Pozzo’s Knook, Beckett’s Boys, and Santa Claus
published in Modern Drama, Summer 2011
Fifty years ago, I wrote to Samuel Beckett asking him why he did not include three sentences about Pozzo’s “knook” when he translated his En attendant Godot into Waiting for Godot. Beckett replied that it was “because the scene dragged. I simplified English version accordingly.”1
But Beckett did not reply to my subsequent question in the letter asking what a knook was. The unfamiliar word appears in Act One of the English version, when Pozzo, referring to his servant Lucky, explains how he “took a knook”:
Guess who taught me all these beautiful things.
(Pause. Pointing to Lucky) My Lucky! …
Beauty, grace, truth of the first water, I knew they were all beyond me.
So I took a knook.
(startled from his inspection of the sky)
(22ab; ellipsis added)
In the English version, Pozzo immediately changes the subject and the word never appears again. In the first printing of the French edition, however (where the spelling is knouk), Pozzo responds to the effect that knouks are a poor substitute for the clowns that those who could afford them would employ in the past (“Autrefois on avait des bouffons. Maintenant on a… Ceux qui peuvent se le permettre” [ellipsis in the original]). And in a subsequent revision of the French version, the word knouk is eliminated, with Pozzo only saying “Alors je l’ai pris” (“So I took him”).
But what is a knook? Beckett did not answer and the word has long puzzled scholars. The alphabetized entry in Rónán McDonald’s 2006 Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett is simply: “Knook: a deliberately obscure word, with no clear meaning in English.”2 Other suggestions include those by Lawrence Graver, “The word knook seems to have been coined by Beckett by analogy with knut, Russian for ‘whip,’”3 Martin Walsh, who proposes that the word derives from the Dutch knok, meaning “bone or knuckle,” indicating “a bony woman,”4 and Frederick Busi, who says, “It is obvious that the strange word, found in no dictionary in either of its forms, has been coined by Beckett and has something to do with fools and jesters.” Busi goes on to propose that knook is “a highly sophisticated portmanteau word which is supposed to evoke several meanings at the same time,” including, Busi says, the Irish word for hill (cnuc), a low German word for knock (knuk), a British dialect expression for “an old worn-out horse” (knacker), and a Scottish dialect word for clock (knock).”5 Colin Duckworth writes that he “ventured to ask Mr Beckett what it was. His answer was simple: ‘Knouk: a word invented by me.’”6
Beckett may have thought he invented the word, but he didn’t. Knooks were created five years before his birth by the American novelist L. Frank Baum, and referred to a population – both a race and a family – of pint-sized forest elves in Baum’s 1901 short story “The Enchanted Tales”; they were then developed far more extensively in Baum’s best-selling children’s novel, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, published the following year both in America (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill) and England (London: Stevens & Brown). In Baum’s work, Knooks have been given by Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, to Claus (soon to become Santa Claus) with the promise that that “they will serve you gladly.”7 The Knooks thereafter make Claus a wooden shelter in the forest, stack logs for his fireplace, and provide him with the very special softwoods that are required for carving the toys he will distribute. They also become his military protectors, saving his life from the Agwas (which include forest panthers, spiders and pythons) and the murderous Tatary Giants. Claus respond with gratitude and praise: “I must thank the good Knooks again, for their knowledge of man’s needs as well for their labors in my behalf.”8
The Knooks of Baum’s imagination certainly look like Pozzo’s knook of Beckett’s. The illustration of Will Knook and Claus drawn by Mary Cowles Clark, the Nantucket Art Colony painter who was the book’s illustrator, shows
Will as an elf, wearing a leprechaun cap atop his long, grey-white mat of hair that reaches down to his knees. Except for its scale, this image (see below) closely parallels Lucky as we first see him in Beckett’s play: “Lucky… takes off his hat. His long white hair falls about his face.”
