Why Godot keeps us waiting - Sazi Bongwe
“ESTRAGON: Let's go.
VLADIMIR: We can't.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We're waiting for Godot.”
And so it goes on. Upon every read and every watch, Samuel Beckett’s critically acclaimed 1950s play, for many the face of the theatre of the absurd, never ceases to prove relevant. Subtitled ‘a tragicomedy in two acts’, the play captures the discussions and encounters that two characters, Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi), engage in as they await the arrival of somebody named Godot, who never happens to appear. Just as the wait for Godot’s presence seems to never end, so too does the multitude of questions that arise from the play; both within the play itself but also in its many applications. Interpretations of the play’s true meaning stretch far and wide - a void of explanation true to the play’s plot and even to Godot himself - but perhaps this is where the value of the work can be found. Waiting for Godot is inexhaustibly open to interpretation; and leaves the reader in deep contemplation, trademarks of any great text. And so, when internalising this play I’ve often wondered where and how to begin my thinking, a sentiment seemingly shared by Vladimir :
“VLADIMIR: It's the start that's difficult.
ESTRAGON: You can start from anything.
VLADIMIR: Yes, but you have to decide.”
The circular nature of the play leads us to believe that the answers lay hidden somewhere between the lines. At the crux of the play is one fundamental question : what should the characters do? Should they wait on idly for an unknown figure of whom Estragon concedes, “personally, I wouldn’t even know him if I saw him.” or are they better off giving up? It becomes clear that holding onto the conviction that Godot will soon appear represents a matter of hope. This sense of hope is glaringly present in Vladimir, seen not only in his allegiance to Godot but in his conviction that “tomorrow everything will be better.” The characters consider giving up, as far as even to contemplate suicide, but they are halted by their hope. “We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow (pause). Unless Godot comes” Vladimir says. The tug of war that manifests between despair and hope does not exist to lead one to choose between the two, but rather to understand that it’s not as black and white as it seems. Despair and hope, contrary to popular belief, are not polar opposites; and this is evidenced critically by Waiting for Godot. Whether you understand it through some Freudian outlook on conscious and subconscious, or two contrary belief systems working hand in hand, hope and despair are not mutually exclusive. Come the play’s curtain call, the characters posses both simultaneously :
“VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
(They do not move)”
They finally commit to despair in their words yet hope, or perhaps some distortion of it, keeps them there, waiting.
Godot is steeped in symbolism, we never meet him and so in a sense that is all he is able to exist as. As a consequence, every reader is inclined to interrogate who or what their own Godot is. Our greatest fear is that we too are stuck waiting for a Godot that never comes. But rather than to paint this act of waiting as something treacherous, Waiting for Godot presents an alternative view. Vladimir flips this notion on its head when he says, “What are we doing here, that is the question.” and proceeds to answer his own question in that, “we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer.” The answer is simply that they are waiting. The play seems to be a quest for the realisation of the two characters’ sense of purpose in meeting Godot, when in fact their sense of purpose is found in the act of waiting. In turn, for the reader, waiting for their own Godot becomes somewhat heroic. It represents the resolve to hold someone in such high esteem that one would devote themselves to enduring the test of time.
Perhaps then the most daunting embodiment of Waiting for Godot is to us as South Africans. While it may appear that we had indeed found our Godot in the euphoria of 1994, we’re still waiting for him to truly show himself. In the promise that South Africans manifested in democracy a ‘free and equal nation,’ rather than finally meeting this idealised figure, we began our wait. One might argue that 26 years later, we’re still waiting. As much as we’d like to believe our society is one ridden of the injustices of Apartheid, reality suggests the contrary. Evidenced, not exclusively but pertinently, in the discourse of the #MustFall movements, we are far from our utopia. For people of colour in South Africa, economic disenfranchisement and income inequality, lasting colonial structures and institutionalised racism mean that we’ve never truly known our Godot. Godot most closely resembles the promise of the Rainbow Nation - what they have in common is that neither has arrived. The difference, however, is that South Africa, unlike Gogo and Didi, no longer has to go on waiting. Tellingly, in the words of Vladimir, “let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget.” Our Godot is not foreign and unknown, we know what he looks like. Economic freedom, intersectional representation and decolonised, accessible education signify the start of the improvement of the everyday experiences of the marginalised in our country. With the advent of a new decade, the emerging youth of South Africa possess the capacity for true social, political and economic change. When I look at the young South Africans that I’m so lucky to share spaces with, and those who inspire me daily, I side with Didi in believing that tomorrow will indeed be better.
Irish critic Vivian Mercier famously describes Waiting for Godot as a play in which “nothing happens, twice” and it’s a description which I adamantly reject. So much happens. The play takes us to places inside ourselves which we never knew were there. We never meet Godot, and so almost every detail about his character is left to our imagination. In a sense, every reader constructs Godot for themselves. In the same way, we make of the play what we chose to, or more interestingly, what we’re inclined to. This internal dialogue sparked by the play occurs within each of us, revealing our deepest desires, our most inherent biases and what we long for most in life. It makes clear to us that although Beckett’s play describes Godot as one man; he’s much more. And hence, the rationale behind our decision on whether to continue waiting or to give up changes. Personally, waiting for your own Godot might be the best thing that you ever choose to do. For South Africa, the time to wait is over, and we must go find our Godot. Read the play in the link below. I’d be so interested in hearing what Godot means for you. In the meantime, I’ll be here - waiting.