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Revisiting Godot

Posted by acdtest on January 3, 2003

Revisiting Godot

t’s been ages since I last saw a stage production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and so it was with some measure of excited anticipation that I looked forward to PBS’s airing of the Michael Lindsay-Hogg film adaptation of the play on the new PBS series Stage On Screen which I saw last night after tuning in some ten minutes late, the fault of a stopped clock that shouldn’t have been. And what a first-rate realization it was, too. Oh, there was some careless thinking involved in the mise en scène (too busy and populated), and some equally careless thinking involved with some of the camera viewpoints (too many medium closeups and medium shots, and not nearly enough establishing shots — in this case establishing the intimate identity of the physical, emotional, and spiritual landscapes, an identity crucial to this play), but these are mere quibbles.* The performances by all were stellar, and it was especially gratifying to hear the lines of the two protagonists, Vladimir (Barry McGovern) and Estragon (Johnny Murphy), spoken in Irish-inflected English as the inflection gives special point and poignancy to the vaudevillian character of many of the exchanges.

The play itself is nothing short of a prodigy. Easily one of the most profound and suggestive plays of the 20th century, and among the most profound and suggestive ever. Right up there with Shakespeare’s best in that regard. The dialogue is a marvel as well, and contains worlds in its concise, tightly coiled lines; lines that pierce heart, mind, and soul as with daggers even as they entertain. A neat trick, that, and a Beckettean specialty.

Volumes could be written on analyses of Godot, and volumes already have (a Google search on the play’s title turned up some 33,600 entries). I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve never read an analysis of the play. I don’t yet know it well enough for that, and have still to reach my own conclusions on many points before reading the conclusions of others better qualified. In talking with some acquaintances about the play, however, it seems the focal point for them all is Lucky’s “think” of Act I. I’ll grant it’s one helluva think, but what I found so marvelous about it seems to have passed by (or over) most, their concern being the deciphering of the think’s actual content, which to my way of thinking (sorry!) misses the think’s point, its point being — by way of savage (but hilarious) parodying of form (academic and “learned” discourse) and substance (theology, philosophy, politics, and science) resolving to word-salad gibberish — the futility of man’s resort to and reliance on faith and reason to make sense of and give meaning to an otherwise irrational and meaningless universe.

There’s a key to understanding this play, I think, and that key is an understanding of the characters Pozzo and Lucky (wonderfully played in this production by Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan, respectively), and their part in this tragicomedy. Just who are they, and what are they doing there? Estragon (in Act II) thinks Pozzo might have been Godot himself. Vladimir dismisses the suggestion immediately, but then, in rapid stages, becomes less and less sure. For my part, Pozzo and Lucky seem a shared vision vouchsafed by Whatever to Vladimir and Estragon, and to us as well; a vision of the reality of what Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for as it really is, as opposed to what they’re expecting it to be. Pozzo as Godot incarnate, and Lucky as the incarnate whole of mankind that is Vladimir and Estragon — and us. Part (but only part) of my reason for reaching that conclusion is that Beckett puts into the mouth of Pozzo (in Act II) the most searing lines in all of Godot, and the most horrific ever uttered by any character in any play whatsoever:

(Spoken to Vladimir in a fury) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he [Lucky] went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer, and more to himself) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Take particular note of the “they”.

That simultaneously searing and chilling speech is the play’s climax, its crisis, after which Pozzo and Lucky exit the tragicomedy, and it’s left to Vladimir to complete the horrific image for himself while Estragon sleeps:

(Vladimir looks at Estragon sleeping) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause) 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 of our cries. (He listens) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at the sleeping 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!

But he will. He’s seen a glimmer of the appalling truth; more than is seen by most, but, still, it’s insufficient to murder hope (incarnate in the figure of the young boy who is Godot’s messenger). He will go on, as will Estragon. Godot hasn’t come today, but he’ll come tomorrow. And when he does, they’ll be there to meet him and so be saved. This they believe because they can’t believe otherwise and still go on.

Nor can we.

*I subsequently saw this production for the second time, and was struck by two rather serious flaws missed on first viewing (because unconsciously “corrected” by me): Pozzo’s Act II exit speech, and Vladimir’s following reflection/ epiphany — critical moments in the play. Both disregarded Beckett’s stage directions, and in consequence not only failed of their full effect and impact, but changed their meaning. Extraordinary that the disregarding was permitted.

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