Waiting for Godot isn’t that great of a play.
I’ve read Beckett’s masterpiece–an arguable place for it, I know–several times and seen it performed, I think, twice. Never have I failed to enjoy this work, so why do I complain that it isn’t that great of a play?
I suppose my statement can be best understood by comparing Godot to some other works of writerly art. I thoroughly enjoy the TV show Psych. In its four seasons, the show has developed a handful of nicely defined comic characters. It continues to break a certain amount of new ground. It makes me laugh in a variety of ways. Psych is fun, but it’s not that great in the sense that it demands and deserves deep study and serious consideration.
Such is Godot. What Beckett does in this play is string together a series of rather banal but very funny moments. Yes, I suppose it might get in touch with the existential angst of our age, but might it not just as well be seen as a one-trick riff on that idea. Okay, life is pointless, Sam. Move on.
Vladimir and Estragon, famously, do not move on. Their lives have no meaning. We get it. They’re waiting. We understand. They’re funny. Happily, that aspect of the play saves it from the tedium of Sartre or Brecht.
When I read this play, I feel for a moment that I’m reading something akin to Mad Men. Why does Mad Men get taken so seriously when compared to Psych or 24. In my (admittedly heretical) opinion, Mad Men is taken seriously because it takes itself so seriously. The series presents a world of the 1960s that never did exist but that many of the in-the-know viewers wish did exist. We can watch and see the 60s and feel disgust at those cut-throat men in grey-flannel suits with their smoking and their sexism. Yeah, they’re callow and unenlightened and we get it. Move on.
Why is Beckett taken more seriously than Neil Simon. Both playwrights are funny. Both deal with enduring questions of life. But Simon admits up front that he’s not creating great art. Beckett, rather like Jackson Pollock slinging paint on the canvas, has pretensions to high seriousness. Did we mention that modern life is alienating?
The defender of Beckett might protest. Doesn’t the great Irishman take up deep and profound psychological, philosophical, philological, and scatological themes? Perhaps, but I’m not sure that he deals with anything weightier than what Simon considers.
Beckett deals with theological issues. Sort of. Are his characters really waiting for God as they supposedly wait for Godot? That might make more sense if the French original had used a surname somehow playing on a French term for deity. And what if they are waiting for God. God doesn’t show up, but he does send a messenger. And if his point is that God is cruel and absent, then why does it take two hours to convey?
He presents a sprinkling of biblical images. Early on, the pair discuss the thieves at the crucifixion.
V: Two thieves crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One–
E: Our what?
V: Our Saviour. Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other…damned.
E: Saved from what?
E: I’m going.
Isn’t that clever. I’m going…to hell. That Beckett is a funny guy. And, in fairness, he is a funny guy. This play is a hoot to watch and only slightly less so on the page. But so is Neil Simon. Why should Beckett be held up as a great soul while Simon is dismissed as a talented producer of piecework?
Is Beckett’s philosophy really all that profound? Do his allusions to biblical and other cultural ideas really shed much light on the world? I don’t think so.