Monday, 10 November 2008

Waiting for Godot

The other evening we went to the Georgian Theatre in Richmond to see Richmond Amateur Dramatic Society's production of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. This was only the second time I'd seen it, and I must admit I wish I knew it better than I do. The last time I saw it was years ago. That production (I forget who by) was more downbeat and made very little sense to me at the time. The characters in this production clowned around a lot more, and at times it almost felt like a pantomime. It seems to me that this is the way it should be played: it had both shape and meaning. I suspect many people who went to see it expecting something “difficult” came out pleasantly surprised.

For anyone who doesn't know the plot, here's a brief resume. In Act One, Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. A character called Pozzo (pronounced "pot-so") turns up with his slave, Lucky, who he keeps tethered on a rope. Lucky dances for them and when commanded to “think” makes a long, frantic speech which begins almost intelligibly and descends into meaninglessness. Pozzo and Lucky go on their way. A boy arrives, who tells Vladimir and Estragon that Godot is unable to come that day. The same events are repeated in Act Two, except for the fact that Lucky, who says nothing, is leading Pozzo, who is apparently blind.

Perhaps it's because I belong to a generation brought up on Monty Python, but I'm always mystified when people say that “nothing happens” in this play. Okay, so unlike Python's Spanish Inquisition, Godot never shows up, unless Pozzo is in fact Godot, using an assumed name. This is an interesting ambiguity which this production brought out well, I thought. If Godot is in fact God, then is he the elusive character who will always turn up tomorrow, or is he a cruel Pozzo-like character, dragging 'lucky ' humanity around on a rope? When it was put to him, Beckett apparently rejected the idea that Godot represented God, but then I suspect he would have quite rightly deflected any attempt to pin the play down. Part of the play's strength is the richness of its ambiguities. As he once said: 'The key word in my plays is "perhaps"'.

Another common myth, if you ask me, is that the play is “bleak”. It is only bleak in that it looks in the eye things that need to be looked in the eye. Any meaningful approach to spirituality, for me, anyway, has to face up to the problems of the human condition explored by Beckett. The alternative, to ignore them, is unsatisfactory escapism. I often find this: that the statements of some atheists and agnostics carry more spiritual weight than those of some believers, as the non-believer is free to think things the believer considers unthinkable. As RS Thomas (who was a somewhat unconventional Anglican Minister) says, in his poem, Via Negativa:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
The English version of the play is subtitled “A Tragicomedy”. Perhaps the tragedy for Vladimir and Estragon is that, unlike RS Thomas, they do hope.


Sorlil said...

It does sound pretty bizarre, I've neither read or seen Waiting for Godot. But I am a Monty Python fan!

Poet in Residence said...

I agree with every word you've written. I've seen Waiting for Godot just the once. But afterwards I rushed to the bookshops and found a copy of
'The Complete Dramatic Words' by Beckett. As a consequence of buying that book I wrote a poem about Beckett. It's in my own book 'Genteel Messages'.
About 4 days ago I went to see the one man play Clarence Darrow by David Rintels. A Swiss actor played the part. His name escapes me at the moment. It was very good. It's almost an honour to be able to see these plays that make you think I always feel. Last week I went to see Charley's Aunt. Very funny. But not real theatre. Not a play with anything to say. Just a case of 2 blokes, 2 birds and a man in drag larking about.
I don't think I want to go too much further with poetry now that I've won the best individual small press collection prize and have discovered Cafe Kafka's Labyrinth poets; unless Szirtes send that Bloodaxe guy to Vienna with a fat wad. That's about the only chance of a kickstart. So, I'm thinking of doing a play as my next writing project. Probably something to do with prejudice and xenophobia which is problematic in Central Europe. Check out the latest news: 'Slovaks close borders' on my 'Bard on the Run' blog if you haven't already done so. Szirtes is better off in Norwich I can tell you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me how much I used to love this play. I haven't seen it performed for years but you really make me want to see it again soon. If it is bleak at all it celebrates that bleakness beautifully and I have always been rather comforted by the existential 'nothingness' found there. Perhaps I'm odd. It's a lot more fun than 'Endgame', anyway!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

Sorlil: Any Python fan would surely love it.

Poet in residence: I read "Slovaks close borders". It sounds a good theme for a drama (Dario Fo sprang to mind). All the "clown on a horse" stuff sounds distinctly Godot-like too. An interesting project. I sometimes think the writing of drama is the more akin to the writing of poetry than other prose.

Singing Bear: I like the idea of it "celebrating bleakness beautifully". It certainly does.

The Solitary Walker said...

There's a terrific biography of Beckett by James Knowlson called 'Damned to Fame' I would recommend.

The Weaver of Grass said...

RS Thomas had a more difficult relationship with his God than most. If you read some of his early poetry and some of his late poetry it is clear he has had a long struggle with faith - but I think, on balance, he became reconciled with his God finally.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks, SW, I've not read it. I might check it out.

Weaver of Grass: the title of the Thomas poem, Via Negativa, is an interesting place to start exploring this.

Anonymous said...

Just about my favourite play. My earliest memories of it go back into childhood. I remember my parents going to see the original English production at the Arts Theatre and, on their return, keeping me awake by arguing about it into the small hours. My mother hated it; my dad thought it was a masterpiece!

Beckett's comedy is no great distance from the pratfalls of Laurel and Hardy and any decent production should be drawing on the abundant opportunities throughout the text.

For any readers of this fine post, there's a London production coming up very soon with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the tramps. Unmissable.

Dominic Rivron said...

Sadly, I won't get a chance to see that. It's a shame, as (I vacillate at this point, wondering if ought to go public...)Patrick Stewart is my favourite Enterprise Captain.

Rachel Fox said...

I like the bit of the Thomas poem...'empty silence'...yes...I sometimes think the difference between religious people and non-religious people is that the former like to give that strange silence a name whilst the others don't feel the need to... or...just don't feel any of the names cut it. I might be wrong of course!

Dominic Rivron said...

Rachel: I think you're probably right. You're taking what I would describe as a Quaker perspective - one I'm very sympathetic to. Is it the silence that's strange? Or us?

Rachel Fox said...

It is slightly Quaker, yes, but even most Quakers still talk about God and other named parts of religion (one of many reasons I have not gone to meetings as an adult - only in school).

As for being's always everyone else that's strange, isn't it?
I have a poem 'Weirdo' that looks at this (under 'little poems' on site if you're interested).


Dominic Rivron said...

I enjoyed reading through the little poems. "Spacing" poignantly reminded me of my next post.