By Rocco Hu, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
I watched a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s seminal work, “Waiting for Godot” last Saturday evening. Excited at being able to finally experience for myself what is in some quarters praised as the defining literary work of the 20th century – I had only read about the play before – I was nonetheless fifteen minutes late and a wheeze-inducing sprint ahead of getting locked out until intermission.
So, actors already speaking and sweat pouring down my face and back, I forged my way through a sea of legs and diabolically placed handbags to my seat near the front of the theatre. It took me awhile to get composed and when I finally did, found myself thoroughly taken by the play.
Before I go on, here’s a little background knowledge of the production I watched. It was presented by ABA productions in collaboration with AC productions at the DBS arts center at Robertson Quay, home to the Singapore Repertory Theatre. The play premiered in Dublin, Ireland, and is currently on the Asian leg of its tour. If you’re thinking of watching it in Singapore, it’s very brief run has just ended (10-13 October), though if one is of more than limited means or is plain serendipitously located, the Hong Kong leg runs from the 17th to 21st of October.
But on to the main stuff. What is Waiting for Godot ‘about’ anyway? I’m neither able nor willing to offer an exhaustive literary explanation, and there have been scores of brilliant academic and personal exegeses written on this very famous play since its debut in January 1953. But for the casual, interested reader here’s some preliminary observations:
The play displays the thoughts and actions of two vagrants, Vladimir (referred to as “Didi” and “Mr Albert” in speech) and Estragon (called “Gogo”) as they wait at a highway for an enigmatic man called Godot, whose identity and characteristics are largely undisclosed through the whole play. In order to pass time, they amuse themselves by engaging in vaudevillian tricks and banter, create emotional drama by bickering, and comfort each other. They are joined twice by the flamboyant and egoistic Pozzo and Lucky, his slave, as well as a mysterious boy in white, who is under the employment of Godot. All three make an appearance on each of the two days the play details.
The set of the play was, well, minimalist and thus rather low budget as far as logistics were concerned. The actors plied their craft against the backdrop of an almost-bare tree with a grand total of two branches from which they at two points of the play considered hanging themselves. Despite the fact that the play was written by a penurious Beckett seeking to make a quick buck, I believe that the play is low budget because it is minimalist, rather than vice versa, largely because of its functions in the play. This relative absence of props adds to the generally (or perhaps just apparently) bleak, absurd atmosphere of the play – a Wachowskian (are they ‘adjectified’ yet?)“desert of the real” – as well as puts the focus on the human acts, speech and relationships occurring on stage.
Several ideas or themes recur, or at least stay with the viewer, throughout the play. Because this is a blog post and not a proper essay, I’ll just touch on two.
The most striking one is the question of Godot, whose absence and promise is the fundamental motivation for Didi and Gogo’s waiting on the the highway. Who is Godot? Is he the Capitalist who manipulates Vladimir and Gogol, unwitting Proles that they are, just as Pozzo orders Lucky around using a rope put around the latter’s neck? Is he God? The name sure sounds like “God”, and given the repeated religious references throughout the play, such as in Act I where Vladimir questions the Christian insistence on the salvation of one of the two thieves Jesus Christ was crucified with, it would not be unreasonable to make such a conjecture. But it is possible to take a broader, more abstract definition of Godot that encompasses ‘God’, as well as other secular definitions. Perhap Godot is the idea of the hope of some form of meaningful closure, a yardstick of the Good existence, salvation from the frustratingly repetitious, often meaningless, largely forgotten shenanigans of the characters in the play.
But are such everyday activities really that meaningless? Social mores and intellectual pretensions are parodied and exploded with comedic style. The seeming moral seriousness behind the exploitative relationship between Pozzo and Lucky, perhaps symbolic of the human cruelty present in power asymmetries, is undermined on numerous instances, most notably in Act II when Vladimir scolds Lucky for maltreating Pozzo, when the latter bursts into tears of helplessness (think Ryan Higa’s hilarious new youtube video, First World Problems). Pozzo suddenly appears blind the next day, evidence of the shortness of earthly achievements. Everyone but Vladimir seems to forget most of what happened the day before. It is even implied that the exact same sequence of events has been going on forever in the past, and that the next day Vladimir and Estragon hang themselves. It can get dreadfully depressing and bleak.
But there were parts where the human warmth, compassion and humor between Vladimir and Estragon really shone through. We smile at the all-too-familiar cycles of anger, separation, fear, relief, and reconciliation in their relationship, Vladimir’s slightly forlorn, always selfless love and caring for Estagon, laugh at their haggling over ridiculously tiny pieces of carrot and turnip, the parodies of various social mores, the devilishly brilliant little tricks they play. At such precious moments, we forget that we are all waiting for Godot, and take in the warmth, joy and hilarity of the present.
Perhaps life might be ultimately meaningless. But who needs ultimate meaning, when we have each other, when we can create rare moments of meaning valuable on their own? Who needs Godot? As I walked out of the theatre and into the night sky, I felt light-hearted, liberated.