Friday, April 13, 2012

All Our Absurdist Ghosts

When we were in colonial Williamsburg, there was one photo I was never able to capture.  Several times, a skinny, tall man in a Santa Claus suit rode his bike down the colonial street.  You see many things on the streets of Williamsburg, and happily, no cars!  You see carriages, and people in costume, and modern tourists.  But a man in a Santa suit on a bike?  In late March?  Several times in one afternoon?

It would have been the perfect post for today, Samuel Beckett's birthday.  Ah, Beckett, the one who helped birth the absurdist movement in literature!

I first read Waiting for Godot in grad school, at the tender young age of 25. I was baffled. It made sense to me as a response to World War II, as a response to the newly birthed nuclear age. But as a staged work? I could hardly stand to read it. How could audiences watch it?

Of course, not all audiences did. Some audiences greeted the play with the mindset of my graduate school self: "What on earth is this? We didn't come to the theatre for this!"

I used to work at a community college in South Carolina, and for some reason, we had a filmed version of the second act of the play, which I would show to my Brit Lit survey class. It was fun to watch their reactions. It's safe to say that Waiting for Godot was like nothing they had ever seen. And it's a great play to launch a discussion of how 20th century drama was so very different from the drama that had come before.

I am glad that my younger self had no vision of how life--just regular life, not post-apocalypse life--can seem so very much to resemble the lives of those folks who wait for Godot. Why are we here? Why are we doing this? Why don't we do something differently? Do you have a radish or did we eat them all already? Think about your daily tasks, especially if you're working in an office, and how much that play resembles office life.

Do we have hope? The tree sprouts leaves, after all. Are we really just living the same day over and over again? Some days I think we are, other days, I'm learning/doing something new--but often, the something new will become cyclical too. Are we just trapped together, the way that all of Beckett's plays suggest? Can we not escape? And where is God (Godot?) in all this.

Ah, the existential questions!

And yet, we're well-trained, aren't we? Our broken belts won't allow us to commit suicide, and we don't want to leave our lives of circularity, because what if there really is a pay off? What if Godot really does show up and it will all be worthwhile after all?

And so, in the meantime, we wait. We wait with the people around us, not necessarily people of our choosing. We wait, in hope and in despair.

It's called absurdist theatre for a reason.

It's also theatre that refuses to spoon feed us. What does it all mean? At the end of the drama, it's hard to determine. Beckett doesn't say, "Wake up you dopes! Shake off your chains!" Beckett doesn't say, "Don't worry. It will all be worth it." The audience is left to make up its own mind.

In the end, I still can't decide what I think of absurdist theatre.  It's fun to talk about, but I find it excruciating to watch.  I understand why people want a big musical with fun costumes.  Or a piercing social drama, that paints the good guys and the evil in uncompromising strokes.  But to watch people waiting?  And not sure of why?  It boggles the mind to think of it.

It boggles the mind even more to think of what a success it was.  But hurrah for literary movements without much chance of success that capture the hearts and minds of a substantial group of people.

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