An empty canvas, with the exception of a nondescript tree and road. Two men quickly fill the scene; Estragon sits, as Vladimir walks in jauntily. “Nothing to be done,” are the first words said, setting the tone of a play known famously for “nothing” happening twice. They wait for someone named Godot to arrive. He never does. Vladimir and Estragon sing, dance, talk about boots and hats, philosophise, meet two other people, contemplate suicide, and do the same thing the next day.
This remarkably clear sequence of events forms the plot of German playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, written in the summer of 1952. We get a sense that this has happened before, and it will happen again. Through it all, the waiting persists; uneasy waiting, hopeless waiting.
Is there a meaning to this wait -- a source, an end? Depends on who seeks answers. Critic Vivian Mercer would tell you that interpretations reveal more about the interpreter than the play.
Taking a go at it now, in 2020, the motivation seems fairly conspicuous. There is plenty reason to pull Beckett's work out of the dust and air to an audience held captive by a pandemic. The truth seems stranger than fiction more than ever -- headlined by a bizarre, surreal state of affairs studded with lockdowns and restrictions, isolation and helplessness, loss and longing. The novelty of the pandemic might have worn off, but grief and exhaustion are beginning to take shape in unfathomed ways.
In the face of this chaos, the play then makes for an intriguing read -- where one can come to cope with being-in-time, and stay for the spectre of absurdity. Here, Beckett becomes a prophet of entropy, and Waiting for Godot a parable about stasis, waiting and isolation in a coronavirus limbo.
The absurd and the actual
Of course, the idea of the play turning into a parable would have been to Beckett’s chagrin. It irked him, the insistence to impose meaning and allegorise a work of fiction deliberately trying to avoid definition.
“I produce an object. What people make of it is not my concern…” Beckett says at the get-go, when asked about the symbolism Godot may hold. The attitude fits with the winds of change in Western theatre, where the play itself makes the transition from modernism to postmodernism, “with its insistence on pastiche, parody and fragmentation”, as critic Michael Worton notes.
The Theatre of the Absurd was thus fleshed out; dwelling on time, habit, the human condition, and friendship in the barren fray. Days spurt ahead, dusk falls against the sky without graceful notice. One can’t help agreeing with author Normand Berlin who declares that there is little beginning or ending to the play -- it is all middle, twice. The cyclical structure takes the form of a “diminishing spiral”, where people, place, and things are perpetually running down.
Vladimir: Would you like a radish?
Estragon: Is that all there is?
Vladimir: There are radishes and turnips.
Estragon: Are there no carrots?
Vladimir: No, anyway you overdo it with your carrots.
Estragon: Then give me a radish . . . It's black!
Vladimir: It's a radish.
Estragon: I only like the pink ones. You know that!
Vladimir: Then you don't want it?
Estragon: I only like the pink ones.
Vladimir: Then give it back to me.
Estragon: This is becoming really insignificant.
The rest of the play looks similar in its form: punctuated with cross-talks, bowler hat exchange routines, drinking songs, adults falling into a heap and getting back up. There’s no groove to this rut -- it just is.
This spectre of absurdity also forms a befitting background to our times, with both the personal and collective standing helplessly in clutter.
Individually, we are lonely and awkward; convulsed by debilitating boredom, deprived of human connection, oscillating between work and sleep. The feeling has calcified into a strangeness with both worlds -- what was before, and what currently is. When memories come back to us, on social media or through simple nostalgia, we flinch or let out a nervous gasp thinking of concerts, theatres, live events; olden days when one derived pleasure merely by being in crowded haunts. No face protection? Six-inches distance gone to mush? Oh, the horror!
And collectively, the din of disarray grows louder: political chaos, suppressed civil liberties, religious intolerance, caste and gender violence, and growing social apathy. The world order is simple and such: a Muslim boy can be penalised for walking home with a Hindu girl, even 250 million people protesting reforms impacting them can be termed as terrorists. But, to act against hate speech is to sully free speech. All in service of the ‘new normal’, as we now call it.
One wonders what happens when absurdity comes in abundance -- does it lose its touch, ultimately blurs any distinction between the two?
