End­less Wait­ing, No Godot

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Liu Xian­shu Edited by Mark Zuiderveld

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.

Real­is­ti­cally Ab­surd

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.

Var­i­ous ‘Bor­row­ings’

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

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