A decadent lack of realism

From the Wikipedia entry on Samuel Beckett:

“Beckett is one of the most widely discussed and highly prized of twentieth century authors, inspiring a critical industry to rival that which has sprung up around James Joyce. He has divided critical opinion. Some early philosophical critics, such as Sartre and Theodor Adorno, praised him, one for his revelation of absurdity, the other for his works’ critical refusal of simplicities; others such as Georg Lukacs condemn for ‘decadent’ lack of realism.”

Samuel Beckett? Is critical opinion really that divided? And is lack of realism truly a characteristic worthy of critical condemnation?

9 thoughts on “A decadent lack of realism

  1. I went to go see Beckett’s grave in Paris recently. He’s buried in the same graveyard as Satre in a community called Montparnasse.

    On his grave several people left little notes underneath rocks or coins. Some of them were folded up with the messages hidden away, others for everyone to be able to see.

    What would have Beckett said about the absuridity of strangers leaving written messages for a dead man.

    I wonder whether those messages were really for Beckett, or if they were really for other morbid and curious visitors (like me), in order to feel some sort of association or community with the dead playwright. Maybe in the hope that his greatness would somehow rub off?

    I didn’t read the notes. I didn’t leave one either. I decided to post a note about it here instead. Is that any different?

  2. I think to some people– the kind of people likely to not dig Beckett- his work not being realistic is a legitimate criticism. I am not one of these people, I should say. But I have a feeling the Updike-is-the-greatest-American-Writer crowd probably don’t dig Beckett very much. And when people struggle to find philosophical/theoretical grounding for their taste, things get dangerously puritanical right quick.

  3. I think this really calls into question the type of audience you’re creating for. Just mentioning Beckett’s name alongside your own work is risking grumblings of elitism, but there’s no question of his impact on the form. Will your audience (and critics) respond to an absurdist work or will they dismiss it as artsy crap? What is the power today in absurdism? An enormous amount of theatre today is rooted in realism, maybe it’s time for an absurdist reemergence to shake things up.

    Or are we already struggling with a profile of elitism? Perhaps the growth of the form lies in keeping it as real and relatable as possible to keep them coming back.

    Great food for thought Ian, as always.

  4. I think “not realistic” is a fine criticism, depending on the definition of realistic.

    If you’re complaining that a work is not realistic meaning “naturalistic” or not “slice-of-life,” then it’s a silly criticism.

    … UNLESS that was the work’s intention.

    However, if you’re complaining that a work is not realisitic meaning not plausible, given the form/environment/intention of the play, then it’s a damn good criticism.

    Waiting for Godot – when done well – should be entirely realistic. Same with The Bald Soprano or Dogg’s Hamlet. I think that’s what makes them genius.

    Absurd or not, a play should always make sense.

  5. “Absurd or not, a play should always make sense.”

    Make sense to whom?

    I love the spirit of this statement. Does it bear further scrutiny?

  6. ‘”Absurd or not, a play should always make sense.”

    Make sense to whom?’

    I think it should make sense in the world of the play.

  7. Beckett’s plays make perfect sense to some, some sense to others, and to some little sense at all.

    I think they are works of genius. Others hate them.

    This is the nature of art, writing, theatre, life…

    What more need be said?

  8. Simon,

    A great many people think Beckett’s work is genius. It has to be about more than personal whim . . . some like him, some don’t – at the very least, it’s collective whim.

    What I observe is a collective agreement that Beckett’s work is not just good, but great. The ongoing strength of this collective opinion suggests to me that art is frequently measured against more concrete markers than personal whim; there are external, community, historical, cultural, etc. cues that people use to evaluate art against.

    What else does the word “genius” mean if not to denote a work or worker of “exceptional” talent and merit?

  9. Absolutely Ian, and I’m in that consider-him-a-genius camp. (I have a Beckett quote on my desk.) What I find interesting in that Wiki article is how critically disdained his theatre work was on its release, and only later was it suggested that it was genius. And now we have people reactive against that claim, as absurdism is no longer considered a ‘movement’.

    How do we gauge a particular art style’s popularity with today’s crowd when deciding on content? Shakespeare is generally considered the uber-genius of theatre, and some see his work as anathema towards building a new audience.

    You’re totally right, some will like it, some won’t, but a historical resonance and abiding canon is a sure gauge for genius.

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