But Surely Tomorrow
By Allan Pero
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was written in French in the late autumn and early winter of 1948–49 but did not reach the stage until 1953. Its most famous and succinct review was provided by Vivian Mercier, who declared that it was a play in which “nothing happens, twice.”
But we should be wary of enjoying the flippancy that may, on the surface, linger in that remark. After all, one of the most popular sitcoms of the last twenty years shares this very premise: Seinfeld is, of course, famously a show about nothing. It is, like Beckett’s play, self-mocking about its status as a performance. For example, when Jerry and George try to sell the idea of the show “about nothing!” to NBC, we recall that Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett’s tramps, acknowledge at moments that their exchanges are like empty scripts, shticks that they have difficulty performing. The four men in Waiting for Godot are, in effect, condemned to repeat themselves, just as the Seinfeld gang is. In the series’ final episode, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are jailed, condemned to be together, just as Beckett’s characters are, and they repeat the conversation that opened the series several years before.
What then, are the more pressing implications of a play about “nothing”? Beckett wrote Godot during a period of intense, searching examination, in which he was trying to define what the role of writing could be in a post-war world, when so many of our assumptions about morality and humanity had been radically undermined by the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. (It is important to recall that Beckett was in the French Resistance. He had to sift through and translate intelligence about the Germans, and was awarded the Croix de guerre after the war by Charles de Gaulle. For a period, he had to live on the run from the Nazis; he wandered the French countryside, sleeping in ditches, subsisting on turnips and bad black bread. As we see, there is an experiential dimension of Godot we should keep in mind. It is not as“abstract” as some might like to imagine.)
One of the results of Beckett’s investigation into the value and purpose of writing was to assert that consciousness – or, if you prefer, our perception of reality – was an illusion sustained only through language. His task, as he wrote in a famous letter, was to make “language most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. . . . To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through.” When we think about it, it is extremely difficult to say something thoughtful and provocative about the nothingness which may lurk behind language. He set himself a huge task.
But this resolution did not mean that Beckett had abandoned its comic potential. He had hoped to interest Charles Chaplin in the first English production but was unable to tempt him. Beckett loved slapstick comedy and, in addition to Chaplin, was especially fond of performers like Buster Keaton (with whom he did his only film, called, appropriately enough, Film, in the 1960s) and the Marx Brothers. His love of these figures was fuelled in part by their mockery of everyday or received notions about what we like to call “reality,” of giving us hilarious, startling perspectives on those very notions.
What we could say, then, about the apparent repetition that governs Waiting for Godot is that it is the struggle to discover and enjoy difference in the repetition itself – to seek again the differences that can surface through chance. If, as Beckett famously said, “I am not interested in stories of success – only in stories of failure,” then how might his interest help us understand what happens? We could argue that Waiting for Godot is about trying to rescue difference by seizing upon the moments in which repetition, with its dulling unwavering rhythm, fails. It is these minimal differences, the struggle to mine these differences out of the rock of mind-numbing repetition, that produces the comedy of the play. But Godot is about both the comic and tragic dimensions of the uncanny, of the strangely familiar; if we think of the familiar as “repetition” and the strange as “difference,” then the strangely familiar space of the play is not, in terms of the comic, the “return of the repressed” – some repressed trauma that keeps coming back to haunt us; rather, we could say that the comedy of the play emerges from the “return of the expressed,” but in a different form – as tragedy. I will turn to the tragic dimension later.
There is an important distinction between the play’s title in French and in English. En Attendant Godot does not translate directly into “Waiting for Godot”; a better translation would be “While Waiting for Godot,” that is, what to do while waiting for Godot. When we think about it, even though we constantly complain about how stressful and fast-paced life is, it is just as much governed by dead time, by waiting. To be blunt, we have a great horror of waiting, of silence – both of which the play exploits to comic and tragic effect. Consider for a moment how much of our lives is spent waiting – in traffic, for the bus, at the bank machine, in a grocery queue, for a phone call, for a text or email, for the take-out to arrive, or for romance to enter (or exit) our lives. Speed and technology, iPods, BlackBerrys and iPads exist in part to give us something to do while waiting. They are distractions that are meant to pacify. For instance, is not the “musicalization” of experience, our insistence that our lives have a soundtrack, not just about the pleasure of listening but also about keeping at bay the dread of waiting, or the terror of silence?
And here we come to an important difference between us and Vladimir and Estragon: we have any number of distractions to protect us from boredom or anxiety – they do not. So what are they waiting for? Godot, of course. But who or what is Godot? He casts a shadow over everything, but is strangely, maddeningly absent. He is what we could call an absent presence. When Beckett was asked about Godot, questions that were largely thinly veiled attempts to get him to admit that Godot was God, he would playfully offer different origins of the name: godille, French slang for “useless,” or godasse, slang for “shoe” or “boot.” Another version of Godot’s origin was that Beckett once saw a crowd at the finish line of the Tour de France, waiting for the last competitor to arrive. “What are you doing?” he asked. “We’re waiting for Godot,” they replied. Godot is necessarily a slippery word. It is Vladimir and Estragon’s relation to Godot that matters, not his identity. He fills a hole in their lives by giving them a structure, a sense of purpose, something to live for. It is a meagre reward for continuing to live, the belief that “surely tomorrow” Godot will arrive. But this belief brings us to the tragic dimension of the play.
Tragedy is not just a genre; it produces a particular kind of space. It is a space in which characters are haunted by the past, by a debt to the past that has yet to be paid. For example, we think of ghosts haunting us because there is some debt they haven’t paid or been able to pay. They ask for redemption. As we will see, ghosts haunt Waiting for Godot too, and help to shape the tragic place of its performance. Waiting for Godot is a tragicomedy; one way of describing it is that it is a comedy whose actions take place in the field of tragedy. The play tells us that it is a representation, and that it is about performance, but not merely for comic or ironic purposes. Representation, performance – we cling to them in order to make sense of the world, in order to survive. The disturbing, even tragic element of the play, which can produce anxiety or hostility as much as it does laughter, occurs not because it is so alien to us but because it is all too familiar.
Not only do Vladimir and Estragon’s endless dialogues contend with Godot’s deferred arrival, they are also marked by a dread of silence. Silences are crucial to Beckett; they are not simply pauses. Silence is the haunting white noise the characters struggle against. If, in everyday conversation, we are made uncomfortable by silence, the stakes are much greater for Beckett’s tragic clowns. The silence speaks. Vladimir and Estragon are haunted by the whispering voices of the dead, the billions who have died before them, calling out for what? Retribution? Redemption? We do not know. These are the ghosts who haunt this play, who never give the tramps a moment’s peace. In constantly repairing to the patter of comic routines, Vladimir and Estragon are trying to drown out the haunting silence that threatens to engulf them. The seemingly meaningless repetition also reassures them, offering proof that they in fact, still exist – that they have a purpose. No matter how absurd and laughable that purpose may be, there nevertheless remains a tragic nobility in their continuing struggle to live without hope.
Allan Pero is an associate professor of English and writing at Western University.