This past weekend, my partner and I went to see a wonderful production of Samuel Beckett’s iconic so-called Theater of the Absurd play “Waiting For Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Anyone who has ever seen or read this magnum opus of Beckett’s knows that, in one sense, it’s not an easy play to sit through. By that I mean that it does not have any immediately recognizable through line that tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s no build up and dénouement, no catharsis, and you don’t walk away whistling any tunes when it’s over either. If you’re whistling anything, in fact, it’s maybe the old “dies irae,” from the black funeral mass of my Catholic youth.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a depressing play either. In fact, in an odd sort of way, I found it rather uplifting. One of the things that kept running through my mind during the play was: what does it exactly mean “to wait”? This is not the first time I’ve pondered that question, but Beckett certainly drives the point home over and over. The character Gogo (Estragon) says repeatedly to his friend and helper Didi (Vladimir) “What are we waiting for?” And the reply comes back each time: “We’re waiting for Godot!” Gogo then always answers with the same world-weary sigh, “Ohhhh!” Exactly who or what Godot might be is of course never revealed in the play, just as more often than not the things that we wait for and anticipate so keenly in life either never come to us, or when they do come, it’s in a form that we don’t quite recognize.
Over dinner later on, my partner asked me what I would say if someone asked me what the play was about. I was frankly a little surprised at my reply, because I hadn’t actually thought it through. What I said was that the whole thing seemed like a dream to me. And I know at least a little bit about analyzing dreams, since I’ve been doing it for myself (and for a few close friends) for years. Before getting in to that, however, it might be helpful if I say a few quick words about the play itself, in case you’re unfamiliar with it. There are only five characters total. Aside from the above mentioned Gogo and Didi, the two sad clown protagonists, there is Pozzo and Lucky, with a tiny part played by someone referred to only as Boy. Pozzo and Lucky are two mad men with a sadomasochistic relationship. Lucky is Pozzo’s personal servant/slave, who crawls about almost on all fours with a rope tied around his neck carrying Pozzo’s luggage, while Pozzo is a high-handed bit of a dandy, who clearly thinks very well of himself and of his role in life. Boy is a sort of innocent angel in white who appears exactly twice, very briefly, in order to bring news to our two protagonists that Godot sends his regrets that he is unable to come this evening, but will not fail to do so tomorrow. Of course by that time, we in the audience already know that neither tomorrow, nor Godot, will surely ever arrive.
In one sense, I suppose, I hesitate – or maybe I ought to – before giving any “dream interpretation” of the play, inasmuch as Beckett himself always resisted what he thought of as reducing his great work to a mere symbol or metaphor. And there is no doubt that it is much more than that, just as dreams are, by the way. Still, I don’t think people can help but try to assign some meaning to things, and surely Beckett himself must have meant something in writing this sometimes inscrutable, but also marvelously entertaining and funny piece of theater. So, here goes.
One axiomatic approach to dream interpretation is to assume that all of the characters, in fact all the things, that appear in a dream (animals, objects, scenery etc.) are you. That is to say, they are all various parts of who you are, of what makes you you. If we apply this methodology to “Waiting For Godot,” we might then say that Gogo and Didi, in a sense, stand for the parts of each of us that bumble through life. And, really, who does not do so? No matter how well we may present ourselves to the world in the bright light of day, secretly and silently in the darkness of the fear-filled night each person knows that he or she struggles mightily with awful apprehensions and terrible doubts. This is the human condition, and therefore it is inescapable. Each of us awaits. What are we waiting for? What are we hoping for, what are we expecting, what are we fearing? Who knows? It is the sum total of all of those fears and hopes and desires and dreads and premonitions and insecurities that sit there just beyond our reach. This is the unconscious mind, that huge mystical, mythical creature that lurks below, the unnamed fear of children the world over lying hidden beneath the bed, ready to pounce and do who knows what. Later in life, we chide ourselves for fearing monsters, and yet great, unfathomable beasts continue to lie in wait all the same, though we now call them by different names.
These two, in fact, the conscious mind of work-a-day reality and adult presentation to the world, and the enormously powerful and wonderful, but too often anxiety-filled world of the unconscious mind are Pozzo and Lucky to a tee. In the first act Pozzo prances about lording it over this person, this thing, that he believes he has full control over, this slave of his that is “lucky” to be taken charge of and ordered about to do his bidding and to carry his luggage. Even so, Pozzo is never as fully in control as he thinks, and this other part of him erupts from time to time and spews out a torrent, a phantasmagoric jumble of rage-filled words that stun and mesmerize everyone within earshot. In the second act, Pozzo appears again, still leading his slave by a rope, but this time Pozzo is now blind. The intellect, and what I sometimes call the “presentation-self,” thinks with great pride that it is fully in charge, but in fact it bumbles about blindly, as badly as Gogo and Didi, those other parts of ourselves that while away the time engaged in the chores of everyday life.
What are we waiting for? We are waiting for Godot. Ohhh! We are awaiting some better, some higher, some Supreme part of ourselves that will come and finally rescue us from all those things that we mean when we say “everyday life.” Everyday life is sometimes hard, sometimes funny, sometimes it’s violent, sometimes terribly painful, sometimes alluring and amusing, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes filled with horror, and sometimes just plain boring. Didi and Gogo live through it all, just as each of us does, the two occasionally separating, though not for long, only to come back together again after maybe getting beaten up a bit, the yin and yang of optimism and pessimism.
And yet, in the end, they continue to hope. What else is there after all, in spite of all of our lapses? Yes, to be sure, it occasionally dawns on each of us that what we are waiting for is perhaps not going to come. Still, there is an innocence in us that still clings to a faith, to a trust, a belief that, just maybe tomorrow, it will all happen as we wish. Surely, tomorrow Godot will not fail to arrive!
Becket was apparently adamant that Godot was not God. But who is he to say? He has set his wondrous dream afloat on the sea of our consciousness, and as such he has lost all control. So, let us hope on, in spite of anything and everything. Let us continue to await what we know is our highest destiny. How each of us defines and interprets that is the personal choice of every individual. Isn’t that what it means to be human? Isn’t that what it means to be self-fulfilled? Isn’t that what it means to wait?