Waiting for Godot in Lockdown

Kailee Parsons speaks to why Samuel Beckett’s enduring classic has found new relevance in the Covid era

Image(s): theatermaina.com

When the world falls apart, I become an existentialist. Well, sort of. I don’t mean to imply that I adopt the mantra of ‘existence precedes essence’ whenever I feel low, or that I cast aside all hope of a universe imbued with objective meaning at the first sign of trouble. On the other hand, I have nothing against existentialism. Though I happen to think that life does have meaning, it is also fundamentally complicated. From where I stand, the existentialist viewpoint certainly makes sense. But I digress. An outright statement is a stronger start to an article without the caveats.

What I mean is, in the times in my life that I have felt my lowest, I have always drifted, inexplicably yet unavoidably, towards existentialist fiction, turning a keen eye especially on the absurd. I park myself in front of the bookshelf, tracing my fingertips along the books’ dusty spines until they stop, hesitantly, over the works of Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Beckett, Kafka, and Camus. Though perhaps less explicitly existentialist, I count J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut among the ranks. I guess I never outgrew my sad boy phase; so sue me.

In a funny way, it is comforting to know that I am not alone, that this broken world has been oft traversed before. These authors are no stranger to times of difficulty, many having fought in the Second World War. They looked the horrors of the world in the face and lived to write about it. As I revealed in my last article, I find something similarly comforting about tragicomedy, in fiction that acknowledges the sadness of the world without letting the reader drown in it. It is no surprise that existentialism and tragicomedy often overlap, as is the case in Samuel Beckett’s brilliant play, Waiting for Godot. I’ve returned to it often over the years, so when I picked it up for an English module nearly a year after Britain entered lockdown for the first time, the situation felt eerily familiar.

In the simplest of terms, Waiting for Godot is about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who spend the course of the play waiting for the eponymous Godot, who (spoiler alert) never arrives. About Godot, Vladimir and Estragon know very little. They do not know when Godot will arrive, if ever, or what will happen if he does. They question whether they are waiting at the right tree, whether they are better off apart or together, and why they are waiting at all. On several occasions they conclude that Godot is not worth waiting for, yet when the curtain closes, they are still patiently waiting.

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, waiting is the name of the game. I sympathise with Didi and Gogo, as they are known to each other, in their utter lack of answers. Though fortunately the arrival of vaccines and a quicker-than-expected rollout means the end is in sight, it is impossible to say for sure when this end will come. I find myself wondering what post-pandemic life will look like. Will we continue to wear masks during flu season, or never again? How long will it be before I can go back to class without having to wipe my desk, and more importantly, how long before I can go to a concert, or attend a live performance? What does the end of the pandemic mean for businesses that have had to close, or industries that require a live audience? (I am especially interested to see how the theatre industry will fare.)

It has been posited that Godot represents God, which seems likely given the similarity of the two names, but Beckett famously fought against this interpretation, stating, “If I knew [who Godot was], I would have said so in the play”[1]. Still, it seems likely that Godot represents something like God, something that provides both meaning and an end to all the waiting. In the context of 2021, waiting for Godot is like waiting for the pandemic to end.

Over the course of the play, Didi and Gogo blather endlessly, sing songs, and converse with passing strangers. The second act, yet another day of waiting, is much the same as the first. The men make a sport of insulting one another, repeat conversations, and comically swap their hats as if enacting a Laurel and Hardy routine. None of these actions have any meaning, they are simply ways of filling the void. They serve only to take Didi and Gogo’s minds off their endless waiting. I see parallels in this coping mechanism, too. Thinking back on March 2020, I remember the sudden wave of social media posts detailing new (and increasingly obscure) hobbies. We started podcasts, learned TikTok dances, and made sourdough starters, realising how difficult it is to be left alone with our thoughts.

