The danger with teaching honors students is that you might learn something from them. In my astronomy class this year I created a new assignment where instead of writing a research paper I had the students write a dialogue between a geocentrist and a heliocentrist. One of my honors students wrote her dialogue using the characters and setting of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, assuming I’d understand the literary references. I’m used to student using pop culture or sports references that are lost on me, but I couldn’t have a student using literary references I wasn’t familiar with, so I immediately grabbed the two-act play from the campus library and got to work.
We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
The back cover of my edition tells me two important things and one utterly opaque thing. I learn that the play was written in French in 1948, so I can assume things about the shattered cultural backdrop against which Beckett was writing. I also learn from a reviewer that the play is “the quintessence of ‘existentialism’”, a interpretation one can agree with pretty quickly once one has gotten into the play. Finally though, there’s the quote by Norman Mailer that “consciously or unconsciously Beckett is restating the moral and sexual basis of Christianity which was lost with Christ.” There’s a lot I don’t understand about this play, but I don’t understand that quote about the play the most of all.
The play itself: two men, Estragon and Vladimir, spend two acts/days in an interminable twilight at a non-specific location (with a tree) waiting for Godot to come. They’re both tired, hungry, depressed, forlorn, and irritable, and they spend the time in often circular conversations trying to stave off depression and reassuring themselves that Godot will indeed come. Godot represents hope for a better situation, but he also represents imprisonment to their current condition: they would move on, away from such a depressing place, except that Godot has promised to meet them there.
In both acts they meet Pozzo and Lucky, a master with his slave. In both acts a young boy comes to bring a message from Godot. The exchanges between the two men and Pozzo and Lucky provide some of the most pathetic and humorous exchanges in the play. Pozzo’s bombastic pronouncements and domineering persona in the first act and his pathetic feebleness in the second say something about the trajectory of a man’s life. Lucky’s bizarre situation and his impassioned monologue– which, as my student pointed out, we want so badly to make sense– also represent something, I’m sure. Exactly what though is much less clear.
Waiting for Godot is obviously a classic because it’s full of symbols that are hauntingly familiar and yet unclear. There’s an abundance of meaning. But the play itself, for all its existential trappings, is surprisingly accessible. It’s easy to read, and the dialogue between the characters is sharp, poignant, and sometimes quite piercing. It’s a rounded bit of absurdity that points at a deeper, more tragic absurdity– that of life itself. But for all that, it goes down as easily and hauntingly as the darkening twilight in which Estragon and Vladimir continue to linger.
At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.