Friday, 1 May 2009

Plenty to consider as we wait for a reason

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Samuel Beckett’s play, written between 1948 and ’49, and premiered in Paris in 1953, is considered to be one of the most important plays of the 20th century.

Yet in 1956, the Irish Times critic, Vivian Mercer, famously described it as: “a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

There’s possibly never been another theatrical work that is so open to interpretation; considerable effort has been expended in trying to explain what it’s ‘about’. For that reason, it’s worth starting at the very beginning, and considering what actually happens, before making an attempt to analyse or understand it.

The play opens on a bleak set, with a skeleton of a tree and a bench or large stone.

Vladimir and Estragon, two elderly men, arrive on stage. They are, apparently, waiting for someone called Godot, who they don’t really know and might not recognise easily. They spend the time while they wait in a mixture of philosophical and religious musing, dancing, joking around and contemplating suicide. They appear to be destitute – they’re sleeping rough and Vladimir gives Estragon food from his pockets that, presumably, he has pulled from the fields himself (they have soil on them); a carrot and some turnips.

Two more characters arrive – initially, Vladimir and Estragon think that one of them is Godot. But this is Pozzo, who appears to be well-to-do, and has the second, Lucky, under control by a rope attached to his neck. Lucky carries heavy bags and appears to be some sort of a slave to Pozzo.

Pozzo sits on a small stool, opens a picnic hamper, takes a drink from a bottle and eats some meat, before throwing away the bone. Estragon asks whether he can have the bone. Pozzo tells him that Lucky usually gets it, so he has to ask Lucky. Lucky, however, resolutely refuses to say anything, so Estragon takes that as assent and grabs the bone.

Vladimir and Estragon show sympathy for Lucky and ask why he never puts the bags down. Pozzo tells them that the man is attempting to persuade Pozzo not to sell him at a nearby fair.

In gratitude for being companionable, Pozzo asks if he can do anything for Vladimir and Estragon. The latter asks for money, but Pozzo offers to let them see Lucky dance. Upon order, he dances – a shambling effort. Then they tell him to think – and remove his hat to make him do this. He produces a lengthy, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that makes no sense at all, and they can only stop him by jamming the hat back on his head.

Lucky and Pozzo leave. A young boy arrives to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not be coming that evening and they are to be there the next night, when he will come.

Act one closes.

The second act contains much of the same – although the formerly bare tree now has a few leaves on it. However, when Pozzo and Lucky turn up, Pozzo has turned blind. Even given this turn of events, Lucky has stayed with Pozzo and the two go off again, still with Lucky on a rope.

A boy arrives – not the same one as the previous night, he claims – and tells Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not be coming tonight. They should return tomorrow.

The two consider suicide again, but the rope that they think of using – Estragon’s belt – breaks. They say they’ll get better rope tomorrow.

The end.

So, what does it all mean?

If you take it at face value – that it ‘means’ nothing more than what is described above, then it ‘means’ nothing. But that in itself is a very existentialist comment on life: that life ‘means’ nothing and is as absurd as what unfolds on the stage. The temptation to look for ‘meaning’ in the play is like the apparent human need to look for ‘meaning’ in life itself.

That seems to be the most stripped-back ‘meaning’ of the play.

There have been plenty of more complex interpretations – the Freudian one, the Jungian one, the “interpretation from compassion”, the political interpretation, the religious interpretation …

I first saw Waiting for Godot in 1991, in a production starring comedians Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. I have no memories of that production or the play itself. I can’t, therefore, even say whether I ‘got’ any of it at that point.

The production I saw last night, then, was completely fresh and it was a considerably different proposition – something that indicates to me personally a degree a personal development in the intervening years.

A number of things occurred to me while watching it and since.

I cannot escape the idea of this play having, in essence, existentialist themes – that’s partly at the stripped-back level I mentioned above, but also in further ways.

If this is a play onto which one places one’s own interpretations, influenced, in part at least, by one’s own subjective life experiences and beliefs, then that itself is existentialist – that life itself has no inherent meaning but that we place meaning on it.

But the play itself also seems to be ‘about’ that very point: life is a process of waiting for death – it is the one certainly we have, that we will all die. One of the few things that we can do that illustrates genuine freedom of choice is to chose when to die – to end our own lives. And Vladimir and Estragon consider exactly that, at the end of both acts, as they tire of the wait, of life.