Clark’s illustration of Claus and Will Knook, following
p. 140 in the 1902 Bowen-Merrill edition
The main service of these forest elves in Baum’s invented universe is not to make toys, however, but “to look over all the beasts of the world, both gentle and wise.”9 And coming under the knooks’ primary responsibilities are the forest’s deer, in particular the reindeer with which Santa Claus will drive his “sledge” (sleigh) on Christmas Eve. Knooks are not always gentle, however, and Baum also describes them as “unaccustomed to giving favors of any kind” (143). Certainly not all of them are happy at their deer-herding assignment. The “growling and ill-natured” (140) Will Knook, in fact, is furious at Claus for seeking to harness reindeer to drive his sledge. “Deer are deer,” Will Knook tells the Prince of Knooks, who tries to intervene on Claus’s behalf. “No one harnesses deer,” Will continues, “because they are free, wild creatures, owing no service of any kind to mankind. It would degrade my deer to labor for Claus, who is only a man” (143). But a fellow knook comes to Claus’s rescue: Peter Knook, whose “heart is kind as his body is crooked,” proves willing to make leather harnesses “cut from the skins of lions that had reached such an advanced age that they died naturally, and on one side was tawny hair while the other side was cured to the softness of velvet” (158). So Claus indeed harnesses his reindeer, with the help of Peter Knook, and with his new title of Sana sets off for his Christmas Eve deliveries.10
Clark’s two illustrations of Claus as he “Cracked his long whip as a signal to start” (161)
his reindeer. Following pages 204 and 206, respectively, in the American edition.
So if Lucky may have sprung – consciously or unconsciously – from Baum’s knook, did Pozzo spring from Baum’s Claus? Apparently, yes. At their first entrance, Lucky, harnessed by a rope, precedes Pozzo onto the stage:
Enter Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo drives Lucky by means of a rope passed round his neck, so that Lucky is the first to enter, followed by the rope…
(off) On! (Crack of whip. Pozzo appears. They cross the stage…)
The Knook in Baum’s story who balked at harnessing Santa’s reindeer in Baum’s novel is now himself harnessed and has taken the reindeer’s place. And Pozzo drives him by cracking his whip over his head and crying “On!” – no less than nine times during the play, (each time with an exclamation point), bringing to mind St. Nicholas’s “On, Comet! On, Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!” in Clement Moore’s “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” the poem which introduced reindeer to the Santa Claus legend in 1823.11
But Pozzo, of course, is an anti-Santa, not a benevolent one. Not only does he harness, berate and whip his knook, he addresses Lucky as a mere beast, commanding him with repeated cries of “Pig!” and “Hog!” and complaining to Vladimir and Estragon that “old dogs have more dignity.” And, in lieu of distributing presents to children, he drops his well-chewed chicken bones on the ground for Gogo and Didi to gnaw upon.
Did Beckett read The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus when he was a boy – or have it read to him? And did he see Clark’s illustrations? It’s hard to imagine that he didn’t. Baum was “by far the most popular children’s writer of the early twentieth century,”12 largely on the basis of his Wonderful Wizard of Oz which, written two years before Claus, was “the best selling children’s book of the decade.”13 And young Sam “learned to read very quickly,” according to his authorized biographer James Knowlson, and “was very fond of being alone, at his happiest when he could curl up alone with, at first, a picture book or, later, a proper book to read.”14 And Beckett “had wonderful Christmases” as a boy, as we have been told by his cousin Sheila Page, who had lived with the him and his family when Beckett was between seven and twelve years old. Referring to young Sam and herself, she reports that “On Christmas morning, Father Christmas was supposed to be at one of the doors with a sack of presents. And, of course, we always went to the wrong door.”15 It is almost impossible to believe that Beckett had not read Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, and at least one other scholar has speculated on another image from a Baum children’s novel that may have found its way into Beckett’s published works.16
But if Beckett’s creation of Pozzo was stimulated by his recollection, conscious or unconscious, of Baum’s version of Santa Claus, what if any impact might that have on the resulting Waiting for Godot? Early reviews and comments on Waiting for Godot generally assumed that the title “character” was some sort of representation of God, and that, as G. S. Fraser wrote in his 1954 Times Literary Supplement review of the London production, the play should be seen “more or less as a Christian parable.”17 Almost everyone who thought about the play at that time was quick to notice the “God” in “Godot” (some thinking the name a quasi-palindrome “God/Tod,” combining the English word for the deity and the German word for death), and an article of my own, comparing compared Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Simone Weil’s Waiting for God appeared in 1964.18 We are now more clearly aware, however, of Beckett’s “profound agnosticism,”19 as his major (and only authorized) biographer James Knowlson reports, and C.J. Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski have definitively noted that Beckett “scorned those who saw Godot as an allegory of Christian salvation.”20 Still, the latter writers also report that Beckett’s “attendance at church and Sunday School left an indelible mark on his character and writings long after he had lost, or failed to find, his faith.”21 So despite Beckett’s famous response to Alan Schneider, “If I knew what Godot was I would have said so,”22 and Eric Gans comment in 1982 that this Christian parable issue was already a “tiresome question,”23 I believe it will prove worthwhile at this time to re-investigate the links between Godot and the Christian God, or Godhead, at least in the minds of the play’s principal characters.
