We got the boat from Rossaveal early Monday morning to Inis Meáin. Already intoxicated by thoughts of the island relayed to me by Colm Toibin in this account for the Guardian in which he describes the island as the most mysterious of the Aran Islands, it added a hint of magic that we catch Druid’s esteemed production of Waiting For Godot while we were there. After missing out on tickets for performance at the Mick Lally Theatre for its run at the Galway Arts Festival, a series of special rural performances were announced and I hopped on the tickets for Inis Meáin in seconds. How special would it be I thought to see the play performed in the countryside, in the real wilds, away from the comfort of the theatre.
Hopes were high. Air pressure was low. The sky touched the land and the island of Inis Oírr could no longer be seen across the sea. One would forget the sky could even be blue so exhaustive was the grey threshold of the sky. The sun was well masked by the grey. It was one of those days that at no point could one point to the heavens and determine the source of the faint light that kept the island lit. The day felt timeless. You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate setting for the performance.
It is hard to imagine that when this play first appeared it was derided, misunderstood, lambasted and scorned. Perhaps it is all about setting. For seeing Didi and Gogo, adrift at the side of the road lambasting the day, wondering what it was that they could do until Godot’s arrival, one understands after spending the previous seven hours on an island where nothing happens, that time literally doesn’t alter, there is just night, there is just day, that we are witnessing two men that have had enough of such daily occurrences.
It is hard to put Waiting For Godot into context. In a way, in being placed on a stage, Waiting For Godot is taken out of context. In the wild, karst landscape of Inis Meain it strangely feels like it is being placed back within context. Well for the audience at least that, whether they are locals from the island or day farers coming over specifically for the performance, the sense of timelessness takes over or of time having ceased its movement. The land is stoney; nothing will grow. The sky is grey and so opaque that the only way to distinguish between noon and the evening would be with a watch. There is little to satiate the senses apart from stone and grey skies. One is confronted with the inertia of existence. In sitting on those fold up chairs on a damp, grey July evening the audience has already sunk into the required headspace for the play. So much the better. So much the better.
Staging the play in this setting, on the dunes of An Trá, the humour of the play shone brightly. It probably did too at the Mick Lally but turning around and looking at the locals, children as young as ten laughing and jumping on their chairs to see Lucky being leathered with a kick while on the ground, there was an innocence to the humour that I have not seen in other productions. The pure slapstick nature of the play was allowed shine without a reliance on the philosophical musings of being stuck in time just because that feeling of being stuck in time was being experienced by all. We were all in an evening that there was no setting sun.
Both Gogo and Didi in this production were very ‘Irish’ characters. They were made familiar in their accents, in this Irish propensity for being deeply considered one moment and deflating the next moment with a fart joke. In that familiarity, the strangeness of Beckett’s play was removed. Druid’s production was amazing in that sense as it stripped so much of the strangeness and the abstractness from the play and allowed the comedy of the actors on stage to mesmerise. For the comedy of the play is the everyday tragedy of trying to overcome inertia, of man, abandoned by the Christian God that has imbued all aspects of life with meaning, that has made every action of this life meaningful in the morality stakes of God’s judgement, that leaves these two individuals alone in each other’s company, reliant on the other’s kind words and the other’s torment to pass a few seconds again and again until the cruel harbinger of meaningless time extols itself once again. For the audience as well as the characters on stage, the play is an experience of such waiting, of the raw experience of time itself.
What is waiting? Beckett from early on in his writing career has shown a profound interest in the present moment and how the present moment is experienced. Beckett in Proust talks about how the present is a made up of our desire for a future event, that our present moment is a constant will to a future state that makes the present moment a kind of undulation of past memories and desires of a future moment that make the present a kind of non-place, a place that is seldom directly experienced. The aim, in some ways is to make Waiting For Godot an experience of that experience.
As Beckett describes it in Proust, “The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours.” To unpack this a little bit. The present moment is chaos. It is a concoction of an infinite amount of happenings and of events but as individuals we deaden over the humdrum of this life as to perceive all would almost annihilate ourselves. Therefore man relies on habit, a repetition of everyday life to avoid confronting the chaos or the disorder of the moment. Habit is order over chaos. Or as Didi states, “the great deadener”. Every day Estragon and Vladimir return to the same point and every day they are forced to confront time itself in the waiting for a specified event in which they have placed their hope in.
And this hope itself is abstract. For who or what is Godot?
ESTRAGON:(his mouth full, vacuously). We’re not tied?
VLADIMIR:I don’t hear a word you’re saying.
ESTRAGON:(chews, swallows). I’m asking you if we’re tied.
VLADIMIR:How do you mean tied?
VLADIMIR:But to whom? By whom?
ESTRAGON:To your man.
VLADIMIR:To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment.
I’m not going to ruminate on what or who Godot is. I don’t there’s any point and it seems pretty futile to do so. But what is clear is that Godot invokes the torment inflicted on the two protagonists. He is the hope that the two men construct their days around. It is he they are tied down to “for the moment”. The two men are incapable of arranging or composing their day on their own accord. All their hope rests on Godot and the vague promise that he will deliver, that they hope will make their present suffering worthwhile. Of course, us audience goers are smarter that that and we know he will never arrive. We also know that each day the pair will return and have to experience the torment of experiencing the present moment as a hope for a future event. Unable to live in the present moment because of the constant niggling awareness that the present holds no value, that they are in a certain place for a purpose, for a future event, the pair aim constantly to distract themselves from the misery of their life as waiting.