This is not a depressing play though, and there are ideas about what can provide meaning in life. Vladimir and Estragon are, in many ways, like an elderly married couple. And their relationship forms the core of their own lives – they support each other, physically and emotionally. We might be alone in the universe from a strict existentialist point of view – but we don’t have to be alone. Relationships give our lives meaning.

Interpreting Lucky and Pozzo seems less obvious. But what we know suggests (to me at least) a sense of religious servitude – or of the self-delusional subjugation by people to a religious (or moral or anything else) mythology, by choice. Lucky is physically tied to his ‘master’ (who apparently owns him enough to consider selling him) by a rope. He does what he is told, no matter how menial or humiliating. He never puts the bags (that are full of sand – useless weight) down unless in order to perform a task for Pozzo or when ordered to dance.

When Vladimir and Estragon then remove his hat to let him think, he cannot produce anything coherent – it’s a sort of intellectual-sounding but meaningless garbage, which sends him into an increasingly crazed state. When they stop this by replacing his hat, Lucky collapses. He can only stand on his own again, when the bags have been returned to his hands.

He cannot operate without the meaningless, pointless baggage and the servitude that goes with it. Thinking sends him into a ‘mad’ state.

Godot, of course, never turns up. Is Godot God? A god that torments his creations by demanding things of them but always betrays them by promising to come and then doing so?

The two boys who deliver Godot’s messages to Vladimir and Estragon claim to be a goat herder and a sheep herder respectively. Both animals have symbolic meanings in Christian religious tradition – the goat being the devil and the sheep being Jesus, the lamb of God.

Early in the play, Vladimir talks of salvation and how only one of the four gospels says that one of the thieves crucified with Christ was saved. Vladimir and Estragon as the thieves? Godot as God? Pozzo as Godot? Lucky as the sacrificial lamb of God?

Whatever you conclude – and this is a hugely individual matter (which is rather existentialist in itself) – this is a staggeringly inventive, funny, absurd and challenging play. It seems to be a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. Beckett himself gave out almost no clues and it will keep you thinking for ages.

And this new production, starring Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Ian McKellen as Estragon, with Simon Callow as Pozzo and Ronald Pickup as Lucky, and directed by Sean Mathias, is superb.

McKellen is a wonderful natural clown, while Stewart has taken to such a performance style with aplomb. And it is a delight to see such great actors clearly relishing every moment.

Utterly fantastic stuff – I very much doubt that I’ll have forgotten this in 18 years.


  1. I think it might have been worse, but is very far from being superb, and for many and various reasons that would make for so much blather from me. McKellen was quite wonderful, Stewart not so, and where on earth was the poetry, his language


  2. Hi spooooool – when did you see it?

    As I tried to explain, I saw a production some years ago, but it left not a solitary impression on me that I remember. This really left me thinking – and about the play; for me at least, the play was the dominant thing. I was exhausted on Wednesday night, but slept really badly: I don't know whether I was awake with my mind buzzing or dreaming, but it was a constant sense of trying to work through the themes and, you know, that big question of: 'what does it mean'. And for me that's a large part of why I thought the production so good. But that's inevitably rather subjective – which is itself rather existentialist. ;-)

  3. here's my take on it, besides that too many interpretations are by now so very tired and reductive, and before i post my blather...Beckett never wasted a word and as such, Lucky's torrent can be close read for sources, that's something more beloved by the more forensic Beckett scholar, but. Even in the most general terms, i think that Lucky's torrent demonstrates one of Beckett's abiding preoccupations, that being the inability of language to fathom or for ideas to provide consolation, and yet we go on matriculating and computing etc etc even as we know as much and in order to torment ourselves in a world f objects for which we are not, very obviously not, prepared for or are able to make sense of (still, the least you can say for objects is that they at least fail to reproduce) but anyway, here's my take

