A couple of weeks ago I was leaving the office after my shift had finished, around 8.45pm, when I encountered in the lobby a couple of colleagues who invited me to join them for a drink …
Me: (grimacing) I can’t. I’ve got to go home and read Waiting For Godot. Even though I know how the bloody thing ends. I have somehow inadvertently managed to find out that it’s about two guys sitting on a bench waiting for a bloke who never shows up!
Colleague #2: (pause) Ah, wouldn’t you have figured that out anyway just by reading the cast list? After all, there’s no character called Godot, is there?
Me: (face palm)
Now, I’m not sure where I got the bench bit from – there’s actually no bench in Samuel Beckett’s landmark 1953 play Waiting For Godot. But yeah, somewhere between Andy and I deciding we were going to read Beckett, and then actually getting around to reading him, I stumbled across said plot. Am surprised, really, that I made it to the age of – uh – nevermind – without ever stumbling across it before. Did it ultimately make a difference? No. Would I have realised Godot was never going to show up from reading the cast list? Probably not. (So much for my “eye for detail”.)
So Beckett. This is my first foray into his work. Andy thoughtfully got us copies of The Complete Dramatic Works, all 32 of ‘em. I wish I could say I will make my way through them, but I probably won’t (so many books, so little time). For last year’s Reading Challenge, we did Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which I think I preferred to Godot and nor have I yet tackled any of the other dramatic offerings in my copy of his Plays.
In the past five years of ANRC, this is the third play Andy and I have read (the others being the aforementioned Pinter, along with Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which didn’t really pump my ‘nads, either). However, of these three, Godot is the one I strongly feel should actually be seen, as well as read (actually probably just seen, and maybe dispense altogether with the reading bit) – which is something I didn’t necessarily take away from the other two. Godot comes across as such a physical play, actively engaging with its audience, which is something you obviously lose to some degree in the reading alone. Andy’s blog noted the prevalence of slapstick, and he is correct – not quite Laurel and Hardyesque proportions, but nonetheless substantial and exaggerated.
Back to the bench – or the lack thereof (where on earth did I get a bench from?). The two-act play (which runs to 88 pages in the written form) opens on a country road, in the evening, beneath a tree, with tramp pals Estragon (who is actually sitting on a “low mound” ) and Vladimir – yep, you got it – waiting for Godot. ‘Gogo’ and ‘Didi’ rib each other, and riff on and off about various subjects, including Estragon’s boots, the Gospels and hanging themselves from the tree. Then along comes landowner Pozzo – whom Estragon initially mistakes for Godot – and his slave Lucky, who is tethered to his brutish master by a lengthy rope. After a series of bizarre exchanges, culminating in a lengthy, nonsensical speech delivered by Lucky after he is commanded to “think” – the pair leaves. Then an unnamed boy materialises and approaches the tramps to inform them that Godot will not be coming that evening, but tomorrow. The tramps consider parting ways, before deciding “it’s not worth while now” and agree to go, but do not move.
The second act – set in the same timeframe and place the following day – plays out much like the first. Pozzo and Lucky again show up, except this time Pozzo is blind and appears to have no recollection of meeting the tramps the previous day, and Lucky is supposedly dumb. The boy also reappears, also denying he was there the previous day, but delivering the same message – that Godot will not be coming that evening, but tomorrow. The play ends with Estragon and Vladimir agreeing they will hang themselves from the tree the following day if Godot does not come, and agree to go, but do not move.
Then, as Beckett would say, “la fin”. (I’m pretty impressed that Beckett, an Irishman, originally wrote Godot in French, before translating it himself into English. That surely negates a few Irish jokes right there.)
Waiting For Godot has been described as absurdist, and existentialist – Beckett himself called it a “tragi-comedy”. I suppose it is all of those things. Much has also been made of its religious aspects, its psychological allusions, its political ramifications, even its supposed homoeroticism. I am sure students across the world have tied themselves in knots over the decades trying to explain the essentially unexplainable. Beckett appears to never have been terribly forthcoming on the subject – “why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out”, he was once quoted as saying. So maybe that is really its intention; that, much like the 1990s US sitcom Seinfeld, that Godot is about, well – nothing at all. Not really. Maybe. Probably. Who knows?
As for me, the jury’s still out. I really do need to see Godot performed before I can make a final call on it. So, with no production in the immediate offing, I decided on the next best thing – YouTube. And there I found pages of excerpts from various productions – including the play performed in its near-two-hour entirety. I’ve bookmarked that for future viewing, but if you’ve only got two minutes to spare rather than two hours, I suggest instead this:
And I think I agree with the tree.