Guide to the Classics: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy for our times


Mark Byron, University of Sydney

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Samuel Beckett originally subtitled his 1953 play Waiting for Godot “a tragicomedy in two acts”. Vivian Mercier, the critic for the Irish Times, dubbed it “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, wait on the side of a country road. Each act begins with the pair reunited after spending the night apart. As they await their enigmatic patron, Godot, Estragon laments being beaten by nameless figures during the night, and Vladimir seeks to pass the time by stirring his companion into repartee.

These two are ill-starred but well-suited: Estragon’s feet are in constant pain, and Vladimir’s unspecified affliction induces frequent and painful urination. Estragon’s shoes stink, while Vladimir adheres to a diet of garlic to ease the symptoms of his condition. Vladimir remembers, and Estragon forgets.

Memory stretches into the deep past. The present sits on the cusp of a hopeful future. Time’s recurrence is marked by the moon and the sun. The endless wait for a rendezvous … for what, exactly?

To receive instructions? To be delivered from this tormented life? To relieve the tramps of their little canters, their bombastic declarations, their pleas? To relieve the steadfast audience?

From its first performances in the 1950s, Waiting for Godot enjoyed a positive critical reception. Yet its earliest audiences thought otherwise, ensuring the interval was the most popular part of the play by voting with their feet. Over time, though, Godot would become a celebrated avant-garde play, and a popular cultural reference for fruitless waiting.

This waiting is eerily prescient in a time of pandemic.

From Dublin to Paris

Samuel Beckett photographed in 1977.
Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906. As a child he boarded at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (Oscar Wilde’s alma mater), before a degree in Modern Languages and Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

His enduring relation with Paris began soon after. During his two-year position as lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Superiéure (1928-29) Beckett met and became close with James Joyce, who introduced him to the Parisian literary and artistic avant-garde.

Beckett spent two years in London (1933-35) undergoing a course of psychoanalysis under Walter Bion at the Tavistock Clinic, during which he wrote his first published novel, Murphy (1938). Following travels in Germany and Italy, Beckett settled in Paris in 1938, as war looked increasingly likely.

Beckett joined the French Resistance but his cell was infiltrated and he was forced to flee to Roussillon for the duration of the war, where he composed the novel Watt (published in 1953) in English. Back in Paris, Beckett embraced French and embarked upon one of modern literature’s most eccentric and fruitful monastic episodes: the “siege in the room” which yielded the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1953) and The Unnamable (1953).

A sign.
The script opens with the stage directions ‘A country road. A tree. Evening.’, as in this New Orleans street art.
Derek Bridges/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Beckett’s trilogy contributed to the new wave of French postwar novels renowned for their spare style and forensic treatment of plot, a movement that came to be known as the nouveau roman (“New Novel”).

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot between October 1948 and January 1949. It was his first play to reach the stage — his first full playscript, Eleuthéria, was written in 1947 but only published posthumously.

Nothing, twice

Despite appearances, Godot is a surprising blend of suspense and dramatic action. Themes repeat over both acts: the same waiting, the same fights. A messenger boy appears in each act — or, perhaps, two different boys in each act, brothers. The horizon of time is scanned twice, once in each act.

The symmetry of Vladimir and Estragon, endlessly waiting for the unseen Godot, is echoed by another pair, Pozzo and Lucky, who pass by in each act. In Act 1, Pozzo is the grand landlord — a revenant of the Irish Big House literary tradition — whipping his servant Lucky into service.

Pozzo’s pomposity is matched by Lucky’s silence, and when Pozzo compels Lucky to speak, finally, Lucky’s cascade of logorrhea stands in contrast to Pozzo’s grandiloquence.

In Act 2 Pozzo returns, blinded, his authority diminished to the merely rhetorical. His final speech echoes Macbeth on time and the brevity of life. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth pronounces:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more

Pozzo’s final passionate outburst reduces life to:

the same day, the same second […] They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Estragon’s complete indifference to Pozzo’s swansong has Vladimir wonder at his own dilemma, inducing an irrevocable moment of clear vision:

At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

This burden of recognition places Valdimir within a tragic mode, out of step with the farcical tragicomedy around him. He is no longer immersed in the condition of waiting, but breaks through to understand the act of waiting as a condition of life.

Audible yawns – from those who stayed

Godot premièred at the Théâtre du Babylone in Paris in January 1953. The play drew positive attention from reviewers and from some of the biggest names in French theatre and literature. Its fame rose slowly — then abruptly, when a fistfight broke out in the interval of one performance, between the play’s defenders and those offended or shocked by its (in)action and the cruel plight of the character Lucky.

