SARAJEVO, BOSNIA -- Call it waiting for Clinton, or airstrikes, or freedom. Call it waiting for water, electricity or gas. Call it waiting for gunshots, sniper fire and the point between the swish of the tank shell and its earth-shattering, chest-rattling blast. Call it waiting for cigarettes or diesel, bell peppers or steak. Call it waiting for peace -- or waiting for death -- in this crumbling European town.
Susan Sontag looks a bit guilty stuffing partially stale bread rolls into her arty cotton shoulder bag. She's already put about 15 into the sack, and she's reaching for three more in the dining room of the Holiday Inn, her home for the past five weeks.
"This is morning duty," she says with a wry smile. "It's fuel for my actors. I mean, usually actors stand in place when you direct them. Here they just lie down on the stage. This war has worn them out."
Sontag then shifts the subject. "Look," she says, "it was the obvious choice. It was the only play I could do."
"It" is Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," which opened Tuesday afternoon here to a packed house at the Youth Theater, a pockmarked building within easy range of the Serb guns that ring this city the way floral designs ring some teacups. On a stage lit by a dozen candles and one footlight powered by a gas-guzzling generator, which burped occasionally outside (making for a dramatic light show inside), nine Bosnian actors performed a play that, as Sontag says, "was written for this city."
Beckett wrote this masterpiece of 20th century theater in France more than 40 years ago, but its musings on expectation, hope, futility, will and death ring as true in Sarajevo, 17 months after Serbs forces began their siege of this ancient city, as they do anywhere on Earth. On its simplest level, the play is about a pair of friends -- Vladimir and Estragon -- expecting someone who never arrives; in the process, they ride a roller coaster of emotions.
Sontag's variation on the play was to create as many parts as she could: There are three sets of Vladimirs and Estragons instead of just one. This troika succeeds on the stage as each pair -- two women, two men, and a man and a woman -- explore different parts of the waiting game as they inhabit a world garnished with ammo boxes, sandbags and a hospital bed -- part of the spiritual architecture of life in Sarajevo.
For Sontag, for the actors and for many in the audience, the play belongs here for reasons ranging from the geopolitical to the personal.
Essentially prohibited by a U.N.-imposed arms embargo from defending themselves, the people of this city have placed their fate in the hands of the international community -- a giant, faceless Godot. Sometimes this Godot seems ready to spring to this city's defense -- as it did in May and then again over the past weeks, when the Clinton administration beat the war drums and warned the surrounding Serbs to lift their siege. But somehow this Godot has never yet shown up. And somehow, despite this, Sarajevans never seem to lose faith completely that he will.
Sarajevans spend their days and nights living, loving, sipping coffee, lugging water and wood, cooking and sleeping within the sight of men with access to seemingly unlimited supplies of ammunition and with a seemingly endless interest in blowing them away. Since the war began thousands of people have died in the capital, victims of artillery fire and sniper rounds. That is another type of Godot.
"You never know when something is going to come crashing down and blow your head apart," said Sead Bejtovic, one of the actors in the play. "That's my own personal Godot."
The play also encapsulates much about the indomitable spirit of this city, which at times seems to be fiddling en masse as the walls of the Serbian siege close in around it. Estragon's question: "We should celebrate, but how?" -- is one any Sarajevan might pose.
Sontag is one of a handful of prominent Americans -- including Sens. Daniel P. Moynihan and Joseph Biden -- who have visited Sarajevo since the siege began, and one of the only leading Western intellectuals to have lived in solidarity with the people here, despite widespread international condemnation of the Serb siege.
Sontag's presence here may spring, in part, from her pride in being tougher than the rest. In 1968 and again in 1972, she was in Hanoi during U.S. bombing raids. In 1973, she braved heavy shelling to film Israeli attacks around the Golan Heights. In Sarajevo, she doesn't wear a flak jacket and tootles around town in a beat-up automobile (instead of an armored car), which could be easily Swiss-cheesed by any Serb gunner in the hills.
But another reason why Sontag is essentially alone here is that, as she puts it, her colleagues in literary circles have "just gotten too rich."
Sontag, 60, places herself in a tradition exemplified by the British writer George Orwell and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who both lived with and wrote about the international forces fighting Franco's fascists in Spain in the 1930s.
"People told me they thought I was crazy to come here," she recalls. "They said, 'You are very important and if you were killed it would be a bad thing.' But they didn't understand that I couldn't not come here. Once I understood what was happening, it was the obvious moral choice. It was the only choice."
Sontag first arrived in Sarajevo in April with her son, writer David Rieff. She spent two weeks here and decided she wanted to come back, this time to work.
"I didn't want to be a tourist here, to watch while everybody suffered. That would be cheap. I wanted to give something, to contribute."
Sontag proposed directing a play and Haris Pasovic, head of the Youth Theater, agreed. Sontag returned to Sarajevo this summer.
Producing a play here is not a simple endeavor. Some of the cast members had to walk several miles a day to rehearsal; candles were in short supply and there was rarely enough gasoline to run the generator, so the actors read their scripts by flashlights. When it came to making costumes, Sontag donated two T-shirts and a pair of pants. Perhaps the only cast member to benefit in any way from the war was Ines Sancovic, a formerly obese 68-year-old actress who appears in the play. She has lost 66 pounds over the past 17 months and is now pleasantly plump.
"I've never felt better," Sancovic says. "Doing this play is important to show the world we can and will work despite the aggression."
Surprisingly, the language barrier was not a huge problem.
"Look, I know these people," Sontag says of her cast. "I've been to their houses and shared a part of their life. I can tell when they make a mistake. We're that close. I listen to the emotion in a line."
At the beginning of the second of two premieres Tuesday, Sontag stepped onto the stage to greet the audience, explaining that this production includes only Act 1. That too, she said, was on purpose.
"Its correct title, then, is 'Waiting for Godot: Act 1,' " Sontag told the crowd, which was packed tightly on a little stand overlooking the candle-lit stage. "We are all waiting for Act 2."