Vladimir: Let us not waste time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!
— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Agate Keller: Don’t Wait for Lefty! He might never come!
— Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty
Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (The Irish pronunciation is GOD-oh) is recognized as the most significant play of the 20th Century by the most influential playwright of the period. Beckett (1906-1989) wrote the play in 1948 and it’s still the most frequently produced drama around the world some 70 years after its premier in Paris in 1952. Likewise, a Google search reveals that critics remain engaged in the flourishing cottage industry of passionate debate over the play’s meaning. English language versions appeared in London in 1955 and on Broadway in 1956 and some of our greatest actors have performed it, including Patrick Stewart, Bill Irwin, Ian McKellan, E.G Marshall, F. Murray Abramson, Geoffrey Rush, Nathan Lane, Robin Williams and Steve Martin.
I first encountered the play in a first-year undergraduate course on Modern Drama (my minor) and if a liberal arts education is sometimes wasted on the young, I’m an example. I’d never heard of Beckett or Godot and even on a second reading I found the play opaque, totally incomprehensible. Unable to formulate a critical judgement, I remained silent and took notes on the teacher’s interpretation — in all likelihood a conventional Christian take as it was a very conservative Lutheran college. Further, and it’s strictly a guess, my professor and hence his students may have been influenced and delimited by New Criticism, a school of thought which dictated that only the text lent itself to interpretation and excluded the author’s background, context, possible intent and so forth.
This cringe-worthy memory was recently brought to mind by reading the Godot quote (above) in Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag where he describes how she staged Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while it was under brutal attack by Serbian nationalists in 1993. That, in turn, prompted me to do some research and view an online version of the play in an attempt to further reduce another glaring deficit on my cultural capital ledger. My conceit is that what follows may be useful for others in rethinking both the play and its meaning for today.
Absent a plot, action and time, the play resists a tersely cogent summary but here’s my layperson’s idiosyncratic, some will say caricatured synopsis. After the opening line “Nothing to be done” the audience watches a tragicomedy in two acts about Vladimir and Estragon ( “Didi” and “Gogo” in the performed version), two bedraggled vagabonds waiting in the middle of nowhere for the mysterious Godot to save them. They occupy an almost barren landscape with a country road, single boulder, the sky and a leafless tree which sprouts a few leaves by Act II. To kill time they engage in broad slapstick humor, nostalgic rambling, juggling their bowler hats, halting speeches, and bickering. There are also glimpses of exquisite tenderness between Gogo and Didi, the childish nicknames the pair have adopted for one another.
In Act I, they’re paid an abbreviated visit by Pozzo, a local landowner and his slave, Lucky, who’s tethered to rope and whipped. His fate is to be sold at the fair. A boy appears with the message that Godot won’t be arriving that day “but surely tomorrow.” Didi and Gogo momentarily contemplate suicide by hanging themselves from the tree but decide to continue waiting. In Act II, a greatly diminished Pozzo (now blind) and Lucky (mute and dying) reappear and Didi cries out that they should help them. They do nothing. The boy returns with the same message, suicide is again put off and the wait continues. Spoiler: Godot never shows up. At that point, Vladimir says “Well, shall we go?” To which Estragon replies “Yes, let’s go,” but as the curtain falls, the friends remain stationary. As a reviewer in the Irish Times quipped in 1956, this is a play in which “Nothing happens, twice.”
Whereas Waiting for Lefty was praised by left reviewers, Beckett’s play was despised by many left critics as exhibiting a decadent lack of realism and furthering late modernist bourgeois ideology. Fellow Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey felt Beckett’s work portrayed “a lust for despair” while George Wentworth accused Beckett of being “a prophet of negation and sterility. He holds out no hope for humanity…” And George Lukács, the Marxist theorist spoke for many in claiming Beckett only displays “the utmost pathological human degradation.” If accurate, this interpretation reinforced the paralyzing despair felt by so many working class people at the time and doubly so in the United States today. It also plays into the hands of our rulers.
More mainstream reviews of Godot were peppered with phrases like desolate universe, paralyzing inertia, and unrelieved bleakness. And those were the critics who liked the play. They agreed Beckett was a prophet of inconsolable pessimism about the human condition but on a purely artistic level correctly predicted Godot was destined to be a minimalist theater masterpiece. Note: In response to my recent queries, several introspective friends confided that after watching Waiting for Godot, their strongest impressions ranged from “waiting for God” to “existential despair” and “being a play about nothing.”
During that same semester, but outside of class, I read another play that preceded Godot by some eighteen years and it was also about people waiting for an eponymous character who never shows up. This was the 1935 drama Waiting for Lefty, by celebrated American playwright Clifford Odets (1906-1963) and was nominally based on the famous 1934 strike by New York City cabdrivers at the height of the Great Depression. Odets, a Communist Party member, fashioned his drama on behalf of working class struggle and a hopeful vision of socialist revolution. He called the play “…a machine gun that could be deployed at any strike meeting or picket line.”
