Waiting for Godot screws with your mind. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The situation’s mad and the meaning’s elusive, but the resonances are crystal clear and razor sharp.
This afternoon’s performance at the Haymarket made me cry, which is not something I thought Matthew Kelly (of all people) would ever achieve. It reached somewhere I don’t think I accessed when I was studying the text; and touched a nerve that has only tingled in all the interim readings, of which there’ve been quite a few –
I’ve always been under the strange impression that, if I master Beckett’sWaiting for Godot, I’ll get the meaning of life. That, amongst the mishmash of feelings, and words, and conversations that all seem to merit a turned over page corner or a highlighted circle, I’ll find an answer to whatever it is that I am waiting for.
This is, of course, the joke. Or the tragedy.
If there’s one thing that’s clear in Waiting for Godot, it’s the impossibility of working out the meaning of life –
But at least we are not alone in the confusion.
In the interval, my sister asked me to explain what was going on. Whilst it would have been great to appear knowledgeable, I stuttered, and shrugged, and eventually gave up. For those who aren’t familiar with the play, a dramatist called Jean Anouilh summed it up better that I ever will: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible”.
This is not an exaggeration. In Act 1, we have two guys (Estragon and Vladimir) standing under a tree waiting for Godot, joined by two more guys , one (Lucky?!) of which is roped up like an animal, and is serving the other (Pozzo). In Act 2, a similar thing happens, though it’s all a bit more unhinged. There is no reassuring plotline for the audience to rely on; no relief from the stark stage and the intense dialogue; no “ah ha” moment –
Other than the realisation that Beckett seems to have captured the essence of life or, at least, honed in on its futility.
This is what made my cry this afternoon. After nodding my head at the unreliability of the human experience (“I don’t remember exactly what it was, but you can be sure there wasn’t a word of truth in it”); and appreciating how cruel (“You’re being spoken to, pig! Reply!” – and how kind (“There…there…it’s all over”) – we seem to be; and almost getting the performance – life discussion (“Is everybody ready? Is everybody looking at me?… …I don’t like talking in a vacuum”), the closing scenes tipped the welling emotion right over the edge:
“Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full or our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.)I can’t go on! (Pause.)What have I said?”…
Vladimir, Act 2.
At the end of the play, shortly after this speech, Vladimir ( Roger Rees) and Estragon (Ian McKellen) did a funny little dance that I watched whilst reminding myself to breathe. Scraping the now exposed nerve, I’m not sure whether this made the Waiting for Godot experience better – or infinitely worst.
It is one thing to brilliantly portray the pointlessness of life and the desperation with which we seek meaning when, ultimately, we’re all just waiting our days out; but to then add in the flashes of compassion and kindness and connections and humour only made the blow harder. Or it did for me, anyway.
It seemed to hit a kind of deep-rooted sympathy for man that might be the big difference between humans, and the brutes that we were constantly being reminded of. To reaffirm my impression that we’re all struggling, together, to make sense; and that the only light relief comes through the moments of human connection.
But then again, it might mean absolutely nothing.
The person behind me was in hysterics through most of the play….