My latest area of exploration is the classics of theatre and, as with opera and ballet, I’m using the internet to compensate for the lack of conveniently live performances. My first ‘outing’ is Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), which premiered in 1953.
It’s a play where nothing happens. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for Godot. He did not come yesterday. He will not come today. But tomorrow, assuredly, he will come. Except that that’s the way it was yesterday, and the day before that, and, odds are, the way it will be tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after…
We don’t know exactly how long Vladimir and Estragon have been waiting in their strange, Limbo-like world of barren rocks and a single, leafless, tree, because they themselves seem to have lost all sense of time. Towards the end of the play you get the sense that Vladimir has started to realise their predicament, but based on his own and Estragon’s actions (or lack thereof) throughout the play it’s uncertain whether or not he will allow this knowledge to spur him to action.
The monotony of Vladimir and Estragon’s situation is alleviated by the arrival of the imperious Pozzo and his bowed and virtually silent slave, Lucky. For me, Pozzo was the most disturbing element of the entire play. Whilst Vladimir and Estragon, and to a lesser extent Lucky, inspired frustration and sympathy by turns, Pozzo’s subtle air of selfishness, unpredictability, and unthinking cruelty was thoroughly creepy.
It’s a play which begs for analysis and explanation, which Beckett apparently never provided. Many have seen in the name Godot (pronounced GOD-oh) a representation of a God who is absent and indifferent, and in Vladimir and Estragon a representation of a particular type of religious who, secure in their belief that their god (who is conspicuous by his absence) is nonetheless present and in control, abdicate any sense of self-efficacy and any will to act. Religious, and specifically Christian, references do appear (at one point Vladimir wonders about the biblical accounts of the two thieves crucified with Jesus and why it is that only one gospel – Luke – mentions that one of them was saved, even though all four record their presence), but given the time period in which the play was written it is difficult to tell what is intended as religious criticism, and what is meant as cultural criticism, or simply reference to a then-common cultural knowledge. Nonetheless the words of Ecclesiastes 1:2 (“Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!”) provide as good a summary of the play as any, and are echoed in a phrase repeated several times by both the main characters: “Nothing to be done.”
There is clearly a great deal of symbolism involved, and symbolism was very much a part of the artistic period in which Waiting for Godot was written. There is also a certain amount of philosophy involved: Existentialist philosophy (again, very much a part of the culture of the artistic world at the time the play was written) emphasises the absence of objective meaning in the world and the need for each individual to create meaning for themselves in response to the ‘big’ questions of life, death, meaning, purpose and so on. But Vladimir and Estragon seem to have no more will to seriously tackle these questions than they do to do anything else. They cannot even be said to have embraced nihilism, because that would mean committing to a belief that all is meaningless, and even that would be too much commitment for them. Perhaps the best description is ‘absurdist’: the universe may well have purpose and meaning, but though humans crave an understanding of it, it’s meaning is beyond our ability to understand. We know that we do not know, and we are trapped forever in unknowing. Thus we exist in the midst of an apparently chaotic universe, and any meaning we construct is little more than clutching at straws. (Yes, I actually learned a bit of philosophy from watching and reading about this play).
There is a certain dark humour to Waiting for Godot, and a challenge to examine one’s own life, beliefs, action and inaction, but if you’re after light-hearted entertainment this isn’t it.