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Waiting for Godot
New Zealand Herald Preview 19 October 2002



Still waiting for Godot



Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot has been around for 50 years. It was drafted in 1948-49, published in October 1952, first performed in January 1953. It has been staged often in Auckland, directed by Raymond Hawthorne among others, and there have been several Maidment Theatre productions preceding the Auckland Theatre Company show that opens this week.

Most would agree it's a fine and engaging stage play that provides a universal, if slightly cryptic, comment on the human condition - but of course such things are easily said. Does Godot have anything to tell us today?

It's no great secret that, even after all this time, the elusive Godot still hasn't appeared and the patient tramps Vladimir and Estragon still await his arrival, beside a road marked by a single tree, as earnestly as ever. Each time Godot is performed, the ritual of waiting begins for them all over again. As the play proceeds, two other characters - Pozzo and Lucky - arrive, perform various routines, interact precariously with Vladimir and Estragon and then leave, inconclusively.

Later, a mysterious boy appears bearing a message supposedly from Godot to Vladimir and Estragon, to the effect that he can't make it today after all, but now plans to arrive tomorrow. Pozzo, Lucky and the boy visit in the play's first act, then visit again in the second act, which seemingly takes place on the following day.

Thus we feel little faith in the boy's reiterated promises that Godot's appearance is imminent. The act of anticipating his arrival will presumably continue the next day, and the day after that, and so on. After all, if we return to see a subsequent performance of the play during the same season, we will inevitably find the characters still waiting. The experience of watching any play involves waiting to see what happens next, which is one reason Godot works so well in the theatre: the audience and the actors share a similar preoccupation.

Not that much else does seem to happen onstage. Vladimir and Estragon pass the time with various humdrum activities but mainly rely on conversation involving banter, sarcasm and reminiscence interspersed with long silences. We learn there's a risk of beatings if the characters venture offstage. The tree that forms the only scenery, they reflect from time to time, might be useful for hanging themselves. But then, that would probably require too much effort. The tree sprouts a few leaves between the acts, though Beckett insisted these point only to the passage of time, not to any more positive implications.

There is a faint, occasional recognition of the audience in the theatre, an awareness of time passing repetitively and pointlessly, a mood of thwarted expectation, frustration and stoic acceptance, some sardonic humour and word-play.

While universal comment on the human condition may readily be sought or found in it, the play includes some specifics. It alludes often to Christianity, though perhaps more as a mythology than a religion, and occasionally mentions places in Europe, especially in France. Vladimir even recalls visiting the Eiffel Tower in the 1890s.

So where was Beckett coming from? He was an Irish writer who had chosen to live largely in exile from Ireland, a common pattern, especially between 1880 and 1940: Wilde, Yeats and Joyce had all done much the same thing already. By 1945, Beckett lived in France and wrote mainly in French. The play was drafted in French, and first performed as En Attendant Godot. It kept that identity until Beckett translated it for English-speaking audiences a year or so later.

His relationship with the English language remained wary: he said he preferred the austerity of French. Strangely for a writer, he also had frequent doubts about the validity of language itself, and in his later work he increasingly sought to avoid it altogether. Yet he admired his compatriot and fellow-dramatist John Synge, whose Playboy of the Western World anticipates Godot in stage properties (turnip, chicken, rope), mood and tone (tragi-comic, grimly humorous, resigned). Synge's plays feature feckless, wandering, philosophical tramp figures foreshadowing Vladimir and Estragon. With their poignant, sadly funny routines and their trademark bowler hats, Beckett's tramps also recall Charlie Chaplin, or Laurel and Hardy - or circus clowns, for that matter.

More personally, the play draws on Beckett's experience in the French Resistance during World War II. He and his partner Suzanne spent some time working with a group involved in minor, if courageous, acts of opposition to the Nazi occupation. Waiting endlessly for mysterious figures to show up at a rendezvous, being fobbed off by anonymous messengers of uncertain status, the danger of beatings and betrayals, puzzles of identity and purpose - these were the commonplaces of such an existence, and they all feature in Godot.

Which is not to claim the play sets out to depict life in the French Resistance with any historical specificity, of course. But several details and intonations in Godot have discernible origins in this part of his life.

When their group was infiltrated, Beckett and Suzanne eventually escaped from Paris to Roussillon in unoccupied territory.

They covered considerable distances on foot walking at night and sleeping in a wood or haystack during the day. The tramps in Godot often behave like a bickering but mutually dependent couple, uncertain and frightened, on the run, lacking bearings, possessions and social context. During this time Beckett was doubly exiled: from Ireland, on the Continent; and then from Paris, in unoccupied France. This sense of extended alienation lingers to haunt the play.

And who is Godot, anyway? Since he never does arrive, identifying him remains impossible, or at least problematic. The fact he never appears becomes his most discernible trait. Divine connotations may seem to lurk in his name. He reportedly differentiates between the minders of sheep and of goats, and Vladimir says he expects to be saved if Godot arrives.

Yet knowledge that the play appeared first in French should mute this kind of reading - God is not a French word, after all. There may be an oblique allusion in Godot's name to a French word for boot (boots feature prominently in the action), a racing cyclist or a street in Paris. The sheer randomness of such potential points of origin may seem apt. Beckett tended neither to confirm nor deny interpretations of his work, and sometimes seemed oddly pleased when they proliferated as if of their own accord.

Beckett himself usually claimed to have a low opinion of Waiting for Godot, stressing that his often neglected novels were much more important to him. He appears to have been quite sincere in this judgment, and the novels (notably Molloy and Malone Dies, both written within a year of Godot) are certainly fine in their own way. Yet authors may succeed despite themselves and, in any case, we need not share Beckett's estimate of his play.

It has been performed in a wide variety of locations, from prisons to drawing rooms, and with endless modulations of staging, costumes and acting styles. One production set it in a landscape resembling a car wrecker's yard, another in an online chat room. But it usually remains sturdily theatrical and true to its own nature. In its minimalism and its scepticism about reference and representation, the play becomes virtually immune to misreadings, and it can work in almost any context or mode.

All the same, it doesn't need any fancy stagecraft or heavy philosophical implication. It is most successfully played straight, spare and simple, with careful focus on its language and human interactions. The best productions are those that respect the nature of Beckett's text and leave most of the work to him.

This is still a play that everyone should see at least once, its view of life seeming a little bleak but perennially plausible. Audiences will find in Godot a range of meanings, and are as free to do so today as they were 50 years ago. It doesn't force people into particular patterns of thought. Yet the underlying hint of stoic acceptance leavened by humour will register with most of those who encounter the play. Things are often grim but they might get better, and in any case they could always be worse.

In one of the most characteristic and memorable moments, Vladimir explains to Estragon the significance of claiming that one of the thieves crucified with Christ was saved and the other damned. If those are our chances then, as he sagely concludes, it's a reasonable percentage.

* Waiting For Godot: directed by Colin McColl, with Michael Hurst (Vladimir), Raymond Hawthorne (Estragon), Paul Barrett (Pozzo), Jon Brazier (Lucky) and Jake Howie (A Boy); Maidment Theatre, from Thursday until November 2.

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