Years ago, in the late 90s, when the Melbourne International Arts Festival still programmed stuff people wanted to see, I went to a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performed by Dublin’s Gate Theatre. They did Waiting for Godot as well but either it sold out and I could only get a (pretty shit, if I remember) seat for Endgame, or I was perverse and decided to see the less famous play. Anyway, I saw Endgame, and I thought it was hilarious and deceptively profound and oddly moving, and I told a work colleague the following day that I’d seen it and thought it was funny and she was gobsmacked because apparently I was supposed to make no sense of it whatsoever and be awed by Beckett’s awesome awesomeness. I wasn’t supposed to be amused.
Which is odd, because Waiting for Godot and Endgame would have to be the funniest pieces of theatrical writing I’ve ever read.
I read Endgame after reading Waiting for Godot for the Challenge and it was as funny as I remember it being. I’ve also read Krapp’s Last Tape, which is much shorter and less amusing and rather poignant. This post, though, is about Godot. So I suppose I’d better get a move on, hey.
Waiting for Godot is hilarious. It is also deceptively profound and oddly moving. It’s kind of existential slapstick, I reckon. Although I wonder whether you could make a solid argument for all slapstick being existential. But then you could probably make a solid argument for everything being existential. Anyway. Back to Godot. There are dick jokes, there are fart jokes, there are people falling over and failing to get up, there are sight gags aplenty, there are trousers falling down and playing funny buggers with each other’s hats. In all of this there is a fascinating meditation on life, and its apparent meaninglessness, its monotony, its repetition. “Next Day,” says the note atop Act Two. “Same Time. Same Place.” Did the writers of Groundhog Day have Waiting for Godot in mind, or was it at least an inspiration? Who would know. But Act Two of Godot plays out in roughly similar fashion to Act One. There are variations, but do the variations mean anything? Does anything mean anything? My birthday, incidentally, is Groundhog Day. Feb 2. Meaningless, of course. Just sayin’.
As Act Two opens the tree sitting centre stage, leafless in Act One, boasts a few leaves. This would suggest hope, rebirth, new beginnings. But really, does the play suggest any of that? In Act Two Pozzo is blind and the rope attached to Lucky is much shorter and he has no memory of meeting Estragon and Vladimir the day before. Why? Who knows? Did Beckett know? Maybe. The boy towards the end of each act who informs our protagonists that they wait in vain is the boy he says he isn’t. Why?
Beckett occasionally breaks through the fourth wall, which is magic. There are some comments directed to “the auditorium”, and in one of my favourite exchanges Vladimir dashes off stage looking for the dunnies – “End of the corridor, on the left,” Estragon tells him. “Keep my seat,” Vladimir says on the run. Clever-clever postmodernism shits me most of the times but how could you not read (or preferably see) this stuff and not be bowled over by how spectacularly funny, and spectacularly brilliant, it is?
Allegedly there are Freudian and Jungian elements to the play. Perhaps. I can’t say I noticed and I can’t say I care. Allegedly there are religious, specifically Christian, elements to the play. I’ll accept that, although the idea that “Godot” is “God” is ludicrous. But certainly the tree, and references to Christ’s crucifixion and the differing accounts of the thieves he was crucified with – these must be acknowledged. But I have to wonder if their inclusion is more about mockery than serious exploration. This may sound contradictory but it seems to me there is something deeply rational about absurdist writing. Or perhaps secular, which is less contradictor7. Either way, as far as I can see and perhaps that’s not very far, there’s not a lot of room for the spiritual in the writings of Beckett – or, for that matter, Pinter, whose plays differ from Beckett’s, but certainly have plenty of absurdity about them. And in Waiting for Godot I suspect Beckett is taking the piss out of , not seriously exploring, ideas of spirituality and religion.
As I said, I have once seen Beckett performed but this is the first of his work I’ve read. I’ve tried his fiction once or twice but it’s always seemed too weird and dense for me – although my literary fellow traveller Angela Meyer’s take on Malone Dies makes me wonder if I need to rethink that.
Beckett wrote a lot of his material, including Godot, in French. He’s clearly influenced by continental existentialism, which was much darker and more nihilistic than its English-language counterparts. But he was also Irish and the Irish are great storytellers and they love, by god do they love taking the piss. And his ability to meld these elements is one aspect of his genius. To be sure, to be sure.
Five years into Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge (I always wanted it to be Netty and Andy’s Reading Challenge, which would be NARC, and ho ho ho how funny would that be; but it now occurs to me that the kids – you know, the kids – the kids might read ANRC as “anarchy”. Get it? No? Okay look probably not) it surprises me a little that it’s taken this long to read some Beckett.