In 1953, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman living in Paris, published 'En attendant Godot', and then translated it himself into English, 'Waiting for Godot'.
It was produced in 1955 at a theater in Paris and since then has been performed non-stop at a theater locale somewhere in the world. It's the only play about which that can be said. In 1999, it was named "the most significant play of the 20th century".
For those of you who are not familiar with the play, it's essentially about two men -- call them rakes, hobos, bums, anchorites, idiot savants, hippies or punks (if you want to modernize it) -- wandering about the stage not knowing where they are going and just as uncertain as to whether they should keep moving or 'wait for Godot' --whose presence is imminent but who never actually shows up.*[See a sample of the dialogue at the bottom of this blog.]
Of course a play like this -- labelled absurdist, existential, and even nonsensical-- is an enigma that has been subjected to a broad range of interpretations and explanations. Beckett himself said that he wasn't sure what it was about exactly, and that he might have written parts of it while in a 'trance'.
I saw a production of the play, fittingly enough, on a barge docked along the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris in 1976. It was a seminal experience in my life. I was 23 years old and had just graduated college. A few days after seeing the play, while strolling around Paris feeling fancy free, as I was want to do, I came across the cast of the play having lunch at an open-air table on a patch of grass alongside the floating barge. They appeared to be as flamboyantly rakish and raffish in real life as they had been on stage -- laughing and drinking, and, well, simply enjoying life (Joie de vivre!).
If there had been any corporate inclinations in my 20 year old future perspective on life, they were wiped out in that moment. That's how I wanted to live!
But, in addition to that, having seen the play, I feel, also entitles me to my own opinion about what 'Waiting for Godot' means: I've always felt that Beckett was warning us against the human proclivity to look for authority figures to tell us what to do. The proclivity must be burned into our DNA because, except for this recent and brief (and still fragile) experiment with democracy, we humans have throughout history fought long and hard to be ruled by some particular authority figure, be it king, emperor, dictator, pope or cult leader.
It's understandable to want things to go right, and to want to put as little effort into it as possible -- after all, don't we elect people and pay them good money to do that for us? But is that realistic? I'd argue no, and I think Beckett might agree with me.
I think that many liberals, progressives -- whatever they prefer to call themselves these days-- had a 'Waiting for Godot' attitude toward the election of Barak Obama. They expected that just by the fact of electing him, that the election in and of itself would change things.
I think it's time to heed Beckett's ever timely and significant warning against waiting for others to do for us what we know deep down we can only do for ourselves.
You can argue how effective, or not, Barak Obama has been as president, but his two terms in office have opened up an eight-year window of opportunity to push a progressive agenda forward without the interference of a reactionary conservative in the White House.
The question should not be about Obama's performance, but our own. Are we doing enough to advocate for economic fairness, affordable housing, living wages, banking and financial reforms?
Pick a cause you feel something about and push for it. If not, don't blame 'Godot' for not showing up.
Please check out my Facebook group, Advocate for Economic Fairness!
And, if you like, you can also watch this video of me talking about kindness and being homeless -- during which, I must admit, I did feel a little like one of Beckett's untethered waifs.
* Dialogue from Waiting for Godot: “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that
we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would
meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were
addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this
place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or
not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent
worthily for one the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!
What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros
and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to
the help of his congeners without the least reflexion, or else he slinks
away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question.
What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are
blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in the immense
confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come -- ”