Waiting for Godot – attention to hope

I went to see ‘Wating for Godot’ last night. It is a shock to realise that I first read and saw the play nearly 40 (!!) yers ago. I was studying English literature at the time and was impressed with George Steiner’s view that because there can be no heroes in modern society, tragedy can no longer be written (Steiner, The Death of Tragedy). I took that as my theme in an honours thesis and investigated both Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.

In those days, as a theological student, I was impressed with an ‘existeniatlist’ reading of theology, centred on the crucifixion. Then in my mid-20s, along with Beckett’s plays, I was reading through Satre and Camus, and Soren Kierkegaard. The Vietnam War was still raging with ever-increasing bombing of Cambodia, Apartheid was alive and well in South Africa, and we were already aware of the environmental threats of pollution and deforestation. The struggle for Aboriginal fLandrights as a redressing of past dispossession was underway.

The bleakness of Beckett’s world made sense to me.

Last night I saw the play again. Set in a bombed-out world, two tramps (clowns – Estragon and Vladimir) drag themselves into wakefulness at the light of a new day, and then proceed to pass the time as they wait for Godot (?God), without reward. As they wait, they are joined, twice, by Pozzo and Lucky: a travelling slave master and slave. The play is full of verbal and visual jokes, clowning moves, puns and broken sentences. To one whose memory now regularly fails, the clowns’ failing memory is no joke! As they wait, they launch into theological discusion about ‘salvation’, for example, based on the thieves crucifeid with Jesus – but any sustained discussion trails off; surely Beckett’s own take on our failed attempts to ‘make meaning’.

The comical, yet gruelling, discussion at the tree about hanging themselves, would have to be a riff on the Tree in the Garden of Eden. Even when it grows leaves, the option for suicide is not removed, although the rope itself fails. In the light of Auschwitz, the humour here is close to weeping – as the tramp-clowns and the travelling pair demonstrate.

A hope-less waiting, requiring diversion: can there be anything else? Beckett’s twice repeated play (a tragi-comedy in two acts) gets us nowhere. Although the pet name for Estragon is Gogo, he is going nowhere. If Godot is a pun on ‘God’, God is not coming today (as announced at the close of each act by the boy – a messenger who seems to be an inverstion of the angels at the tomb).

Beckett poses most sharply the question of hope. It appears that Beckett himself regards the great tradition as a distoted illusion. Lucky’s monologue that seems to be a garbled account of creation, ends up (in a ‘second coming’) with him mute and Pozzo blind! Can there be any hope of redemption?

Any easy response to such a view must be avoided. I understand that Christian hope must look at the devastated and broken narrative that Beckett presents with open eyes: precisely because – where the tree stands on the stage – the cross also stands. (As amply mimed by the clowns.)

In my student existentialist days I had not yet learnt to take account of Christian hope that knows of the cross and its deepest desolation – the depths of human destruction, and lived senselessness – then also speaks of the raising of Jesus from the dead. This can never be a side-stepping of his cross and his company with those who wait for a Coming one who will heal this desolatation. Yet, the supreme act of foolishness is the Christian confession that we can only live and endure hopefully because God raised Jesus from the dead.

The apparently ‘objective’ grounds for such a claim are few – if any. The experience of failed hopes and betrayal and destruction is with us every day, and seems to threaten every tomorrow. In this, with the slenderest of shoots (like those leaves on the tree in the second act), the wounded and crucufied Jesus presents himself with the promise that tomorrow will be transformed by the God who promises to come.

That the waiting is extended is certainly true. The question is whether we can join the clown-tramps in their punning, their dances, and games, and express in them a grasped hope that life now can be shared in its tears and its laughs – because of an overshadowing cloud that is a contradiction to a wasted waiting, as a promise of moments now of life-giving touch and embrace, and a transforming Spirit that can break even the bonds of death.

(For a way into the discussion of the cross and hope of resurrection, I suggest Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, SCM, 1974; and also his work: The Way of Jesus Christ, SCM, 1990. For a Japanese theologian who faces the impact of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and the cross: Kazoh Kitamori, The Theology of the Pain of God,SCM Press, 1965.)

Wes Campbell
13th May 2010

Painting 55_2_women


  1. Shawn
    Posted 13/05/2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Wes for this excellent reflection! I have been meaning to take up your challenge to read Moltmann, indeed made a start but got distracted…will try to make time to come back to it!

  2. Posted 21/03/2013 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Yes! Finally someone writes about sermon.

  3. Posted 29/03/2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi there! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the fantastic work!

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