For the same reason, Didi and Gogo make every effort to avoid silence. “Let us try and converse calmly,” suggests Gogo, “since we are incapable of keeping silent.” A moment later, he offers an explanation, “It’s so we won’t think.” What follows is a nonsense conversation, which first sounds like a profound mantra but is later recognised as little more than a game of word association. Neither wants to be the first to give into the silence, or worse, acknowledge the waiting. Every time Godot is mentioned, the two men find themselves back at the beginning, unchanged except for a growing sense of doubt that Godot will ever arrive. Likewise, I find it difficult to acknowledge the anniversary of lockdown this month. Although things are looking a lot better for us than for Didi and Gogo, it’s hard to think back on the past year without a tremendous sense of loss and longing. Perhaps reflection is healthy. I’m not sure. All I know is that looking ahead feels better than acknowledging the waiting.

There is a parallel, too, in the sense of quasi-loneliness that pervades the play. For better or worse, Didi and Gogo are never truly alone, because they have each other. But the stage is still quiet and empty. It seems there is no functioning society in the world of Godot – instead, different pairs sometimes meet each other for a time and then leave again. When Pozzo and Lucky arrive, the interaction feels unnatural, as sentences are repeated and meanings lost. I had to laugh upon rereading these scenes -- the stilted conversation reminded me of Zoom interactions, our words lost due to an overeager mute button, sketchy Wifi, or lags that leave everybody talking at once. Twice over the course of the play, a young boy delivers a message to Didi and Gogo before running off again. The script details that there are two boys, brothers, yet most productions cast one actor. The joke is important: for the role that they play, they might as well be the same boy. I admit I feel the same about the postman. Sad though it is, I hardly notice who comes round, as long as I get the parcel I ordered.

Finally, as in the pandemic world, time in the land of Godot has no meaning. Gogo never remembers what day it is, but it hardly matters because every day is the same. Returning to the characters in the second act, the script states that it is only the next day, whilst in many productions, the changing leaves on the tree tell a different story. We might take this to mean that time does not pass in this fictional world in the same way it does in ours, or, more probably, that what day, month, or season it is doesn’t matter. Likewise, it might as well be March 2020 right now, as it seems time has stood still since then. Only last week, I had to remind my family it was Monday when my mother excitedly announced at the kitchen table that the week was almost over.

Naturally, these similarities were quickly mentioned in my English tutorial the following week, and they were met with both laughter and groans. It is no particular pleasant thing to realise you are living in a Beckett play, but as I suggested at the start of my article, there may yet be some comfort in it. If the world of Waiting for Godot is strikingly similar to this world in the midst of a pandemic, what can be learned from the former? For me, the central question is whether there is meaning in the waiting if Godot never arrives. Considering this, I asked my classmates if they thought Didi and Gogo would be happier if they went on with their lives. The answer was immediate and somewhat surprising: no. Even though the future is unclear, even though the waiting is torture, it is the very act of waiting for Godot that gives the characters’ lives meaning. Quite simply, if Vladimir and Estragon give up on Godot and end their waiting, there is no play.

I see Waiting for Godot as an anti-nihilistic play, as much as it is an existentialist play. While I am sure Samuel Beckett is rolling in his grave at the suggestion, I would reiterate that he was not keen to limit the play to one definite interpretation. At some point, a work of art belongs to its audience, and with what little part of Waiting for Godot belongs to me, I am choosing to read it as hopeful, because I think hope is what we all need. Whether or not Godot ever arrives, it is the hope that he will that spurs the characters to keep living. There is an element of absurdist joy in the struggle towards the heights, and it is enough to fill a man’s heart, or so says Albert Camus [2]. Like Sisyphus, we must imagine Vladimir and Estragon happy.

In the context of Covid-19, where does this leave us? Waiting, I think, but not without hope. With every passing day in lockdown, with every passing day that we choose to stay at home, wear a mask, or keep a respectful distance to keep each other safe, when most of us would much rather return to our normal lives, I feel sure that the outcome will be worth the wait. Luckily, we know now that the wait is not indefinite. If we have concluded that Godot is worth waiting for, even if he never arrives, it is clear that waiting out the pandemic is worthwhile, too.

[1] Alan Schneider, “Waiting for Beckett,” The New York Times, November 17, 1985.

[2] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.