Two tramps sit or stand idly by a deserted country road, barren except for a single tree. We soon learn they are waiting for a mysterious figure named Godot. They pass the time discussing a passage from the Bible, remembering vague events from their shared past, doing what resemble old vaudeville routines. At some point Estragon, a.k.a. “Gogo,” says they should go, but Vladimir, a.k.a. “Didi,” counters that they cannot. “Why not?” asks Gogo. “We’re waiting for Godot,” says Didi. “Ah,” Gogo mutters despairingly.
Two other men appear. One, named Pozzo, carries a whip and drives the other man, Lucky, by means of a long rope hung around the latter’s neck. Lucky, who carries a heavy bag and other items, appears to be Pozzo’s servant, even slave. Pozzo engages the two tramps in genial conversation. He makes Lucky, who is mostly inert and mute, do the briefest little dance for them and then think, which takes the form of a five-minute tirade of nonsensical utterances.
Pozzo and Lucky go off. A young boy appears who tells Didi and Gogo that Mister Godot will not come today but will surely come tomorrow. The boy leaves. The two men discuss whether to come back tomorrow to wait for Godot or give up and leave each other. They agree to go but do not move. Act I ends. Act II is largely a repetition of Act I, but with some significant variations.
So goes “Waiting for Godot,” a tragicomedy by Samuel Beckett. First performed in 1953 in a tiny theater in Paris, the play is considered to be one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature and a seminal work of both Theatre of the Absurd and the philosophy of existentialism.
Who is Godot and what does he represent or the play mean? Beckett, who died in 1994, refused to say; but such questions have generated tons of speculation in the nearly 70 years since the play first came to light and was clearly a response to post-World War II despair as embodied by the Nuremberg trials and, likely, by a nuclear world post-Hiroshima.
Relevance for the 21st Century
What’s especially striking about “Godot” is how relevant it seems to whatever era and culture the play is performed in. As I write this, much of the world remains in lockdown stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot think of a better metaphor for the “pause” we currently find ourselves in than two tattered souls waiting for a shadowy Godot. Only now, instead of representing God in the seemingly godless atomic age of the 1950s, Godot is the resumption of normalcy, the signal that it’s safe to go outside our houses and mingle with other people again and the prospects for a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. None of these will happen today but surely they will happen tomorrow.
Of course, long before the start of this pandemic, “Waiting for Godot” had a lot to say to this still unfamiliar-feeling century, despite it being 20 years in, wracked by despair from such horrors as 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the economic meltdown of 2008 and ongoing climate change. I first encountered “Godot” in my initial go-round as an undergrad in the late 1970s, so I’ve had decades to grapple with the meaning of a play that changed my outlook on life, if not my life itself. However, now that I’m again officially an undergrad here at SUNY Plattsburgh, taking a course each spring and fall semester with students some 40 years my junior, I wonder what impact Beckett’s work would have on them and has had on members of their cohort who have come in contact with “Godot.”
The question was sparked the campus production in early March of “Chasing ‘ChaGo,’” described by its director, Laura-Jean Schwartau-Swanson, an adjunct lecturer in the Theatre Department, as “A Devised Take on ‘Waiting for Godot.’” This production obviously provided a unique commentary on Beckett’s work, but its very existence suggested that “Godot” was back in the zeitgeist for 20-year-olds — assuming it had ever left.
That led me to wonder where else “Waiting for Godot” was being confronted on college and university stages in the United States. According to data from Dramatists Play Service, which licenses stock and amateur applications to perform the play, permission was granted for bit more than 100 productions of “Godot” between March 1, 2017 and March 1, 2020. The play was produced by a diverse group of schools and other nonprofessional groups, including Middlebury College in Vermont, the Julliard School in New York City; University of Chicago; University of South Carolina; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York; Community College of Baltimore, Brigham Young University in Utah, Austin Jewish Repertory Theatre in Texas, Cardinal Stritch High School in Ohio, Lehigh Valley Charter High School in Pennsylvania and the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
At one school, Oberlin College in Ohio, the theater artists involved even planned to produce “Godot” with an all-female cast — one audacious way to speak to a generation coming of age in the “#MeToo” era. But in Nov. 2019, less than two months before the show, already cast, was to begin rehearsals for a Feb. 2020 opening, the Department of Theater canceled the production under the threat of a lawsuit by Beckett’s estate, which has a reputation for being very restrictive regarding alterations to the playwright’s work in general. During his lifetime, Beckett sued theater companies that defied his well-known dictum that only male actors perform the five roles in “Godot.” When asked why female actors couldn’t play the roles, Beckett famously retorted, “Women don’t have prostates.”