In a cabdriver’s union meeting hall, the strike committee is deciding whether to hit the pavement while a corrupt, red-baiting union boss tries to talk them out of it. His hectoring implicitly supports FDR’s effort to save capitalism from the pinkos. Before making a decision the cabbies want to hear from Lefty Costello, their pro-strike faction leader who is nowhere to be found. After more impassioned dialogue and more waiting (in one sequence a secretary voices kind words for The Communist Manifesto), an agitated member shouts “Don’t wait for Lefty! He might never come!” They continue waiting. Finally, a union member arrives with the news that Lefty has been found dead with a bullet in his head. Rather than giving in to despair they begin chanting “Strike, Strike, Strike…” break into a rousing version of “Solidarity Forever” and refusing to waiting for a messiah, commence acting on their own behalf.
The director Harold Thurman, a close friend of Odets, called the play “the birth cry of the 1930s” and said the playwright’s motive was to explain the plight of poor working class people, “to express his love, his fears, his hope for the world” and fervently wanted to make a connection between audience and actors. The play opened on Broadway on March 26, 1935 and the cast received 28 curtain calls.
As a “symbol of proletarian revolution,” it was then staged across the country before raucously favorable audiences albeit closed down in some cities because of its “subversive” content.1 It’s still performed at a smattering of colleges and community theater venues, including a recent four-night run at a 30-seat space in Philadelphia. It’s possible that audiences today find the play heavy-handed, soap-boxish and even quaint with its celebration of labor militancy, radical unions and class struggle but that only shows how successful neoliberal ideology has been in retarding class consciousness.
In any event, for me, Waiting for Lefty was hopeful agitprop theater, art as powerful social commentary that I could embrace for its contribution to my nascent radical political consciousness. The only parallel I detected between the two plays was the failure of the eponymous characters to appear. In retrospect, not only was I mistaken but Beckett’s work was in fact also profoundly political and remains even more relevant today.
Unlike Odets’ didactic left politics, Beckett was steadfastly reticent to explain his play’s meaning and when asked about Godot, he routinely responded that he had no idea of Godot’s identity and had he known would have spelled it out. Beyond that, Beckett maintained that the play was open to a variety of interpretations. Subsequently, a partial list was filled by Christian, Existentialist, Jungian Freudian, Sexual and Ethical. I’ve also read a few erudite Marxist interpretations that, while neither “wrong” nor implausible, felt shoehorned into rigid preexisting boxes in an attempt to appropriate the work. In any event and even if Beckett was being coy (which I doubt) every viewer is left with his or her interpretive freedom without fear of contradiction. As I argue later, that was an artistic and conscious political decision on Beckett’s part.
For me, the most compelling, if not definitive interpretation arises from Beckett’s active role in the French Resistance during World War II. The critic Hugh Kenner argued that virtually every aspect of Godot resembled France under Germany occupation “but no spectator ever thinks of it.”2
While not going that far, Beckett scholar Emilie Morin suggests there are many signs that Beckett’s “perceived his own identity through the lens of the French Revolution.”3
Beckett joined immediately after the German invasion of France in early 1940 even though as an Irish national he could have returned to Ireland or simply continued to enjoy his neutral status in France. Working for British Special Operations and given the pseudonym “l’Irlandis” (the Irishman), his secret Resistance cell Gloria SMH translated and smuggled intelligence reports on German troop movements to the Allies. It was extremely dangerous and twelve cell members were executed and some ninety others deported to Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Ravensbruck.
By D-day, 30,000 Resistance members had been executed and of the 115,000 deported to concentration camps, only 35,000 returned. Several times over a two year period Beckett barely escaped the Gestapo, finally fleeing on foot and sleeping in ditches during a trek to the small, remote village of Roussilon some 400 miles south of Paris. While there he did some writing but also hid weaponry for the Resistance in his backyard. After the war, Beckett worked in an Irish Red Cross hospital in Saint-lo where he encountered first hand the devastation, cruelty and immense suffering from both the Allied and German bombing campaigns of 1944. After the war, Beckett received the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance from the French government.
In the decades that followed, ample public evidence exists of Beckett’s political sympathies. He supported the Spanish Republic, signed petitions against Jaruzelski’s detention of political dissenters and human rights violations in Pinochet’s Chile, wrote Catastrophe (1982) in support of imprisoned Václav Havel and registered his opposition to apartheid in South Africa. In 1963,when asked by South African activists to join Playwrights Against Apartheid, he signed their petition and sent along a handwritten note which read “I am in entire agreement with your views and prepared to refuse performances except before a non-segregated audience.” In the late 1960s, he donated a manuscript for auction to the African National Congress.
Godot was eventually performed in South Africa at an integrated theater with an-black cast. The director Benji Francis revealed that the play evaded the censor’s suspicion because so many people assumed it was “a play where nothing happens.” Francis drew attention to the forlorn tree’s radical political function because “when it sprouted leaves in act two, that sent a powerful message to oppressed people — it suggested new life and resolution, an image of hope against all desolation.”4 After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, Beckett gave the prize money to needy artists. Jack McGowran, one of his closest friends, recalled Beckett’s “deep compassion for mankind” that required “showing things as they are, as he sees them, to tell everything with compassion, always with humor.”5
In addition to the Sontag version, an all-black production of Godot was staged in South Africa in 1976 (blessed by Becket) and another in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the clear implication that Godot was FEMA. The play has been staged in prisons, including at San Quentin before some 1,400 inmates. Later, the prisoners formed the San Quentin Drama Workshop to organize and act in their own production. Beckett provided them with an annotated script and spent ten days helping supervise production, the only time he did so for his play in the United States.
