Nothing to be done: A comparative analysis of Waiting for Godot in Performances
Vladmir and Estragon are waiting for Godot, with a tree next to them and nothing else. They have being waiting for more than 50 years, and they are waiting still—
It is without doubt that Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, is a perplexing play. Widely acknowledged as a classic tragicomedy, it is written by Samuel Beckett in 1954, and has inspired numerous productions of theatre performance and films ever since. Although the plot is simple—Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot, and during the endless wait they met Pozzo, his slave Lucky, and the messenger boy—the simplicity is what complicates the play. Take one scene for example, where Vladimir questions Estrogen whether he has read the Bible, and proceeds to introduce the story of four thieves of whom only one was saved. Although this discussion explicitly refers to religious stories, it is impossible to pin down a religious interpretation of this play.
The context of this scene gives no prior suggestion of a religious theme, neither does the following dialogue connect with this discussion. It almost seems as if the two characters randomly jump into this religious story just to left it to be forgotten. In fact, such sporadic pattern of topics can be found throughout the play’s dialogue, thus the reader maybe as unsure about this scene as they are about Waiting for Godot in general. Is it just like what Estragon says in the play:“Nothing to be done”?
While the text may be slippery and fails to suggest a clear purpose of this scene, the visual presentation can be much more interpretive. In a film production in 2013, directed by Jennifer Tarver, the scene of the two thieves story is a clear display of human’s vulnerability with regard to religion and nature. In the film, Vladmir, played by Tom Rooney, and Estrogen, played by Stephen Ouimette, were placed in an isolated space of no escape: The foreground is a wasted land of rocks and dirt, and the background is entirely empty. This setting delivers a sense of post-apocalyptic desolation, which is intensified by the physical distance between the audience and the actor that adds a detached feeling to the performance. The two actors are dressed in appropriate clothing, both wearing tall hats, looking like two 40 years-old common men. However, once the actors start speaking, there’s a sense of unsettleness in their tone. As Vladimir explains the story to Estragon, he makes his statement with apparent excitement that is akin to bitterness. For instance, when Estrogon raises a series of questions such as “who?”, “why”? and “well what of it?”, Vladmir bows down to stick his face close to Estrogen’s, which suggests his attempt to make a strong impression on Estragon. In addition, the pace of Vladmir’s speech is very fast compared the normal speech of everyday life conversations, which suggests his frustration with Estragon’s ignorance. In contrast is the intensity of the silence and emptyness around them, as Estrogen sits still throughout the conversation, and voices his question with indifference. The performance of this scene is serious, if not dispiriting. The discussion seems to point to the unreliability of the documentary evidence on which the Christian faith is based. Meanwhile, the entire play is about the unescapable wait that the two character must withstand for a mysterious person. Therefore the performance presents the scene as a futile struggle of the two character to discuss a religious story and fail to arrive at a conclusion, while they are placed in a oppressive space as if manipulated by unnatural forces. All of this leads to the interpretation of Waiting for Godot as a play of human’s subjection to the metaphysical delegates in life, such as faith or nature.
However, this interpretation is challenged by another production in the same year of 2013, a broadway play directed by Sean Matthias. In this production, the same scene of the two thieves story emphasizes the friendly connection between the two characters, and leads to the broader understanding for Waiting for Godot as a reflection of personal relationships. This commercially successful production starred Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, both of whom occupy a major seat in the Hollywood industry. Since the premier of the play it has received wide media attention and positive reviews, which is easily understandable considering its cast and its performance. In contrast to the transcendental style of the Tarver production, this broadway performance is hilarious. While the conversation between Vladmir and Estrogen may sound like a bickering fight in the Tarver production, it is undoubtably comedic and entertaining in the broadway version. Not only do the actors intentionally craft their tones and their emphasis of words to dig out the underlying humor of the text, they also physically perform in a more comedic style. Unlike the Tarver production in which actors have little motion, and their body language seems more aggressive than communicative, Ian and Patrick gave an eventful performance in which they shift around the stage, give vivd facial expressions, and use their body movement to connect with the audience. Because of the prominent elements of humor, the boradway production downplays the religious element in Waiting for Godot, and instead directs the audience to notice Vladmir and Estragon’s friendship. Moreover, the fact that such performance is live to the audience means that the natural noise of audience laughing or applauding becomes part of the viewing experience. Unlike the silent background of the Tarver production, the broadway production has the human sounds of pathos and emotions, which further contributes to the understanding of the scene as a playful showcase of human relationships.
Nevertheless, the interpretation of Waiting for Godot as a representation of human’s vulnerability with regard to existential forces holds true. Although the broadway production magnifies the comedy component of Waiting of Godot, it is understandably so, considering the nature of a modern broadway production and its all-star cast. Furthermore, there are substantial similarities between the two productions in resonance to the theme of vulnerability of the play. In the broadway production, the stage is similarly set as a post-disaster environment where architectural remnants lie on the ground and no signs of habitability are to be found. The overall setting is grey and black, which is the same as the Tarver production where there’s sense of desolation. Aside from the humor, the conversation between the two characters still ended with no conclusion, and the ridiculous performance becomes a comedic illustration of Estragon’s line: “Nothing to be done!”. Indeed, Waiting for Godot is encapsulated in this line, as we realize that both production, despite their different performances, deliver the same message of hopeless inquiry and passive subjection to things that are beyond human control.