Fortunately for the students at SUNY Plattsburgh, neither the late playwright nor his estate would likely have had any legal claims against “Chasing ‘ChaGo.’” Its performers, creating the script as they went along in rehearsals, were very careful never to even utter the name “Godot” — although it was regularly alluded to in the course of the piece. If “Chasing ‘ChaGo’” proved how far you can go playing off of “Waiting for Godot” without actually doing the piece, the Feb. 2019 production by the University of South Carolina Department of Theatre and Dance demonstrated, based on interviews with a few of its participants, that a more-or-less faithful interpretation of the play can still have a life-changing impact on the millennial actors performing it.
Making a Big Play
Before he took on the challenge last year, Steven Pearson, a theater professor at the University of South Carolina, had always wanted to direct “Godot,” finding it to be one of the great plays precisely because it remains contemporary — as it was even before the COVID-19 pandemic started. One contemporary aspect of the play has to do with negotiating a world that’s increasingly less social, more virtual and less connected.
“We’re all of us digitally connected,” Pearson said. “But students are less connected to each other personally.”
He cited a new required course at New York University in how to have a conversation, presumably needed because, while students may know nearly everything about the other
ncoming students in their cohort from Facebook and other social media, they don’t know how to talk to each other like earlier generations did. “Godot,” in contrast, is a veritable gabfest: practically all its characters know how to do is talk.
It’s a difficult play about what it’s like to be alive, Pearson finds. Having lived a bit in Japan, he echoes his theater counterparts there in calling “Godot” a “big” play. “Baseball is big in Japan, and they compare it to a shortstop diving for the ball,” Pearson said. “It’s not whether he makes it or not that’s important, it’s if he makes a big play for it. ‘Godot’s’ a big play.”
As big as it may be, it’s also a play that resists over-conceptualization. Having a concept is a difficult idea for a director, Pearson said, allowing that, of course, directors must have their own take on the plays they choose to work on. With “Godot,” the concept is essentially provided by the simple opening stage directions: “A country road. A tree. Evening.”
“In a sense, one has to accept that,” Pearson said. “Each of those elements, a stone, a hill, a road, a sense of a tree… has a very different tactile sense. A road means something is going in different directions. A stone is inert. A tree is alive. That surround conceptually is what the play is.”
Four of the five actors he cast were first-year MFA Acting students at the time. Although they were all older than the typical undergrad, there still was a considerable gap in each between the cast and their director, now 71. Pearson finds that the play means different things to young actors than it does to an older person like himself and that it imparts different lessons.
“One learns these things in stages — how to live,” Pearson said. “These things mean more the older you get,” he said.
“The actors came a huge distance in getting at the darkness of the experience of Didi and Gogo and Pozzo and Lucky. And the necessity of interdependence and being together by doing things.
The play taught them about dramatic action, what actors need to do to get at that action. The play demands that…. Otherwise, it’s boring.”
Ultimately, Didi and Gogo do manage to care about each other, each going offstage at one point or another but come back to the other.
“(Similarly) our actors came a huge distance, and they went deep,” Pearson said.
At least two of his actors had a bit less distance to travel, as they were already familiar with “Godot” prior to the start of rehearsals. Tim Giles, who played Vladimir, remembers being mesmerized when he first read the play, probably in high school, and was surprised by how funny it was. He also had seen the recent London West End production starring Ian McKellen as Estragon and Roger Rees as Vladimir (replacing Patrick Stewart), which played up the clowning aspect.