Its English-language premiere in London in August 1955 was met with “waves of hostility” and audible yawning from audience members who remained after interval.

The play’s fate in the United States was little short of catastrophic: billed as “the laugh sensation of two continents”, its opening night in January 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami was farcical.

Even Alan Schneider’s expert direction couldn’t salvage the play from a disruptive rehearsal atmosphere, complicated sets and an ill-suited venue. The interval, again, turned out to be the most popular part of the performance.

Bert Lahr (who played the Lion in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz) played Estragon in Miami and would be instrumental in the play’s success later that year on Broadway, an event that remained one of his career highlights.

Record cover
Waiting for Godot played on Broadway for only 10 weeks, but Bert Lahr’s performance was immortalised by Columbia Records.
Internet Archive

During those early years, Godot was also performed in prisons, including a landmark production by the San Francisco Actors Workshop at San Quentin State Prison in 1957. Inmates were astounded a playwright could capture limbo with such insight and sensitivity.

All of us are waiting

Over time its fame has grown to the point where Godot is a definitive meeting point of the avant-garde and popular culture. The play has inspired numerous parodies and spin-offs, perhaps most notably the 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, in which the cast of a small-town musical production in Missouri awaits the arrival of a legendary Broadway producer.

The claustrophobia of Beckett’s next play, Endgame (1957), might capture the experience of lockdown in the current pandemic (“Beyond [the wall] is the other hell”), but Godot captures the distortions of time combined with the uncertainty of respite.

Populations across the globe have endured various kinds of waiting: waiting for published infection numbers, for hospital beds, for oxygen supplies, for borders to reopen, for opportunities to see loved ones. Running through our individual narratives, waiting has proved to be a truly global, shared experience.

How do we remember pre-pandemic times – that past “a million years ago,” as Vladimir pronounces in the play – and what do we forget?

Estragon exclaims: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” But dilatory time and static place also offer opportunities for new perception: a long moment to consider our circumstances and ourselves anew.The Conversation

Mark Byron, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Book review: Geoffrey Robertson makes the case for naming and shaming human rights abusers


A.M. Ahad/AP

George Newhouse, Macquarie University

Geoffrey Robertson is one of Australia’s most acclaimed international jurists and human rights advocates. His latest book, Bad People – and How to Be Rid of Them, explains the history of international human rights law and acknowledges its failings.

Bad People is not a textbook; it is aimed at anyone with an interest in the international human rights framework and its enforcement mechanisms.

Most importantly, it is a call to action for Australians and others in democracies to demand the introduction of “Magnitsky laws”.

Magnitsky laws are named after a Russian whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and died after exposing a massive tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. These laws seek to combat human rights abuses by naming, blaming and shaming individuals, denying them the right to enter democratic nations, stripping them of ill-gotten funds, and barring them and their families from local schools and hospitals.

Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer and tax auditor.
Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer and tax auditor who died in custody in Russia at the age of 37.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The US was the first country to pass such laws in 2012 to sanction Russian officials and Chechen warlords, sending a strong signal to the Kremlin that action could and would be taken for human rights breaches.

Since then, the US has used the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on more than 200 individuals and entities from two dozen countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and Cambodia.

Robertson’s response to the failure of the international human rights framework is to promote powerful Magnitsky laws as a “plan B” to coordinated international action.

Bad People – and How to Be Rid of Them, by Geoffrey Robertson.
Penguin Books Australia

How international courts have been weakened

Robertson charts the rise of human rights immediately after the horrors of the second world war, and then despairs of the growing trend of nations retreating from the jurisdiction of international courts or refusing to comply with their rulings.

Robertson describes how the United Nations succeeded in establishing a coherent human rights regime, but failed to carve out effective accountability mechanisms to enforce breaches. Instead, enforcement relies on individual nations’ leaders being motivated to legislate human rights into their domestic laws.

Although the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been broadly accepted, punishment for war crimes and crimes against humanity has been inconsistent and complex.

Consequently, Robertson argues the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not serve as a deterrent to perpetrators of most human rights abuses.

Eroded confidence in international law

The book provides a useful history of the ICC and the way the US, China and Russia have limited its operations by using their veto powers when legal action is proposed against them or their allies.

