Waiting for Godot was first staged on January 5, 1953. On the play’s 60th anniversary, this writer recalls an evening, in 2006, with Vladimir, Estragon and their endless wait.
The performance directed by Walter Asmus at the Gate theatre in Dublin is nearly sold out. Waiting for Godot is drawing packed audiences in the year of Samuel Beckett’s birth centenary celebration. I am lucky to get one of the last tickets.
The opening set consists of a lone tree, a rising moon and the muckheap of a mound. In this bleak and featureless landscape, two tramps — Vladimir and Estragon — wait for the appearance of a mysterious Mr. Godot. They know little of Mr. Godot. Estragon admits he may never recognise Godot: “Personally I wouldn’t know him if I ever saw him.”
We, the audience, laugh over and over again at Vladimir and Estragon’s antics with hats and boots, carrots and cross-talk and comic repartee. Vladimir — the tall and thin one, walking with stiff and slow strides in almost a pigeon-toed strut — is as funny as Estragon’s short and round frame limping on the stage.
Nothing much is happening in their wretched lives. “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” All they can do is to wait with anxiety and trepidation the arrival of Godot.
As Vladimir states: “But that is not the question. Why are we 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.”
So the two men, doomed to one another’s company in desolate surroundings, pass time bantering and bickering, singing and reminiscing, laughing and crying to relieve the monotony of their endless ‘wait’. They voice profound metaphysical questions interspersed with small talk. Their emotions change in quick succession, as if to reveal the contradictions that the human self is steeped in. Vladimir and Estragon desperately need one another in order to avoid living a life of loneliness and alienation. “Didi” and “Gogo” — their nicknames — demonstrate the intimacy of their relationship. Yet, every now and then they feel compelled to leave one another.
Estragon: Wait! (He moves away from Vladimir.) I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself. (He crosses the stage and sits down on the mound.) We weren’t made for the same road.
Vladimir: (without anger) It’s not certain.
Estragon: No, nothing
Time hangs heavily. The duo will talk anything to escape the ennui of waiting. They discuss what Godot can do for them. Vladimir says that Godot will “consult his family”. Thereupon we have the following exchange:
Estragon: His friends.
Vladimir: His agents.
Estragon: His correspondents.
Vladimir: His books.
Estragon: His bank account.
Vladimir: Before taking a decision
As the day passes, they find their boredom so oppressive that they contemplate hanging themselves from the tree nearby. They are unable to do so. As Estragon states: “Don’t let’s do anything, it’s safer.”
The pathos in Didi and Gogo’s need for each other and the anguish in their desire to escape their plight are palpable just as the absurdity in the situation of pointless waiting is evident. They do not know who Godot is. They are neither sure about the time nor the place of their appointment. They do not even know what will happen if they stopped waiting. Lack of this basic knowledge makes them powerless and insignificant. The tramps cannot but wait for Godot.
Ironically, the much-awaited Godot is never ever going to arrive.
Each day is a return to the beginning and each day passes in circuitous conversation.
Will they forever keep circling? Will they ever find closure? Perhaps not, because the universe that Beckett presents before us is devoid of design, purpose or care.
The only time slight theatricality creeps into the play is on the arrival of the yoked Lucky, guided on a rope by a whip-brandishing Pozzo. While others are searching for things to fill their time, Lucky is not. He simply follows Pozzo’s instructions. Just as Estragon and Vladimir cling together afraid of isolation, so do Pozzo and Lucky, despite their quarrels. Tied to each other with a long rope in Act 1 and a short rope in Act 2, they do not untie themselves. This pair is hit by the assault of time in more violent ways. One goes dumb and the other blind, as evident in Pozzo’s outburst.
Pozzo (suddenly furious): “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! … one day I went blind … one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Absurdity climaxes when Lucky is ordered to “think!” by his master Pozzo after he has already danced for Vladimir and Estragon, Lucky puts on a hat which enables him to “think”. As Lucky thinks, he spews out an avalanche of words, seemingly incoherent, randomly thrown together, speeding up and endlessly repeating what he had already said.
The play communicates with the audience effortlessly. A look around in the hall shows taut faces, absorbed in the play, eyes eager with expectation. We seem to identify ourselves with the sordid world of existential gloom that Beckett creates through anticipation, repetitions, silences and unanswered questions.
As the play progresses, one appreciates Beckett’s oeuvre more; his surefooted exactitude of theatrical sense. If pain and despair defy language, then communication through dialogues is an inept and futile endeavour. Instead, Beckett presents extended silences. All through the performance, silences of alienation, silences of uncertainty and silences of anticipation are magnificently eloquent. Therein, Beckett leaves the audience with time to establish the meaning of the play.
The intermingling of absurdist comedy with black humour redeems and lightens the inherently tragic theme. The spectators break out of their self-imposed inertia, rock with the rhythm of the play, pity and fear, laugh and cry. Waiting for Godot encapsulates the human condition brilliantly. It connects with our life and our situation. It seems to echo our deepest fears, confronts us with our naked self and our predicament, our stark loneliness — conditions not imposed by any outsider but by our own selves.
The play ends on that very note of bleak desperation. The unhappy vagrants, their questions unanswered, their hopes dashed, speak the final lines “Well? Shall we go?” Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither moves. The curtain falls over their immobility, over their inner paralysis.
I have spent two and a half hours balanced on a gossamer thread stretched between tension and excitement, astonishment and pure wonder. I have just witnessed a dramatic masterpiece, a timeless tale — a philosophical quest that is universal and eternal. I am out of the play but still in the play, haunted by the hopelessness of the human predicament.
As I walk by the meandering Liffey and the quays in downtown Dublin in the cool December breeze, I feel humbled by my own insignificance and an overwhelming sense of waiting for something undefinable in ‘the cosmic waiting room’.