Oct. 16 2002 12:00 AM

The waiting game

The first time I saw Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting For Godot, I was struck by two images: the first was a stick-figure tree just left of center stage, the second a snippet of dialogue coming one-third the way into the play.

The tree was identical to the one I knew from my childhood, as I was struggling beneath my covers to fall asleep at night. In this reoccurring vision, I was standing just inside the entrance of a dark cave, looking out across a barren landscape for my father. Though I never actually saw him, I knew that he was waiting for me somewhere out there, just below the scrawny tree, standing on the hilltop like a crucifix on Golgotha.

When the play starts, Estragon is sitting on a low mound, trying to take off his boot. Enter Vladimir.

“Nothing to be done,” says Estragon.

“I'm beginning to come around to that opinion,” replies Vladimir.

From that point on, the two gentlemen riposte comically on the existential woes and foibles of the human condition, waiting to keep their appointment with Godot, who twice reaffirms his commitment, but each time fails to appear. Enter Pozzo, and his slave, Lucky, tethered at the end of a long rope. They are headed to a fair, where Pozzo intends to sell his lackey. When Lucky hears the news, he begins to cry. Estragon tries to comfort him by wiping away his tears with a handkerchief, but before he can, Lucky kicks him violently in the shins. Estragon howls.

“He's stopped crying,” says Pozzo. “You have replaced him as it were.” A moment later, “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”

I remember sitting there, shaking my head in agreement as if shouting “Amen” to a sermon, and in that instant, Beckett became one of my favorite gods. He spoke in a language deeper than words, confirming the irrefutable absurdity of a world I still struggle with on a daily basis.

Last week I sat down and for the first time in years, reread the play to find and repeat the words I just quoted, for I sensed something in them applicable to all this talk of war. I wanted to find comfort in the midst of the absurd-truth be told, I grow anxious at the prospect of becoming just another shrill voice raised in protest, though the need be there. Who listens anyway? People feel the way they feel, and very few of us ever really change; we just grow older. We all sit around and discuss whether or not we should go to war like we were deciding which shirt to wear, slapping ourselves on the back because we live in a democracy and have the freedom to do so-a noble thought, but I wonder if it matters to the innocent who might die.

There was a report last week from the Associated Press by Matt Kelly about American involvement in the development of Iraq's bio-weapons programs that dates back two decades, when Iraq was fighting against Iran. The documents came to light under the increased scrutiny of the war discussion. This comes on the heels of another report a few weeks ago in The New York Times that during the same war, not only did we know that Saddam Hussein was gassing Iranians, but we continued giving him logistical support, which helped him in his efforts. This might cause one to ask who is the real monster, but I won't even shoot that high. I just want to know where was the democracy in those decisions? Who voted to walk down that road?

Back to Beckett. Maybe the wars of the world are as constant as its tears, for it certainly seems true that for each one that ends, another takes it place. That said, is it possible that George II is standing in the threshold of his own cave, staring out at a distant, haunting image of his own father, a vision similar to my own? Is it time for a little therapy here, time to sit and take another look at the paternal relationship? It wouldn't be the first time someone in power projected his own internal struggles on the rest of the world; unfortunately, George II is not the one who gets burned. That dubious honor is bestowed on the rest of us poor slobs who get caught up in the middle, ordinary people like you and me, no more holier, no less evil.

Beckett, like life itself, always leaves us an out. If the tears are constant, the same is true of laugher. It reminds me of Nero, fiddling away while Rome burned. I've often wondered if he went out that way because he didn't care, and in not caring, didn't want to stop the fire, or if he simply realized that he couldn't, and that being the case, he might as well make something beautiful in the midst of all the destruction. Is that the redemptive power of laughter, creating something in spite of the fact that there seems so little hope? Is it possible for all of us to sit back and laugh so hard we throw the world right out of whack, and in the process, put it back into a more sensible orbit?

I don't know, probably not, but it sure as hell sounds good. The sadder truth is that we'll all just stay in our own little space, railing and wailing away, while waiting for Godot. He keeps promising, and we keep waiting, but he never comes. Cry a little, laugh a little-it's as good as it gets in this thing we call life.


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