Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review: 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot is an incredibly difficult play to get your head around. I was aware that this play is considered a classic (it's on my 100 Classics list) and has had a massive influence not just on drama but also on literature. But that knowledge didn't make it any easier to understand. Reading plays always provides its challenges because, as such, they were written to be heard and seen, not read. Whereas with Shakespeare I can enjoy both, although I prefer a performance simply because Shakespearian actors have beautiful diction, I think this might be a play that should eludes understanding when read.
A seminal work of twentieth century drama, Waiting for Godot was Samuel Beckett's first professionally produced play. The story line revolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone or something named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree on a barren stretch of road, inhabiting a drama spun from their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as a somber summation of mankind's inexhaustible search for meaning. Beckett's language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured the existentialism of post-World War II Europe. His play remains one of the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time.
I have decided to split this review into two sections: the first being 'my initial thoughts', the second being 'I have done some research and apparently this play means this'.

I very much enjoyed the back and forth between Vladimir and Estragon. It is often humorous, it is quick, it is witty and yet at times also very profound. What is great about the dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon is that it never wavers. If one speaks, then the other has to speak next and so forth. Even when other characters appear, this pattern is hardly ever interrupted. What this shows is how much of what humans say depends on what is said by others. And through their relentless need to comment, they inadvertently reveal how empty words are.  A declaration of intent is completely void if it is not followed by the action it promised. What Beckett really shows here is how easily people manipulate themselves and others through what they say, even if that was completely unintentional. What I also liked about their banter was that it seems to suggest that there is no power struggle between the two, that neither of them is the dominant one, verbally speaking.

What this play "suffers from", fully intentionally, is that there is no action, which is  part of it being an Absurdist play. Of course Becket did this on purpose. The very point of this play is that it shows us how these two main characters create their own world, their own drama within it, and the other characters inhabiting it. In the end, I assume, this is a commen on life. In the end life is what we make it and if one decides to spend it under a tree, waiting for Godot, then that is exactly what you'll do. My favourite quote from the play is probably this one:
'They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.'
Each life is very much this brief fleeting moment between two gaping expanses of night, whether you believe in a Heaven or not. The idea of the potential futility of life very much infuses the entire play and it makes it both exciting and depressing to read.

Now, for my research-inspired and reflective thoughts on this play. My favourite critical statement about this play is probably the following by Vivian Mercier:
"has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." 
What makes this play so fascinating is that nothing happens. In many ways it is like going to the Zoo where you observe other animals love and be. And most of the time what they're doing is nothing, simply sitting around, waiting. And yet we are fascinated by it. Perhaps Beckett predicted the trend of reality shows where we really do nothing except watch other people live their life.

What was interesting, in the edition I had borrowed from the library it said, in pencil, on the bottom of one of the pages, that Godot 'is the relief that can never exist'. English students really go deep sometimes. What I assume whoever wrote this meant was that the desperate waiting for Godot is something we all do. We all wait for this one job, this one man, this one book, etc. that is going to save us, is going to change us. However, this endless waiting doesn't give a meaning to our life and doesn't make it time well-spent. In many ways that same phrase could be applied to this play. However, the difference is that where this play makes us realize that wasting time waiting is indeed a waste, a lot of others thing merely continue to feed us the same drabble.

I give this play...

5 Universes!

Yes, it is hard to get into. Yes, at times you wonder what the hell is going on and what you're supposed to gain from it. But you never stop reading and that is what, to me, makes this a masterpiece. I can imagine that as a staged performance, it is enrapturing, but even when reading it, you're desperate to know whether Godot finally comes and what the outcome will be. There's not a particular category of readers I'd recommend this to since it is so different from a lot of other things. Reading this play is a process, but once you achieve it you're bound to have some new opinions. And in my opinion, that is always a good thing.

4 comments:

  1. I think I've seen four different productions of this play by now. I never miss them when they come along. The first time I saw it, it knocked my socks off. Like you say, nothing happens then nothing happens again but you can't stop watching and the suspense is unbearable.

    And after you've seen it once almost every play you'll ever go to seems to be based on it. We're all waiting, I agree, but I disagree with you about knowing what we're waiting for.

    Studs Turkel wrote an amazing piece about a production of this play in the 1960's which toured the southern states of the U.S. as an entertainment for civil rights marches. People who had been waiting all their lives for the chance to vote watched it and understood it as speaking directly to their experience.

    That's what best about absurdist theatre. Because it's about nothing and no one in particular it can speak to all of us.

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  2. I do agree that because absurdist theatre doesn't seem to be about anything, it can become relevant for all of us! I can't wait to see a production of this play, I think it would be genius. Thanks for commenting :)

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  3. Becketts prose was the best best.

    I just woke up and as he wrote "The sun rose swith no alternative on the nothing new." - from memory.

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  4. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen just finished their run of Godot. That would have been something to see.

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