What Druid’s performance highlights hilariously is the comedy of this, the absurdity of a life waiting. Of humankind’s construction of their present life according to the vague supplications of another. One just need cast an eye on the inimitable Pozzo, who bedazzles in all his pomposity. He is a performer, a dandy, one who lives for the other’s eye. He may be the master but as he himself admits, he is equally a slave to Lucky as Lucky is to him. Dressed in all the attire as an English statesman he lives for the moment to entertain and impress but never falters in asserting his dominance as owner of these lands and master. The eerie silence that follows “he refused once” suggests the violence that is continually alluded to that happens offstage.
But what of all this and how does it tie into the notion of the present? I think a question to be asked is could Waiting For Godot be written before World War II. It is a ridiculous hypothetical question but perhaps worth asking to figure out what the present moment has thrown at the characters. Here is a F.S Fitzgerald quote written in relation to WWI, just to give a bit of context to the turmoil of the post war mentality.
“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”
Despite the violence and an astute awareness of its meaningless the creeds remain the same. The order remains the same. Violence retains order. And the slave comes to relish the violence, the order that imposes meaning on their life.”He imagines that when I see how well he carries I’ll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity,” states Pozzo of Lucky’s slavish mindset, of his willingness to hold the bags despite his fatigue.
The extravagantly long whip that Pozzo carries is a reminder of the violence of order, it is a reminder of the beatings that Estragon receives off stage and of the beatings that Boy’s brother receives off Godot. It is a reminder, when twinned with the decadence of Pozzo as a landlord and the desolation of the landscape, of the horror that fascism and war has unleashed across the land.
ESTRAGON:We’ve no rights any more? Laugh of Vladimir, stifled as before, less the smile.
VLADIMIR:You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited.
ESTRAGON:We’ve lost our rights?
VLADIMIR:(distinctly). We got rid of them.Silence. They remain motionless, arms dangling, heads sunk, sagging at the knees.
ESTRAGON:(feebly). We’re not tied? (Pause.) We’re not—
Laughter being prohibited may be made with mirth but it points to the totalitarianism that has been unleashed on this society. The question of human rights becomes a kind of joke when they have been as dispensable as they were during the slaughter of world war two. The idea of rights, of a kind of protection based on bureaucracy, in other words on the letter of the law is shown to be the ultimate kind of nonsense when the individual comes to believe that it will protect them from the worst excesses of violence. Instead what is pointed to here by Vladimir in stating that “we got rid of them” is of the passivity of man, of mankind’s failure to act against violence even if it is faced with the prospect of being stripped of all dignity. And in the pairs faith in Godot, despite not knowing from what cause he will rescue them, Beckett is delivering a very potent understanding of man’s passivity due to its faith in a future event.
“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?”
Truth has evaporated from these lands and meaning with it. In Nietzche’s words ‘all is permitted’. Vladimir seems closest to penetrating the futility of Godot’s coming, that he is reliant on him in much the same way a slave is reliant on a master. It is this hope that lends credence to the value of a life. The wait for Godot is a wait to conquer the incredible drudgery of the present.
Two things stuck out for me in Druid’s production (and of course the emphasis may just have rang clear in my ears) was the emphasis on “losing rights” and also on Estragon’s pleading to the boy to tell Godot that “you saw us… You did see us, didn’t you?” Under the downy sky as the day slowly, imperceptibly gave way to night, Estragon again pleaded, more forlorn, more anxious than in the first act, “tell him that you saw me and that … [He hesitates]… that you saw me.” Until he reacts with violence, the most animated with despair that we have seen Estragon throughout the play “You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!” The boy exits running without response.
The emphasis on being seen that Garry Hynes places on Beckett’s text, on Estragon being witnessed by the boy and also to relay his existence, his presence to Godot counterbalances the flippant comedy that was on display throughout. This moment, Estragon’s feeling of banishment from the world that no longer can he trust his senses but needs, desperately in this world of waiting, to be affirmed by Godot. To be told, that even if Godot will not make it tomorrow, he at least knows of his presence. The solemn acceptance of Marty Rea’s Gogo that perhaps his existence will not be affirmed, that his waiting will have been in vain, that he will have to spend another day with Didi concocting ways to pass the time until perhaps, hopefully Godot will show up, that the time of reckoning will finally arrive. That they can be told that their waiting, their suffering, their deliverance from the utter futile meaningless of their days will finally be over. That Godot will arrive. That he will tell them you’re wait is over, and like the slaves that they are they will bow with delight and await his words and thank him that their wait, their daily existence has proved to be of value, that meaning has finally arrived.
But theirs is a wait without an end. Theirs is an existence without a master. And in this existence without a master, they have sought a new one to grant their days meaning. Ineffectual as he is, he is better than the meaningless beatings that they daily receive. And what harm to be beat today when tomorrow holds the promise of freedom.
Faith in another day masks the tragedy of today.
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