In the past four years, for instance, Russia has vetoed ICC action 14 times, China five times and the US twice. Robertson suggests the mere threat of a veto by superpowers behind the scenes have seen other initiatives withdrawn.

As a result, Robertson laments the once-powerful ICC is now confined to punishing rebel warlords and leaders of pariah countries.

More than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the growing threats of isolationist foreign policies and anti-democratic regimes are pulling at the threads of our international human rights framework. Shifting geopolitical balances and the populist politics of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign have eroded confidence in a global system of law and order.




Read more:
Australia must do more to ensure Myanmar is preventing genocide against the Rohingya


Australia is not immune from this trend. In February 2020, the ICC prosecutor described Australia’s offshore detention regime as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”.

But, the ICC decided not to prosecute the Australian government, despite saying its actions appeared “to constitute the underlying act of imprisonment or other severe deprivations of physical liberty” forbidden under international law.

The problem with Magnitsky laws

Robertson’s solution is to impose sanctions against individuals, corporations and other entities.

He argues Magnitsky laws are not an alternative to coordinated international criminal justice, but an assertion of the fundamental values that countries insist should be respected by other nations.

The problem is these types of sanctions can be abused for political reasons. We have already seen the tit-for-tat actions of nations that bring sanctions against the citizens of their enemies, such as the Russian counter-sanctions against US citizens in 2013, including former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.




Read more:
Canada’s growing challenges with economic sanctions


Among democratic nations, it is unlikely Magnitsky laws would ever be used against friendly allies. Can you imagine any of Australia’s allies sanctioning an Australian official for a First Nations’ death in custody or for the over-representation of First Nations people in the country’s criminal justice system?

If enforcement of human rights breaches is seen as political or inconsistent, then Magnitsky laws may not be the universal panacea Robertson suggests. However, this doesn’t mean the push for individual accountability is not justified. As he writes,

human rights are not rights in any meaningful sense unless they are capable of enforcement.

Robertson leaves us with a sensible pathway to a better world through laws that hold individuals accountable for their evil deeds. Magnitsky sanctions might, at least, make murderers, crooks and abusers think twice before implementing their plans.


Geoffrey Robertson will be speaking across Australia in the coming weeks, with engagements in Melbourne on May 22 and Sydney on May 25 and 26, to be followed by Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.The Conversation

George Newhouse, Adjunct Professor of Law, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters at 300 — an Enlightenment story that resonates in a time of culture wars


Knox Peden, The University of Queensland

We have recently seen a spate of books defending the Enlightenment, the period of efflorescence in 18th-century Europe that helped shape the modern world.

At the vanguard has been the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who titled his most recent monument to scientific progress Enlightenment Now. The book earned Bill Gates’s endorsement but was widely criticised by historians since it was not an assessment of the Enlightenment at all, but a compilation of data showing us why life was now better than ever.

Other advocates have been more subtle, stressing that what set the Enlightenment apart from preceding eras was less its confidence in reason per se, than its focus on the secular (as opposed to the sacred) as the space in which happiness ought to be pursued and quite possibly achieved.

Readers might wonder: who could be against this? But Pinker and his allies are pushing back on a tendency to see in the overweening self-confidence of the Enlightenment a blueprint for the horrors of the 20th century. The view is not without merit. The Enlightenment may have given us a new way to think about rights, but it also gave us the atom bomb.

Moreover, its conviction that the same naturalistic perspective that led to scientific innovation could be applied to populations has given rise to social engineering in multiple, often sinister forms.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of a book that contemporaries saw as inaugurating the Enlightenment in France: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Given its exalted status, one would expect to find in Persian Letters an ode to human ingenuity and a confident projection of progress. But its contents are much more surprising — and relevant — than that.

The book’s author, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu — Montesquieu, for short — was an odd sort, an aristocrat with a sympathy for republics and a voracious intellectual appetite.

Born in 1689, he came of age at a time of French predominance in Europe. A lawyer by training, he began writing during the “Regency”, a period of social dynamism that followed the death in 1715 of Louis XIV, the Sun King, when his great-grandson Louis XV was too young to rule on his own.

A new kind of fiction

In 1721 Montesquieu introduced France to a new kind of fiction, a novel composed entirely of letters, mainly authored by Usbek and Rica, two Persians who have travelled to Paris and delight in reporting their bemusement at its customs. The device allows Montesquieu to make the more familiar features of European life appear idiosyncratic.

