Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
One day, while attending a cricket match, Samuel Beckett heard a gushing spectator remark that it was "the kind of day that made one glad to be alive." "Oh, I don't think I would go quite so far as to say that," responded the famously cynical playwright. Such was the particular outlook of the man who once wrote, "Probably nothing in the world arouses more false hopes than the first four hours of a diet": bluntly pessimistic, but undeniably humorous.
By strict definition, Beckett's Waiting for Godot is neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It lives in that much quirkier and far less crowded category, tragicomedy. And it certainly exemplifies the duality of that descriptor. It is, by turns, both bleak and silly, delightful and devastating, funny and sad. Hence, discussions of the play that focus exclusively on its more somber themes miss an important part of the particular fabric Beckett has woven: humor.
With its vaudeville bits (Beckett was a habitué of the music halls of England and France), insult battles, hairpin reversals, quagmires of "Who's On First?"–like confusion, and running jokes about sore feet and bladder problems, there can be no doubt that Beckett intended for us to laugh.
Of course, many of the laughs in Godot also come from our own recognition of the very frustration and futility that it depicts. This simultaneous discomfort and delight are twin offspring of the same parent: relatability. Deep down, we all understand the lifelong puzzle of finding meaning and purpose during our time on this "bitch of an earth," as the character Pozzo calls it. And so, Beckett has us chuckling as he guts us. He once said that his humor "reinforces that from which it relieves." It's the troubling truth and the comforting laughter all at once. Little wonder that both theatergoers and theater creators return to the piece again and again.
Though Waiting for Godot is easily one of the best known and most respected plays of the absurdist genre, it didn't start out as such. When the English-language version first opened in 1955, it wasn't exactly a runaway hit. On the contrary, people hated it. Cast member Peter Bull, who was playing Pozzo, recounted a "wave of hostility...whirling over the footlights," as well as "audible groans" and finally, a "mass exodus." And Irish Times critic Vivian Mercier famously wrote that Beckett had written a play in which "nothing happens…twice." Another critic sighed, "It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end." The play was only rescued from presumable oblivion by two major critics who reviewed it more favorably. Still, many who saw it were confused, bored, angry, or all three. The famous British character actor Robert Morley proclaimed, "I have been brooding in my bath for the last hour and have come to the conclusion that the success of Waiting for Godot means the end of the theatre as we know it." Its subsequent U.S. premiere in 1956—which featured Bert Lahr as Estragon—was a complete flop. And it is possibly the only play in history that even pans itself within its own text when Estragon complains, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!"
What does it mean? What are its messages? Is Godot God? Is it a protest? Is it a prayer?
In spite of that somewhat rocky start, more than half a century later, Waiting for Godot holds an undeniable distinction as a much loved and frequently revived classic...and not just because its sparse set and small cast make it inexpensive to produce.
The current incarnation being presented as part of the White Light Festival originated at the Druid theater company in Beckett's native Ireland. It began with very low expectations. "We very deliberately scheduled it for a very short run in our own 100-seat theater," says Tony Award–winning director Garry Hynes, "so that if we fell on our ass with it there weren't going to be too many people around to watch the damage." But this smart and uniquely accessible production was embraced with enthusiasm. It went on to tour Ireland and beyond, and now comes to the U.S. The success, says Hynes, "has been the biggest surprise to us." Throughout its history, Godot has been the subject of much theorizing by scholars, actors, directors, writers, and especially university professors. What does it mean? What are its messages? Is Godot God? Is it a protest? Is it a prayer? Depending on whom you ask, it may or may not be a play about philosophy, spirituality, sexuality, helplessness, meaninglessness, politics, the afterlife, or oblivion. But Beckett never understood all the confusion. "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out," he said. "It means what it means." (In case you're wondering, he also cleared up the God question: "If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God, and not Godot.")
When we laugh at the same thing, we experience our fundamental commonality.
It's worth noting that when the play was performed for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, they had no difficulty grasping it. The prisoners were well acquainted with waiting, killing time, yearning for a sense of purpose, and searching for meaning. And they got why it was funny. It seems they were better able to take Waiting for Godot at face value. The production inspired the formation of the San Quentin Drama Workshop, which debuted with its own production of Godot.
Hynes concurs with Beckett, and the inmates. "That's why I think the play is so brilliant," she says. "This isn’t about some great mystery that I have to solve. This is only what it is...two guys on the side of the road waiting for another guy who never shows up."
It is perhaps this uncomplicated approach that allows the comedic elements to run amok in the Druid production. The cast dives right in, their characters capering, posing, inflating, and collapsing in a nonstop dance. There are all kinds of physical comedy—pratfalls, childish fits, exaggerated movements, and of course, the iconic hat-swapping routine.
Hynes and her company found many of these bits in Beckett's own notebooks from a 1975 production that he directed at Berlin's Schiller Theater—a resource they consulted closely. As for the rest, "That's just what happened in the rehearsal process. We went into it to try to find a response to the play rather than an interpretation or some sort of a plan or anything like that. We tried to find a way that simply made sense to us, and the characters began to emerge in their own different human ways. In the course of that, there were things that we found very funny, like the fact that Gogo won't eat the black radishes, only the red ones. Those kinds of things feel very, very familiar to anybody in a close relationship. It's totally recognizable."
Clearly, there's plenty of comedy in this tragicomedy. That's one of the reasons for its enduring appeal. It makes us laugh. And laughter in a live audience can serve as a great uniter. When strangers sit together in a darkened room and share a common reaction, it offers a powerful subconscious reminder that we're not alone, and that, regardless of our differences, we're really not so very different after all. When we laugh at the same thing, we experience our fundamental commonality. There's some relief as well in the realization that we're not alone in our madness. As comedian Seth Myers said in a recent interview, "There's a power we have when we laugh at something. If you can point out how insane it all is, I think that helps keep you sane."
There is a unique universality about Waiting for Godot. Wherever and whenever it's performed, in whatever era and in whatever part of the world, it seems to easily find application to those specific cultures, circumstances, and current events. It was staged on the streets of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where people were still waiting for aid. When the New Yiddish Rep performed the play in Yiddish, cast member Shane Baker mused, "Who's better at waiting than the Jews?" There's even a version with cartoon guinea pigs killing time in their cage.
Hynes says that today's audiences seem to find particular significance in certain themes of the play. "I think the absurdity of the lies we tell each other... the absurdity of day-to-day events...the way we think we can affect things, and we don't seem to. That sort of powerlessness—that lack of a sense of agency in creating the world around us—that's very powerful at the moment.”
And if all of that makes you feel hopeless and oddly enchanted at the same time...welcome to the world of Godot. At least the Druid theater company will keep us laughing as we gaze into the abyss.
Michael Kostroff is a stage and television actor best known for his work on HBO's The Wire. He's the author of several books including Letters from Backstage and Audition Psych 101 and a former columnist for both Backstage and PlayShakespeare.com.