As part of this year's White Light Festival, Ireland's iconic Druid theater company presents Samuel Beckett's irreverent masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, November 2–13. For tickets and more information, visit WhiteLightFestival.org.
As with many works of literature, it is easier to say what Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is not about, or what it is almost about, than to state its theme definitively or be certain, or even fully uncertain, about its meaning or indeed its origin in Beckett's imagination. Most ways of describing it require terms that are in conflict with each other. Thus the play is concerned with exhaustion, with language and communication in a state of decay, but it is also nourished by strange energy, by wit, by tension, by moments of pure verbal excitement.
Waiting for Godot is set nowhere, or in a place where little grows and few props are needed, but it is also set in a place that may be France and may even be Ireland, but most probably it is a place in between.
Beckett wrote lines and stage directions. He did not invest in hidden meanings, indeed professed to have no interest in them.
Perhaps more than anywhere Waiting for Godot is set on a stage, the stage we see, the stage the characters inhabit, or appear on and then walk off sometimes. It would be too simple to say that they are trapped on the stage, since there is a hinterland; but the hinterland has a topography that is not of much interest.
It might be easy to say that the stage is part of a desolate no man's land that we might associate with war, or the aftermath of conflict, but it could as easily be a circus ring made angular, or a film set when the camera has not yet arrived, and may, indeed, never do so.
But none of these ways of seeing the stage actually helps us to see it better. Beckett wrote lines and stage directions. He did not invest in hidden meanings, indeed professed to have no interest in them.
The play is concerned with the equation that Descartes formulated—"I think therefore I am"—but only as a way of removing the "therefore," as a slapstick artist might remove a supporting plank so that mayhem, or a starker or more paradoxical form of order, may ensue. The play views thinking as a strange, ludicrous activity, if activity is the word (it is not). This does not pass the time as well as dancing does, or talking, or saying nothing much at all, or exchanging hats and considering boots.
"Being" is a sour joke, perpetrated on the characters by time, which is itself not to be trusted, or indeed by God, whose Christian manifestation is referred to not to deepen the text, or the sub-text, or to offer meaning, whatever that is, but to distract us for a moment or give us a laugh.
Even if the words and the exchanges seem pointless, or are too quick off the mark, they have a sound and a texture, a body waiting desperately, or in some amusement, for a soul. Out of the idea that he would swerve when an idea came close, Beckett made the sour poetry of the play, which he peppered with some passages of soaring beauty. Out of what could not be trusted—and that included beauty—he made speech and allowed some movement and repetition. The drama, the excitement, then comes from the illusion, or indeed the fact, that this was enough, or almost enough, for something powerful to emerge all the more clearly because of its mystery, its ambiguity and its ferocious refusal to give in to easy interpretation.
Colm Tóibín is a novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet. He has written several books, including the 2009 best-selling novel Brooklyn. His latest novel, House of Names, was recently released in paperback.
This note first appeared in Druid theater company's program for their 2016 production of Waiting for Godot.
Lincoln Center's presentation of Waiting for Godot is made possible in part by Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater.
Waiting for Godot is also made possible in part by endowment support from the American Express Cultural Preservation Fund.
The White Light Festival 2018 is made possible by The Shubert Foundation, The Katzenberger Foundation, Inc., Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater, The Joelson Foundation, The Harkness Foundation for Dance, Great Performers Circle, Chairman's Council, and Friends of Lincoln Center.
For tickets and information, visit WhiteLightFestival.org.