When Samuel Beckett’s play with this title arrived on the London stage in the 1950s it was received with bewilderment. Several theatre critics confessed that they had no idea what it meant. The actor Peter Bull, who had a very important role as Pozzo, was quite rude about it. Despite his incomprehension he gave a very strong performance which enhanced the emotional impact of the play. Nevertheless, the general opinion was that the play was meaningless.
Sixty years later that reaction seems ridiculous. Beckett confronts us head on with the fundamental question of all our lives, or perhaps two or three questions rolled into one. Does anyone’s life have a meaning? What would give a life a meaning? What could happen that would give anyone’s life a meaning? Even if you have never thought consciously about these related questions, I believe your unconscious quest for a direction in life will have been doing the work for you.
The great analytical psychologist Carl Jung concludes his autobiography by confessing that he cannot decide whether a human life experience is meaningful or meaningless. I must confess that I am tempted to take the second view. Yet we all have moments when our life experience confronts us with a decision or offers us an opportunity. Do we even know that such a moment has arrived? To give a very minor example: when I first met a wonderful French teacher, Dr Harold Stockwell, did I have any idea that he would make the French language and its literature an important part of the rest of my life? A stronger ‘Godot’ experience occurred with Jazz. A chance encounter with some records by Doris Day led to an obsession with Jazz and playing Jazz which has enthralled me for the rest of my life.
Literature is full of ‘Godot’ moments, but it warns us that they can be bad as well as good. The novels and poems of Thomas Hardy offer us lots of moments where a character has an opportunity or is faced with a choice. Hardy is a pessimist: usually they turn out badly. In James Joyce’s collection of stories, Dubliners, each of the central characters has a moment of enlightenment or shock. They discover that life can be cruel, disappointing, ugly, sad, ridiculous. And it may suddenly reveal several of these qualities all in a moment. In the stories and plays of Chekov the characters often fail to realise that ‘Godot’ has come. Or they are painfully aware that he has come, but cannot take advantage of what he offers.
Have you had a ‘Godot’ experience? Were you aware that he had arrived? Or?
I did not believe in ‘Godot’. Therefore, I was not expecting him to arrive. Stealthily he crept up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. But that is a private matter.