Talking Godot - Thoughts from Director Peter Reid
POZZO: Who is Godot?
POZZO: You took me for Godot.
DIDI: Oh! No Sir. Not for an instant Sir.
POZZO: Who is he?
DIDI: Oh! He’s a…he’s a kind of acquaintance.
GOGO: He’s nothing of the kind, we hardly know him.
DIDI: True …we don’t know him very well…but all the same…
GOGO: Personally, I wouldn’t even know him if I saw him.
This exchange happens around twenty minutes into Act One with the arrival of Pozzo, the landowner and his slave Lucky. “Who is Godot?” has always been the most common question asked by audiences since the plays debut. I’d like to address that question first. Please remember that this is all my own personal opinion. There have been thousands upon thousands of books, essays and papers speculating on this play by experts and academics who have devoted their lives to the contents and meanings within the text. I am no academic but I have spent more than twenty years producing and directing the work of Samuel Beckett and I admit to having read endless essays and books on the author. So, “Who is Godot?”. I’m going to suggest that not only is it the wrong question but that it doesn’t matter who Godot is or what he represents. The original title of the play when it was first written in French is “En Attendant Godot”, literally translating as “While Waiting for Godot”. This title takes away much of the almost spiritual, existential sense and places it very much as an event, the stress falls on the action, waiting, rather than the name of Godot. Secondly, the word Godot must be taken with a pinch of salt. Beckett, when asked directly if Godot was God would reply “ If I meant God , I would have said God”. This response is typical of Beckett and in many ways typically Irish. There is a roguish quality to the answer. Beckett was far too steeped in theology and too highly educated to give this as an answer without his tongue firmly stuck in his cheek. The play is awash with biblical allusion and quotations, talk of salvation ( “Gogo: And if he comes? Didi: We’ll be saved. ACT 2) but there is also another influence and when the play is taken as part of the entire Beckett canon, it is obvious that Dante’s The Divine Comedy and particularly the Purgatory section is central to all of Beckett’s work. Nearly all of Beckett’s plays, poems and novels after ‘Godot’ could be said to be set in variants of Dante’s Purgatory. Let me just put aside our absent friend ‘Godot’ a moment and as Gogo says “Let’s move on to something else now, do you mind?”
Didi is the natural leader of the two. In many ways he could represent the devout or the faithful. He has no proof of a meeting, only vague knowledge of the meeting place and yet he waits. It is also he who has convinced Gogo that they should wait. He who is assured of the meeting (“He said by the tree, do you see any others?”). He who is the carer, he who dispenses the food and more importantly it is he who continually convinces Gogo not to abandon their waiting.
Didi suffers from a very common complaint of many Beckett characters, a difficulty with his walk ( stiff), in Didi’s case it seems to be from a prostate trouble. First impressions would suggest he is the more intelligent of the pair or at least he seems to think so. It is he who is interested in hearing Lucky ‘think’ as opposed to Gogo’s choice of ‘I’d rather he dance’, Didi perhaps seeking a clue or an answer from this thinking. His quote early in act 1, “Hope deferred maketh the something sick” is very telling. The actual quote is “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but when desire cometh it is the tree of life”. Not only does Didi miss the word “heart” but he misses the rest of the quote about desire (or want) being the tree of life ( or salvation) All this despite his continual study of the tree. Salvation not only evades him in the play but his own mind is unable to give him the answers he seeks. He continually tries to use logic to justify their waiting. The “one of the thieves was saved, it’s a reasonable percentage” and the permutations that follow about the various reports from the Gospels while correct are essentially an exercise in self-deception.
Didi’s key speech, ACT 2
‘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 spoke to us? Probably, but in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me of the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot…astride a grave and a difficult birth, down in the hole lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps, we have time to grow old, the air is full of our cries, but habit is a great deadener….at me too someone is looking…of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping , he knows nothing…let him sleep on…I can’t go on….What have I said?
Didi’s speech after the blind Pozzo exits in act 2 has a profound effect on him. Pozzo’s ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant and it is night once more’ is echoed during Didi’s next speech ‘ Astride of a grave and a difficult birth, down in the hole, lingeringly , the gravedigger puts on the forceps, we have time to grow old, the air is full of our cries, but habit is a great deadener’ . During this speech he begins to lose his faith. At the end he almost cries ‘ I can’t go on’ and this moment hits him with such profound impact (after all, if he can’t go on what is is the alternative and what has his purpose been up til now) and he follows it by a panicked ‘what have I said?’ and then a return to his searching for the arrival of Godot. The boy arrives and Didi already knows the answers. Interestingly, during the conversation with the boy in act one, when the boy says “what shall I tell Mr. Godot, Sir?” Didi responds “ Tell him you saw us” but in act two he says “ Tell him you saw me”. Perhaps in his own way and in a moment of weakness he is willing to abandon Gogo.