Beckett’s removal of the line about knooks from his English version was not the only such inquiry I had posed to him in my 1960 letter. The other concerned Beckett’s omission of a phrase early in the play. It follows the pause in Act I when Vladimir suddenly interrupts his conversation with Estragon because he believes – erroneously as it turns out – that he hears someone coming. After “sighs of relief” the tramps “relax and separate” and have this eight-line exchange:
You gave me a fright.
I thought it was he.
Pah. The wind in the reeds.
I could have sworn I heard shouts.
And why would he shout?
At his horse.
In the English version, Estragon then changes the subject, crying out (“violently” according to Beckett’s stage direction), “I’m hungry!” But in the French version, quite different lines follow:
Où? Ce soir on couchera peut-
être chez lui, au chaud, au sec, le ventre plein, sur la
paille. Ça vaut la peine qu’on attende. Non?
Pas toute la nuit.
Il fait encore jour.
In his response, Beckett acknowledged that “The omission of ‘ce soir on couchera etc’ is a mistake and the line should be restored. I leave the translation to you.”24 So I took him up on his invitation and translated it as follows:
Where? Perhaps tonight we’ll sleep at his place, where it’s warm, it’s dry. We’ll eat, we’ll sleep on the straw. That’s worth waiting for, isn’t it?
Not all night.
But it’s still day.
What intrigued me at the time – and now even more so – were the words “au chaud, au sec.” Vladimir believes warmth and dryness are characteristic of Godot’s house, but they also foreshadow how Vladimir describes where Christ lived:
…You’re not going to compare yourself to Christ!
All my life I’ve compared myself to him.
But where he lived it was warm, it was dry!
In Vladimir’s mind, “Christ” and “Godot” live in identically “warm” and “dry” environments.
I was gratified, therefore, that in 1975, Beckett restored the lines himself – and in his own translations – first in German for the production of the play he directed at Berlin’s Schiller-Theater, and afterwards in a revised English version.25 Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld consider the restored ce soir on couchera sequence to be “the most explicit expectation Vladimir and Estragon have of Godot, and the one reason given for waiting for him.”26
Moreover, the au chaud, au sec linkage between Beckett’s Godot and the New Testament’s Christ completes a trilogy of three separate Godot/Christ references in the eight-line passage. “The wind in the reeds” alludes to Jesus’ chastisement of the multitudes that considered John the Baptist an inconsistent prophet: “What went ye out in the wilderness to see?” Jesus asks them angrily, “A reed shaken by the wind?” And the “horse” suggests the hinny (a hybrid between a stallion and an ass), on which Jesus enters Jerusalem: a familiar Beckettian preoccupation as seen elsewhere in his dramatic works, as Henry’s “Christ! Hooves! Hooves! Christ!” in Embers, and Mrs. Rooney’s “…it was a hinny, he rode into Jerusalem or wherever it was on a hinny. (pause) That must mean something,” in All That Fall. If it means something to Mrs. Rooney, it must mean something to us as well.
