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 The little girl had dark rings around her eyes and was very withdrawn.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 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 ask questions of. There’s no life, no sense of Spring here. Like dreams that go nowhere, pots of money that are meaningless, holidays that are routine, words - including words about Advent - that are simply patter, this play, like all Beckett’s drama, presents life as one endless endurance test. If characters aren’t getting buried in sand as in Happy Days, then they’re speaking monologues into tapes, Krapp’s Last Tape. They drown in darkness and they don’t even recognise it as darkness.
‘The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who have dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.’ Isaiah 9:2. In a piece of writing relating to Advent, Jürgen Moltmann speaks personally about ‘a people in darkness’:
This phrase touched me directly when in 1945 we were driven in endless and desolate columns into the prisoner-of-war camps, the sticks of the guards at our sides, with hungry stomachs and empty hearts and curses on our lips. But many of us then, and I was one, glimpsed the light that radiates from the divine child. This light did not allow me to perish. This hope kept us alive.
Moltmann’s words aren’t a call to wait for such extreme experiences to find hope, but a recognition that he has already glimpsed something bigger than all this, before the rounding up. This glimpse is not to do with the denial of violent reality or the quest for justice, but that real meaning lies in the experience of God’s Love. As he was herded to the POW camp he knew this, even though the vision was taken away. To take away the favourable circumstances, or even the language, doesn’t take away God. This is the light that is seen in the darkness of the cross. This is the gap into which we all descend. Essentially it can’t be articulated, only experienced. Such is the essence of love. God suffers alongside in our woundedness and is humanly grounded in ‘the light that radiates from a divine child.’
If you see life through a lens so closely identifiable with God, a God who has given Godself to us as Incarnate Love in Jesus or, as Moltmann puts it ‘whose birth opens up for us the future of a life in peace that is different from all life hitherto, since that life was bound up with death,’ then something else begins to happen. You become ‘enfaithed,’ to borrow a word from the poet Denise Levertov. To glimpse the ‘light that radiates from the divine child’ is to realise within the self, the promise that the violence, darkness and meaningless of the world is met and overcome. Divine Love, simply by its ground, does this. The love of God frees all prisoners.
‘Can you not stay still?’ asks Estragon of Vladimir. He can’t, because to ‘stay still’ is to be in a present space of prayer. It is to learn what it means to wait ‘at the still point of the turning world.’ We see ourselves naked and empty handed. We stand before one another and recognise that we are sustained by something deeper. It’s in times of stillness that we learn how to become a hope bearer, rather than a bystander waiting to go.
As an audience of a play we are asked to ‘stay still.’ And in watching a performance of Waiting for Godot we experience not so much a waiting for something to happen, but a waiting upon the present moment with Vladimir and Estragon. The non-arrival of Godot becomes irrelevant. Live drama, by its very nature, is presence filled. In witnessing Vladimir and Estragon’s experience of waiting we recognise a shared fellow solitariness. Daily habits of thought and actions that seem to foreclose life in on us, paradoxically now open us up. We know this place, and we re-see it. Godot won’t arrive, but God is there already on stage; unvoiced, unnamed, unrecognised. But deeply present and alive in the banter, the dared friendship, the black humour, the starkness, the not seeing. And God is also in there in the connection with us, the audience. Vladimir and Estragon may misrecognise the violent dynamic between Pozzo and Lucky and try to act it out, but they are unable to. Theirs is not a reality grounded on violence edged with madness.
The audience, far from being depressed by the end of Waiting for Godot (unless it’s not a very good production) leaves the performance elated. This is not just because of the eloquent dialogue or humour or grim truth as to the nature of our Godless existence that doesn’t even know it is without God. But it is an instinctive inner recognition that we ourselves are vulnerable, fragile human beings who exist in relationship. When life is shaped by attending upon the present moment we learn to swim. There are many different styles of swimming, and we begin to see that the strokes themselves are something more than actions only with a shoreline in view.
The title of this blog is a play on Stevie Smith’s poem: Not Waving, but Drowning.
I was much too far out all my life And not waving, but drowning.
How do we see life rightly? How can we know life as people who are waving, not drowning? Do we wait for Godot or wait upon Love actualised and in our midst? Moltmann knew the Divine Light ‘that radiates from the Divine Child’ as he was led to a Prison Camp in 1945 because he had already dared himself to be still and know God. He had already spent time waiting in darkness. Seeing through eyes that were so poor, he was able to recognise the light in the darkness. By this steady gaze he saw the dynamics of violence and dictates of habit that imprison us. He was able to hold faith that the Promise of God still held true right there too, in the daily tasks and endurance of that prison camp.
Christmas will come again. There will be the usual routines special to the Advent and Christmas season. Whether or not it is a tragicomedy will be up to how open my own eyes are in my relationships with others. Maybe Advent can give me a little more heightened sensitivity to the practice of waiting with a sense of hesitation. Waiting upon is that moment’s hesitation which consciously holds us back so something else, very present, can manifest. ‘The people in darkness have seen a great light’: this is the radiant presence of God’s love. The Divine Child in the stable manger is the one who can teach us how to wait boldly, courageously, upon such love.