Endless Waiting, No Godot
On January 1, 1953, Waiting for Godot was performed at the Experimental Theatre of the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. Some left not long after it started, but those who insisted on watching the entire show gave it high praise.
On January 1, 1953, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was performed at the Experimental Theatre of the renowned Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, France. This was the first public show, and the audiences was mostly composed of Parisians.
Director Roger Blin was a lean and shy man in real life. However, he had to play the protagonist Pozzo because the original actor for the role got another role that offered higher pay, so he left the show.
“I didn’t get it at all.” Some audiences left the theatre not long after it started, and more left before the show was over. “Nothing is worse than this,” the critic Marya Mannes commented. However, a few who insisted on watching the entire show gave it high praise. What is this play aboutand how does it illicitboth praise and decision from audiences?
Waiting for Godot
It is evening. There is a country road, a tree and a low mound. Two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir are waiting for Godot, both of whom they have never seen. Vladimir, who is more vivacious, initiates the conversation, speaking in loose philosophic language. Estragon is indifferent, likes to sleep and always wants to eat.
Absent-minded, they wait for Godot in ignorance. Godot never shows up, but Pozzo and Lucky do. Pozzo mistreats Lucky at will, and Lucky doesn’t resist. After eating and drinking to his heart’s content, Pozzo ordered Lucky to dance, bid farewell to the two tramps, led Lucky by a rope and went away. When night falls, a boy, Godot’s messenger, brings the message that Godot won’t come this evening, but will surely come tomorrow. This all happens in the first act of Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy in two acts.
“Let’s go.” “We can’t.” “We are waiting for Godot.” “You’re sure it was here?” This is how the conversation unfolds between Estragon and Vladimir. “And if he doesn’t come?” “We’ll come back tomorrow.” “And then the day after tomorrow.” “Possibly.” “And so on.” “The point is—” “Until he comes.”
“We came here yesterday.” “Ah no, there you’re mistaken.” “What did we do yesterday?” The conversation brings the audience a strong sense of absurdity and emptiness, reflecting the hope and despair of the characters. Hopelessness and absurdity are themes of the story.
In Act Two, everything seems quite the same. The same dusk, the same country road the same two tramps waiting for Godot as they did in Act One can be found. They wait and wait, until they are utterly bored. They quarrel and curse at each other, so bored to the brink of attempting suicide. However, Godot does not come. Finally two others arrive: Pozzo, now blind and Lucky, who is dumb. The plot to come is the same as before. The message boy says that Godot is not coming today, but will surely come tomorrow. This is not even a way for the two tramps to commit suicide. They have to wait for tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and so on.
Such an avant-garde drama in which “nothing happens, no one comes and no one leaves” was later regarded as the representative work of absurdist drama. Samuel Beckett, its Irish modernist dramatist and playwright, became a controversial figure.
Samuel Beckett was born into a Jewish family in Dublin, Ireland in 1906. He graduated from the famous Trinity College with a master’s degree in French and Italian. After graduation, Beckett taught in the Ecole Normale Superieure Paris and Sorbonne University, where he came to know the famous Irish writer James Joyce. At that time James Joyce was living in Paris, and Beckett became his assistant. The experience had a profound influence on Beckett.
During World War II, Beckett participated in the resistance movement and was chased by fascists. He fled to the countryside and worked there in seclusion. Soon after the war was over, he returned to Paris and became a professional writer. In 1953, Waiting for Godot made him renowned in literary circles, and this masterpiece marked his turn from writing novels to dramas.
Beckett abhorred traditional techniques, and this conflict against tradition is reflected in his work. Angst, terror, confusion, pain, loneliness. These “ultimate issues” that haunt human beings became subjects he frequently visited. Beckett was particularly good at expressing philosophical thoughts by means of daily chores and illusions, and he seldom touched upon the realities of social life. This explains the obscurity of his work.
Imagine a closed ring. Inside the ring, things come into existence and disappear, and the process repeats itself. Waiting for Godot by Beckett displayed this avant- garde feature. With repetition of scenes, figures, and plot, Act Two is a mere repetition of Act One. What remains unchanged is nothing but waiting.
Theatre of the Absurd stems from “absurdist literature” which reflects a pessimistic ethos and mood in the Western world after the war. Human beings felt controlled by an indescribable force, incapable of changing their circumstances and felt absurd and filled with despair. People weren’t able to communicate with each other and with the world in particular. Nihilism became a normality.
“As for Beckett, we don’t have to accept his gloomy description of life. The important thing is, his contribution to drama is worthy of our appreciation and respect. By depicting the desperate and miserable circumstances of human beings, he led drama to a newer and brighter direction,” said Qinfel, the British scholar and an expert of contemporary drama. The trend of history drives everyone with its mighty force, and Beckett was no exception. By virtue of “depicting the distress of human beings in fictional novels and dramas and with sublime art,” Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969.
As the creator and a great master of the Theatre of the Absurd, Becket, with Waiting for Godot, ushered in a revolution in drama.
The traditional dramatic arc of beginning, climax and ending aren’t found in Waiting for Godot. Who exactly is “Godot”? The play gives no explanation, except that “Godot” makes others wait for him forever. Some audiences have interpreted this as religion that has lost its power, or “God is dead”; in others’ opinions, it indicates the emptiness of the world and the loneliness of human beings. Whatever it is, Godot is symbolic of hope and reflecting a desire for a better life.
It is always good to have hope.
The two tramps have become the embodiment of thousands living in misery after World War II, making contemporary audiences more aware of themselves. Gradually, the play gained people’s understanding and acceptance, and became a classical work of the Theatre of the Absurd with its unique breakthrough. As a result, the entire world “borrows” from this work. In China, it gradually became a pioneer of avant- garde theatre.
