the communal act of public presentation and laughter

Ahead of the Beckett Centenary Festival, beginning at the Barbican Centre London on the 21st March – including screenings of the excellent short film series of Sam Beckett’s plays, commissioned by RTÉ / Channel 4 / Irish Film Board a couple of years ago, more info and details on the Channel 4 website here – Dublin-born playwright, and director of one of those short films, Endgame, Conor McPherson explains why he continues to be inspired by the “Irish pagan who sought to celebrate the infinite mystery and endurance of the human heart through public rituals” [Photo by Richard Avedon]The article also contains a wonderful analysis of Waiting for Godot

Any perusal of his plays must begin with Waiting for Godot (1952). This play has taken on, and will continue to have, a resonance similar to some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Even people who have never seen it will have some idea of what it is like. In a bare, bleak landscape, two seemingly homeless old men, Vladimir and Estragon, attempt to pass the time while they wait for someone called Godot. The play spans two days (or two evenings really) and during both they experience oppressive boredom, random violence, unfruitful spiritual contemplation, real friendship, uneasy co-dependence, profound longing and, ultimately, a deep, crushing uncertainty. They have problems remembering the day before. They don’t know whether to leave or keep waiting. There is no resolution in the traditional sense. But it’s really a revolutionary play because it takes the human mind itself as its subject matter and brilliantly dramatises it by splitting it in two.

Vladimir and Estragon speak to each other in the anxious, cajoling way human beings speak to themselves in their private moments. Fears are expressed and dismissed only to be unhelpfully reiterated in slightly different ways. Their feelings of love and hatred for each other jostle and even combine in the same impossible, tiny moment.

Psychologists suggest that the difference between productive thinking and worrying is that productive thinking flows; it moves forward to some kind of conclusion or sense of resolve. Worrying is just the same few unsettling thoughts going round and round like an annoying tune. This is how Vladimir and Estragon communicate, and how they dramatise the subjective experience itself. Their quarrels and musings often conjoin to form a kind of inclusive flow, as though they share one mind, but it always ends in dissatisfaction. For example, near the beginning of act two, when they nervously talk about “all the dead voices”:

Vladimir: What do they say?

Estragon: They talk about their lives.

Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.

Estragon: They have to talk about it.

Vladimir: To be dead is not enough for them.

Estragon: It is not sufficient.


Vladimir: They make a noise like feathers.

Estragon: Like leaves.

Vladimir: Like ashes.

Estragon: Like leaves.

(Long silence)

Vladimir: Say something!

Estragon: I’m trying.

Without a third party to become a benchmark for their wandering speculations, they are doomed to encircle the same futile topics for ever – and they don’t like it. They are waiting for Godot but they are also contemplating suicide. Like Hamlet, they are even powerless to end their lives as they suspect it may only deliver them into another, perhaps even more painful existence.

Waiting for Godot, like Hamlet, is a benchmark in world literature because, in an entirely new way, it presents the anxious, modern, divided self as it witnesses the wanton cruelty of existence, unable to understand it, yet condemned to live it. It is the logical and emotional conclusion to the Cartesian foundation of our contemporary western world: “I think therefore I am.” With the existence of thought itself as our only constant, no higher being or deity can adjudicate for the modern rational mind.

Considering that Beckett began writing plays in the aftermath of the horrific genocide of the second world war, a war in which he fought alongside the French resistance, it is a testament to his character that the plays, while skating on the thin ice of our mortality, can be so funny. Godot is full of verbal jokes and visual slapstick routines based upon – what else? – confusion and misunderstanding. While he opens the wound of the post-religious mind, at the same time he pours a salve of blessed warmth made possible only through the communal act of public presentation and laughter. The very experience of enjoying and understanding the play becomes its optimistic message, as opposed to anything glibly uttered by a character on the stage.

And you wondered why it’s my favoured analogy for the ongoing political processing…