There are, of course, many other references in the play that associates Godot with God and/or Christ in the minds of its characters, including Gogo’s and Didi’s extended discussion of the crucifixion, Pozzo’s stated destination in Act I as “au marché de Saint-Sauveur” (“to the market of St. Savior”), quotations from and references to both Old and New Testaments, and unambiguous lines such as “If he [Godot] comes… we’ll be saved,” and “At last! Gogo! It’s Godot! We’re saved!” Even the very name of Godot – particularly as Beckett and both English and Irish actors pronounce it, as GOD-oh, seems to confirm that “Mr. Godot” represents, at least to those waiting for him, some sort of Christian godhead. Some of these references were also deleted from the English version – Saint-Sauveur, for example – was modified to simply “the fair.” But the largest passage Beckett deleted in making his translations was a sequence of nineteen speeches in the French edition of Endgame. I had not questioned him about this in my request, but Beckett volunteered his reasons for this omission on his own, writing that “The scene of the boy from window towards end of ENDGAME was similarly reduced in English translation. I think these lines merely labour the point. But you are free to put them back if you wish.”27
The “similarly reduced” lines in Endgame are similar precisely because they represent another possible divinity or divine messenger entering the picture. They come shortly before the end of the play, when Clov, responding to Hamm’s command that he “look at the earth,” climbs his ladder and looks out the window through his telescope. Suddenly, in mid-word, Clov stops speaking: “Nothing… nothing… good… good… nothing… goo?” What follows, in my (authorized!) translation of the French text, is:
More complications! (Clov gets down.) Nothing bouncing around, I trust. (Clov moves ladder nearer window, gets up on it, turns on the without.)
What is it, a leaf? A flower? A toma–(yawn) to?
To hell with your tomatoes! It’s someone! Some one!
Well, go kill him! (Clov gets down) Someone!
(energetically) Do your duty! (Clov runs to the door.) No, it’s not worth it. (Clov stops.) How far away? (Clov goes back to the ladder, climbs up, looks out through glass.)
Seventy… (hesitates) four meters.
(still looking) Not moving.
What does that matter? (He opens the window, leans out. Then stands back up, lowers the glass, and looks at Hamm in terror.) I would say an urchin.
(violently) What is he doing?
(the same) I don’t know what he’s doing! What urchins do! (He aims the glass. Pause. He lowers the glass and turns toward Hamm.) He looks like he’s sitting on the ground, his back against something.
A raised stone? (Pause.) Your sight is improving. He’s looking at the house with the eyes of the dying Moses, I’m sure of it.
What is he looking at?
(violently) I don’t know what he’s looking at! (He aims the glass. Pause. He lowers the glass, turns towards Hamm.) His navel. That’s all. (Pause.) Why all these questions?
Perhaps he’s dead.
None of this appears in the English version, in which Clov merely says that the figure he sees “looks like a small boy,” and suggests it might be “a potential procreator.” In the French version, however, the “urchin” (as Clov there refers to him) seems to represent not only Christ at his tomb (the “raised stone” – Colin Duckworth suggest the image has “overtones of the risen Christ”28), but also Moses dying before reaching the Holy Land, the seated Buddha, and the navel-gazing Hesychasts of Eastern Christian Orthodoxy: somewhat of a universal divinity. And the sequence comes at a critical moment: in both English and French versions, the urchin’s appearance precipitates the play’s turning point, for after three lines of contemplating the boy’s existence, Hamm concludes, “It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you any more.” And for the first time in the play, Hamm really means it. Clov takes this as his cue to leave, which he’s been trying to do since the beginning of the play, and so, following Hamm’s final soliloquy, the play ends — with Hamm believing that the now-silent Clov has departed forever (even though he hasn’t).