Leaning on language
A reimagining of Godot in 2020 might look something like this: Vladimir asking his Vaudeville-twin Estragon how he is; the latter submits that he is fine, all things considered. The duo throws around polite questions. Then, with characteristic resignation, Vladimir concludes: it is what it is.
Substitute Vladimir and Estragon with any two people, and the echo in tone and tenor is haunting. While our shared lexicon might have expanded to include words pertaining to the pandemic, our conversations still run in circles, often seeming shallow in the pursuit of meaning.
A practice exercise: search for introductions to emails that start with hopes of finding the recipient well. Or, remember the last conversation you had with a colleague or friend. Standard questions about them, their family, job; mental health if you desire to be generous. Even the sturdy-sounding “unprecedented” must have worn out by now. We have unleashed trite remarks and vague references to facilitate small talk.
How does language cope then, to grasp the grief of the intangible and the perceptible? True to absurdist tradition, Beckett did three things. One, Godot’s language is kept remarkably clear, no-frills attached. Common words, pithy observations, tight scheme. Normand Berlin notes that it is the “purity of presentation” that belies the mystery of the play. Two, language is stripped of all meaning to expose the absurd condition of their relations. There is endless repetition; cross talks, rapidly overlapping between sub-texts hardly gives one time to register replies or ponder for meaning.
Vladimir: Perhaps we should help him first.
Estragon: To do what?
Vladimir: To get up.
Estragon: He can’t get up.
Vladimir: He wants to get up.
Estragon: Then let him get up.
Vladimir: He can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: I don’t know.
And lastly, the play carries silences of inadequacies and those of anticipation. What is unsaid occupies the blank spaces, threatening to swallow words decorated on the pages. The expectant pauses are crucial to outline the limits of language, and the inability to find the words they need.
VLADIMIR: What do they say? ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives. VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them. ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it. VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them. ESTRAGON: It is not sufficient. Silence. VLADIMIR: They make a noise like feathers. ESTRAGON: Like leaves. VLADIMIR: Like ashes. ESTRAGON: Like leaves. Long silence. VLADIMIR: Say something. ESTRAGON: I’m trying. (Long silence) VLADIMIR: (in anguish) Say anything at all! ESTRAGON: What do we do now?
The tragedy is that language cannot grasp their oscillating anxiety. But in the company of pantomime conversations and puerile behaviour, we also know we’re in the realm of comedy. The tragicomedy can be disorienting, then and now. Much like the duo, we insist on stringing words together and going in loop, knowing that none of it is being done in earnest. There may be mocking laughter to express disbelief or make desperate attempts to find logic.
“It is a game, everything is a game,” Beckett noted while directing the play for Broadway. We continue to play for the same reason Vladimir and Estragon do: to feel heard. Even though trite phrases and words don’t begin to capture the underlying anxiety, human connection preserves vestiges of normalcy. “Vladimir… [joyous] there you are again” says Estragon, revealing his desire, and ours, to be noticed.
The exchanges give meaning to their existence -- turning their seemingly shallow routines to rituals of survival. Philosopher George Berkeley understood this better than anyone: to be is to be perceived.
A land where time stands still
In reading Proust, Beckett found friendship to be situated “somewhere between fatigue and ennui”. Beckett scripted Vladimir and Estragon in this grey area of human bond. The duo obsesses over carrots and radishes, find and lose boots, wax poetic about dying dogs, call each other names, indulge in musing about the world. All of this, to make time pass, to fill time as if it were a vessel that wouldn’t budge.
After speaking for the sake of speaking, Vladimir says, “That passed the time.” Estragon notes the obvious: It would have passed in any case. “Yes, but not so rapidly,” responds his friend. The arbitrariness of time in the play is evident: if all days look the same, how do they know the time has passed?
Estragon wonders: “And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?”
Much like them, we watch days fade into the night. The year has warped our sense of time — it feels unending, but registers itself as a blur in memory. Can one be acutely aware of each passing moment but still find themselves in a limbo? It almost makes one look at the calendar, to see what day it is, only to find out our estimates were off by a day, or maybe two. It’s not Friday -- in fact, Friday seems like 20 light-years and a gladiatorial fight away. But it would make no difference, because all days insist on looking the same.
