Who will win: Samuel Beckett or Barack Obama?
How curious it is that, after the historic election and inauguration of the Candidate of Hope, Waiting for Godot, the great Modernist play about hope forever deferred, is having a major, all-star remounting in New York, its first time back on Broadway in fifty years. And how curious that a play containing torture would go up, given the new President’s move to ban torture and the growing public pressure to investigate, even prosecute, the previous administration’s use of it. The New York Times theatre review notes neither of these curiosities.
As a playwright, I can’t say I always “get” producers, so I wonder about the go/no go decision-making behind this production of Godot. Why go for Godot now?
First, the hope part. In the play two characters wait in a barren landscape for a Mr. Godot. Beckett never confirmed if Godot is God, but for these two he is, and what they want from him is a benediction (“All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud!”). While waiting, they pass time conversing (“so we won’t think”), get on each other’s nerves, talk of separating (again) and suicide (again). When (again) Godot’s messenger tells them Godot can’t make it today but “surely” he’ll come tomorrow, if they’ll just wait, one character erupts, “I can’t go on like this!” “That’s what you think,” the other says. Knowing well “there is no lack of void,” they decide to go on, though in a final chilling image, they don’t move.
As a metaphor for our existential struggle to find life’s meaning and to endure, Waiting for Godot is deeply compelling. But: Does it reflect our new reality?
What is this new reality? After enduring years of Bushian misrule—a “bad” war, torture, usurpation of power—62 million of us bet on the charismatic newcomer preaching hope. No, Barack Obama is not Godot (though he might say we are the Godot we’ve been waiting for). Rather, he went after Godot—power, in this case—because power can produce a New Day. And that’s what we got: a New Day. With Obama, for whom waiting was not an option, we restored the Grail we’d lost and without which America is not America: hope.
In sum, the 62 million of us—producers, if you will—who produced this New Day are profoundly invested in keeping it. Are Godot’s producers betting we are delusional in our rekindled hope?
The problem, speaking from the barricades, is Modernism itself, of which Godot is the epitome. “Modern” suggests new, dynamic, hopeful, but Modernism doesn’t do hope; it does descents, not ascents. Humans may make their plans, but their pitiful efforts and feckless selves are fated to be dashed—curious, since Fate is an ancient, un-modern nemesis. These tragedies play out not only in the dramas of Beckett, but those of Pinter, Ionesco, O’Neill, Ibsen, Chekhov. And in literature too: For T.S. Eliot, life was a wasteland; ditto for Faulkner, with Southern setting; for Kafka, life was a rigged trial. Indeed, Modernism’s depiction of reality often is accurate—that bleak landscape in Godot is spot-on—but at the end of the day, and that’s where we are, that depiction is mere photography, not a map, and the photos don’t reflect much of a trophy.
Mindful of Modernism’s baleful influence on drama, I stepped away from the theatre after 9/11. With reality suddenly become fearful and chaotic, I had to leave a venue where hope had been shown—proved—nonexistent, where even the word can’t be uttered, not seriously, without irony. I needed to hope, to (if possible) change reality, to breathe. In commentary I found full employment, using reason and moral thought, tools Modernism devalues. And, alongside millions at the barricades, I found hope. I also found my subject there, when Abu Ghraib hit the news in May ’04. Sickened with shame I started writing, and kept writing, against America’s descent into torture—to joyous reward: In his first full day in office President Obama declared America no longer tortures.
But during those anguished years protesting torture, I wondered: With America’s moral fall taking place in plain view, why wasn’t there more protest from artists, where were the humanists? Insight struck, as it happened, at a production of Godot.
Which brings me to the torture part. I hadn’t recognized it before, but torture occurs in Godot—and nothing happens: A tyrannical boss repeatedly beats his human beast of burden, ironically named “Lucky,” yet rather than intervene, one of the “heroes” spits on Lucky and the other chews him out. “That passed the time,” they quip afterwards, and they resume waiting for Godot.
In previous viewings, I’d seen the beatings through a Modernist abstracting lens as “Man’s inhumanity to man,” keen to see how this Lucky executed his one speech, a virtuoso turn of gibberish sputter. But now, when it was my country doing the beating, the torturing, I wanted to shout “Stop!” Rereading the script’s elaborate directions, I think Beckett meant the beatings as a test—of us—yet, knowing few would act, he conceived his “heroes” as vaudeville clowns. In his play Endgame Beckett does urge action, albeit conditionally: “All those I might have helped. Helped! Saved. Saved! The place was crawling with them!”
All of which makes my point about Modernism’s enthralling fatalism—which lets one off the hook and excuses one from acting. Modernism is the cultural equivalent of religious fundamentalism’s “end-times.” To which I say: Stop!
(Equally fatalist is the puerile urge to “shock the bourgeoisie.” Acclaimed recent examples include a Broadway-bound play about vibrators and comedian Will Ferrell’s show about Bush featuring the former president’s private parts. Such nether-fixed narcissism is blind to History’s cataclysms—bad wars, torture, Shakespeare’s theme of the usurpation of power. As for the acclaiming critics, shall we compare these gatekeepers to the bond-rating agencies who approved the financial “toxic assets” that may yet destroy us all? And call out their creators and producers as heartlessly oblivious to the terror of the bourgeoisie—that is, the middle class—at the prospect of its own destruction? Narcissism: Its root is narke, stupor—suicidal stupor. Stop! And would critics stop extolling artists who glory in cruelty and violence as “moral”?)
Of course not only Modernism is fatalist and shorts hope. Western civilization taken as a whole reflects a tragic sense of life, from the early Greek tragedies onward. We like thinking—we really, really do—that our civilization extols the “indomitable spirit of man.” But examine the literature: indomitable, maybe, but rarely triumphant.
Given the various voids threatening us—financial, climate, energy, reversing America’s decline—we need to triumph, or at least fight to a draw. Such titanic struggle will take the higher things President Obama calls for—responsibility, moral repurposing, maturity (“Put away childish things”), hope—things that Modernism and narcissism and Godot undercut. The 62 million producers of this newly hopeful day are stepping up to the call; but is it enough?
Life is short but Art is long, goes the ancient saying, and Art portends our defeat. Yet it’s Beckett himself who offers a formula for forging an existential hope, when against the longest odds he counsels, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Mindset is all.
So: Don’t sit and wait. Move. Move! Act. Act! Go after Godot! Manufacture hope!
Posted February 2009. Included in my book of commentary, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character” (2009).