were armed with information denied the main character such as the plots of a villain or the planned betrayal by a loved one or confidant. This is the irony. The audiences know something that the superior hero cannot. This additional information is mainly withheld in Breaking Bad. The hero proceeds to his doom, and we watch the tragedy, but the use of dramatic irony is almost non-existent. This is because Walt has to defeat his enemies, to be superior most of the time. His tragedy is that he loses his family. But during that tragedy we know before Walt that his wife is having an affair. Breaking Bad was not revolutionary like Waiting For Godot but it delivered more than audiences expected. The more makes a difference. What was different in Waiting For Godot was also more even if it was in a play where nothing happens twice.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.