    I've finished reading, thought about what we saw - i still hope that the production is a work in progress, because i think there's much that's wrong with it as is. To begin with (!) i've always felt that the play is driven by nervous energy, that Didi is propelled to find meaning or else collapse, his rationality is decidedly acquisitive and veering toward the frantic. Part ego perhaps but the rest is desperation It's how i've always read/heard Beckett in my head and when i saw Barry McGovern's performance i knew this was Beckett as i understood him. With McKellen/Stewart, (McKellen i think is mostly wonderful this even as the exigencies/priorities of the director are sorely off target) you get the co dependency, their being lifelong companions and the saving nature of friendship the physycalities and physical comedy, the Beckett figurals inscribed upon bare text/landscape..but there's no menace, no threat, either from whatever's being transactedoffstage and still less from Simon Callow's Pozzo..almost as though the director has an inventory: "fruity vowels, check! jodhpurs, check! shouts a lot, check!" He wasn't mad, or terrifying, rather a loud and irritating blob. More than that every time Pozzo sat down on his stool there was the noise of a horn, thus undercutting and finally putting paid to any sense of threat that had managed to hold out through the noisy wallop of Simon Callow's Pozzo. For the life of me i don't know what to make of Ronald Pickup's performance, what i've always thought of as Lucky's torrent was delivered straight to the audience but broken by Pickup throwing a variety of shapes and gestures, no idea what was going on there. Didi's lines were too often subordinate to the diction of Patrick Stewart - you do not declaim Beckett, you read and you breathe and you learn how to listen, you don't project, there was too much of an ego at work there for me and so much of the poetry was lost. And at play's end, when it's this or the abyss (Adorno's reading plumps them firmly within the theatre of the absurd, but he's spot on when he says that this being where they are they are denied the comforts even of a negative theology) but in this production theyre not in the least stuck and youre never once fearful of what might become of them, they'll just go on in companionable inertia

  4. and it's also a process, no? that's what I get from Beckett, a process of thought? something along those lines. a "what does it all mean"- approach falls short I think, as Morrison said elsewhere the categories are wrong, reading a text for the tidy sum, even when that search leads to throwing yr hands up, doesn't work here, I think? but I have planned a Beckett reading in May or June, and have miles to go before I dweeb

    i also have reservations for the term "existentialism" which is a blanket term for all sorts of philosophies, I think it obscures more than it enlightens, tho not as bad as "nihilism" which is just bourgeois grumpiness finding a term as a vent, I think

  5. Oh! I'm so happy this drew Ms. Biscuit's attention! Now, this is exactly what I was referring to over at Hell. Waiter, bring a bottle of your best house red!

    Now then, I'm a believer in plays being performed, not read. Yes, the text is important, but the performance, in a play, is what's essential, otherwise, the playwright should stick it in a novel. So clearly there's a difference between Beckett the novelist and Beckett the playwright, though they both serve the same master. Which is why, I think, what Ms. Biscuit says about Mr. Stewart (or is he Sir Patrick, I can never keep up with those things) is a bit much in his performance ("declaiming" -- a lovely word choice) it has a real impact on what the audience is left with when responding to the play. Since Ms. Syb has been await from "Godot" for nearly two decades, this performance is her exposure to it and it's going to color her interpretation, that and the veritable mountain of printed dissections of all the conventional wisdom of what "Beckett really meant," which you get a great deal of, even in the lighter, brighter hills and valleys of Noel Coward land (how the play would have been had Noelie been "out" and so forth -- rubbish, if you ask me).

    It seems to me, as the Village Idiot in the conversation, that both the philosophical "Existentialists" and the theatrical, "Absurdists" embraced Beckett more than he embraced them, which happens when an artists is going his own way.

    BTW -- it's wonderful that two people I happen to find perfectly swell independently went to see the same production. I wonder which one will travel West, this one or the Nathan Lane/New York production? Who can I bribe to get Sir Ian on a plane to LA? :)

  6. nice one, Irene, :)

    That's the ticket, too, that Beckett has effectively been clobbered by so many greedy theorists by now, it's a wonder theres anything left to be got at, poor thing.

    As to delivery, understanding, there's a bit in the Knowlson bio, where Jack MacGowran - as Didi - told SB that he didn't understand what was being transacted at all, and SB tels him it doesn't matter because he has the rhythms right. McKellen does, i think, but there's a bit too much Patrick

    Spool, crumbles?! *smiling*

    all best all

  7. People – thanks so much for this. I'm a tad too inebriated to respond right now, but I will, when somewhat more sober. And in the meantime, thank you for adding such full and thought-out comments.