Death and the Magician: Tommy Cooper, Buster Keaton and ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett.
“Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
Vladimir: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.”
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett is a play that prompts many questions, and answers none of them. Written originally in French in 1948–49 it was premiered in 1953 in Paris. Ostensibly it is about two characters, Vladimir (Dido) and Estragon (Gogo) who engage in a variety of discussions and encounters while awaiting Godot, who never arrives. ‘And if he comes?’ one of Beckett’s tramps asks the other near the end of the play. ‘We’ll be saved’, the other replies, although the nature of that salvation, along with so much else, remains undefined: for both characters and audience, Waiting for Godot enforces a wait for its own meaning and the meaning of what takes place both on and off the stage. Vivien Mercier, an Irish literary critic, famously described Waiting for Godot as a play which,
“has achieved a theoretical impossibility — a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice."
When Beckett started writing he did not have a visual image of Vladimir and Estragon. There are no physical descriptions of either of the two characters; however, the text indicates that Vladimir is possibly the heavier of the pair. The bowlers and other broadly comic aspects of their personae have reminded modern audiences of Laurel and Hardy, who occasionally played tramps in their films. Tommy Cooper was influenced by Laurel and Hardy.
After being demobbed he developed a popular monologue about his military experiences. During this time he developed his conjuring tricks and became a member of The Magic Circle. Yet Cooper did not become a star because of his ability to perform these tricks successfully but because of the complete opposite. He was a master of the failed trick. Of course to make a trick fail you must know how to do that trick correctly in the first place. Occasionally, Cooper would incorporate a successful piece of magic when the audience least expected it, to counteract the dissapointment that the audience would surely have been left with without this satisfying conclusion to his act. This sounds like the whole process of the play written by Beckett.
Vladimir and Estragon, or Didi and Gogo, are tramps that meet each day by a solitary tree (the sole piece of set dressing stipulated in the play script) to wait for a man called Godot. Vladimir, ‘an ineffective man of the world’, and the ‘marvellously incompetent’ Estragon have been compared to Laurel and Hardy, and they are indeed essentially a comedy double act transplanted into a tragedy.
With our marvellously incompetent Cooper we witness the tragedy unfold throughout his act with ineffective magic tricks that fail whilst simultaneously making us laugh with some of the most absurd jokes ever delivered. And this tour de force of absurdity clinched by the hat he wears. Not a bowler like Vladimir, Estragon, or Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin in his screen persona as The Tramp but a fez. Yes, a fez?! This is ‘light entertainment’ reaching the high absurd levels of existential tragicomedy. Tommy Cooper was essentially a comic character transplanted into a tragedy.
Laurel and Hardy aren’t the only film comedians who appear to have fed into the creation of Vladimir and Estragon. Beckett was a great admirer of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and in fact a 1915 film of Chaplin’s, The Tramp, includes a scene in which Chaplin’s character, bowler-hatted and shabbily suited, much like Beckett’s tramps, stops along a dusty road to eat lunch beside a tree.
But Vladimir and Estragon do seem to be much more than just tragicomedy versions of Laurel and Hardy or Chaplin or Keaton. For many their utterances are those of existential clowns caught up in what could be interpreted as an eternal recurrence,
“VLADIMIR: (after a moment of bewilderment). We’ll see when the time comes. (Pause.) I was saying that things have changed here since yesterday.
ESTRAGON: Everything oozes.
VLADIMIR: Look at the tree.
ESTRAGON: It’s never the same pus from one second to the next.
VLADIMIR: The tree, look at the tree. Estragon looks at the tree.
ESTRAGON: Was it not there yesterday?
VLADIMIR: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you not remember?
ESTRAGON: You dreamt it.
VLADIMIR: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
ESTRAGON: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.”
This uncertainty about time, and about what is new experience versus repetition, feeds into the air of futility that hangs about the play. The first thing we see is a man trying, and failing, to take off his boot, and the last is the two tramps agreeing ‘Let’s go’, but then remaining still. Looking at the tree Estragon says, ‘Pity we haven’t got a bit of rope’, but Vladimir suggests they wouldn’t even be able to kill themselves successfully.
But Tommy Cooper managed what Estragon and Vladimir could not and possibly what Samuel Beckett had been circling around and tangentially referring to all along in his masterpiece. Death. On 15 April 1984, Tommy Cooper collapsed from a heart attack in front of millions of television viewers, midway through his act on the London Weekend Television variety show Live from Her Majesty’s, transmitted live from Her Majesty’s Theatre in Westminster, London. An assistant had helped him put on a cloak for his sketch, while Jimmy Tarbuck, the host, was hiding behind the curtain waiting to pass him different props that he would then appear to pull from inside his gown. A typical piece of Cooper ‘magic’. No doubt the curtain would reveal slowly the presence of Tarbuck behind the curtain to rapturous applause. Godot would finally put in an appearance it seems.
However, as Cooper took his place on stage an assistant smiled at him as he slumped down, believing that it was part of the act. Likewise, the audience laughed as he fell backwards. They obviously believed this was part of his act.They had now seen him — as had millions of viewers watching the performance at home — turn incompetent magic tricks and comic absurdity into a real tragedy upon the stage. His own death. Tommy Cooper had literally died on stage to laughter and applause.
It was his finest performance and it had nothing to do with magic, failed tricks or jokes. For real death is never meant to intrude upon such gatherings of humanity in a modern sacred place devoted to frivolity and entertainment. And death is most certainly never meant to be funny. But of course nobody was aware — apart from those close by and in the TV studio — that Tommy Cooper had expired. But that fits the modus operandi for the comedy and magic of Tommy Cooper. Not so much as disguising the truth of his mastery but of revealing the very reality of our existence through success and failure and triumph and disaster. Death of course must be included. How could it not be?
The only other occassion that a comedian ever got this close to death was in the iconic hurricane scene by Buster Keaton in the silent comedy film ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’ (1928). Keaton as the title character stands in front of a house as its facade, detached by strong winds, collapses around him. In one of the most legendary stunts in silent-film history, Bill is positioned in the exact spot where an open window hits the ground, leaving him unscathed. Keaton used a genuine, two-ton building facade and no trickery.
The mark on the ground showing Keaton exactly where to stand to avoid being crushed was a nail. It has been claimed that if he had stood just inches off the correct spot, he would have been seriously injured or killed. Keaton’s third wife, Eleanor, had suggested that he may have been suicidal due to mounting problems. However, after a comically delayed action Keaton scampers away. Fear of death — and death itself — has been momentarily overcome by slapstick comedy. But that is what we all do, every day of our lives.
But there are times and moments when great artists break through the charade and we get a glimpse into the reality of life. In Beckett’s play he achieves this through its language, its dark humour and its absurdity. Shakespeare had evoked something similar in a few of his scenes. But the time was not yet right for the abandonment of reality and the full-flowering of the untethered absurd. But when I think of the death of Tommy Cooper upon a stage I can only think how Beckettian his unexpected death was. In fact it was beyond Beckett. It was not a recreation of the absurdity of existence in all its profundity for a stage, by a metaphysical Irish magus. It was the real event. In your face. Live at Her Majesty’s. Timing in comedy, is everything, they say. Bravo Tommy.