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ESSAY

Waiting to Understand Godot

An Essay by Steven Paul Leiva

samuel beckett

I met Samuel Beckett before I met Godot. 

It was 1979 and I was in London with the famed Looney Tunes animation director Chuck Jones, handling his publicity for his “season” at the National Film Theater. We were staying at the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge, a classic British hotel of a bygone era, originally built in 1889 as an exclusive “Gentleman’s Club” that had seen the comings and goings of royalty and the elite in politics, commerce, and art.

I was young, more than naive, and thrilled to be there, as I was a budding cultural snob and there is no place better to be a cultural snob than in London.  Chuck and I had just come back from a radio interview when the major domo of the hotel, Peter Crome, proudly announced to us that “Mr. Samuel Beckett” was staying at the hotel. I was excited.

As a former high school drama student from a nondescript California suburb, I knew that Samuel Beckettt was very famous as a world class playwright and the author of Waiting for Godot, a play I was convinced was a great play only because I had been told it was a great play, not having actually read it, which somehow seemed irrelevant at the moment.

“If I run out and buy Waiting for Godot, do you think you can ask him to autograph it for me?” I asked Mr. Crome. “I would be happy to,” he said.  So I ran to Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and came back disappointed if not empty handed—they were out of Waiting for Godot so I had settled for a slim volume of some very short plays called Ends and Odds.

The next day, back from more interviews, Crome greeted me with, “Mr. Beckettt has autographed your book.” He handed me the book and there on the title page was written in blue ink, For Steve Leiva with all good wishes, Samuel Beckett, London, April 1979. It was the first autograph of a famous author I had ever seen and the first autographed book I had ever owned. Clutching the slim volume, I went into the hotel bar for a Pimm’s Cup and a bit of rest. I started looking through the book, glancing at the various short plays, including “Not I,” and the last one in the volume, “Radio II,” which intrigued me because the lead character was listed as:

ANIMATOR.

When I was finished perusing the book, I looked up and there, directly across from me, sat “Mr. Samuel Beckett.”

I immediately got up and went over to him, introduced myself and thanked him for autographing my copy of Ends and Odds. Then I told him how fascinated I was that a character in “Radio II” was an animator, for I happened to be in London with the famous American animator of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Chuck Jones.

A pained moment crossed Beckett’s face. “Oh no, by ‘animator’ I mean the one who animates the action, the conversation,” he said, not quite dismissively, and yet I felt quite dismissed.

Samuel Beckett did not intend to give me a life lesson, but he did. Cultural snobbery is no damn good if you cannot back it up with knowledge about that which you are being snobbish about. Chagrined, I became determined to come to some understanding of Beckett and his work.  I did not succeed in a large way, but I did come to love Waiting for Godot and embrace it as possibly the greatest play of the 20th Century, the one that, for many people, best illustrates the condition humans found themselves in after nearly five hundred years of learning that they were not the center of the universe, and after one long war (broken up into two parts) that took up much of the first half of the 20th century.

I’ve been musing about all this recently after seeing a superb production of Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, featuring two premiere performers of Beckett, Alan Mandell (as Estragon) and Barry McGovern (as Vladimir).

I remember when I got home from London I took down from my bookshelf a blue-covered trade paperback anthology of plays that I knew included Waiting for Godot. I sat down to read it with a different feeling than I had ever had upon a reading assignment—let’s be honest, this is what this was—for I had actually met the author who had crafted the words before me. I began reading, very excited. I never finished. I could not make head nor tails of the play, nor, to truly coin a phrase, could I make ends or odds of it.  I was not disappointed in Mr. Samuel Beckett, I was disappointed in myself. 

Well … back to the Looney Tunes.

Some time later I saw a rerun of a 1977 television production of the play produced by KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles. Ralph Waite (Papa Walton from The Waltons) was Pozzo, and TV regulars Dana Elcar and Donald Moffat were Vladimir and Estragon. I don’t remember much about it, although I clearly remember falling asleep during it.

In 1989, ten years after I met Beckett, he died in Paris. I read many obituaries and tributes, all of which gave due consideration to the genius of Waiting for Godot. Damn! I really wanted to understand this play, assuming I could make it through a reading without quitting or falling asleep. I went to my bookshelves and pulled out the blue covered play anthology. I started to read and I started to get lost, just like a character in an existential, absurdest play.