The urchin certainly makes us think of the Boy who comes in at the end of each act in Godot – although if we take “the Boy” at his word, he is actually two Boys, two brothers, one entering in the first act and the other in the second.29 Each “brother” claims to have a message from “Mr. Godot,” each insists it’s the first time he has ever come, and each brings news that Godot will not come today “but surely tomorrow.” The Boy in the first act also tells Vladimir that he minds the goats while his brother minds the sheep, a reference to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-45 where, at the Day of Judgment, it is foretold that Jesus will “sit on his glorious throne” and “separate people one for the other like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” with the sheep going to his right hand to be saved and the goats to his left hand to be damned. This echoes Luke’s report of the Crucifixion, cited and critically analyzed by Vladimir at the play’s beginning, in which Jesus saves one of the thieves crucified beside him but damns the other. And at the end of the Vladimir-Boy scene in Act II, Vladimir asks his young visitor:
(softly) Has he a beard, Mr. Godot?
Fair or… (he hesitates) black?
I think it’s white, Sir.
Christ have mercy on us!
That Vladimir speaks “softly,” and that he “hesitates” in the middle of his second question, makes it evident that he believes these questions to be of profound importance, for Vladimir well remembers – as do we — Lucky’s definition earlier in the play of “a personal god… with white beard.” And Vladimir’s exclamation, “Christ have mercy on us!” (which he utters after a silence that follows his hearing that Godot’s beard is white), is as much or more a direct address to the Boy-as-Christ as it is a throw-away prayer to the universe in general.
But the Boy does not respond to Vladimir’s plea. And when, “with sudden violence,” Vladimir demands that the Boy not return again unless he can provide a better answer, the Boy continues in his silence. At which point Vladimir “makes a sudden spring forward” and the Boy “exits running” and is never seen again.
There are other boys in Beckett’s work that, like the boys appearing (at least to one of the characters) in Godot and Endgame, offer, or seem to offer, a glimmer of hope to their despairing elders. A boy in Molloy cries to the ailing protagonist, “Don’t fret, Molloy, we’re coming,” which strikes Molloy as like an “urchin’s thanks.”30 And there’s the “little boy” in Endgame that Hamm reports in what he calls “my story” – the story that Clov describes as “The one you’ve been telling yourself all your days.” This boy was offered to Hamm by a visitor, who asks Hamm “to take in [his] child.” It is a request, Hamm tells us, that “was the moment I was waiting for.” We learn nothing else about this boy – neither who he was or what happened to him – but the timing of this exchange is something we do know: it was on “Christmas Eve.”
All of which brings us back to Santa Claus. For who is Santa but a child’s idea of God? In appearance, Santa is exactly like the God of Lucky’s speech (“a personal God… outside time without extension… with white beard… who from the heights… loves us dearly with some exceptions”) and the God of Creation as portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling. Baum’s Santa Claus flies down from the sky to shower the earth’s children with gifts on the anniversary of Christ’s birth: To a child, this Santa is an all-seeing, all-knowing, white-bearded, gift-giving mini-divinity. He is a child’s first visual image of a caring, miraculous, ethereal and absolutely perfect Father. Pozzo revels in the near-divine image himself, bragging (with an exclamation point) that he has been “Made in God’s image!” And we remember that it is Estragon, the most childlike of the two tramps (Gogo makes “childish gestures” trying to keep Didi from taking his handkerchief), who will repeatedly confuse Pozzo with Godot – and hence with God and/or Christ and/or Santa Claus: the child’s vision of the two divinities.
Knowlson reports that “the roots of Beckett’s religious upbringing were very tenacious,”31 and Ackerly and Gontarski maintain that “Whatever his disbelief, he is a major religious writer.”32 This is clearly evident in Beckett’s works, particularly when we put back in some of the language he took out of his translations – the chaud/sec sequence, the raised stone, Saint-Sauveur – perhaps to “de-deify” these plays. But what we have in Beckett is not a representation of belief; rather it is his failed faith, a missing God, an anti-Santa, and a collection of “Beckett’s Boys” — confused, deceptive, and/or navel-gazing young Christs.
Godot is not, as Fraser surmised, “more or less a Christian parable.” It is a portrayal of characters facing Sartre’s dieu manqué – but not for a want of trying. And it is, finally, a brilliant elaboration of the Biblical proverb Vladimir tries but (typically) fails to remember in Act I: “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.”
