We — the entire human race — have become Vladimir and Estragon, the happy-sad/anxious-silly/hopeful-bleak duo of “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s 1953 stage masterpiece. Like Vladimir and Estragon we are stuck, we keep to ourselves, we wait for our Godot. Like Vladimir and Estragon, we make do, we fill the time, sing, dance, exercise. Our moods, like theirs, swing. We argue; we convince ourselves that, despite everything, we are happy. After all, we have each other.
Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say, “I am happy.”
Estragon: I am happy.
Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy.
Vladimir and Estragon fall silent, then realize, in their happiness, that their circumstances persist.
Estragon: What do we do now, now that we are happy?
Vladimir: Wait for Godot.
We, too, can convince ourselves, as long as we are healthy, and our loved ones are healthy, that we are happy. But while we wait for our Godot, our happiness is fragile.
What we — I mean, Vladimir and Estragon — really want to do is move on, get past this, get going with our lives. But this business of waiting hangs over us, as it hangs over them. We want to go out, have a meal with friends, sit in a concert hall, go to a bookstore. Not yet, not yet. Estragon implores Vladimir: “Let’s go.” His friend cautions him: “We can’t.” Estragon is impatient: “Why not?” Vladimir reminds him: “We’re waiting for Godot.”
Who or what is this Godot? When director Alan Schneider was preparing the first American production, he asked Beckett to explain. “If I knew,” Beckett admitted, “I would have said so in the play.”
Godot, then, is left to interpretation. Godot is that person, or thing, or idea that’s coming to make things better. Then who or what is our Godot? As we sit in seclusion, watching the news in fear, what are we waiting for? We’re waiting for masks, for ventilators, for a “flattening of the curve,” for a cure, for a vaccine, for clarity, for hope that things will get better, for an end to our self-quarantine, for the abnormal to transform back into the normal.
But those desperately needed things are not Godot.
Sometimes we mistake our living angels for Godot. But Godot is not Fauci, or Cuomo, or Birx, or any number of the doctors and nurses on the front lines. Godot is bigger than any one of them, bigger than all of them together. This pandemic has forced us to consider questions we ignore in the ease of normal times: What inspires us, what terrifies us, what awaits us — not only in the immediate future but as a species? Godot hovers over these contemplations. We put our hopes in what he will tell us — but that supposes he shows up at all.
Estragon wonders: “And if he comes?”
Vladimir assures him: “We’ll be saved.”
So all we can do now — or ever, for that matter — is wait. And waiting means wanting the time to pass, to get to the end, to bring Godot to us, so the purpose we all believe we embody can be fulfilled. Like Vladimir and Estragon, we chatter, bicker, muse, philosophize — this is our game to move us from one minute to the next, until our next fretful trip to the grocery store. “That passed the time,” Vladimir tells Estragon. “It would have passed in any case,” Estragon points out. “Yes,” Vladimir agrees, “but not so rapidly.”
Vladimir and Estragon are certain that Godot is coming, and it is their faith that sustains them. We, like them, rationalize the waiting: Godot has his sights on us, he will end our wait. New virus cases will subside, deaths will decline.
Estragon: So long as one knows.
Vladimir: One can bide one’s time.
Estragon: One knows what to expect.
Vladimir: No further need to worry.
Estragon: Simply wait.
Vladimir: We’re used to it.
Across America, spouses, partners, roommates, friends, cooped up together waiting for this awful thing to pass, have shared words, no doubt, similar to this desperate logic of Vladimir and Estragon. The time is spent in our virus-free cocoons, no admission allowed to any others. We hear in our ears Estragon’s cry: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”
Like Vladimir and Estragon, we watch the days grind by, losing track of the calendar. One day blends into the other. Estragon wonders: “And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?”
When you’re waiting for Godot, waiting for the deaths to end, it doesn’t matter what day it is. The only day that counts is the day when Godot comes. But how long will it be? What will have transpired? Will we wish for something from Godot that we cannot imagine now? We realize, as Beckett foretold, that the waiting, and waiting, and waiting is our life — whether in a pandemic or in the sunshine that follows.
Vladimir and Estragon remind us repeatedly that we are captive to the wait, powerless to guide our fate. Despite our riches, our brains, our egos, we are infinitesimal against forces we scarcely understand. We are frozen in place, helpless, uncertain and grasping for hope. In their final exchange before the curtain falls, Vladimir and Estragon try one last time to take control of things.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.