In an effort to keep my mind on the text, I decided to read the play out loud. After all, liking the sound of my own voice, I would at least have that to entertain me.

Suddenly there was rhythm and music and poetry to Waiting for Godot, none of which was my doing but which was imposed upon me by the genius of Samuel Beckett, which, I learned that day, you must hear before you can understand. Not just listen to, which was all I did while watching the KCET television production, but hear. The play entered my mind and found a comfortable little cranny there, which it has occupied ever since.

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot between 1948 and 1949, in France and in French, but it did not have its première until 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. The English language (translated by Beckett) premiere was in 1955 at the Arts Theatre in London. The first production of the play in the United States was at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida in 1956. The audiences for these opening performances were, to put it gently, baffled, some to the point of hooting derisively, some to walking out—while hooting derisively.

Despite being billed in its American premiere as, “the laugh sensation of two continents,” no one was laughing. Fairly quickly, the play began to build a reputation after much debate (which Beckett refused to join), some incisive reviews (Kenneth Tynan’s and Harold Hobson’s reviews in London’s The Observer and The Sunday Times respectively), and the re-staging of the play on Broadway that found more favor than the Floridians gave it. 

The problem seemed to have been that, as John Lahr, the critic and son of the first American Estragon, Bert Lahr, had written, “The play was not so much a laugh riot as a revolution in theatrical storytelling.”

The play has one set, which Beckett’s stage directions describe as: A country road. A tree. The tree (in Act One) has not one leaf. There is also a mound or a large rock for sitting on. There are four characters, all of whom wear bowler hats, Valdimir, Estragon, Pozzo, and Lucky. There is no plot. But there are—despite the Irish literary critic Vivian Mercier having declared that it was a play where, “...nothing happens, twice”—incidents. Things do happen. They are just mundane things, ordinary, day-to-day, and insignificant in the way that most of what happens in our lives is insignificant. New days start, pain is felt, memories lapse, affection is displayed, oppression occurs, hunger is barely abated, boredom is endured, and, most of all, people talk to each other sharing all of the above. Beckett bills the play on the cover page as a “tragicomedy.”

Since my out loud reading of Waiting for Godot in 1989 I have seen four productions of it. Two on television, England’s Channel 4’s 2001 “Beckett on Film” production (also with Barry McGovern as Valdimir) and the 1961 American “Play of the Week” version with Zero Mostel as Estragon, Burgess Meredith as Valdimir and Broadway’s original Pozzo, Kurt Kasznar. And two on stage in Los Angeles. After each viewing I became increasingly convinced, especially after seeing the Mark Taper Forum production, that to understand the play—at least to my satisfaction—I needed to forgo giving any consideration to the tragic half of Beckett’s sub-title, and think only of the comedy.

My favorite definition of the difference between tragedy (or drama) and comedy is that a drama is the story of a person’s walk down a road, whereas a comedy is that exact same story except we see the person stop and take a leak now and then. Since Valdimir exits twice to do just that, I see Waiting for Godot as a comedy.

A comedy? With lines like these?

VLADIMIR: Suppose we repented.

ESTRAGON: Repented what?

VLADIMIR Oh . . . (He reflects.) We wouldn't have to go into the details.

ESTRAGON: Our being born?

Vladimir breaks into a hearty laugh which he immediately stifles, his hand pressed to his pubis, his face contorted.

VLADIMIR: One daren't even laugh any more.

#

ESTRAGON: We've no rights any more?

Laugh of Vladimir, stifled as before, less the smile.

VLADIMIR: You'd make me laugh if it wasn't prohibited.

ESTRAGON: We've lost our rights?

VLADIMIR: (distinctly). We got rid of them.

Silence. They remain motionless, arms dangling, heads sunk, sagging at the knees.

#

ESTRAGON: (suddenly furious). Recognize! What is there to recognize? All my lousy life I've crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery! (Looking wildly about him.) Look at this muckheap! I've never stirred from it!

And later Estragon says: “I've puked my puke of a life away here, I tell you! Here!”

And possibly the greatest single statement about the human condition in a work of literature is stated by Pozzo: “...They give birth astride of a grave...”

