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Filtering by Tag: isolation

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.

Isolation in a Virtual Waste Land

Mary McCampbell


When I teach T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, I often start out playing this video that dismantles a track from Girl Talk, highlighting all of the secondary texts that the artist combines to create something “new.” My point is that Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece, just as postmodern as it is modern, is a mashup itself. Both Eliot and Gregg Michael Gillis (Girl Talk) are, as Roland Barthes would tell us, forming something supposedly “original” from “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In The Waste Land, an anti-epic poem if there ever was one, the heaps of fragments indicate that in a world where “God is dead”, a world devastated by the nonsensical cruelty of war, there is no meaning or even ability to communicate. Eliot continually emphasizes human isolation, that the inhabitants of The Waste Land are “each in his own prison.”

A large part of the disorientation one experiences when reading The Waste Land comes from Eliot’s intentional failure to translate foreign languages or cite his sources. The definitive sacred and secular texts of powerful Western and Eastern civilizations are decontextualized and remixed, pointing to the meaninglessness of life without any defining narrative, a life in which the Author God is dead.

But anyone who takes the tedious trouble to really spend thoughtful time in The Waste Land will track down Eliot’s sources, read them in context, and finally see that Eliot’s poem has complex meaning via the connectedness of the themes in these carefully selected fragments; in a sense, the poem betrays itself. In tracking down sources, we begin to get a sense of the whole, we long more and more for connectivity.

But in the age of google, my students and I have all of these secondary sources at our fingertips; there is not much hard work required as we can even find hyperlink versions of the poem that instantly translate the texts for us and briefly summarize the entire plot of the multiple narratives alluded to in the poem. The internet allows us to move from the poem’s decontextualized fragments to disembodied, virtual explanations of fragments. Rather than going to the library (a communal experience), we can sit in our pajamas and google it all. What would Eliot think of this isolating, perhaps “unreal” (in his eyes) research? He has removed “original” ideas from their contexts, yet we depend on an invisible network of replicated images to give us knowledge, almost always out of context.

At the beginning of the poem, Eliot envisions one of Dante’s circles of hell as a picture of living but dead (“unreal”) Londoners walking home from work over London bridge: “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet…”. I often ask my students what they think Eliot would say today if he went to London bridge, rode on the tube, or sat in a restaurant and saw our eyes not “on our own feet” but on our iPhones. Would he say we have we created a rich new access to knowledge and community, or would he conclude we have simply mastered the art of distraction and isolation? Or would he say we have somehow accomplished both?