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.