As people assemble their recommended Corona-lit – the latest being King Lear, which some argue Shakespeare wrote in lockdown from the plague – I’d like to make a pitch for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
For those of us not yet suffering from the virus, but watching its exponential growth in the UK, the flouting of government advice on social distancing, and the example of Italy which exists in a Covid-19 timezone 15 days ahead of us, as Thomas Jones writes in the LRB, all we can do is wait, acting on the best advice, for the storm that is coming. Beckett called his play a tragi-comedy. The tramps go on waiting for that is all that they can do. (There is, of course, an element of hope in their continual waiting). Today all we can do is wait, observe the advice, treat each day as it comes.
Waiting for Godot has lots of funny lines – but back in 1987 I saw a production at the National Theatre in London with John Alderton, Alec McCowen and Colin Welland that seemed to be playing it as Laurel and Hardy. As Michael Billington wrote in the Guardian at the time,’you surely need to feel that the vaudevillian exchanges are a way of staving off the terror, the silence, the apprehension that life may ultimately be devoid of significance.’
As I wrote ten days ago, as a lifetime asthmatic with ropey lungs I’ve been apprehensive about Covid-19 for weeks. I said then:
We are living with uncertainty, in a way that few of my generation and those younger have ever experienced. Indeed maybe only those with experience of living through the war have anything similar to compare it with.
It wasn’t until I read Jo Baker’s Beckett novel A Country Road, a Tree, that I thought much about how Beckett’s wartime experiences as a member of the Resistance, on the run in France for long periods, had shaped the writing of Godot. (Beckett’s experiences of crossing France initially to escape the occupation of Paris, ‘bearded, filthy and broke’ are described in Deirdre Bair’s biography. His time in Roussillon, in the Vaucluse, is referenced in Godot).
Uncertainty defined Beckett’s wartime experience. In the UK, Brexit uncertainty has been displaced by the much deeper and more existential uncertainty of COVID-19, even for those of us who were passionate and unrepentant Remainers. Uncertainty is bad for our mental health. But that’s our current state.