Stage Animal / Still waiting for Godot
Twenty years and one week ago, on December 22, 1989, Samuel Beckett died. Twenty years before that, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. His wife, who answered the phone call, responded with the words "what a tragedy." His publisher sent him a telegram saying, "In spite of everything, they have given you the Nobel Prize - I advise you to go into hiding." And Beckett, who preferred to live in relative anonymity and rarely gave interviews, did indeed maintain his way of life. He donated most of his prize money to friends who needed help or to political causes.
Sixteen years earlier, in 1953, a group of actors led by the director Roger Blin had staged his play "Waiting for Godot," which forever changed the face of modern theater. To this day, it remains the most dazzling play of the 20th century, which does not lack for great playwrights and plays.
Beckett was another great Irishman without whom there would be no English literature of the 20th century. After completing his French and Italian studies in Dublin, he headed to Paris and became the friend and secretary of James Joyce, who had already published "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses."
After World War II, Beckett remained in Paris and wrote novels in French, of all things, because he claimed this language was easier to write in "without a style." It was at this time that he wrote his trilogy of novels "Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable" and started working on his first plays.
He presented two plays to Blin's group of actors (which included the Israeli director Nicole Cassel): the large-cast "Eleutheria" and "Waiting for Godot." The latter, which was chosen for the performance, stunned its audience because it was so different from any other theatrical performance until then.
Against the backdrop of the realist, classical or entertainment drama that was standard fare on the world's stages, Beckett presented a completely different reality: an empty stage featuring a lone tree that sprouts a single leaf between the first and second act, plus two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, about whom not much is known. Both are waiting. For Godot.
To the very end, neither they nor the audience know who this Godot is and whether he will indeed come. But they know that they are supposed to wait - though they do not actually know why. They decide to go, but they stay.
The play enjoyed some critical success at its Paris premiere, but in London two years later, directed by Peter Hall, it was mostly met with a lack of understanding. Were it not for the perseverance of theater critics such as Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan, it is possible that it might not have succeeded in spurring the revolution it spurred.
The uniqueness of this play, according to one review, is that "nothing happens, twice." And still, the audience remains riveted in anticipation of the mysterious Godot.
Meanwhile, the characters attempt to pass the time, and to hang themselves (and the question arises, who will try first - the fat one, who might break the branch, or the skinny one, who would die and leave his friend in terrible loneliness). One of them dreams and tries to tell his friend about his nightmare. The latter prefers that nightmares be kept private, prompting the question, "who should I tell my nightmares to if not to you?"
To the random and empty world of Gogo and Didi two visitors arrive - Pozzo and Lucky, his slave. No, they are not Godot. Pozzo abuses Lucky, who can "dance" and "think" when someone puts a hat on his head. His thoughts are a rambling philosophical monologue, seemingly full of meaning, but in effect complete gibberish. In their second appearance, in the second act, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is mute.
The world is gradually shrinking. But Gogo and Didi wait for Godot, passing time, exchanging comments - poets of life stripped of all its trappings. A kind of parable of raw human existence, with no meaning and no end, in constant anticipation of someone who never comes.
Beckett refused to provide explanations of his play. When asked who Godot is and whether there is a connection between his name and "God," he said he did not know - and if he had known, he would have written it in the play. When asked why his play has two acts, he said that one is too few and three is too many. Ostensibly another absurdity, but in fact a precise answer: The second act is needed to show that there is a process here and a situation that repeats itself. A third time would already be redundant.
According to an unverified anecdote, a woman saw Beckett on the street in Paris a few months prior to his death and told her friend, "there's Samuel Beckett, who wrote 'Waiting for Godot.'" He heard her and replied, "Yes, and I'm still waiting."
This appears to be an absurd drama that presents man's existential condition in the post-World War II world. But when you read that one of Beckett's friends was jailed by the Gestapo during the war and his jailers abused him by trying to force him to recite poems by Arthur Rimbaud while beating him and forcing him to dance, suddenly the image of Lucky the slave reciting a philosophical speech while doing an odd dance acquires a shockingly realistic meaning.
If theater in the second half of the 20th century earned the designation "theater of the absurd," this is to a considerable extent due to the unique experience of Beckett's two tramps. But the wonderful thing about them, which has kept them alive long after their creator died, is that they are so human - innocent, hurting, in need of each other, knowing deep inside that there is no point in waiting, because Godot will not come, and if he comes, it is not certain that it will be him. Yet they continue to wait, because that's life.
If Beckett had written nothing but "Waiting for Godot," he would still be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.