An anonymous painting of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.
Wikimedia Commons

The nature of the work also gives Montesquieu ample space to deal with subjects that still divide us: the varieties of government, the extravagances of metaphysical speculation, and the dilemmas of tolerance.

In this regard, we can see Persian Letters as a set of working notes for the book that earned Montesquieu his place among the giants of modern political thought: The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. With its case for a “separation of powers” as crucial to a well-functioning republic, this volume inspired Thomas Jefferson and the authors of the US constitution.

Providing a typology of regimes — republics, monarchies, despotisms — and tracing their relationship to material factors from climate to geography, The Spirit of the Laws more or less launched the discipline of political sociology. More prophetic still was the book’s concern for how despotism lies in wait for any regime that sees a loss of civic virtue.

All of this material is dealt with ironically in Persian Letters. The worry about despotism is signalled through what passes for a plot in the book. As Usbek becomes accustomed to Parisian society, he becomes distant from his seraglio (or harem) in Persia.

Persian miniature by Hossein Behzad.
Iranian National Museum.

A revolt ensues in which the women, corrupted by having to live in a degraded state and no longer fearful of their absent authority, stage a bloody uprising. The story ends with a letter from Usbek’s favourite wife Roxane, who is committing suicide, pen in hand.

Constant vigilance

This ghastly conclusion makes for an instructive contrast with the playful tone otherwise permeating the book. Throughout the letters, there is much mirth at Frenchmen who distract themselves with philosophical rumination while their society becomes mired in conflict and sedition.

The irony is to the point; political stability is a matter of constant vigilance, irrespective of the nature of the regime in question.

With his portrayal of the seraglio, a question insists: is Montesquieu indulging in Orientalism, a projection of his Western prejudices on to figures from the East?

Perhaps. And yet Montesquieu never loses sight of the fictional nature of his construction. To see Europe through the eyes of another is to imagine yourself in the position of the other, not to occupy it.

Not coincidentally, this relationship between how we present ourselves and who we are is one of the key themes of the work.

In one of the early letters, Rica recounts the wonder he aroused walking the streets of Paris.

I therefore resolved to set aside my Persian clothing and dress instead as a European, to see whether anything in my appearance would still astonish. From this test, I learnt my true worth: stripped of my exotic finery, I found myself appraised at my real value, and I had good reason to complain of my tailor, through whom I’d lost, in an instant, the attention and esteem of the public.

In reflecting on whether the clothes make the man, Rica suggests the social nature of our identities. In effect, we are as we are seen. But recognising this fact only increases Rica’s desire for public approval.

Elsewhere Usbek remarks that in order to remain powerful a monarch must supply not only necessities, but luxuries. And yet the obsession with luxury — both as a pleasurable experience and opulent display — affects or indeed infects everything, even religion, which is mercilessly pilloried throughout Persian Letters.

Louis XV in Coronation Robes, Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1730.
Wikimedia Commons

The society Montesquieu satirises is one in which moral debates fail to find resolution because agreement is hardly the goal; vindication is. The need for social vindication breeds conflict. We seek out peers who advance what we take to be our interests rather than working with others to discover sites of common interest.

In this aspect, the paint on Usbek and Rica’s portrait of modern life hardly seems dry.

“The reader is urged to note,” Montesquieu wrote in a later edition of Persian Letters, “that the entire charm of the work resides in the constantly recurring contrast between actual reality and the singular, naïve, or strange manner in which reality is perceived”.

The mirror Montesquieu presents to society is one in which its vanities appear in all their absurdity.

With earnestness an increasingly dominant virtue in today’s culture wars, we’d likewise do well to rediscover the charm, indeed the humility, in appreciating the inevitably partial nature of our views.

More than celebrations of science or promises of progress — both of which tend to a self-righteousness foreign to Persian Letters — this seems to be a form of enlightenment we could use, for now.The Conversation

Knox Peden, Senior Lecturer in European Enlightenment Studies, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book shows the folly of painting Mandela as either saint or sellout


Nelson Mandela at the commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in 1994.
Georges MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Colin Bundy, University of Oxford and William Beinart, University of Oxford

There are two widely available views of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa. The first is a reverential and uncritical celebration of his life and achievements. It resonated in the obituaries and eulogies when Mandela died in December 2013.

Madiba (his clan name) was “sent by God”, said Irish newspaper magnate Tony O’Reilly, who’s said to have been a friend of Mandela’s. His purchase of South Africa’s then largest newspaper company, Argus Newspapers, was made possible by Mandela’s support. Former American president Barack Obama declared that Mandela

changed the arc of history, transforming his country, the continent and the world.