Such is characteristic of “antitheatre.” The characters, conversations and stage design all deliver an absurdist effect. Waiting for Godot conveys such an idea: an interesting great setting, verisimilar props, perfect costumes and plot twists are not necessarily indispensable to the theatrical arts.
On August 3, 1955, the English version of Waiting for Godot directed by 24-year- old Peter Hall was staged for the first time in the Arts Theatre, London. The show brought unexpected innovation to the theatre circle of Britain. Before that, on September 8, 1953, Waiting for Godot was performed in Berlin, which was considered “the redemption of the souls of the Germans” after World War II. This is due to the play containing overtones of loss and frustration, resonating with of the Germans after their defeat in the war.
In the West, Waiting for Godot was popular not only in European theatrical circles, but also in Miami, Los Angeles…in the 1950s, the
American version of the play was performed in the U.S. dozens of times. The most extraordinary show was staged in San Quentin State Prison in November, 1957, warmly welcomed by prisoners.
“Godot is society,” remarked one prisoner after watching the play.
“They know what waiting is,” another added, “and they also know that even if Godot finally shows up, he is surely a disappointment.” The prisoners know the situation of the tramps well who keep on waiting for hope, and kill time while waiting. This is similar to life in prison, so the play aroused their sympathy and stirred their feelings. Things are no different for ill-fated people struggling after the war.
Once there was a city without electricity, water, heat or food. Surrounded by enemies, people in the city lived a hard life risking being killed by bullets at any moment. However, in Waiting for Godot was performed in a theatre in such a city. This city was Sarajevo in 1993, which still suffered the flames of war. “Staging Waiting for Godot in a place of material affluence awakens the world, but in a place of spiritual decay, it warns.” These remarks are from Susan Sontag, a representative of the “new intellectuals.” She was so bold as to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Her act was a form of performance art that drew widespread concern all over the world.
In May 2004, the Gate Troupe from the hometown of Beckett, Dublin, Ireland, performed the most authentic version of Waiting for Godot in the Beijing Capital Theatre for Chinese audiences. The performance is widely regarded by the media as the most authentic version of Beckett in the 21st century. Regarding the first performance of this absurd play by Chinese actors, one name should be mentioned: Meng Jinghui.
On December 31, 1989, Meng Jinghui and his classmates at The Central Academy of Drama performed Waiting for Godot as their farewell to the 1980s. However, the school did not give its consent to the performance, and the students had to recite a few lines of the play one by one by a huge pile of coal on the school playground.
In June 1991, Waiting for Godot was performed in a small hall at The Central Academy of Drama. Meng, complacent and young as he was, directed the play as his graduation work before getting a master’s in directing. It was different from Beckett’s original work. At the end of the performance, there appeared a tiny figure at one side of the stage: Godot. However, the two tramps rushed forward, and quietly strangled the man to death. The new performance is regarded as an amazing piece of work in the experimental drama of Meng Jinghui.
In 2003, Meng had planned a new version of the drama, which was named “100 People Waiting for Godot,” with 100 actors. As Meng saw it, it would be an attempt to combine humour, sarcasm, cruelty and anger. However, the attempt failed due to the SARS outbreak that year.
Over the years, many directors in China have been trying to interpret the classical work in various ways. On January 26, 1998, Ren Ming, the director of Beijing People’s Art Theatre, directed the small-theatre version of Waiting for Godot, which was the first public dramatic performance in China. The performance depicted the loneliness, loss, helplessness and waiting of human beings from a contemporary perspective. In the show, the director had two actresses play the tramps.
Also in 1998, another director, Lin Zhaohua, was even bolder and made a mixed show of Three Sisters & Waiting for Godot to interpret the theme of “similar fates in different eras” in a completely different way. In a small hall on the top floor of a grey building which belonged to the China Theatre Association in Dongsi Batiao, Lin and seven actors, including Pu Cunxin and Chen Jianbing, who played the two tramps, were rehearsing. The melancholy and aestheticism in the Three Sisters by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov and the sorrow and secularity in Waiting for Godot of Beckett were each reduced by half, reorganised, overlapped and combined into a new play threaded with the ongoing theme of waiting. However, many audiences didn’t accept this. The company which had planned to invest in the show worried about the box office, and was no longer willing to do so. Lin Zhaohua and Yi Liming, a stage designer, insisted on performing the play at their own expense. “It would surely have a better effect if it was performed in a small theatre,” Lin Zhaohua said in the face of the failure at the box office, appearing somewhat helpless.
Afterwards, Wu Xingguo ( Wu Hsing Kuo) from Taiwan directed the Peking Opera version of Waiting for Godot, combining the stage play with singing, orating, acting and acrobatic fighting in Peking Opera. In the show, the name Estragon was transliterated as “Ai Tai Gang,” meaning to “be fond of contradicting others,” and Vladimir was transliterated as “Fei Di Mi,” which means “a depressed loser” in Chinese.
In 2014, Waiting for Godot, directed by director Luo Wei, was staged at the Longfu Theatre. “Two ordinary men keep waiting devoutly under a tree, and they are never able to get rid of the fate of being deceived. This is absurd.” Luo Wei stated outright, “Only by realising the cruelty of reality can human beings obtain new power and faith to proceed in life. I don’t know if my interpretation accords with the original intention of Mr. Beckett, but I believe artistic works must offer audiences such a gift.”
Maybe Waiting for Godot isn’t so absurd after all, and our actual life is the absurd thing in a realist sense. However, hope is always a good thing.
The Solar Troupe of Beijing Institute of Technology performs Waiting for Godot at the First Beijing College Students Theatre Festival