Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Douglas Messerli "Living in the Details" (on Beckett's Waiting for Godot)
living in the detailsby Douglas Messerli
Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum (the production I saw was on April 7, 2012)
Yet, for the first time in this moving production, I became aware of just how spare Beckett's great work truly is. My companion Howard, enjoying the first act, however commented on the obvious: "Beckett seems to have presented all his themes in the first few minutes. I can't imagine what he might have to say in the second act."
Well, I mused, "That's true. But his themes are really not what matter most. The fact that we live in a universe promising the return of a missing God, that some men, like Pozzo, are entirely about themselves, mean men of power who do nothing but to rule over other lives—while those themes are certainly there in Beckett's work, they are not central of the play at all. Suffering, despair, pain, boredom, yes, these are the givens of Beckett's universe, but they are not what makes his work so remarkable. It is the various ways, the numerous things we do each day to get through the suffering, despair, pain, boredom, loneliness, etc. that are at the center his plays and fictions. And that is everything, isn't it?"
By the end of the 2nd act, Howard, who had never before seen a production of the play, understood what I was talking about. Beckett, more than nearly any other playwright, takes chances in Waiting for Godot by so pruning down the play's large themes that the work almost mocks itself. Particularly Estragon, who is always about to or, at least, declaring himself ready to do so—even though his time apart from his long-time companion, Vladimir, results in endless beatings in a ditch—is reminded again and again by his friend that their existence on this bleak plateau with only a tree and a rock is to wait, to wait for Godot. That is their only purpose, despite the seeming meaninglessness of that. Whoever this Godot is, whether he is the personal God of vengeance (if they don't wait, Vladimir suggests at one point, they will be punished) or a New Testament God of love, it is clear that Godot may never come, may never return their patient and often impatient waiting on earth. He may not even be a loving God; after all, so we are told by the messenger boy, he beats the boy's brother. What kind of deity is that?
Such a structure, wherein the author reveals the creative act itself, is a dangerous one, particularly for an audience which may desire to be told everything, to be led forward by the author himself. In Waiting for Godot, however, the audience is put on edge, wondering what these two fools will come up with next, how will the plot move forward, how will they get through yet another day? But in that wonderment, the audience members are forced to reimagine their own lives. Even the theater piece they are attending is a kind of way to pass the time, to move forward through the day. They too must go home, eat a carrot, chew on a piece of radish, crawl into the ditch of their beds to be pummeled in lonely dreams throughout the night. Some may even contemplate bringing it all to an end. But most will arise to meet again, to work, to talk and haggle, cry and laugh, just like the two clowns of Beckett's play do through the two days we witness of their lives.