“Coming to our production I had a sense of the play as a sort of dark clowning piece about the depths of the nihilistic side of human experience,” Giles said. “It doesn’t seem to me that Beckett is judging our existence as meaningless…. He is confronting something that is universal. I imagine almost every person, especially if they strive to live an examined life, comes up against feelings of vast emptiness — confronting the futility and devilish irony of a life that seems both punishingly short and arduously long.”
M. Can Yasar, 27, who played Lucky, thought “Godot” was an odd play when he first read it, for a script-analysis class he took when he was an undergraduate, but was intrigued by how different it was from other plays, lacking as it does a storyline/plot and specific time period. He thought it was cruel but honest and found it disturbing that Godot might not even exist.
“It made me question the use of hope in our lives and that achy feeling of realization that we might be just alone with our own,” Yasar said.
“I’m Turkish and also come from an Islamic background where, when there is an authority, a patriarch or God… that asks you to wait, you don’t question. You do (wait) simply because we all believe that they exist. But to ask the question back then was sometimes troubling.”
Both actors felt that their understanding of “Godot” as a play and work of art changed over the course of their work on the production. Yasar found it to be very relatable because it’s so representative of human nature.
“It leads everyone to question the world and see that it hasn’t changed a bit,” Yasar said. “During the play I realized that this is the kind of art I want to make.”
Asked what the play says to their generation and the world as we know it today, Giles, who is 32, cited his memory of watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11 and graduating shortly after the 2008 economic meltdown.
“I’ve struggled to make a life as an artist in a world that feels callous and even sometimes directly opposed to the kind of difference I had hoped to make,” Giles said. “Many people in my generation, and younger, feel this hopelessness.”
Many have a desire for great change but feel constantly frustrated by deeply entrenched systems that are in opposition to that desire, in a world “enslaved to its worst vices and darkest motivations,” Giles said.
“I see a cycle that is very similar to ‘Godot.’ We bide our time wondering where the change will come from, instead of realizing that it must be our responsibility.”
As for Yasar, he believes that, with the increased uncertainty about their future, he and his cohorts understand the play even better.
“In a sense we are all waiting for Godot: a divine power, a cure, a vaccine to just wipe everything back to normal,” Yasar said.
“We wake up every day and get onto our computers to our new virtual lives and hope for Godot. We keep on going. My generation is surrounded by information through the age of smartphones and social media, but this kind of uncertainty is something they haven’t lived before. They can’t google when Godot will be here.”
All Together Now
Judging from reports by several people who worked on “Chasing ‘ChaGo,’” appreciation of “Waiting for Godot” and its implications for the younger generation may be different at the undergraduate level. Director Schwartau-Swanson of SUNY Plattsburgh thinks that a lot of students just don’t get it.
“It’s depressing to them,” Schwartau-Swanson said. “They miss the humor, the vaudeville bits. It’s up and down — like Charlie Chaplin when he’s feeling good, then he steps on a loose floorboard that hits him in the face.”
She and her students worked on “Godot” in a theater production course Schwartau-Swanson teaches. Once she began providing handouts on topics such as Beckett and existentialism, her students started to get the play and they began to collaborate on what would become “Chasing ‘ChaGo.’” “This piece is ensemble-created,” she said before the start of a dress-tech rehearsal.
The piece centers on two characters, Dewey and PJ, reminiscent of Didi and Gogo, who meet two other characters, Bragglio and Slick, reminiscent of Pozzo and Lucky, but also a host of other characters such as the Little Red-Scarfed Girl and the Train Dancer. And, instead of staying in one place, like Didi and Gogo, Dewey and PJ go on a vast journey in search of a mysterious character named ChaGo, a conceptual artist reminiscent of the real-life Christo, who created fantastic installations such as covering the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in fabric.
Jadzia Briggs, who created the role of Bragglio, had not heard of “Waiting for Godot” prior to “ChaGo” and thought the former play was “kind of boring.” However, she eventually found some of its messages, about religion and waiting for something that never comes, to be inspiring.
