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.
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.