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Not Drowning, But Waiting: Pondering Advent with Samuel Beckett

1 Dec 2016


Estragon: Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.
Estragon: Ah! (Vladimir walks up and down). Can you not stay still?

Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett




In the mid-1980s the San Quentin Drama Workshop performed a series of plays by Beckett in Melbourne. This acting troupe had been founded by Rick Cluchey, an inmate for armed robbery at the San Quentin prison north of San Francisco, in the 1960s. Becoming fascinated with the plays of Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd, Cluchey eventually came to work closely with Beckett, who himself directed the performances. The Workshop included a number of actors who were ex-inmates.


In the play Waiting For Godot two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly under a tree for Godot to arrive. We are never exactly told who Godot is, but he is a figure of some import who we are given to understand will bring meaning and enlightenment to the very point of their existence. During the play they are visited by a boy who tells them that Godot cannot come today, but will do so tomorrow. There’s also Pozzo, who resembles a circus ringmaster; he brandishes a whip and is tied by a length of rope to Lucky, his slave. Godot never arrives.


It may seem odd to be reflecting on a play, subtitled Tragicomedy in Two Parts, in the context of Advent. But the act of ‘waiting’ is a theme often attributed to this season of the Church year. This tragicomedy abounds in references to Christianity and the Gospels; at one point Estragon says that all his life he has compared himself to Christ. The stage setting is stark, stripped back bare, purporting to reveal an understanding of waiting that is free of illusions; so free as to expose human existence for what it really is.


During their brief season here in Melbourne, I babysat two children of a couple of the actors from the San Quentin Drama Workshop. The boy was around 8 years of age, and the girl about 4. A few times, when I turned up to their rented house, the mother was alone with the children. The little girl had dark rings around her eyes and was very withdrawn. The mother explained to me that the couple had fought and the children had witnessed violence. She herself was tired and frustrated by the marriage. Their lives were driven by the father’s obsession with his work. Family and domestic life always came second. When their differences came up he could only speak by means of force. He was out of prison now, theatre had given his life a new meaning and he had freedom in the world. But he was still imprisoned by the dynamics of violence and power. One night I watched this couple perform Nagg and Nell, in Endgame. Their life, as parents of two young children asleep back in the house, was completely lost to them as they expressed the meaning of human existence from the vantage point of two elderly people forced to squat in separate dustbins. Perhaps they themselves also felt like refuse in the world. Perhaps they were drowning, not waiting.


When the illusions of life, the amassing of material possessions and money, the ambition for promotion or power or fame, the quest to be immortal or denial of death (the illusions are endless as they can be subtle) are stripped away, is life simply backboned by absurdity and tragedy? Given some of the world events this year, I am inclined to believe so. And given my own random moments, dreaming to be headhunted for management of the biggest and best religious bookshop ever, also adds evidence. And yet once more, this year as a Christian I will faithfully wait through Advent for the arrival of the Christ Child late December. Once more Christmas will come: the usual Christmas Eve service, the presents, the family dinners. Despite the commercialism, the rituals are in and of themselves good, but there is routine, habitual and fraught at the edges, anxiety-making expenditure, endless social events, ‘difficult’ relatives … Stressed and ‘over it’, Boxing Day will be a relief from the drowning of Christmas. So, are Vladimir and Estragon expressing something I secretly still hold to be a truism of existence, despite all this? Is the journey of Christian hope a security blanket over the inevitable admission that Christmas is essentially a cover up? A faking of hope because the human species really is alienated and alone?


In his latest work, The Tragic Imagination, Rowan Williams examines the nature of tragedy in theatre through the lens of George Steiner. In a short paragraph referring directly to the work of Samuel Beckett in terms of expressing tragedy in a Godless world, he says:


The expression of a vision of absolute tragedy cannot any longer be tragedy as literary form; contemplating a humanity essentially and eternally alienated from the universe it inhabits now imposes an absurdist idiom since our world does not even know that it is Godless and has no vocabulary for expressing its Godlessness. When we have forgotten what it is that we no longer believe, we cannot summon up even the negative image, the ‘metaphoric’ recovery of the tragic. Tragedy dies and absurdism ‘black farce’ is all that is left to us, so our need is not for more books about tragedy but for a new theory of comedy.…


Rowan Williams immediately moves from this into a discussion of ‘theatre of the extreme’ - tragic drama in Britain that represents a ‘deliberately drained moral world’ and employs extreme onstage violence, including rape and dismemberment. It’s as though absurdist vision, if not held in check by that ‘black farce’, could untangle itself lethally into tragic representations of indiscriminate and barbaric violence. Pozzo’s whip could become unleashed on Vladimir and Estragon.


The grim, black humour, the irony and poetic dialogue in Waiting For Godot keeps the moral vision in check. But maybe Vladimir and Estragon are not missing out on anything. What if we are asked to humanly know this experience of waiting in alienation with a touch of the farce? Asked to wait in endless, circular, hope-dashing dislocation, without even knowing what it is we are dislocated from, or even knowing that we are dislocated. Vladimir and Estragon are making the best they can of it under this tree because there’s simply nowhere else to go. But rather than contemplate this tree as a Bodhi tree of enlightenment, they construe it as one to hang oneself from; after all, Vladimir and Estragon suppose, hanging would at least give then an erection. Tragicomedy.


Vladimir and Estragon are caught in some kind of inescapable loop, which I both recognise as true and