Where nothing happens twice
Globe and Mail
November 29, 2008
Tired and worn from "the wasteland of prose" in his fiction trilogy (Murphy, Molloy, Malone Dies), where he tunnelled into his own psyche, Samuel Beckett turned to playwriting as a form of relaxation, sticking to French (as he already was in his novels) as a test of discipline, though the dominant diction of the play is colloquial and imbued with the speech and energy of clochards rather than the sophistications of the French Academy.
Beckett set his play in an unoccupied zone of France during the Second World War, and he was probably awaiting a different world order even as he lamented the destruction of the Paris he had loved in 1939.
So, what was to become a vital turning point in the history of theatre (a piece of writing that would influence almost every major dramatist in English) was created during a period of Beckett's own waiting.
The English title of Waiting for Godot, however, contains an inaccuracy, as critic Eric Bentley pointed out. En Attendant Godot (first published in 1952) hinges on a sense of suspended time.
The title really implies something that transpires while one is waiting or being a creature of deadly habit and routine.
So it is not simply the sheer act of waiting that contributes to the mystery of the piece, but what happens or does not happen in that period.
A critic once remarked that Godot is a two-act play "where nothing happens twice."
This is not literally true, though the play has no story, no plot and not much of a setting: merely a rock, a scrawny tree (that sprouts leaves in the second part to mark the passage of time), a deserted country road and the sky.
Its main characters are two tramps or clowns in bowler hats, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), who are determined to keep an appointment with a Mr. Godot, who never turns up.
While awaiting this mysterious figure, they talk (sometimes in incomplete parables linked to the Bible), think, indulge in music-hall banter, songs, sight gags, pratfalls, pantomime, rope tricks, farts, smiles, complaints, kicks, sleep and dream.
They salivate, urinate and procrastinate. They take off their shoes, drop their pants, try on hats and attempt suicide.
They encounter a theatrical, sadistic Pozzo and his harried slave, ironically named Lucky.
Pozzo goes blind. Lucky is struck dumb — though not before he delivers an amazing monologue, a parody of academic metaphysics.
In each act, a boy tells the tramps that Godot will not come that day but will surely keep his appointment the next day, and the two men stay and endure the unendurable emptiness.
Who or what is Godot? A common (misguided) tendency is to associate Godot with God, but "God" in French is "Dieu."
Perhaps the name is merely a common French surname (suggested by slang for "boot," godillot, godasse); perhaps the name of the oldest competitor in the annual Tour de France bicycle race.
The question has grown larger than it deserves to be, despite Beckett's insistence that if Godot were God, he would have called him that.
Yet nothing seems to deter some readers from portentous pontifications on the play.
This is partly the effect of Beckett's genius with teasing ambiguity and his ineffable way of expanding the lyrical mood without indulging in stage action.
The play is circular, so it has no beginning and no end — something of a theatrical innovation in itself.
It also has a new tone for its time. The mechanical nature of some of its comic or clowning business is not new (Adamov and Ionesco, for instance, had already exercised that), but what is startling is its expansion of theatre's parameters.
Its language (rooted in Irish banter and song, Scripture and Beckett's own mundane experience) is demotic, scatological and dignified, silly, expository and poetic.
Words become something to be resisted because they stain silence and nothingness, but words are also used like notes in music, to express human malaise in general or to redeem emptiness.
We laugh through tears — as with the best of Chaplin's films — recognizing the basic tragic line of the piece (its metaphysic of nothingness) while enjoying the comic canters and parody.
Beckett's absurdist satire is not as savage as Swift's or as corrosive as Naipaul's. It seems pessimistic on the surface, but it is actually stoical.
I would like to think that the play makes us feel glad to be alive, though I can hear Beckett himself retorting: "I wouldn't go as far as that."
Critic, poet and biographer Keith Garebian won the 2008 Mississauga Arts Award for Writing.
Just a note - Book Number 47 on the list - 3 more to go