Godot makes audiences ponder nothing … again

The peskiest of all essay prompts in English classes is surely the “keyword” essay, in which students are asked to produce five-plus pages on a single word or image of seeming importance from a given work. Such pointlessness typifies the sort of mechanical exercises that too often spoil educations in English and literary criticism.

Limited run · A Noise Within has brought back its popular production of Waiting for Godot for a brief ten-performance engagement. Joel Swetow (left) and Robertson Dean reprise their roles as Gogo and Didi. - Photos courtesy of A Noise Within

But in certain, exceedingly rare circumstances, a work does lend itself to this kind of reductive analysis, and the exercise can actually be somewhat worthwhile. One of those works is Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot — his English translation of his own originally French play — subtitled “A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.”

If Waiting of Godot had a keyword, it would of course be the word “nothing” — not surprisingly, the first word we hear in the play. Estragon (Joel Swetow) is trying desperately to take off his boot and, failingly, says, “Nothing to be done.”

That’s Beckett self-reflexively warning us that over the course of the next two hours, nothing indeed will be done.

This was my second time seeing Waiting for Godot at A Noise Within, a small venue full of big talent. The play was brought back for the classical repertory company’s 2009-2010 season “by popular demand.” Apparently, theatre of the absurd is still alive and well in these parts: This is the third consecutive year ANW has reprised this acclaimed production.

We should not fault ANW for continually restaging Godot, if only because the more people who see it, the better. And if it means easy money for this outstanding company, which is in the process of moving to a permanent location, so much the better.

Of course, the play itself is not particularly easy to enjoy. But then again, I don’t think it was meant to be. When I saw it the first time, I recommended it to Daily Trojan readers and I would recommend it again — but for a few new, and I should think better articulated, reasons.

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

The same is true of watching theater, where preconceptions — or, in this case, expectations — are poison.

Waiting for Godot has often been called one of most important English-language plays of the past century. Let scholars spout off such fatuities; whether or not it’s true is besides the point. We can’t think like that when we sit down for a performance. We’ll invariably be let down and then feel bad about ourselves for not “getting it.”

Waiting for Godot is — surprise, surprise — an exercise in waiting. Estragon and his old friend Vladimir (Robertson Dean), who call each other Didi and Gogo, wait near a rock and a tree for Mr. Godot; it is no real spoiler at this point to say that he never shows. For two hours — which for them is two days — Estragon and Vladimir pass the time by walking, talking, sitting, standing, eating, laughing, crying and embracing.

So many adjectives have been used to describe this play — minimalist, absurdist, existentialist, avant-garde, experimental — that we risk losing it amid the endless wordage. What it is is elemental, a naked look at what it’s like to wait for something great and to lose oneself in the process.

Who is Godot? Who are Pozzo (Mitchell Edmonds) and Lucky (Mark Bramhall), the two strangers who cross paths with Estragon and Vladimir on the first day and return the second day with no knowledge of the original encounter? Who are the boys (Owen Scholar) who are supposedly sent by Godot? Is it only one boy?

We leave Waiting for Godot with far more questions than answers but that is where the play succeeds most brilliantly in keeping us riveted. Watching this play is not a passive experience; there must be constant audience engagement for the play to be worthwhile. It is not easy to do — and can at times be downright challenging — but the result is worth it: a truly personal and personalized experience.

Is Waiting for Godot really a play about nothing? On average, the word “nothing” is repeated once every three minutes for the full two hours. We can never escape the void.

But that is Beckett’s ultimate challenge with this play: to make something out of nothing. In the end, Estragon and Vladimir can’t, but in their failure perhaps Beckett wants us to succeed.