'Waiting for Godot': A Play for Today
Nothing happens - sound familiar?
At university, I played Estragon in a production of 'Waiting for Godot.' It was probably the most fun I'd ever had in my life. However, to be perfectly honest, I didn't understand the text.
Not a bit.
Don't misunderstand me, I appreciated the reams of critical studies I read on the importance of the play. I understood what the experts said; on a purely theoretical level, I knew Beckett's play was a masterpiece.
I just didn't 'get it.'
It's a play where - famously - nothing happens. Two characters - Vladimir and Estragon - sit around waiting for someone called Godot to arrive. He doesn't. Instead, they two men bicker, and swap insults. Then, two other characters appear. The newcomers proceed to hang around for a bit, making everything seem even more weirder than it already was (and it was already strange enough to begin with, thank you), before departing.
The play is full of moments that can render an audience breathless with laughter; as an actor, you don't really have to do much - the words do all the work for you.
It's also full of moments that are incredibly moving; I may not have understood why those two tramps were so intent on waiting for the arrival of the titular character, but the anguish they felt at Godot's refusal to appear was palpable; again, Beckett's words do the heavy-lifting for you - say them simply, and truthfully, and the auditorium falls into utter silence.
However, I still didn't 'get it.'
I just didn't.
There's no narrative progression, the characters don't grow and change... every-time you think Vladimir and Estragon are on the verge of making some sort of discovery, they stop, and either go back to insulting each other, or fall into another lengthy silence. Beckett's dialogue is wondrous, but is also annoyingly repetitive, and doubles-back on itself... it goes absolutely nowhere.
In short, 'Waiting for Godot' is everything a play shouldn't be.
Then why is it so brilliant?
I don't know what prompted me to read the play again recently - I'm not sure whether it was a nostalgic harking back to a joyous time in my own life, or something else entirely. I'm still trying to figure out the impulse behind it. But, re-read it I did.
And I 'got it.'
At last, I finally understood 'Waiting for Godot.'
More than that, I'm not sure there's a better analogy for our times than Beckett's 1953 masterpiece.
As I've made clear, it's a play where nothing happens. It's about two people waiting for a character to arrive; a person who - as the play progresses - we become less and less convinced they even actually exist. So, why do Estragon and Vladimir continue to wait?
There's lots of possible reasons.
One of which comes from straight from Beckett's own life. After the Nazi occupation of France, Beckett joined the Resistance, acting as a courier. And some critics see '...Godot' as directly paralleling its writer's (possible) wartime experiences.
Given that the Resistance deliberately kept their activities shrouded in secrecy to avoid the attention of the Gestapo, and purposefully didn't tell their operatives the whole picture in case they were captured (the less they knew, the less they could give up under interrogation), there could have many times when Beckett might have been given oblique instructions to go to a certain place, to meet an unknown person for an unspecified reason.
Just like the tramps themselves, that would have involved an inordinate amount of waiting around, in a terrain not dissimilar to that of the play, for someone who might never arrive because they'd been captured, or due the plan being changed but that information not passed along.
But, considering the freedom was at Europe at stake, of course you'd wait. There might an exchange of information that could, potentially, have a massive impact on the war effort. If Vladimir and Estragon are indeed members of the Resistance, and there's no reason to imagine they're not, their steadfast desire to stay until Godot arrives is utterly understandable.
As is what they do whilst waiting.
They've been waiting for this meeting for a long time. They're tired, they're frustrated, they're hungry, they're cold. And, although their friendship is a deep one, they've also spent a long time with just each other for company. They're bored of each other. It's only natural they argue and bicker; it's what any of us would do.
How I never got the whole World War Two angle when I was university is, quite frankly, beyond me. I always thought I was relatively studious; turns out I wasn't.
If I was directing '... Godot' today, that would be my starting point; The Resistance. The play is heavily symbolic, and all the better for it, but actors still require something concrete to build from. 'Nihilistic existentialism' may be my directorial goal, but asking an actor to play that is impossible, it's too vague; telling them they're members of the Resistance isn't.
And, although there's no shortage of plays (either modern or classic) that would be worth reviving due to what they could say about these strange times, I'd start with '...Godot.'
Because nothing sums up the experience of 2020 better.
It's been a year of waiting.
Of not knowing what is happening: One minute we're in 'lock-down', uncertain about our livelihoods and our children's education - the next Covid is receding, and the 'new normal' has begun - then Coronavirus is back, and the threat of another 'lock-down' looms large - then...
We've all become Vladimir and Estragon waiting for own Godot to arrive. But, like them, we're not sure what it is we're waiting for. The world is changing; everything is in a state of flux - the goals we set ourselves one week, are rendered meaningless by events beyond our control in the space of a few days.
Whether Godot is the mythical vaccine we're all praying for, or the economic miracle we're hoping our governments can perform, or simply a future none of us know the shape of, we're all stuck in limbo, our lives on hold: Waiting.
Metaphorically, we're all sitting around that same tree those two tramps are, waiting for something we can't even describe.
All we know is that we're trying to do our best whilst we wait. However, just like Estragon and Vladimir, it's begun to drive us all a little bit crazy.
It's been a tumultuous year, one that appears to have been dredged from the imagination of Stephen King.
However, it's also one that's been pulled from the mind of Samuel Beckett.
We've all become those two characters in his play. Tired, confused, bored - waiting.
And, like them, I'm praying that Godot arrives soon.
If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of work my on Vocal. Among other things, I write about film, theatre, and mental health: The story of my admission to a psychiatric ward, and my attempts to rebuild my life following my discharge, starts with 'Flow: The Psychiatric Ward', and continues with 'Wonderland: The Power of Routine', 'What Do We Need?', 'The Magic of Gratitude', 'and 'How to Deal with Relapse.'
You can also find me on Elephant Journal and The Mighty.
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