IN HIS SEMINAL 1961 work The Theater of the Absurd, Martin Esslin warns against reductive attempts to demystify Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece and one of the defining texts of twentieth century literature. Hasty explanation goes wrong with any work of lasting merit, but Esslin contends that it’s especially senseless when confronted with the soul-rattling complexity of a play like Godot — a play that is itself partly an articulation of our inability to understand ourselves in a cosmos off kilter. Beckett himself could not point to who or what Godot was supposed to be. “If I knew, I would have said so in the play,” he told Alan Schneider, director of the inaugural American production in 1956. And yet it is a testament to the play’s bewitching command that we have been for six decades trying to decode the thing, to decipher the cryptic message at its core that stares us down like fire-lighted hieroglyphs. Beckett arouses in us our human rage for explication, our madness to impose order wherever disorder plants a flag, to clarify the recondite. We are eagerly irked by the unexplained, galled by Keats’s negative capability. Pen a perplexing masterpiece open to a hundred avenues of interpretation and scholars will without tire set themselves to work.
If the pedantic cabal of philosophers and critics has insisted upon Godot’s interminable difficulty as an utterance of our existential dread — as the quiddity of our existential condition — then there was at least one group of theatergoers who received the play by mainline, who required no assistance from obfuscating academics. Esslin begins The Theater of the Absurd with the extraordinary story of Godot’s 1957 production at San Quentin State Prison just north of San Francisco. The director, Herbert Blau, was atremble with anxiety: “How were they to face one of the toughest audiences in the world with a highly obscure, intellectual play that had produced near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe?” (If the only crime committed by “highly sophisticated” Europeans was their propensity for near riot, civilization in the twentieth century would have been a less barbarous affair.) In an act of either condescension or assuagement of his own nerves, Blau introduced Godot to the inmates and compared it to jazz, “to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it.” But his introduction was for naught because “what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences in Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts.”
Esslin goes on to speculate about why these caged men might intuitively comprehend a plotless play about abject wastrels conversing obscurely on a country road, waiting for someone who will not appear, someone about whom they know only rumors. Either the circumstances in Godot paralleled the men’s incarceration and they merely identified — “merely” because your identification with or distance from a work of literature says nothing at all about the work and everything about you — or their paucity of critical apparatus rendered them especially susceptible to Beckett’s meaning, a meaning that must be, in the end, emotional as well as intellectual if the work is to succeed. Esslin suggests that the San Quentin inmates might have been “unsophisticated enough to come...read more