“The Literature of the Absurd” is a reflection on prominent authors in the Absurdist tradition — Beckett, Camus and beyond — and the ways in which their writings can intertwine with life in sometimes surprising ways.
“What do we do now?”
“Yes, but while waiting.”
“What about hanging ourselves?”
“Hmm. It’d give us an erection.”
Seated comfortably behind a plastic table, I watched my two classmates struggle with the unpredictable lines and jarring cadence of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” I had chosen this scene to evaluate their ability to play off each other, to create something lively and engaging despite the apparent nonsense of the dialogue. I wasn’t letting them on, though — all I had told my auditioners was that they were playing the part of two old men with no other apparent pastime than waiting by the roadside for a man named “Godot” to show up. When they finished reading, I let them go, befuddled, to audition for another director’s show.
Every spring, my high school’s theater department gave us seniors an opportunity to direct a one-act play of our choice. My choice was not a traditional one — I had desperately wanted to direct “Waiting for Godot,” the play I had been obsessing over for at least the past year. I felt that I had a clear vision for a work that many people still failed to understand, and this could perhaps be my one chance to share that vision with others. While I couldn’t put on the entire play, I decided that the first twenty minutes, an excerpt consisting primarily of an extended, rambling conversation between the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, would be enough. Fittingly, the last line of this excerpt was the same as the first, both times uttered by Estragon: “Nothing to be done.”
Before the first rehearsal with my two chosen actors, Maia (Vladimir) and Kate (Estragon), I deliberated at length over how much to tell them about the play’s premise, characters and meaning. On the one hand, I was quite curious to see where they would take the play’s unusual dialogue without instruction, and how they might choose to play their characters independent of my guidance. On the other, I worried that going in blind might be a waste of time if the actors struggled to understand the meaning of their lines or were frustrated by the play’s lack of clear direction.
I had a vision for the play. I needed to make sure audiences stayed engaged for 20 minutes of dialogue, and in the complete absence of any plot or clear message. I wanted them puzzled; wondering, like I had when I first read the play, what the point of it all was. I wanted them to think. I couldn’t have them falling asleep to actors reciting short, stilted lines devoid of any humor or intensity. Before having Maia or Kate read even a single line, I ended up describing the play at length, and my exact plans for it, for nearly half an hour: half of our first rehearsal.
At the end of our first read-through, I asked the actors for their first impressions. Their response: it was funny. I considered the rehearsal a success.
For the next seven weeks, we met three times a week to rehearse. Soon the play was taking shape: I explained the meanings of obscure lines, prescribed specific movements around the stage to accompany certain bits of dialogue and gave each character distinctive traits, like a nervous hat-wringing tic for Vladimir and a painful, shuffling walk for Estragon. I treated each moment with precision, shaping the volume, tone, and mood when I felt the actors’ choices didn’t fit with my expectations for the scene.
I wasn’t always entirely sure what I would like, but I could certainly tell what didn’t sit right with me when I saw it. For one thing, I didn’t want the play to get too comical, despite Maia’s and Kate’s initial reactions. I remembered watching clips from a popular production of the full play that starred Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the lead roles. Unsurprisingly, it was a brilliant performance. But it struck me that they were just a little too funny in some places, not quite able to prevent the comedy of each scene from overwhelming what I saw as the deeper message of the play: of finding, or creating, meaning from mundanity. I struggled to identify where this balance might lie for my own production, and to figure out how I could precisely control the tone of the play through the notes I gave my own actors on their movements and delivery.
One afternoon several weeks into our rehearsals, we were visited by the head of the theater department and director of our full-length shows, Jeremy. By this point I felt the show was in good shape, for the most part. Maia and Kate both remembered the movements I had given them, recited their lines with the cadences I had instructed them to and were well-practiced at portraying the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of their respective characters. But I still wondered if something was missing — some level of naturalism and comfort from the actors that would sweep away the last vestiges of awkwardness and transform the play into the vibrant, lively vignette of comically bleak circumstances I knew it needed to be.
Jeremy was only there to watch about five minutes of the entire 20-minute play. Before he left, though, he made one suggestion: that at some point, I stop and ask the actors what they thought of their parts — what their lines meant to them, and why their characters might be saying them.
This was something I hadn’t even considered. As an actor, I always strived to envision my character as fully as possible, including their motivations in any given situation, how they might react to other characters’ actions, and, especially, why they were saying each line. But by assuming that I needed to explain the themes and messages of “Godot” myself and carefully prescribe every movement and action to the actors — every choice that might constitute an opportunity to really act — perhaps I had been denying them the basic privilege of interpreting their characters as they themselves saw fit.
During our next run-through, I decided to stop and have Kate analyze one important line, spoken in response to Vladmir’s refusal to listen to another of Estragon’s nightmares and Estragon’s subsequent suggestion that they part ways: “Wouldn’t it, Didi, be really too bad? When you think of the beauty of the way. And the goodness of the wayfarers.” In my view, this line referred to Vladimir and Estragon themselves, the wayfarers on their journey to a better place with Godot.
But Kate had a different interpretation. To her, the wayfarers represented those who Didi and Gogo might meet along the way, those whose lives they might briefly intersect with and be touched by throughout the monotony of their existence. This was a view I had never considered before, and it gave Estragon’s character a more hopeful bent — less self-centered and dour, perhaps even looking forward toward the adventures ahead instead of just grumbling about the circumstances. For a play in which I needed to create a sense of motion without any true plot to go off, I liked the change.
Over the next few weeks, whenever possible, I asked Maia and Kate what they thought of certain lines or moments, and listened to and considered their perspectives, regardless of how different they might have been from my own. I still directed — I provided notes on timing, movements across the stage I wanted to accompany certain lines, moments I wanted to be more aggressive or more hushed. But by letting the actors think deeply about their own characters and the motives or reactions those characters might have that I had not considered, I found that each scene felt more animated, lively, and consistent.
Perhaps what this production of “Waiting for Godot” needed was not my own singular opinion of how it should look, but the combined effort of three people who understood the play each in their own ways, and who each came to their own conclusions. When the time came to put the play on before an audience, I was exceptionally pleased with our joint creation — and nothing remained to be done.