"l'Enfer, c'est les autres [Hell is others]," cries the character Garcin in Jean-Paul Sartre's groundbreaking existentialist drama Huis Clos [No Exit], published in 1947. Five years later, the Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett earned his place in the intellectual pantheon of his day with his response to Sartre in the form of his play En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot, in the author's own 1954 English translation]. For Beckett's characters life without the society of others is frightening, perilous and unthinkably miserable — or, as Heidegger reminds us: we are never alone but that we are alone with Death. It is also necessary to us, in Beckett's universe, to affirm our existence through the witness of others, be they human, divine, or expressed through abstraction (the "wheel of karma", for example).
But Beckett did more than add to the philosophical debate inspired by the starkness and nihilism of the years following World War II and the birth of the atomic era. His form of theatre helped to revolutionise the genre by taking a cue from Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. By stripping the theatrical device of unfulfilled anticipation of its context and its expectation of ultimate dénouement, he preserves its raw, unadulterated dramatic tension. It then presents itself to us in an indistinct image, an allegory that predicates interpretation but resists definition, much like the schematic forms of Beckett's contemporaries in the Abstract Expressionist school of painting, who provide us a "suggestion" but leave us to flesh out the details, to fill in the blanks according to our own perceptions and experience. "En attendant Godot brought the curtain down on King Ibsen," said Ruby Cohn, and in so doing, wholly transformed our experience of theatre.
Suddenly, we ourselves are brought onto the stage with Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky and are incorporated into their dynamic. The dramatis personae become more than two-dimensional archetypes: they are resident in our own characters, we see their struggles as our own, whomever we determine them to be. Perhaps Pozzo reminds us of capitalist hegemony, the Roman Catholic church, Stalinism, the WTO or (as presented in a recent Belfast production) the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Vladimir and Estragon perchance represent to us, respectively, the cleric and the congregant, Blake's Luvah and Los, the man of thought and the man of action, or Neumann's impotence of consciousness and power of the unconscious. We may determine that, in our eyes, the dissipated Lucky embodies the vanquished working class, the discredited intelligentsia, the decompensated mentally ill, or the corrupted and verbally masturbatory scions of academia. And who, according to whatever particular political stance, religious ideal or New Age philosophy to which we happen to subscribe this week, is Godot? Why is whatever he has to offer us more compelling than the prospect of real physical intervention into whatever Pozzo/Lucky injustice presents itself to us in our lives outside of the theatre?
Like the work of the period's cinematic icon Ingmar Bergman, the play, in perfect harmony with Kierkegaard's existentialist philosophy, offers us no answers but draws our attention to problems to which there is no solution and from which no unassailable knowledge can be gained except in the irrevocable retrospection of death. Yet rather paradoxically it provokes laughter from us. We can't help but find merriment in its occasionally frantic stage action (in the words of Beckett's former employer James Joyce, "everybody comes in all at once"), its music hall canters of flippant, frankly inane and uncomfortably familiar-sounding dialogue, and its Laurel and Hardy physical slapstick, all of which remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. What perturbs us, though, is the ability of Beckett's devastating irony to spawn sudden, visceral hilarity or what Beckett in his early novel Watt called risus purus , the highest form of laughter in its purest expression — what is often called "black humour": the reflexive laugh that finds its source in the most profound human unhappiness.
We are left wiser but less secure after seeing a performance of Waiting for Godot, ultimately able to retain only one certainty, as expressed by Sidney Homan:As audience, we are asked to consider the meaning of our existence on life's stage. There are revolutionaries galore for whom the theatre is a mere trifle or an example of decadent entertainment. For "everyone knows", they tell us, that we must "accomplish something" in life, or "do things", or, they say — acting as if any human motives could be pure — we should help our comrades whether they want that help or not. In the presence of such challenges to the meaning of our existence, we can only say — and say only — that on any given night of a performance of Godot we acted not alone on stage but in concert, without an excessive trust in physical life, nor, given the physical nature of the stage, with a pseudo-intellectual, let alone spiritual dismissal of physical reality. Together, actors and audience, we waited for Godot . . .
Penelope Merritt, January 2000
Waiting for Godot remains just as fascinating to me now as it was the first time I read it, some thirty years ago. Its mysteries are just as puzzling and at times I still laugh till the tears flow. It is the essence of life stripped of the everyday specifics. These two clowns are ourselves without the house, car and 2.5 children. A lot has been said about the profound philosophical and psychological insights it contains, but our approach to the play is contained in Beckett's symbol of the bowler hat. It's the classic clown hat of Chaplin, Keaton, Emmett Kelly or my favourites, Laurel and Hardy. Images of the circus, vaudeville and the theatre run throughout the play. Its simplicity is part of why it is so accessible to people of all ages, all over the world. This is the original script about "experiencing nothing". Prisoners at San Quentin had no difficulty understanding this play, but of course they knew what it was like to have life stripped to its essence and what it feels like to wait. We all wait in anticipation of future events, and whether it's the millennium or Aunt Sadie's gallbladder removal, life after the event is much the same as before. That's often the way with comedies, ending as they begin. So if I had to make a single statement about this play it would be: "Two clowns make us laugh at the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same."
Patrick Torelle, director, January 2000
Act I text