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Lockdown Lessons from Literature: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’

Under the shadow of the pandemic, the concept of waiting has never been so painfully relevant. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives – the mantra began with the budding of Spring 2020, persisted through the heat of Summer and outstayed the falling of Autumn leaves. Even now, at the end of a bleak Winter, the phrase is suffocatingly present. We sit and wait for something that feels Sisyphean: the hope for the wait to be over. This sensation of longing forms the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot which sees two men whittling the hours away until Godot’s arrival – a surreal narrative that is almost surreally relevant in these unprecedented times. 

Waiting for Godot is a text I’ve always intended to read but, for some reason or another, found a way to distract myself from. Whether a book, sports or general life took priority, I’d never felt the time was right. The irony of waiting to read a text that consciously bides its own time is smartingly amusing (the irony, I’m sure, would not have been lost on the notoriously unamused Beckett). Suddenly life became a lockdown. The sports I loved ceased to continue. The demands of university reading stopped. Life as we knew froze. And so, I picked up the text and delved into a narrative of failed communication and passive boredom.

A dystopia of sorts (doesn’t everything seem like one nowadays?), the world of Beckett’s creation is tantalisingly mysterious. He himself stated that all he knew about the play is that ‘they’re wearing bowlers’. This evasion of definition permeates the whole text and disorientates the audience through its quiescence. There is a synthesis between the characters’ waiting and the audience’s. This meta-theatricality makes itself painfully aware as it transforms the play into a farce on the whole experience of theatre. Vladimir and Estragon’s dialogue alternates periodically between thoughts on whether to leave or stay (“Estragon: Let’s go / Vladimir: We can’t / Estragon: Why not? / Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot”). Here, Beckett transgresses the realist aims to present something further. The artificiality of the narrative is facetiously self-conscious in its clarity, highlighting the inertia of the characters and, by extension, the audience. The play tells us in every manner that nothing will occur, asking the question of why we would insist on sitting through the boredom. 

A simple answer: hope. Despite the uncertainty, enigmatic pauses and almost palpable ennui, there is a distinct drive to stick with the play. Through the violence and bleak humour, there remains a promise to break the persistent absence manifested through the coming of Godot. In a world in which “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes”, there is still an inescapable presence of hope that appears strong enough to bear the absurdism of reality. The conclusion of the play sees Didi and Gogo once again debating whether to stay and go (“Estragon: Well, shall we go? / Vladimir: Yes, let’s go.”). Despite agreeing to leave, the final stage direction states “They do not move.”. This closing moment to the play encapsulates its contemplation of a world of farcical chaos in which there is little meaning to be drawn from word and action. Yet, there is also a clear element of hope seen through their decision to stay. The decision epitomises the ultimate, unassailable, triumph of hope over experience.

This hope, for us, is not in a mysterious Godot but the government to steer a course through this storm. Away from the bleak isolation enforced by the pandemic and back towards the life we know and cherish. In times like these, a pandemic raging rampant, waiting is inevitable. Yet, this uncertainty is supported by the hope of better days to come. Until then, let us sit back and distract ourselves as best we can, perhaps even, with a play by Beckett.

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