'They Do Not Serve Who Only Stand and Wait'

I was reminded of John Milton's famous line from his poem, On Blindness: "They also serve who only stand and wait" when I recently saw a stellar production of Samuel Beckett's famous play, Waiting for Godot at the Marin Theatre Company. In fact, waiting can be counter-productive to experiencing here and now. It being the sixtieth anniversary of Beckett's play, there will likely be many more productions of Godot this year. I recently read that Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKlellen will be repeating their 2009 successful London West End production of the tragicomedy this year on Broadway. In one sense, Vladirmir and Estragon ( known more familiarly as Didi and Gogo) either illustrate or refute that line of Milton. In some sense, the play seems to refute the line in acknowledging that they do not serve who only stand and wait.

Whether or not as aver 800 playwrights, actors or journalists, in a poll taken by the Royal National  Theatre, Godot is, in fact, the most significant English play of the 20th century, it never fails to puzzle, intrigue and lure the reader into large, even existential, questions. The drama seems to have no plot or character development.  Yet, paradoxically, the two days limned in the play seem often just like many of our own days. The day may seem to be going nowhere but the little variances delight us or not in the course of the passage of time. Godot is all about that passing of the time. The marker for the time is called Godot. Didi and Gogo are waiting for someone who is going to change their situation. We are all like that, waiting for something, someone.

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Beckett early in life was a fan of the films of Chaplin and Buster Keatib, There is something of the smell of vaudeville in the play. At times, watching the excellent Marin Theatre production, I was reminded of the repartee between Laurel and Hardy, especially in one scene where Didi and Gogo keep switching  bowler hats.

Who is Gogot?  God / Death? Someone ominous or promising ? The play leaves us to answer that question for ourselves. Beckett, himself, once told someone that: " If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God and not Godot!". The first time I ever saw a live production of Waiting for Godot, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival some thirty years ago, I went with a Jesuit friend and a married couple who were also our friends. Upon returning home from the production the wife learned of the untimely early death of her brother. Hence, I tend sometimes to see Godot as death. Jason Minadakis, the director of the Marin Theatre production, says that he thought Beckett " indended Godot to be anything we think is going to fix our circumstances--something or someone outside of ourselves, whether that is a car or a house or a job or a God." He argues that Beckett was horribly worried that people were missing their life and missing what it was to be alive by waiting for something.

Is Godot ultimatley ominous or promising ? Is it primarily a tragic play or a comedy ? Surely most productions of  the play, like Minadakis', play up slapstick elments in the interactions between Vladimir and Estragon and, later, Pozzo and Lucky. Godot never shows. In the meantime, the characters bond, bicker, play games, pass the time together. In Minadakis' view of he play, it is a kind of comedy. Vladirmir and Estragon ultimately stay together. As he put it: " The things we take for granted on a daily basis, our friends and our family, are what really make the time worth living. Not the thing we keep waiting for or the thing we keep looking for. The people we spend time with ultimatly define the span of our life.", One of the intribuing paradoxes of the play is that its outlook seems, at times, close to Satre (bleak, dark, disgusted). But the dialogue and style is more aptly that of James Joyce ( Beckett's mentor): pungent and fabulous and filled with wit and imagination.

There are religious allusions in the play. The characters speak about the two thieves on the cross and the bare tree in the middle of the stage might easily evoke the cross. If so, in Act 2, that thet  tree spouts leaves on it might also portend a token of hope and resurrection. Surely, any good production of the play forces us to ask ourselves existential ( and, thus, also properly religious} pressing questions: What is our life ? What are we waiting for ? Why are we here? It also seems to suggest that the people we spend time with ultimately define the span of our life.

Some years ago, Brooks Atkinson, reviewing a production of Godot which starred Bert Lahr, had this to say about the religious character of Godot: " Beckett's drama adumbrates--rather than rexpresses--an attitude towards man's experience on earth: the pathos, cruelty, comradeship, hope, corruption, filthiness and wonder of human existence. Faith in God is almost vanished. But there is still an allusition to faith flickering around the edges of the drama. It is as though Mr. Beckett sees very little reason for clutching at faith but is unable to relinquish it entirely."

Several days after seeing the play again ( this was my third live production ot it. I saw it six years ago in a version of the play at Trinity College, Dublin), I remain entranced and haunted about those questions about time ( in a play where all sense of the ordinary passage of time is baffling and confused); life ( is it merely a game in order to survive?),; the delusiion of merely standing around a lot waiting, passing the time. Beckett's play earlyon was performed in a German prison and also at San Quentin. I would have loved a conversation with the prisoners about  how they saw and experienced its meaning!

I said to a Jesuit friend recently that I thought there was a deeper spiritual meaning to the play. Too often our God is someone we merely wait for, presume we will ultimately encounter in the great by and by or in heaven. One consequencee is that we forget to look for God in the here and now, in our quotidian experiences, emotions, our interactions with the people we encounter and spend our time with. In the view of Saint Ignatius Loyola, we need to reflect on our daily routines, even what seems our wasting or passing of time, to find God active in them too. God is not just--or even primarily--someone we wait for. He is always present in all that transpires. That is the meaning of the Ignatian formula about finding God, encountering God, in all  things, persons, times and circumstances.

To be sure, it is hard to live our life for the moment or to focus more deeply on what transpires in that in-between time between birth and death. But too much waiting and focusing on what will come to take away our present pain, boredom, routine can keep us from truly experiencing and cherishing the now, what some spiritual writers refer to as " the sacrament of the present moment." Perhaps, as Jorge Amado, the Brazilian writer once put it, in a line from his novella, The Discovery of America  by the Turks, we need to laugh at death and fate and thwart them by enjoying the present to the full, as if it were a game " just as exciting as poker in which the cards are human beings and the bets are for life itself." 

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ed gleason
5 years 8 months ago
Fr John, thanks for the tip about Godot at Mill Valley. We will go tomorrow.. and for people back East, Mill Valley is one of the best places in the Country to be "waiting ' for anything.
ed gleason
5 years 8 months ago
We went today and saw ' a stellar production of Samuel Beckett's famous play, Waiting for Godot at the Marin Theater Company.' A tragicomedy yet Becketts hopeful response to 50s nihilism. Hope was shown by a few green leaves on the tree in act II, the hope in waiting, the hope in the two pairs of men needing each other, and the fact that everyone kept getting up after a dozen or so falls. The grey haired audience loved it.

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