To be or not to be? That's pretty much the question in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Only the answer isn't contingent on what 'tis nobler in the mind. Beckett suggests that we put up with the awfulness of being mainly because we've decided, on no proof whatsoever, that a mysterious, white-bearded absence called Godot is on his way, and when he finally shows up we're going to get a big meal and a cozy spot in his attic, furnished with beds of soft straw.
And also because we haven't got a length of rope suitable for hanging ourselves.
So we go on waiting for Godot even though he keeps putting us off, sending messages by way of a child saying that although he can't make it today he'll certainly come for us tomorrow.
Meanwhile we fill up the time. For Beckett's iconic tramps, Gogo and Didi, the days are just packed, what with the former's attempts to walk despite his painfully rotting feet and latter's attempts to pee despite a painfully enlarged prostate. Gogo apparently spends his off hours getting beaten up by thugs; Didi, scrounging for carrots and turnips. But they meet faithfully every day beneath their landmark tree (a landmark because it's the only one), where they banter back and forth ("Moron," yells Didi. "That's the idea, let's abuse each other," replies an enthusiastic Gogo), repeat favorite gambits, await Godot, and remind themselves that they're waiting for Godot. Things get really busy when they encounter a wealthy landowner named Pozzo who carries a whip and keeps his elderly servant, Lucky, tied by the neck to a long cord.
All in all, the starkest, most darkly funny distillation of Western—not to say human—religious, economic, and social constructs ever poured into two acts. Indeed, watching the marvelous production by Ireland's Druid Theatre Company, directed by Garry Hynes and running now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, you might find yourself thinking how cluttered and limited most conventional plays can seem by comparison, as they attempt to explore this or that current issue, depict a trauma from this or that corner of contemporary life. Waiting for Godot goes to the absurd heart of life on earth.
And yes, by that I mean life on earth as it's lived now. Beckett's 1953 "tragicomedy" is so hallowed at this point that we may be tempted to approach it as a relic of mid-20th-century Europe, interesting mainly for what it can teach us about post-World War II sensibilities in general and Catholicism's hold over the English-colonized Irish in particular. Worse, we may want to tell ourselves we're past all that. I mean, who really believes in a patriarchal Almighty anymore? Why worry about filling life's empty hours when we've all got smartphones? And how are we to take Pozzo's remarkable comment that mothers "give birth astride a grave" when our science has taken the death out of so many diseases and magazines do straight-faced cover stories about conquering mortality entirely? Hell, even the Irish are different: the 23 lower counties are free now and they just decided to permit abortion. In shabby old suits and twine belts, Didi and Gogo may seem more picturesque than poor.
But then again. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was nothing if not a lesson to the secular about the persistence of religious literalism. What's more, last however long you can, distract yourself however much you want, death isn't dead yet and the waiting isn't over.
For me, this time, the centerpiece of the play was the one we usually forget about: the pair of Pozzo interludes. In the first, squire Pozzo eats a chicken haunch for lunch and, feeling garrulous, engages social inferiors Gogo and Didi in conversation. As an added treat, he orders Lucky (aka "pig") to dance and think. In the second, both Pozzo and Lucky have fallen on hard times, yet they remain together. If the earlier interlude doesn't bring to mind present-day class dynamics, the final one makes the equation vividly clear—especially when Pozzo calls for his whip and Lucky actually brings it to him.
Rory Nolan's Pozzo and Garrett Lombard's Lucky are indispensable to the success of these passages. Uncanny in Val Sherlock's wig and makeup designs, they both dance in their ways. Nolan, in particular, presents a full-out comic ballet of facial and bodily messages expressing the confluence of narcissism, power, and cruelty. Similarly, the physicality Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan bring to Didi and Gogo might make a silent Godot possible. Rea's Didi is lean, tall, and disposed to optimism, Monaghan's Gogo, short, stocky, and grim. Together, they're human embodiments of the comedy and tragedy masks. v