Unsurprisingly Gogo is always a favourite with audiences. He is neither devout nor vigilant. In fact it would appear that the arrival or non arrival of Godot would make little difference to him at all. He is childish, giddy, petulant, attention seeking, playful, easily pleased, easily bored and more than happy to sleep at any given moment. Like Didi, Gogo has an affliction common to many Beckett characters, difficulty with his feet.
His concerns about the arrival of Godot seem purely materialistic ‘What exactly did we ask him for?’. He is also from what we can gather, a poet, or was. His main characteristic, one that is both his weakness and his salvation is his forgetfulness. “ That’s the way I am, I either forget immediately or I never forget” Act 2. It is his weakness in that he cannot keep up with conversations for any length of time, indeed he forgets Pozzo’a name within seconds of hearing it. He continually forgets why they are there “ Let’s go…We can’t…Why not?...We’re waiting for Godot….Ah! Yes!” It is his salvation for the same reason. If he can’t remember then his ability to repeat the same things day after day is his blessing. This is a very personal view of Gogo but, I believe that as a poet he doesn’t seek knowledge ( as Didi does) but feels part of the earth, he and the stone he sleeps on are one. Indeed his altered version of Shelley’s poem on the arrival of the moon in Act one would confirm for me that Gogo sees the earth and all on it as one (regardless of his feelings towards it)
Shelley’s : Art thou pale for weariness, of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth.
Gogo: Pale for weariness..of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us.
Whereas Shelley’s poem appears to ask the moon if it is not tired of the same thing over and over. Gogo’s is more of a statement, partly telling the moon ‘ I don’t blame you being weary, who wouldn’t’.
Just a note on Gogo’s anger (if it can be called anger). His very short outbursts show a discontent with the conditions and perhaps the reason he is willing to go along with Didi’s idea of something better, salvation, food, comfort. On being told he would be nothing more than a little heap of bones if it were not for Didi’s care he responds “ Oh! That would be too bad, wouldn’t it Didi, too bad, when you consider the beauty of the way and the goodness of the wayfarers” and again in Act two “ Look at this muckheap! I never stirred from it. All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud and you talk to me about scenery!” and again “ No, I was never in the Macon country, I’ve puked my puke of a life away here, here I tell you, in the cackon country”
A quick note about Gogo’s fearlessness of suicide. He consistently suggests hanging as a means out of their situation. He speaks of a time when he threw himself into the Rhone. Twin this with Didi’s line about “Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower among the first” from act one, it must be remembered that the Eiffel Tower was a favourite suicide spot until they put barriers up to prevent it. At the end of Act one when Gogo gets annoyed at the boy and drags him and is then manhandled by Didi who asks ‘ What’s the matter with you?’ , Gogo replies “I’m unhappy” , Didi asks “ Since when?” Gogo replies “I’d forgotten”. This is the blessing of his forgetfulness. He forgets he is unhappy and also forgets to kill himself. He says “Remind me to bring a good bit of rope tomorrow” Act one.
But for all this talk of suicide Gogo remains a clown. Quick to find a game in the simplest of actions. A master of passing the time.
As polar opposite a pairing as you can find to our main protagonists. Pozzo, a gentrified landowner with his slave Lucky. They explode into act one like a grenade. The extraordinary sight of a ragged man bent double being driven as if he were a horse by a type of country squire is the last thing one would expect in this play, it might even begin to feel like the beginnings of a plot.
Pozzo and Lucky, within this play that is seemingly about the want of salvation would easily represent mans inhumanity to his fellow man. The master and slave dynamic is one that is well known and yet we see that Lucky obeys Pozzo’s commands willingly ( Pozzo “He’s trying to impress me”) and wishes to remain with Pozzo despite his circumstance. It is yet another co-dependent relationship, but one that has gone sour with time. Pozzo’s cruelty is horrific, sadistic even but, he claims to have learned all he knows of “beauty, grace and truth” from Lucky who once “thought prettily” and “danced the farandole, jig and hornpipe”. So, if Pozzo were to be believed then Lucky must once have been a thoughtful, cultured man. What brought him so low?
For my own theory I have to turn to Lucky’s monologue. Within the monologue , in what appears to be gibberish, we have Lucky’s assertion that if we accept that there is a God ( with all the imagery of White beard etc) that we must accept that that God will never show himself or interfere with life and he even goes so far as to say that He just doesn’t care and the only reality is that you can study and devote your life to trying to understand the mindset of a divine being but the natural calamities of nature and the effects of time and decay will leave you none the wiser. You will end up nothing more than a skull. My reasoning being that Lucky , who once thought beautifully, has finally succumbed to snippets and snatches of philosophy and theology and his conclusions are images of decay without ever knowing. In his way, Lucky blows apart Didi’s faithful waiting. To my mind it is just as well that it does come across as gibberish as Lucky’s speech if heard and understood would destroy Didi and Gogo’s reason for waiting.
