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THE BICYCLE, TRANSFIGURATION AND WAITING FOR GODOT. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is widely considered the most revered, discussed and debated English language drama of the 20th-century. Since its premiere in Paris in 1953, it has kept readers, critics and audience members around the world busy searching for meaning more than any work of its time.
Words: John Madruga
Illustration: Matthew Burton
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman won the award in 1949. While these plays were being performed and applauded for their realistic portrayal of American experience in the aftermath of WWII, depicting families struggling with dysfunction and trying to find some means (financial, personal, professional) to a happier life, Beckett, an Irishman, was living in Paris and writing Waiting for Godot—not in English, but in French. As he later said in an interview with Israel Shenker of The New York Times, “I preferred France in war to Ireland at peace.”
The defining plays of Williams and Miller, as well as the work of Eugene O ‘Neil (Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, Long Day’s Journey Into Night) are often glimpses into what Miller called in an essay “the tragedy of the common man,” and so the lives of iconic characters like Willie Loman and Stanley Kowalski are wholly familiar: the environment in which they live and the language (idiom) they speak rings true, the societal conditions which they face parallels our own, and the ways in which their stories unfold and are resolved are completely recognizable.
And while these plays are filled with the details of a rather familiar intelligence, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot marked a pivotal change for theatre. It shifted the very foundation upon which the drama of the time had been built by managing to use significantly less—of scenery, of character, of situation, and of language itself—to effectively strip the stage/story bare in order to capture, as literary critic Hugh Kenner writes, that which is “prior to action and more fundamental than language.” And it is the play’s sparse, laconic nature, lack of action (Beckett’s many directions for pauses and silences), ambiguous characters and purposefully unresolved central idea that form one aspect of the play’s brilliance. British playwright Tom Stoppard remembers seeing Godot for the first time: “I’d always been stretching to do as much as possible in a play. It was a tremendous lesson, [Beckett’s] gift of doing so much with such little effort, using small moments to great effect, using a minimalistic landscape rather than a melodramatic landscape. He reached all the highs and lows of much grander drama, and did it in an extraordinary meticulous way.”
Act I. Beckett sets the scene for the play to begin with just six words: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” For Becket, this is enough, three simple elements, to fill the scene for the drama to follow.
Two tramps, Didi and Gogo, wait at this spot for their encounter with Godot. They are not exactly sure who he is, if they are in the right place or if it is the correct day for their meeting. Nevertheless, they wait and talk to pass the time. Their dialogue is usually abrupt, disjointed, trivial and circular, often replaying the same idea again and again until Gogo, exasperated, finally says, “Let’s go.” Didi responds, “We can’t.” “Why not?” Gogo asks, to which Didi reminds him, “We are waiting for Godot.”
A master, Pozzo, and his servant, Lucky, appear about mid way into each act. They converse with Gogo and Didi and then leave. A boy then enters to explain that Godot will not come that evening but will come tomorrow. The play ends as it begins: two men waiting in the evening air, anticipating the arrival of Godot, who never comes.
Beckett’s play is meant to be sparse on every level, and the effect of such minimalism creates another aspect of the play’s genius: it is precisely in its barrenness that Godot achieves such fertile ground, compelling its audience to ask the most essential questions. Who is Godot? Why do Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi) continue to wait for his arrival? What or who does Godot represent? What does the play say about reality, the imagination, mankind, relationships and society?
“If Godot were God,” Beckett once said, “I would have called him that.” Since nothing in Beckett’s play can be known purely on the level of rational, definitive thought (Godot = God), such a reading proves to be pointless.
In fact, Waiting for Godot actually serves as an indictment of thinking itself—as always being ultimately debilitating, preventing one from seeing or finding the essence of things as the brain struggles with ideas.
At one point in Act I, Didi and Gogo speculate on what Godot might offer them upon his arrival, and like every situation in the play that arises it is the circuitous nature of language/ thinking that gets in the way of the characters’ ability to take any real action or manifest any real change:
VLADIMIR: I’m curious to hear what he has to offer us. Then we’ll take it or leave it.
ESTRAGON: What exactly did we ask him for?
VLADIMIR: Were you not there?
ESTRAGON: I can’t have been listening.
VLADIMIR: Oh… Nothing very definite.
ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer.
ESTRAGON: A vague supplication.
ESTRAGON: And what did he reply?
VLADIMIR: That he’d see.
VLADIMIR: That he’d have to think it over.
ESTRAGON: In the quiet of his home.
VLADIMIR: Consult his family.
ESTRAGON: His friends.
VLADIMIR: His agents.
ESTRAGON: His correspondents.
VLADIMIR: His books.
ESTRAGON: His bank account.
VLADIMIR: Before taking a decision.
ESTRAGON: It’s the normal thing.
VLADIMIR: Is it not?
ESTRAGON: I think it is.
VLADIMIR: I think so too.
In the absence of any real decisive action, here we see Beckett’s portrayal of how thinking traps characters in a kind of suspended state of being, where things are played and replayed over and over again until what remains is a kind of immobilized state of silence. As Gogo says at one point in the play, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” This never-ending cycle of thinking constricts man to a reality of his own creation. And for Beckett, Godot presents its audience with a reality of decreation, despair, and uncertainty—of being perpetually caught in between thought and action, birth and death, knowing and the unknown. It is a reality devoid of belief. And yet, it is a reality that is human, a reality that is familiar.
Consider the following exchange between characters as they ask the central question of the play:
POZZO: peremptory). Who is Godot?
POZZO: You took me for Godot.
VLADIMIR: Oh no, Sir, not for an instant, Sir.
POZZO: Who is he?
