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Filtering by Tag: Godot

Advent and Godot (Part Two: Delivering The Comedy)

Tom Sturch


I will anoint them with oil to give them gladness instead of sorrow. ~ Isaiah 61:3

 With bleakness as its backdrop, the absurdity of Waiting For Godot exists in its dialog riddled with non sequitur and its circular structure where almost nothing changes though time appears to pass. Those are the fixed elements. But as with any production the pathos, or meaning, has to be communicated through the performances of the actors. And while actors do not manifest meaning, they are nevertheless its agents and must be strong enough in character to deliver the play's potential.

Beckett was famous for not saying what Godot was about. The New Yorker printed two of his letters in response to producers' queries you can read here (if you have a NY account). By not doing so, he created a space for libraries of commentary on the play that might never have been ventured if he'd said anything definitive. It allows its mysterious questions to be newly engaged with each viewing.

But actors need a little more help.

Director Stephanie Courtney: “Mostly I invoke the removal of the observer in my student's pretty little heads. They are in love with observation—and judgment—rather than being in love with action. They want to be the object and the observer.”

Director David Fox: “In working with actors, I do try to be specific with what they're playing and why. Actors need some concrete answers to questions. Ambiguity, however, is part of the Beckett experience, so telling an audience what the play is ‘about’ is far less important to me than saturating them with a deeply felt experience. Perfectly appropriate for spectators to emerge from Beckett with more questions than answers.”

And then, there's the comedy. Once, in a kind of type-casting for the Theater of the Absurd, Steve Martin and Robin Williams starred together in a production of Waiting For Godot. Martin, who trained in theater and philosophy in his earlier years, sagely said, “The language of the play takes care of itself. The structure of the play takes care of itself. But the comedy must be delivered.”

Comedy is the stealth cloak. It is the spoonful of sugar. And sometimes it is the message, all by itself. David Misch (his bio is a gut buster) was a writer for Mork and Mindy and many other projects. In his book Funny: The Book is a chapter titled “Comedy vs. The Universe:

If you don't think the bleakness of life can be funny, talk to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. (Beckett got the name Godot from a Keaton movie). Or Laurel and Hardy—actor Michael McKean points out that all their films are about them failing: “We know they're doomed, and that's why they're we're laughing.”

Are we cruel to laugh? No. We relive, and relieve, the delightful horror, the agonizing hilarity of being in a similar fix.

It's Advent. For Christians, it is the time between God's first and second coming during which He is withholding judgment and watching the play. In Waiting For Godot, Godot never comes. Is this the ultimate joke? Is it the exclamation point on a life sentence of misery? Or is it something else—a clue to life staged in the only way we could see it—life as a kind of tragic drama replete with absurdity in which our part is to deliver the comedy?

Whether one's worldview affirms the existentialism of Godot or rejects it from rationalism, it is impossible to ignore the richness portrayed in lives of little means. The players make something practiced of the dust. A craft that arrives on its own terms as laughter through tears.

Merry Christmas.

Advent and Godot (Part One: Isolation)

Tom Sturch


He seems to say that only... amid Gods paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached... Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void. ~ Richard Ellman

A family viewing of Waiting For Godot is not a traditional fixture of Advent, but its careful observation may offer a light to examine our modern traditions for the season in both critical and affirming ways. I invite you to watch this version of the play recommended to me by Stephanie Courtney, a theater director in Dublin, Ireland, for its fidelity to authentic Irish humor.

A native of Ireland, author Samuel Beckett lived during the early 20th century and wrote Waiting For Godot in mid-career. In the course of his early life, Beckett saw the emergence of the Irish Republic, became a scholar, and served in World War II. His writing was often charged with the particular misery of common people subject to the futility of European upheaval. Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 “for his writing, in which—in new forms for the novel and drama—the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”

Several people cautioned me as I set out to write about Godot, especially on maintaining a strict objectivity and to try to avoid judging the play from a particular worldview. This was hard. Ms. Courtney helped by giving Godot an essentially Irish context. “I don't think Americans are able to understand futility the way the Europeans can,” she says. “When I walk to work, I travel through a city more than 1,000 years old. I walk along a street that was cobbled before the Vikings invaded Dublin—and I work in a theater built in 1662. Those stones will be walked on for another thousand years after I'm dead. I'm merely passing through and that comes across in my experience of the people here, too. There is less pressure here to leave a mark. You make the most of your time and then you die.”

The set of Godot is minimal and desolate. As with several of Beckett's plays, it is space, sound, bodies and movement. Here are the first lines as Beckett writes:

A country road. A tree.


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.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.


(giving up again). Nothing to be done.


(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.


Am I?

Some of the play's biggest themes are set in those few words. Over its course there is night and day and very little changes. The men are friends of fifty years and speak a language so particular to them that the whole of the play sounds like nonsense. They flit from complaint to levity in a blink and move easily between imagined and real worlds. Critics of the day referred to Godot (as well as other plays in the genre) as Theater of the Absurd due largely to the departure from the realist forms. But the absurdity is like a Petri dish that allows the questions of Beckett's isolated culture to grow.

As the play progresses, a lightness emerges in the bleakness. It is located in the only place it can be—in the complex relationship of the characters and their conundrum. David Fox is a professor and theater director at Wheaton College. He says Beckett's genius lies in his marriage of vaudeville and existentialism. “Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but the combination creates all of the dynamic contrasts [in the play], and presents life as the tragicomic experience we all love and fear. The clowning element infuses his work with tremendous humanity.”

Last Saturday I interviewed a friend with expertise in Heidegger's concept of being as dasein, or, “being in the world”, that I thought would be helpful in articulating what I thought I saw in Godot. I wanted to be sure I understood the nuance of “concern” for the world extant in the term. We grabbed an outdoor table at a local watering hole in an eclectic part of town. It's a convivial place on a busy street. A man I'd characterize as homeless took the table next to ours. He talked freely to everyone and himself. His words were mostly unintelligible and over-dramatized but the subjects of his conversations seemed parroted from media talking points as exhibited in his own circumstances. He'd have sounded just like us, with better clothes and without the alcoholic slur. As he was, he was evidenced as a fool or ignored. Estragon's line was ringing in my ear like a taunt.

Great theater has a winsome way of making its point with a light hand and, if given space, never runs short on commentary. It makes a place to befriend the darkest places of humanity and allows for light that shines on the real cost of beauty. If we can just withhold the easy judgments. Perhaps that is a tradition worth making.