Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett
1948

Long before Jerry Seinfeld dubbed his TV sitcom a ‘show about nothing’, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett had staked out that territory in a simply brilliant piece of writing for the stage. An exploration of the existential, the absurd, the question of meaning in a world without God, Waiting For Godot is the definitive story about nothing. And it’s so full of nothing you can read and re-read and re-read again, and watch production after production, always walking away with something new.

Vladimir and Estragon wait by a tree for the arrival of Godot. They wait. They argue and joke. They seek out and are repeatedly-frustrated by attempts to pass the time. They contemplate leaving the stage, but can’t do it. They contemplate suicide, but can’t do it. They break down and lift each other up. They wait. They find brief interludes from the waiting in the entrance of a slave-owner and his slave,  who provide comic relief and intellectual fodder for the audience, something to do for those who wait. And then they wait some more, each day promised by a messenger that surely Godot will meet them tomorrow. Godot, of course, never comes. There is only the waiting, the wondering ‘what if’, the paralysis and the immortality of their hope.

And that’s the thing about Waiting for Godot – the hope. God may be dead. Life may have no essential meaning. We may be searching for something nonexistent, waiting for something external to believe, to follow, to inspire, that can only ever disappoint. But non-belief is not an option. There is nowhere to walk away to. The waiting is the hope. The waiting is the meaning. Or, turned around, the meaning is what happens while we wait. This is no nihilist existentialism, no ‘God-is-dead-get-over-it-already’; it is, rather, about meaning-in-absurdity. This existence is lonely and empty and meager. But it’s also loving and rich and bountiful. If God is dead, it’s up to us to re-make Him, not out there but here, now, present.

Close to and initially much-influenced by James Joyce, Beckett discovered the style that became his own only after the former’s death and the end of the Second World War (in which he fought as a member of the underground resistance). He started to write in French rather than his native English, and moved from a writing that emphasized literary tricks to one more simple and straightforward that emphasized the relationship between hope and despair, suffering and triumph, doubt and meaning, surrender and struggle. And it was Waiting…, above all else, that garnered him attention and accolades. In 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee noting that his novels and plays marked new forms of writing in which “the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”.

So read the play. But see it, too, cause the reading can be tough on its own. You will want, though, to find a good production. Beckett’s absurdism can all-too-easily become a simple slapstick in some hands, his spiritual and intellectual reflections overly-dirge-like in others. But when it’s done right, when that balance is captured? You will see no better a play.

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