Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

This play tends to divide opinion. Some think it a load of boring, pretentious rot, while others venerate it as a masterpiece of modern literature. I tend to think the latter, but sometimes teeter over to the other side.

There have been several iterations reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ since school, and the latest preceded seeing it on the stage at the Haymarket Theatre on 31st July 2009. It was a brilliant production, with world-renowned actors Ian McKellen, Ronald Pickup, Simon Callow and Patrick Stewart. I found it profound and emotional.

The set coloured and illuminated in black, grey and white. It looks like a post-war bomb site. Indeed it is an extension of the theatre, with a burnt ceiling and ruined audience boxes. On the stage is a bare tree, a central emblematic focus, suggesting the power of nature, the cross, gallows and anything you care to read into it.

The play was written in late 1948, in French, and first performed in France. This is reflected in references to the Eiffel Tower, the Rhone, the Pyrenees and so forth. The chronology is clear: Estragon and Vladimir refer to their youth in the ‘Nineties’. That would be the 1890s. So they are aged approximately 58 to 68 in 1948. Pozzo also refers to having been with Lucky for ‘nearly sixty years’. So they are of a similar age, or even older.

‘Godot’ is a play about old men; no women featuring on stage or even in the dialogue. These old men are thinking about death, even hastening it by suicide (but not in a serious way). They are thinking about memory, or, rather, trying desperately to remember things with little success. They cannot even be clear about what happened yesterday. They have the mental maladies of old men. Without clear and stable memories, they are losing their sense of self. They torment themselves with time.

This drives Pozzo mad. Following Vladimir’s question “Dumb! Since when?”, he bursts out furiously: “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then its night once more.”

This passage illustrates Beckett’s richly stocked literary mind. It echoes the Book of Ecclesiastes in the bible, at least in my mind: “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing….”

There are echoes of Shakespeare reverberating behind the simple words and scenes. ‘King Lear’ comes to mind, with its wretches on the heath, as Estragon climbs out of his ditch at the beginning of each act. When Pozzo comes back blind on a short rope behind Lucky, one surely thinks of Gloucester in ‘King Lear’. One also thinks of ‘Macbeth’ in his despair and nihilism before his death meditating on “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps out this petty pace from day to day”. The four bodies lying on the floor suggest the corpses that litter the stage at the end of ‘Hamlet’ – except all these are alive. Indeed there is a play within a play, as in ‘Hamlet’, when Vladimir and Pozzo “play at Pozzo and Lucky”.

There can little doubt that Beckett was deeply influenced by the work of TS Eliot. ‘Waiting for Godot’ is almost a staged version of parts of ‘The hollow men’.
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw, Alas!”
One could mention the influence of James Joyce – whom Beckett personally worked with in Paris – but the main point is the richness inherent in the play.

Actually the most obvious influence is Charlie Chaplin. Here are two tramps, with tattered clothes and bowler hats. They do clownish and vaudeville things, particularly in this production, singing songs, dancing, doing a hat-exchange routine, pulling turnips from their pockets, forgetting their flies are open and dropping their trousers. They describe the audience as a ‘bog’. All this Chaplinesque clownery makes the play entertaining, and far from solemn and miserable. Indeed they strike a match against the darkness of time.

There are no answers in this play, only confused questions. There is no God (or at least no Godot), only a deep humanity. There is nowhere to go, just filling in the time here.

What will their lives amount to? Will they be remembered? Can they even remember themselves? Will Godot ever turn up, and will they recognise him when, or if, he does appear? They struggle to make an impression on the universe. A boy appears at the end of each act with a message that Godot will definitely come tomorrow (‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’), but the boy has no memory of yesterday’s message, or even if it was the same boy. Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) tries to send a message to Godot (God) and to make an impression on the boy: “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that… that you saw me. You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”

Lucky is the most enigmatic and emblematic character in the play. He is a slave – a Caliban burdened with heavy bag, folding stool, picnic basket and a greatcoat, with a long rope around his neck. He is oppressed but not depressed – he seems to dwell mentally in another world – yet seems eager to please Pozzo. He is mute for the whole play, except for one extraordinary soliloquy, when he is ordered to ‘think’. It is a pseudo-academic declamation, but peppered with crude references, such as ‘Fartov and Belcher’. The verbal diarrhoea is deeply sonorous, turning meaningless words into a magnificent music. Perhaps he is the archetypal author, Beckett himself.

Many have interpreted and attempted to interpret this strange play, and I will go no further. However I (re-)learnt that plays in particular can be difficult read on the page, but they often come alive on the stage. Seeing and hearing this production, I would affirm this as a masterpiece of modern literature.

With the perspective of this play on my mind, I saw its themes outside the theatre. I arrived early and waited outside the Haymarket theatre. Many people were standing around waiting. They drew their counterparts closer with text and mobile phone calls. I wondered who they were waiting for. Who were they waiting for? How long would they wait? I saw many meetings and could understand what they were waiting for – their companions to see a play about waiting.

In the streets afterwards there were also figures from the play. There were tramps. There were drunks. There were people arm in arm and holding each other up. There was a man in a wheelchair. There were some chicken bones on the pavement.

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