VLADIMIR: Oh he’s a… he’s a kind of acquaintance.
Beckett himself translated Waiting for Godot from French to English, so the word “acquaintance” to describe Godot must have been carefully chosen. It suggests a person who is only half known, someone known at a distance or, in this case, known as a concept of the imagination—a trope—in the minds of those wait. It is a personage familiar to us not as an actual form but more as an idea—a kind of representative man.
And this is where the bicycle comes into the picture.
“[Beckett] did say once, perhaps in jest, that the name [Godot] came to him because of the French slang for boot, “godillot” or “godasse,” as feet play a certain role in his drama,” according to author Andre Bernard. “Another possible inspiration, which Beckett never denied, was the day he ran into a large group of people on a street corner watching the annual Tour de France bicycle race. Upon his asking what they were doing, the crowd responded, ‘We’re waiting for Godot’—Godot being the oldest (and slowest) competitor in the race.”
If Godot represents the oldest and slowest rider in the peloton, the one who, as Pozzo says, “journeys all alone for … (he consults his watch) … yes … (he calculates) … yes, six hours, that’s right, six hours on end, and never a soul in sight,” he is, then, a person/metaphor/image/idea every rider can relate to—on a few important levels. In this cycling-specific context, Godot is not only the one who suffers alone, and who thereby represents our own suffering, he also represents the promise of becoming something grander than mere human alone when man and machine merge into one.
We may say we watch a Grand Tour for the sheer beauty of the sport— the athleticism, the spectacle or the scenery—but there is, I think, a more fundamental reason why we are compelled to tune in. It’s the same reason why fans flock to the most merciless mountain passes to wait to see the peloton crawl by. At a slower pace, and in the midst of the greatest effort, here fans witness the riders up close, actually seeing the look in their eyes, the lungs heaving for air, the sweat coming off the nose, the legs maxing every muscle. At this point in the race, when the peloton has moved from the flat or sprint stages—which, from the viewer’s point of view looks like a flashing blur of mixed colors (bicycles, team kits, and moving flesh-colored limbs) as it speeds by—to the mountains, there is a chance to see the cyclist for what he has become: a kind of two-armed, two-legged, two-wheeled human/machine hybrid creature who suffers, as we all do, but who also signifies much more.
In an effort to legitimize his theory about how Beckett arrived at the name Godot, Hugh Kenner added a footnote to a remarkable passage he wrote in an essay titled “The Cartesian Centaur.” It reads: “It may calm the skeptical reader that my knowledge of this man [Godot] comes from Mr. Beckett.” Here is Kenner’s passage:
“Consider the cyclist as he passes, the supreme specialist, transfiguring that act of moving from place to place which is itself the sentient body’s supreme specialty. He is the term locomotive evolution from slugs and creeping things. Could Gulliver have seen this phenomenon he would have turned aside from the Houyhnhnms, and Plato have reconsidered the possibility of incarnating an idea. Here all rationalist metaphysics terminates (as he pedals by, reciprocating motion steadily converted into rotary). The combination is impervious to Freud, and would have been of no evident use to Shakespeare. This glorified body is the supreme Cartesian achievement, a product of the pure intelligence, which has preceded it in time and now dominates it in function. It is neither generated nor (with reasonable care) corrupted. Here Euclid achieves mobility: circle, triangle, rhombus, the clear and distinct patterns of Cartesian knowledge.”
The passage then picks up again later on:
“All human faculties are called into play, and all human muscles except perhaps the auricular. Thus is fulfilled the serpent’s promise to Eve, et eritis sicut dii; and it is right that there should ride about France as these words are written, subject to Mr. Beckett’s intermittent attention, a veteran cyclist, bald, a “stayer,” recurrent placeman in town-to-town and national championships, Christian name elusive, surname Godeau, pronounced, of course, no differently from Godot.”
At the center of Kenner’s description of Beckett’s Godot is a belief in the idea of man’s transfiguration, the ability of becoming, in motion, a “glorified body” of “pure intelligence.” Clearly, this is not a external, static or linear depiction of man himself (the external view), but of what he can attain—”the supreme Cartesian achievement”—in a higher form and on a higher plane. It is about human potential and becoming, and fundamental to this aim, to this state of being, is the bicycle, the perfect vehicle for transporting its rider not only from one place to the next, but from one level of consciousness to another. Here, Godot, writes Kenner, “typifies … body and mind in close harmony: the mind set on survival, mastery, and the contemplation of immutable relativities … the body a reduction to uncluttered terms of the quintessential machine.” This merging of man and machine “in excelsis” is what takes man, most often bound to his earthly existence, into another realm; it is that space where he may become an essential being, a spirit, on this present ground.
While there have been many disparate and diverse readings of Waitingfor Godot over the years, the popular idea that Beckett’s play is about nothing or nothingness was made popular by Irish critic Vivian Mercier, who remarked in 1956 that Godot is a play in which “nothing happens, twice.” And yet, amid the inaction, verbal repetition, random wordplay, diversions and character idiosyncrasies, there remains this reading of Godot as a transcendent man—in the form of a “veteran cyclist, bald, a ‘stayer'”—who represents our highest human potential and possibility.
In Beckett’s milieu, the promise for a kind of transformative human change is the one thing worth waiting for—the one certainty in an uncertain, often bleak world. As Didi reminds everyone (himself, other characters in the play, readers and audience members) toward the end of the play, we all share in this promise. We need to be open to the prospect of its arrival, and wait:
“But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—”
So wait and know that, in keeping with Beckett’s simple scene, all you need is this: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” And a bicycle.
From issue 18. Buy it here.