‘We Wait. We are Bored’: Waiting for Godot in a Time of Lockdown
It’s theatrical Marmite, many a drama student’s nightmare and, infamously, ‘the play where nothing happens — twice’. If you’ve never come across Samuel Beckett’s bleak masterpiece Waiting for Godot, perhaps now is the perfect time to confront this classic take on the tragedy of waiting.
What is there left to say about Waiting for Godot? Every drama student, from GCSE onwards, has had to confront Samuel Beckett’s magnum opus of absurdity at some point. For those who are used to realistic, emotionally engaging theatre, with a clear progression and the necessary triumph of good over evil, Waiting for Godot may prove to be a real shock to the sensibilities. It concerns two vagabonds — Vladimir and Estragon — who we find standing by a tree, in the middle of an arid, apocalyptic wasteland, waiting for a man called Godot. They do not know exactly why they are waiting for him. They do not even really know who he is. They certainly don’t know when he’ll be arriving. But still, they wait. They pass the time by arguing, threatening to leave each other, telling inane stories, and attempting to commit suicide. They claim they’re going to leave. They don’t. And at the end of the play’s (nearly 3 hour, in some performances) run time, Godot has still not appeared, and nothing substantial has changed.
Though the play has become a darling of the theatrical academy, it still succeeds in raising the ire of many. It doesn’t work in the way we want a play to work; the dialogue, as genius as it is with its economic sharpness, is repetitive and inane. The action of the play, though often funny in a vaudevillian sort of way, is repetitive and meaningless. And the characters, interesting as they are, are not easily rooted for — beyond Vladimir and Estragon, who are infuriating in their inability to make any sort of rational decision, we have Lucky, who is a meek mute, and Pozzo, the tyrannical master who is taking him to market. Waiting for Godot is a child of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, and though it is not the first true ‘absurdist’ play, it is the most well-known, perhaps because it so perfectly sums up the style. The Theatre of the Absurd, a loosely defined movement in European theatre that occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War, was inspired in large part but the philosophical musings of Sartre and Camus. Coined by theatre critic Martin Esslin (who made himself an enemy of the Absurdist's by daring to define them), the term was used to describe a series of plays that confronted what they saw to be the absurdity of the human experience, and the tragedy of man trying to understand his place in the world. They saw language and logic as unfit to describe the universal truths that bound all human beings, and that a presentation of the world as ordered and rational failed to reflect the true messiness of human nature, and was therefore absurd. The breadth of imagination evidenced by the work of the Absurdist's is staggering, but Beckett brought his own unique flavour — he combined the common tropes of the devaluation of language, nonsensical plots and paper thin characters with a certain dark humour, a bleak wittiness that meant even his darkest plays (and Godot is far from the bleakest) retain a sense of dark comedy that makes the bitter pill of their content easier to swallow. Many have debated as to what Beckett’s play actually means — some see Godot as a simple analogy for God, the play a depiction of two men waiting for a salvation that’ll never come. Conversely, some have seen Godot as an embodiment of death, which gives the play perhaps an even darker subtext. Some have read homoerotic subtexts in the work, and others perceived it as a political allegory drawn from Beckett’s time in exile in the French countryside during the German occupation of France. Is it philosophical, political, a religious allegory…does it mean anything at all? All of the above lines of argumentation have been thrashed out so many times that truly only Shakespeare can compete with Beckett for the playwright who has been most fiendishly eviscerated by the academy.