“I was mostly fascinated by the characters Pozzo and Lucky, as I found them the most entertaining,” Briggs said. “(It) seemed like a story where all that happens is two people waiting for someone. However, you then wonder, why are they waiting for this person? What will this person do for them? It takes a while to truly see the significance in a piece of work.”
Autumn Knight, who created the Train Dancer among other characters, was also encountering “Godot” for the first time and felt the humor was dry and that the play was not her “cup of tea.” But her view of the earlier work did change a bit as she worked on “ChaGo,” particularly with respect to the difference between waiting and chasing.
“When Didi and Gogo were waiting for Godot, time would pass and nothing ended up getting done,” Knight said. “With chasing, you chase after your dreams and passion.”
Although Dewey and PJ never do catch up with ChaGo, they do find a sense of belonging and community in the end, Knight noted.
In the spirit of ensemble-based theater, most of the cast members had to embody multiple characters. To create the Train Dancer, Knight drew on distinctive memories from back home in the Bronx.
“I grew up seeing street dancers entertaining the crowd in the trains,” Knight said. “I knew I had to talk like them, especially for our audience members from the City so they could be entertained and reminisce…. Sometimes I would over-exaggerate my NYC accent while talking to my friends and peers to get into character.”
For another character, she channeled Bronx-native rapper Cardi B by watching a lot of her videos to ensure Knight had a thick Bronx accent for the Three-card Monte scene.
The character of Bragglio was based on Pozzo, so Briggs drew on Beckett’s creation for hers.
“After reading Pozzo, I concluded he was an asshole who just wanted everything done by his incompetent servant,” Briggs said.
“But I also thought that Pozzo is someone where, anytime he walks into a room, all eyes are on him. So I took those elements while also adding parts of my personality. I tend to be very big and outgoing.”
Acid Trip vs. Going Nowhere
“Chasing ‘ChaGo’” featured a stunning mix of both large-screen projections and movement, to which Knight and Briggs among other cast members contributed additional choreography, under the watchful eye of Schwartau-Swanson. Cast member Amanda Rice also served as projection coordinator and operator. Despite having six years of theatrical tech experience, she had never been tasked with creating and implementing projections throughout an entire show.
“I had to find a program that let me display multiple pictures on multiple screens,” Rice said. “I used three different projectors: two on the sidewalls of the theater and one right in the center of the stage.”
Her go-to program turned out, much to Rice’s surprise and eventual delight, Google Slides.
“I used three Google Slides, one for each projector, and three Google Slide remotes to control the slides from my computer and cell phone,” Rice said. “After getting a handle on how to use these at the same time, and where in the show they were needed, I just needed to include pictures of locations, from Google Images, and a few gifs I made of Google Maps.”
By the time the performances rolled around, it became clear to the participants that “Chasing ‘ChaGo,’” despite some similarities with “Godot,” was a very different show. After one performance, Briggs was being congratulated by some of her friends.
“When I asked them what they thought of the show, some of them said it looked like the two main characters went on an acid trip,” Briggs recounted. “They kind of had a point. The characters would do one crazy thing after the other… and they hardly had a care in the world. Compare it to ‘Waiting for Godot’ where the characters are just sitting, waiting for Godot, and not much really happens.”
Ultimately, however, the filtering of “Waiting for Godot” through the prism of “Chasing ‘ChaGo’” did seem to have a cumulative positive effect, reflecting the earlier play’s power, on at least one of “ChaGo’s” participants. Amanda Rice says she wouldn’t change her experience and involvement in “Chasing ‘ChaGo’” for anything.
“As far as how ‘ChaGo’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’ have impacted my life — and my view of life itself — I’ve grown more to reflect on where I am currently and where I want to go…. Life’s too short to wait for big chances and hope something amazing happens for me; so in the meantime I’m going to grow, learn and work my way to whatever goal I set my mind to! To end with a favorite quote of mine from our production, ‘In life you do not wait for opportunities to happen — sometimes you have to go out and chase them!”