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Watching Waiting for Godot

Last night, my husband John and I went to Waiting for Godot at the Jungle Theater here in Uptown Minneapolis. According to the play notes, early productions of Godot were known for their “ambulatory” audiences: large numbers would walk out part-way through. That seemed to be the case at the Jungle last night, too. The play was sold out, but a good quarter of the seats were empty after intermission. It made me wonder: Hadn’t these people ever heard of the play before? Didn’t they know what they were in for? Perhaps they were expecting something more like a traditional play? Something with a plot, perhaps.

But maybe, too, I’m a little biased. Because I have a connection with Godot—a special link that goes all the way back to my freshman year of college.

At seventeen, my life felt like a vast chasm of meaninglessness and tedium—that is, just like Estragon’s and Vladimir’s, the main characters in Godot. High school had seemed cruel and stupid. With a few sparkling exceptions, my teachers had been mediocre and indifferent. I’d managed to thoroughly alienate most of my friends, largely by feeling and acting superior to everyone else. All the kids seemed far more interested in dances and football games rather than, say, astronomy and theater. Female students were required to wear dresses—we all came to school in pantyhose attached to garter belts—and the only aspirations the girls would admit to ranged from getting married right after graduation to getting married a couple years later. Even my family life wasn’t happy: I loved those guys, but felt as if I didn’t belong with them, like a cowbird being raised by robins. 

That was how I arrived at college: a deeply unhappy small-town girl with enormous longings and huge questions that hovered over my head like blank speech balloons in a comic strip. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted something desperately.

That first year, I had a professor in a class called Humanities: Robert Pepper, Ph.D. That’s right: Dr. Pepper. He was funny and friendly and very smart. He made jokes, read us poetry he had written for a dying friend, and asked us questions we’d still be discussing back in our dorms late at night. I don’t remember the context or why he chose to do this is this particular class, but one day he read a section from Waiting for Godot. He’d done some theater, I think: He read with gusto.

I’d never heard of the play before that afternoon, or even of Samuel Beckett. The class loved it, but I more than loved it. This is me, I thought, my head exploding as Dr. Pepper intoned Nothing to be done. Something cracked open inside of me. Suddenly the world looked a little different.

In the Minnesota Monthly, reviewer Ellen Burkhardt wrote:  “Waiting for Godot is not a play with answers—it's a play with questions. Who are you? What drives your actions? Who controls your destiny? How do others see you? It's the kind of play that embeds itself within your mind; one you find yourself mulling over while staring out the window at a stoplight.”

This is exactly what Godot was for me. It’s the questions, I thought, racing to the bookstore after class to find a copy of the play. That’s what it is all aboutNo one gives you answers. Perhaps there are no answers. But there are questions.

There are a million and one interpretations of Waiting for Godot out there, including some that declare it hogwash and others that proclaim it the most important play of the century. There are people who compare it to vaudeville and commedia dell’arte and existentialism and Christianity and who knows what. I don’t care. I have my own reading of it, and it chimed in my head last night at the Jungle Theater just as it did in Dr. Pepper’s class my freshman year of college.

The questions you ask are important, I thought with astonishment that afternoon so long ago. They are everything.