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waiting for godot

“Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!”

This was my favourite line from Waiting for Godot. If you think of the play as having several themes — loneliness, futility, brotherhood, hope, confusion — this line captures the loneliness and brotherhood aspects in one stroke.

Samuels Beckett’s most celebrated work, written in a minimalist style, and properly belonging to the category of the theatre of the absurd, is, well, absurd at some level. To make sense of it, or to discuss it in the context of life as we know it, one inevitably ends up assigning meaning to its events beyond what is on the printed page. For instance, an interpretation I had heard before, and which I personally reject, is that Godot stands for God. It’s not that such an interpretation is wrong, it is merely unnecessary.

Our main characters, Estragon and Vladimir (or Gogo and Didi, as they call each other) are waiting for Godot to show up and solve some problem, which is never told to us. The only hitch is that they are unsure about when, where and if he will come at all, what he looks like, and whether he will be of any help. We see them wait for two consecutive days, with Didi being the main proponent of waiting. Godot never does show up. Gogo often forgets why they are there, and suggests doing other things to “pass the time,” including hanging themselves. Not shown to us, Gogo gets beaten up by unknown people between the two days (which are the two acts), and has nightmares which Didi refuses to listen to. Additionally, he forgets things from the past that Didi remembers, and even forgets by the second day the incidents of the first day.

More forgetfulness and confusion are demonstrated by Pozzo who walks past our duo on both days, apparently blind on the second day. He is accompanied by his maltreated beast of burden, Lucky, whose lines consist almost entirely of an intelligent sounding but completely nonsensical monologue, which he delivers when asked to “think” in order to entertain the others. Pozzo, like Gogo, has no memory of the first day when he comes by on the second, and neither does the boy who also comes by on both days, bearing messages from Godot. In fact, you have to wonder if Didi is imagining things instead of all the others forgetting.

Extrapolating, the repetitive and futile actions, that may or may not even have occurred in reality, so little do they matter, and the nonsense spewed by Lucky under the name of “thinking” are an apt metaphor for life. While this is tragic at some level, the absurdity of the portrayal makes the situation humourous and gives the play the deserved subtext of “a tragicomedy in two acts.”

A sense of loss pervades the play. Didi and Gogo indicate that things were better in the past, or at least that there was more hope then, and so does Pozzo. Gogo and Didi often consider parting company, but are unable to do so, perhaps out of weakness, perhaps out of affection. This apparent affection, often expressed through embraces, or concern for each other is a much needed antidote — it counterbalances the negativity of the play, and saves it from being relentlessly bleak.

The play ends with Gogo and Didi continuing to wait indecisively, after having considered hanging themselves once again. The notion that time needs to be passed, though it doesn’t quite matter how, is repeatedly expressed in the play. This speaks directly to the sense we all have from time to time that life is mostly just about passing time, nothing more, nothing less, and there is no moral or other judgement about how time ought to be passed. Another notion that is expressed, and which is validated in my experience, is the need to keep talking since it prevents one from thinking.

The play raises a lot of questions about what exactly the events mean, or what it is trying to say. Beckett denied that Godot was God, but otherwise did not answer too many questions, preferring to let the text speak for itself. Sixty years after publication, the play retains its enigmatic and absurd nature, and also its relevance.