top of page

Not Drowning, But Waiting: Pondering Advent with Samuel Beckett

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 The little girl had dark rings around her eyes and was very withdrawn.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 drow