The foregoing facts simply don’t support the widespread, cliched characterizations of Beckett’s world as only grim existential futility, of an apolitical and even nonpolitical writer whose thinking was disengaged from the real world and its tribulations. Here I’m indebted to noted Beckett scholar Emilie Morin’s recent book Beckett’s Political Imagination which now assumes the preeminent scholarly role of helping us understand Beckett’s politics.
Morin makes a compelling case for a more nuanced, less conventional view of politics at work. For example, when asked by Richard Stern in 1977, whether he was “ever political,” Beckett replied, “No, but I joined the Resistance.”6 And many years after the war, when queried why he joined the Resistance, Beckett responded somewhat uncomfortably, that “He simply couldn’t stand [by] with his arms folded.”7 Perhaps it’s coincidence but here’s a passage from Godot:
Vladimir: It is true that with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we
Are no less a credit to our species…But this is not the question. What are
We doing here, that is the question.
And it’s not true that two vagrants are “doing nothing.” They are in fact doing something: They are waiting for the enigmatic Godot to interpret the world so they will know how to proceed. Beckett’s underlying message is they should stop waiting for something in the future. As Beckett biographer James Knowlson asserts, that waiting situation is “what happens when people have lost the awareness of their purpose in life.”8 At one point, Vladimir says:
Was I sleeping while others were suffering? Am I sleeping now?
At me too, someone is looking, of me too someone is saying he
Too is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep.
It’s notable that this lost awareness, this alienated waiting, does not occur in solitude as the two longtime friends mirror the human condition of being thoroughly dependent upon one another. It would not be a stretch to characterize this as incipient solidarity.
Beckett never claimed to be a philosopher, only saying “One can only speak of what is front of him, and that is simply a mess.” And unlike Clifford Odetts, he was neither a Marxist, to my knowledge referenced Marxism in his work and doesn’t prescribe specific forms of action. But then again, neither did Marx who believed that when the time arrived people would know what to do. That is, when they “know,” they will know how to proceed, how “to go on.”
Again, Emilie Morin notes that “Thinking about the political questions raised by Beckett’s writing can— and should, I think —be uncomfortable; to put it simply, his work asks us whether or not we are willing to see what is in front of us. This is the uncomfortable political question that continues to resonate today.”9
My reading of Godot is that audience’s feelings of uncertainty, doubt and lack of closure reflects, not fatalistic despair but Beckett’s respect for people’s need to resolve matters on their own and his belief that only then can they decide on the most efficacious behavior consonant with what needs to be done. The one thing they can’t do is continue waiting. One thinks of Marx’s famous dictum that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways ; the point, however, is to change it.”
Finally, if it’s true as Morin concludes, that “The idea that even in the most oppressive and terrifying circumstances, something in the human spirit remains free and indomitable haunts many of Beckett’s later texts”10 this suggests that Beckett wants the reader/viewer to consummate the experience but only after some painful introspection. Thus his pessimism is for:
…an established cultural and societal structure which imposes its
Stultifying will upon otherwise hopeful individuals; it is the inherent
Optimism of the human condition, therefore, that is at tension with
The oppressive world.11
This is reminiscent of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s decision to employ his “pessimism of the intellect” in assessing the world’s wretched reality and then choosing “optimism of the will” in order to move forward. We can hope there’s an aspiring playwright out there who can contextualize a modern day Lefty/Godot into our soul-enervating, neoliberal capitalist world and rewaken an emancipatory spirit that emerges not from outside but from within.
- Selena Voelker, “The Power of Art and the Fear of Labor: Seattle’s Production of Waiting for Lefty in 1936,” The Great Depression in Washington State Project.” [↩]
- Marjorie Perloff, quoted in Enter Godot: ACT Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Beckett’s Existential Classic, 2003. [↩]
- Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p.139. The product of ten years of in-depth research, this pathbreaking study isn’t about Waiting for Godot per se but how power, race and colonies are ingrained in Beckett’s work. [↩]
- Benji Francis, as quoted by David Smith, Imogen Carter and Ally Carnwath, “In Godot We Trust,” Guardian, March 8, 2009. [↩]
- Deirdre Bair, Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone De Beauvoir and Me: A Memoir (New York: Doubleday, 2019) p. 50. [↩]
- Morin, op.cit., p. 13. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 19. [↩]
- James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1966) p.638-39. [↩]
- Emilie Morin, “Beckett’s Political Imagination,” Fifteen Eight-Four, August 22, 2017. [↩]
- __________, “Beckett, War Memory, and the State of Exception,” Journal of Modern Literature, 42:4, Summer, 2019), p. 135. [↩]
- Authors at Wikipedia’s Selections for Schools, Samuel Beckett, McGill-CS, on DVD, 2007. [↩]