A comedy? Yes. Comedy deals with the frailties of humans. Waiting for Godot deals

with the frailty of our condition.

But is it funny? Are there laughs? Even if not a riotous amount?

Depends on how it is performed or the state of mind you bring to it if you read it (out loud, I would hope). And both of those depend on whether Beckett’s clues are picked up upon, the clues telling you to go for the laughs. 

Such as? Those bowler hats, for one. It seems like a million writers on Godot have noted that the play was inspired by, maybe even written for, the great film comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, both of whom famously wore bowler hats. But then many other vaudevillians and comedians did as well, Lou Costello and Pinky Lee, for example. One writer has pointed out that the opening bit (routine? gag?) in Godot, Estragon struggling to get his boot off, is very close to a scene in “Be Big” a Laurel and Hardy short. But then another bit, the fast paced exchange of three bowler hats in Act Two, is close to a routine in the Marx Brothers feature, Duck Soup. Would Laurel and Hardy have been well cast in Waiting for Godot, with Ollie as Gogo (Vladimir’s nickname for Estragon) and Stanley as Didi (Estragon’s nickname for Vladimir)? I don’t think so. Ollie’s not very bright, but pompous innocence and Stanley’s not very bright, but sweet innocence would not have played well on Godot’s bleak stage. Gogo and Didi are not dumb or pompous or sweet, and they are anything but innocent.

Laurel and Hardy may have been an inspiration, but only, I think, in service of something deeper, though no less comedic, for Beckett may well have been a fan of screen comedians, but he was also a man of letters, a student of Romance languages, associated as a young man with James Joyce, and he wrote on Proust. And Beckett was an Irishman, a lover of the lilting language of his nation, possibly the most verbal and oral nation on Earth, and a lover of the drink, especially the drink drank in pubs. The laughs in Waiting for Godot do not just come from the gags of stage and screen, but from the cadence, rhythm, and poetry of ordinary people, sans make-up, sans spotlights, sans applause.

For example, early in the play, Gogo and Didi have this conversation about “Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour.”

VLADIMIR: One out of four. Of the other three, two don't mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.

ESTRAGON: Who?

VLADIMIR: What?

ESTRAGON: What's all this about? Abused who?

VLADIMIR: The Savior.

ESTRAGON: Why?

VLADIMIR: Because he wouldn't save them.

ESTRAGON: From hell?

VLADIMIR: Imbecile! From death.

ESTRAGON: I thought you said hell.

VLADIMIR: From death, from death.

ESTRAGON: Well what of it?

VLADIMIR: Then the two of them must have been damned.

ESTRAGON: And why not?

VLADIMIR: But one of the four says that one of the two was saved.

ESTRAGON: Well? They don't agree and that's all there is to it.

VLADIMIR: But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?

ESTRAGON: Who believes him?

VLADIMIR: Everybody. It's the only version they know.

ESTRAGON: People are bloody ignorant apes.

This seems to me to be much like the silly, pseudo thoughtful conversations one might hear in a pub. In fact much of the dialog between Gogo and Didi seems to me to be overheard everyday conversations between you and me, and the people at the next table, in the row behind us, and on the street before us. Conversations, dialogs, spoken words, most of them mundane, some of them accidentally poetic, that we use in order to communicate or cope or simply survive. And they are often inadvertently funny and see the absurdity of life while laughing at it, while making the one unsaid statement, “And yet, we go on.”

Waiting for Godot, at its best, is reportage.

Despite being a comedy, existential and absurdist, about the frailty of our human condition, is it as bleak as the landscape it plays itself out on? Despite the laughs, is it a negative piece … does it give up on humanity? Or is there in it some hope, symbolized (if I must bring in symbols) by the new growth of leaves in the second act on what had been a bare tree in the first, or by the fact that Didi and Gogo speak of suicide, plan for suicide, but either do not, or cannot find the ability, to commit suicide? Is Beckett’s vision—to use the god awful cliché—one that sees the glass half empty or the glass half full?

I don’t think it’s quite either. I prefer to think—because Beckett refused to tell us—that what he sees is a half filled glass of something, which is simply a fact to be dealt with—or not—while we wait for Godot.

Or as Daffy Duck used to say, “It is to laugh.”


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