APPENDIX: below is a photocopy of the letter Beckett wrote to the author in October, 1960.
- Letter from Beckett, October 5, 1960. I reported on this letter in a talk at the “Beckett’s Letters” session at the New England Modern Language Association annual convention in April, 2010.
- Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot 2004, p. 75.
- “Taking a Knook,” Journal of Beckett Studies, V.1, n1&2, Spring 1992
- The Transformations of Godot, Knoxville: University Press of Kentucky, 1980, pp. 52-53.
- “Angels of Darkness, NY: Barnes and Noble, 1972, p. 68. On the same page, Duckworth also notes that in the first Faber (British) printing, the word was spelled “knock,” but that this “was corrected in the 1965 edition.”
- The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1902, p. 37.
- Ibid, p. 47.
- Ibid, p. 18. Baum also writes of knooks in “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” (1904) and “Nelebel’s Fairyland” (1905), and in The Road to Oz (1909).
- Baum’s novel has since been made into a 1985 television production and a 2000 animated film, with Peter Newman voicing the role of Peter Knook in the first version and Nick Jameson in the second.
- While generally attributed to Moore, it has also been attributed to Henry Livingston, Jr.
- Bard C. Cosman, in Journal of San Diego History, Fall 1998, 44:4
- Years later Beckett became angry hearing that Burt Lahr, who was famous for playing the cowardly lion in the film of Baum’s Wizard of Oz before he played the role of Estragon in Godot’s Miami premiere, had insisted that his was the “top banana” role in the show, and had therefore warned Tom Ewell, as Vladimir, not to “crowd” him during rehearsals. Beckett insisted to director Alan Schneider that Vladimir was the play’s “major character.” Dougland McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre. London: J. Calder, 1988, p. 62.
- James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury Press, 1996, p. 26. Knowlson also cites Beckett’s reference in his short story, That Time, to a place “where you hid as a child… when no one was looking and hide there all day long on a stone among the nettles with your picture-book.”
- Knowlson, p. 27
- William Hutchings writes that while it is “probably coincidental” the “head of Nick Chopper [the title character of Baum’s 1918 The Tin Woodman of Oz] bears an uncanny… resemblance to the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.” “The Unintelligible Terms of an Incomprehensible Damnation,” Twentieth Century Literature, 27:2 (Summer 1981), p. 98.
- Times Literary Supplement, February 10, 1954, initially published anonymously.
- “Parallels and the Possibility of Influence Between Simone Weil’s Waiting for God and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Modern Drama: Summer 1964. A few points from that article are carried over and expanded in this one, 46 years later. Weil and Beckett were both at the École Normale Supérior at the same time over a two year period, and there are striking points of similarity in their writings, but no evidence has yet appeared to indicate they knew each other or had read each other’s works.
- Knowlson, p. 430
- Ackerley and Gontarski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett, NY: Grove Press, pp. 481
- Ibid, pp. 479-480
- Alan Levy, “The Long Wait for Godot,” Theatre Arts (August 1956), p. 23. Schneider was directing the play’s American premiere at the time; Beckett subsequently made several other to this effect, using nearly identical language.
- “Beckett and the Problem of Modern Culture,” in Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Casebook, Ruby Cohn, ed. NY: MacMillan, 1987, p. 187.
- I was directing the play at the time, which had prompted these questions to him.
- Beckett translated and restored these lines to his English version of the play while preparing a Berlin production of it in 1975. The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Vol. I, James Knowlson, ed., London: Faber and Faber, 1993, p. 108-109. There were two alternate variations, both containing the words “warm and dry.” In a “final” version, published in its entirety by Knowlson, the fragment is “snug and dry” (p.19).
- Beckett in the Theatre, Vol. 1, London: John Calder, 1988, p. 50
- Which I did, in a production at the University of California in 2008.
- Angels of Darkness, p. 64.
- Beckett only lists one character (“a Boy”) in his list of characters, and in all productions that he authorized and/or directed, only one actor has played the Boy.
- Molloy, p. 123
- Knowlson, p. 430.
- Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett, p. 481