This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.
I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:
Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face? Well, as it turns out, a lot of people. I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ, had been tortured with the text by their English teachers. They all hated it. And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:
I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people. It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound. It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon. The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound. This is the only scene in both acts. As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all. Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.
Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.
He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.
ESTRAGON: Am I?
VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
ESTRAGON: Me too.
I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students. It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing. Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you. This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning. When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot. There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:
ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!
VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.
ESTRAGON: We can always try.
VLADIMIR: Go ahead.
ESTRAGON: After you.
VLADIMIR: No no, you first.
ESTRAGON: Why me?
VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.
ESTRAGON: Just so!
VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.
ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?
Vladimir uses his intelligence.
VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.
And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively. If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.
Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56. In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon: