Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett was written in 1948 and first performed in 1953 to acclaim all but unimagined in the world of modern theatre. Contextualized by the European tragedy of World War Two, Waiting was voted the most influential work of the 20th century. The plot involves nothing but two men waiting by the side of the road. A rock and a tree form the basis for the set. And during their time waiting, the two main characters encounter a total of three other characters with whom they interact. Though they wait for a man named Godot for the entirety of the play, he never arrives, and the play closes with the men deciding whether to commit suicide or await another day on the elusive Godot (who might punish them if they aren’t there if/when he arrives).
Beckett claimed that Godot was not meant to be God, but elsewhere spoke to the subconscious nature of his writing. There are of course numerous analyses of this play – Freudian and Jungian, literary and political out there – but I personally find it difficult to read this play as anything but a cry arising from a destroyed Europe as the Nuremberg Trials rolled on, exposing the crimes against Jewish people and all of humanity. Where could God possibly have been during that horror? And what part did humanity have in pushing God away? In the absence of God, could humans find the right path back to healing and redemption? Countries like France (where Beckett participated in the Resistance movement) were physically destroyed and internally divided between those who collaborated with the Nazis and those who formed the Resistance. And yet no one wanted to take responsibility for what they had done, or not done, professing not to have seen or known about the atrocities being committed at their backdoor.
Character naming in the play indicates a pan-European dilemma with one obviously Russian (Vladimir), French (Estragon), Pozzo (Italian) and Lucky (English). Vladimir and Estragon play everyman characters, tramps without means and trapped in the circumstance of waiting while trying to pass the time, while Pozzo and Lucky play the more extreme master and slave roles, one believing he not only controls his own fate and circumstance, but that of another. Each of these characters is hobbled in some way either at the outset of the play or within it. Estragon has an injured foot and then leg throughout, Lucky appears both mentally incapacitated as well as being rendered mute by the second act, and Vladimir is crippled by his awareness (he is the only one who remembers the days before, the people he meets, the past in general).
Pozzo, who at first I couldn’t figure out, is introduced mid-way through both acts and I now believe represents one such post-war reaction. As Italy is linked with WW2 fascism, I read Pozzo as “the Good German” who emerged during the Nuremberg Trials and afterwards. With specific regards to the war this term refers to those who who were “not to blame” for the persecution of Jewish people by Hitler, and who professed that they did not know about the Holocaust as it was occurring (thus freeing them from the moral responsibility of acting against their despotic government). This is more generally an example of a very real social fascism that has the potential to exist among all nationalities and ethnic groups – a tendency to refrain from involvement in the sufferings of others out of fear, lack of empathy, or conservatism.
In any case, Pozzo strikes me as this character – dominating over his slave in the first act and attempting to order around Vladamir and Estragon as well – Pozzo plays the role of the landowner, the master and the commander in all his buffoonery. In the second act Pozzo returns to the stage blind, professing not to remember the day before, not to remember when he went blind and arguing that to ask him to remember it at all was unfair! (For the blind have no notion of time).
Waiting for Godot was written in this psychically painful environment and so it does posit the question of meaning. How are we to understand our world after this tragedy? If there is no meaning to all this suffering, if there is no one watching out for us aren’t we better off to just kill ourselves and be done with it? Beckett, a masterful writer, gives us characters who are at once comedic and sympathetic, drawing us into their own perplexity and inability to decide whether to stay, go, or end life all together. Towards the end of the play Beckett sums up the whole problem of human existence in the speech of Vladimir who says:
“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his conveners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come— “
And the audience is devastated in the circularity, the feebleness of it all. Sure there is a point. The point is that we’re waiting for Godot.
Themes for further exploration: Absurdism, existentialism, memory, physical injury as it relates to psychic characteristics, the solitary traveler, the human condition, meaning
Last weekend I had the chance to see the Blackbird Theatre staging of Waiting for Godot at the Cultch in East Vancouver. As it is one of the readings assigned for my school term I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see it performed and am I ever glad that I did. First of all, Blackbird put on an excellent production with fine acting and “true to the original” characterization and staging. Secondly, I’m not quite sure I would have gotten the humour or the pathos had I simply read the text. For all of its dark moments, this really is a very funny play, and the interactions between the two main characters are priceless. I’ve always been a bit afraid to see this play because I have often thought it might be too intellectual for my taste – and I suppose it’s not a play for the immature of mind (as one of my classmates mentioned she had seen it at 20 and didn’t get it at all) – but it’s certainly not hard to grasp at more than one layer of meaning in the dramatic action.
If you are in Vancouver reading this, I will let you know that it has been held over until January 28th so there is still the possibility of checking it out (but book your tickets before you get to the theatre, they have been playing to sold out shows all month). I would really encourage it, if you have ever wondered what all the fuss about Waiting is all about.