So if Waiting for Godot has been so ruthlessly dissected, why do we need to speak about it again? Because, it doesn’t matter what, or who, Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for. Even Beckett didn’t know — he said that if he had, he would have written it into the play. The only thing that matters is that they’re waiting, and the whole play spins on that axis — it is a play about the passage of time. And in our current global situation, waiting is something that we are having to grown accustomed to, in its rawest form, for perhaps for the first time in our lives. If Beckett deals in absurdities, then it only seems obvious to return to him when life becomes similarly absurd. Waiting for Godot, with its meandering pace and paper thin plot, is beginning to represent the reality of our daily lives — the weight of feeling every second pass, the attempts to fill the waking day with odd or inane tasks that bear no resemblance to things we’d do in our daily lives (‘Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!’ proclaims Vladimir, in the vast expanse of the wasteland, ‘Let us do something, while we have the chance!’) The constant scanning of the horizon for answers, unaware of what we’re waiting for, or when it’s likely to come. The melting of the days into one another — much like Vladimir and Estragon can’t really remember what they were doing the day before, the days in our world are starting to collapse into each other. And as much as it’s a play of waiting, its also a play of co-dependence and symmetry. They say you never truly know someone until you live with them, but many of us are now not just living with people, but are living on top of people, constantly under each others feet with nowhere else to go. Similarly, though they may be ‘trapped’ in the vast expanse of nothingness, as opposed to the claustrophobic confines of a house (Beckett would use that setting for his next play, Endgame), Vladimir and Estragon are similarly tethered, and their interactions begin to seem less and less odd the more one settles into lockdown life. On first viewing, Vladimir and Estragon’s repeated stories and phrases are absurd — but what else to do when the conversation naturally runs out, when all your anecdotes and opinions run dry?
Waiting for Godot has remained such a classic not just because it is brilliantly constructed, or just because it is wilfully obtuse (and it is— some of its early performances at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris were subject to boos and hollering from the audience) but because its raw simplicity spoke to universal human truths. They may be hard, or undesirable, to comprehend — that so much of our time is spent desperately trying to distract ourselves from the very passing of time, and to be confronted with it head on opens up our perceptions to the bigger picture. In a world of constant sensory input, we have been drawn ever further away from the conscious awareness of the passage of time. Much as Waiting for Godot did over 70 years ago, Coronavirus paranoia has brought the crawling passage of time into our view. It reflects all the same insecurities and fears, and similarly defies simple or logical explanations and timeframes. It is a truly absurd event (it’s no surprise that Albert Camus, who coined the term ‘absurdism’, used a pandemic to explore the breakdown of logical society in his philosophical novel The Plague)
Some might say it’s a dark day when Waiting for Godot starts making sense. Some might even say it’s apocalyptic. And, in the true spirit of Samuel Beckett, my intention here is not to provide answers, or even suggest a way in which reading or watching Waiting for Godot may be comforting or therapeutic. It’s not. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope — after all, absurdist theatre would never have taken such a firm hold, or have inspired such a litany of playwrighting talent, if it was totally morose. They say that in storytelling, there is a thin line between tragedy and comedy — that the acceleration of one always ends in the release of the other. It is up to your own personal interpretation as to whether Waiting for Godot is a comedy — it is actually very, very funny in the hands of the right actor — or a tragedy. But in actuality it is both. To see the absurdity of life, something so intangible and indefinable, manifest on stage or on the page can be truly liberating. Waiting for Godot does not put anything ‘into words’ — it believed that words are meaningless — but its bizarre spin on human nature rings more true than any form of psychological realism. That is why so many people have fallen in love with this play, regardless of its reputation.
Nothing could sum up Waiting for Godot better than this exchange between Vladimir and Estragon, repeated at the end of both act 1 and act 2, and the following stage directions:
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
It’s one of the mostly subtly devastating pieces of playwrighting ever committed to the stage. It represents, in totality, the only universal message that critics can agree on — we are all waiting for something. And even when we try to move, we keep standing still. A analysis of Waiting for Godot during these unprecedented times may not be the most cheery or optimistic venture, but in a world of growing uncertainty (and, yes, absurdity), Beckett’s masterpiece truly comes into its own not as a dusty theatrical dinosaur, but as the blistering tour de force it has always been. If you can handle wallowing in the mire of theatre’s most confrontational tragi-comic masterpiece, now is a better time than ever.