One might wonder why we ended up noticing this dissonance, just now. “Most people’s lives involve a cycle or a routine of some sort, whether this is as prosaic as the working day or the rituals of getting up, eating and going to bed,” as author Ronan McDonald points out.
We follow these unreflectively; and it is only when some crisis or unusual event breaks that we are deprived of our illusions and rake under the unfamiliarity. It forces us to question things that otherwise slip through the cracks of quotidian life. There is little comfort in wondering about what makes us or what we desire -- in ourselves or our lives. The disquiet and isolation peck away with their sharp beaks, relentlessly; and the waiting feels limitless.
‘They do not move’
At the heart of Waiting for Godot is a terrible sadness. As the order of their universe crumbles, Estragon urges Vladimir: “Let’s go.” His friend responds: “We can’t.” Why not?, asks an impatient Estragon.
Vladimir reminds him: “We’re waiting for Godot.”
Who is Godot, why are they waiting for him? Naturally, he has been a figure of much speculation -- interpreted at different times as death, a benefactor, God, even an allegory for literary recognition. To round it off, critic Michael Worton proposesd that “he is simultaneously whatever we think he is and not what we think he is” -- in so far that Godot serves a function, rather than meaning.
What is Godot for us then, in our simulation? It carries a world of meaning: the pandemic to end, a vaccine to come (for everyone), the possibility of going out, having a meal with friends without thinking twice, going to theatres and concerts, going back to jobs and schools, escaping from this shadow of helplessness.
Vladimir and Estragon anticipate the arrival of Godot each night. Then a messenger comes with news of disappointment, and leaves with a promise of expectant tomorrow. And like them, we watch -- restive but still floundering for hope -- as infection waves layer one on top of another, virus strains mutate, and lockdowns extend. We leap at any advancement, only to be asked to sit back down, it isn’t time yet.
Somewhere in the business of waiting, Estragon cedes: "Personally I wouldn't even know [Godot] if I saw him.” Much like him, we don’t know what we’re waiting for, or when it will come. But we’re confident that we’ll recognise when the waiting ends.
The arrival of someone coming keeps the faith, as they rationalise the waiting. When Godot comes, their misery ends. When vaccines work or herd immunity grows, the pandemic ends.
But even as night falls and they are free to go, our last glimpse of them in each act is:
ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
And while we wait
When author Richard Schechner watched the play, he recalls thinking: “we, the audience, are relieved, it’s almost over for us.” It might have ended in two acts, but the sapping passage ruffled feathers out of order.
If 2020 is a borrowed page from the Beckettian landscape, our second act seems to be just beginning. A new coronavirus strain laps up on our worn shores, as the new year comes with renewed fear and caution. The tedium of waiting hangs over us, and one can almost feel to the bone Estragon’s chilling cry: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”
While Beckett is ascribed with strokes of pessimism, that is not the point of revisiting Godot. There is a detail often overlooked between the empty words and barren canvas. The English title, Waiting for Godot, came later; the original French manuscript called the play “En Attendant”, While Waiting. The subject wasn’t Godot; but the passage of waiting, the passing of time, the events and non-events that fill their days.
The choice to flesh out life in stand-by mode, with little clues about Godot, brings to mind Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung’s succinct observation. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, he avers, but by making the darkness conscious.
Does the holy trifecta of isolation, stasis and exhaustion pack something else too? Our triumphs and disappointments, relationship with the truth, unlearning and relearning to cover blind spots of privilege, taking stock of structural fault lines, what it might take to rectify it, or simply just coming up for breath. What we do while we wait, irrespective of the banality, weighs in. It could potentially mount to nothing; but in the absence of order, it means everything.
When read in the midst of a pandemic, the play doesn’t mean anything in particular -- it simply is what you make of it. You could find solace in a narrative that shares our sense of grief and chaos. Or treat it as a blank slate, to help navigate the silences of our days, and find the strength to endure.
At one point, Estragon says defeatedly: “I can’t go on like this.” To which Vladimir responds: “That’s what you think.” When historians or playwrights look back at us, they may choose to start with a canvas similar to Beckett’s. The banality of our lives might be revisited, allegorised, passed on as lore. But that is of little consequence to us, because for now, like Vladimir and Estragon, we must continue our song and dance.