In Which Nothing Happens, Twice

In October 1948, the avant-garde Irish novelist, poet, playwright and theatre director Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), took a break from what he thought was some really awful prose to compose, as a mere relaxation, a short play called En attendant Godot (pronounced GOD-oh). Published in French in 1952 and after many uncertainties about venue and financing, first performed at the tiny Théâtre de Babylone in Paris in 1953, it was later translated into English by Beckett and opened at the Arts Theatre in Westminster, London in 1955 as Waiting for Godot.

First English edition, Grove Press, Wikipedia

A two-act absurdist-tragicomic piece, Waiting for Godot was famously described by Irish critic Vivian Mercier as a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ (“The Uneventful Event”, The Irish Times, February 18, 1956). Comprising of five characters – Vladimir, Estragon, Lucky, Pozzo and a Boy – both acts of the play are structurally similar, only subtly different in content. In the evening, by a country road, near a tree, Vladimir and Estragon ceaselessly wait for a figure called Godot. Lucky and Pozzo soon arrive on the scene out of nowhere. After much meaningless talk, a Boy, supposedly a messenger from Godot, enters to inform that he wouldn’t come this evening but yes, tomorrow without fail. Godot, ultimately, remains an unknown and probably unknowable referent. An absent protagonist for whom Beckett refused to provide excuses or explanations.

Waiting for Godot has been acclaimed by many as the greatest play of the twentieth century and over the decades, has been performed all over the world in myriad contexts – by convicts in California’s San Quentin Prison in 1957, in war-torn Sarajevo in 1993, by survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2007. Also, it has been subjected to countless, radically divergent, interpretations. Mary Bryden, Professor of French at Reading University and former President of the Samuel Beckett Society, writes that:

some commentators have argued either that the play is a modern morality tale, a dramatisation of mankind’s need – however unspoken – for a ‘God’; or alternatively a post-theistic play, illustrating His/Her factitiousness, or His/Her aloofness from the travails of the created order.

She goes on to add that the meanings of Godot “seem set to continue evolving alongside us, for the unforeseeable future.” (Preface, Waiting for Godot, Faber and Faber, 2010)

Another Beckett expert, Anna McMullan, a professor of theatre at the same university, has this to say on the confounding quality of the play:

We could talk forever about its meaning but I actually think, like Beckett, it is about experiencing the play. You go and take your seat in the theatre and you absorb what’s happening. The characters that are in front of you are waiting and while they are waiting we share the same time, the same space and we watch the human beings as they interact on stage. We watch these moments of tenderness, moments of cruelty and I think it really confronts us with the basic facts of human existence.

~ “When Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot he really didn’t know a lot about theatre”The Telegraph, January 13, 2013.

My own response to the play is somewhat similar.

An extract:

 

ESTRAGON: All the dead voices.

VLADIMIR: They make a noise like wings.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

VLADIMIR: Like sand.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

[Silence.]

VLADIMIR: They all speak together.

[Silence.]

ESTRAGON: Rather they whisper.

VLADIMIR: They rustle.

ESTRAGON: They whisper.

VLADIMIR: They rustle.

[Silence.]

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!

 

—-

Image Credit:

Featured: Caricature of Samuel Beckett by Estonian-American editorial cartoonist Edmund S. Valtman (detail), Wikipedia [Public Domain]

 


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3 thoughts on “In Which Nothing Happens, Twice

  1. Beckett, for me, is the finest prose writer ever, after Proust (whom he admired greatly). It’s interesting he’s still best known for Godot. Murphy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable and How it Is, in that order ascending order, push the boundaries of language and literature in an utterly spellbinding way.

    Liked by 1 person

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