Just a quick note on Pozzo. For many years we have been asked why Pozzo is played with an English accent. The question is usually asked in a political context of ‘ the cast are Irish and speak with Irish accents and Pozzo, the bad guy, villain is played with and English accent due to Ireland’s colonial history with England’. This is not true. Firstly, we have in Ireland a class of people known as the Anglo Irish. They were Irish but liked to think of themselves as loyal to the Crown. They in their way ( very few still exist) were more exaggeratedly English than the English themselves and were always a source of humour both in Ireland and the UK. The other reason is the use of language. If Pozzo was English, he would be unlikely to use the kind of comically ornate verbiage that he does. An Anglo-Irish landowner on the other hand would. Of course the name Pozzo is Italian and I have found nowhere in my studies to indicate why. My conclusion is that he is much like an Italian Circus Master. Additionally there is no research that satisfactorily answers why the other characters are named as they are. Like much about Beckett, if he didn’t explain it, it’s unlikely to be worth knowing.
I first directed Godot in 2005, Nick Devlin who plays Didi in the current production played Lucky back then. He is the only remaining member from that production. It wasn’t my first time directing Beckett, I had directed and acted in several shorter plays for years and produced the first production of the novella First Love. Back then in that production in the Players Theatre at The Samuel Beckett Centre in TCD, Dublin ( Beckett’s old Alma Mater) I was terribly concerned with kicking against the established atmosphere surrounding the work of Beckett. In the late 90’s he still belonged to the academics and the serious people who ‘studied’ the work. As a jobbing director I came to the play from the perspective of one who needs to get it on its feet. It didn’t need to be ‘studied’ or ‘appreciated’ by an audience, but, lived, felt, laughed at, engaged with. It was live theatre and the thing I love most about live theatre is that connection with the audience.
This first productions therefore were deliberately physical, lots of the slapstick and vaudeville/Music hall that Beckett loved so much. I recognised many of the routines and the rhythms from old Marx Brothers / Laurel and Hardy/ Chaplin ( the ultimate tramp) and incorporated all of this joyful physicality and comic business into the production. The audience ( many young and with no preconceived notions of Beckett) loved it. We ran and ran for weeks over schedule and came back to it year after year. The cast changed , each part other than Lucky becoming new and bringing something different to each new production. Each time I returned to the production I reduced the amount of slapstick, or the dependency on physical comedy. As I had grown older I realised that while we were getting laughs we were missing something fundamental, in an effort to kick against the dry academia I had sacrificed much of the humanity in the play for laughs. I had to start again. I was lucky enough that Barry McGovern, Actor, long time Beckett interpreter and friend of the playwright had come to see a production and liking what he saw he loaned me his “Beckett Bible” a collation of twenty years of notes on Beckett’s work, minor changes, cuts, additions given by Beckett over the years. I had Beckett’s notes and maps and detailed changes and it was just what I needed at that time.
Some final random notes and observations.
There is a huge difference between the original French ‘En Attendent Godot’ text and the later English translation. This includes extra lines, place names etc. The French is far more formal whereas the English has a more Hiberno-English feel to it which is inevitable due to Beckett being Irish. Also by the time Beckett got to his translation he sought to improve it and began what he called vaguening the text, this meant removing direct indications of times and places and certainties.
In the seventies Beckett began to direct his own work more and more. When he came to Godot again he made so many changes that the actors begged him to leave in certain lines as they loved them so much. He was a very exacting director.
In the earlier versions of the were several moments where the actors break the fourth wall and there was an acceptance that the actors knew they were on the stage and the audience knew etc. Much of this was cut in the seventies.
The tree in this production ( bizarrely one reviewer claimed it looked nothing like a real tree…em, of course not) is loosely based on a design by Beckett’s friend the sculptor Giacometti. There was a line that went “ Yesterday it was bare but now it’s covered with leaves” which Beckett changed to “ but , yesterday it was all bare like a skeleton and now it’s covered with leaves”
Peter Hall’s 1955 English language premiere at The Arts Theatre, London ran over three hours. Hall was 24 years old and declared that he didn’t know what it was about or what to do with it. It was a hugely brave achievement. Many people walked out during the run, some shouted “ We didn’t fight the war for this” and at one point when Gogo asks Didi “ You haven’t got a bit of rope” someone shouted “ For Christ’s sake someone give him some rope”. Despite the critical mauling the play got, it played to good enough box office to continue its run and transfer for a further short run. It also picked up an award for “Most Controversial Play of the year” , an honour that has never been bestowed on any other play since.
Written by Peter Reid