A second prevailing view is hostile and dismissive. By 2015, a reputation that had appeared invincible was being shredded in some media outlets, on the streets and especially on university campuses across South Africa. The critique centred on the 1994 negotiated settlement that ended apartheid. It accused Mandela of betraying the black majority to appease the economically powerful white minority.

Both narratives – Mandela as secular saint or Mandela as sellout – are poor history. The suggestion that Mandela single-handedly achieved democracy is as intellectually threadbare as its mirror image: that he was responsible for the failure to transform social and economic relations after 1994.

Our edited collection, Reassessing Mandela, provides a scholarly counterweight to the two polarised positions. It attempts to begin the task of revisiting the canonical biographies, rethinking aspects of Mandela’s life and his politics, and evaluating how he is and should be remembered.

Reassessing Mandela

The first aspect of Mandela’s life reassessed in the book is his family and its background, his childhood and youth, and his Thembu lineage. Two chapters – by the late Phil Bonner and by Xolela Mangcu – complement one another in intriguing ways. Both historians remind us that Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is an unreliable text. Some of its flaws are replicated in the work of others.

Bonner’s archivally based chapter corrects some of the shaky chronology in Long Walk. It identifies Mandela’s father Gadla Mandela as “a significant if little recognised historical figure” but shows that Mandela’s own account of his father defying the white magistrate cannot be read as history.

Mangcu’s chapter challenges Mandela’s own account of his descent. He locates him within a history of the Thembu royal house’s “pragmatic co-operation” with colonial rule. Mandela did not mention this.

Mangcu emphasises the history of “African political modernity” in the Transkei, a territory comprising a number of African kingdoms and chiefdoms annexed in the 19th century. He also considers Gadla’s role in the local administrative body (Bungha), where he is portrayed as resisting both missionary influence and colonial regulations.

Bonner and Mangcu underline the complexity of “indirect rule” in the Transkei. They correct the tendency to discuss Mandela’s early years through a lens of rural nostalgia.

Mandela’s political activism

A second broad area of reassessment emerges from three chapters which consider Mandela’s relationship with the South African Communist Party (SACP), his activism and especially his leadership in underground politics. Tom Lodge produces a fine-grained account of Mandela’s “association with South Africa’s communist left”. His is a study of friendships and social networks, of left-wing readings and writings, and of political alliances and tactics.

Paul Landau’s chapter focuses on the period between the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of black protesters by apartheid police, and Mandela’s arrest in August 1962. It traces the efforts to implement the M-Plan – a template for an underground structure of the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).

Mandela and a small group of like-minded colleagues sought to use the plan to transform the ANC into a militant vanguard movement willing to employ violence against the state.

Thula Simpson’s chapter reconsiders Mandela’s role as commander-in-chief of umKhonto we Sizwe, (an armed wing set up by the ANC and SACP). He suggests that its campaign of urban sabotage was more effective than generally acknowledged.

Three other chapters cast new light on different aspects of Mandela’s life: his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; his years in jail on Robben Island, and his role in the human rights discourse that shaped South Africa’s new constitution.

Shireen Hassim provides a compelling rereading of

one of the most iconic political marriages in history.

First, she establishes Mandela’s wife Winnie’s own political career and significance. She says it offered “a form of intimate political leadership” to young activists. Secondly, she explores the complex relationship between Winnie’s political trajectory and Nelson’s, and how a widening political divide accompanied the breakdown of the marriage.

Martha Evans examines four visits by journalists to Robben Island between 1964 and 1977, their interactions with Mandela and their published accounts. She discusses Mandela’s capacity to capitalise on brief contacts from an apparent position of weakness, and shows how incarceration enhanced his iconic status.

Recalibrating Mandela

These chapters are book-ended by Colin Bundy’s introduction and Elleke Boehmer’s postscript. Boehmer explores how memories of Mandela are constructed and contested, and what fresh interpretations can teach us.

This collection treats Mandela not as an individual miracle-maker or traitor to the cause of transformation. It shows him as one political actor, alongside a multitude of others, within complex political and social forces.

It suggests that scholarship on Mandela will continue to explore and explain his politics and his ability to assert leadership. It will also continue to explore the contradictions and continuities of his personal makeup, and his determination over decades to bring people together. All this, while negotiating the corrugated terrain of race and identity in South Africa.The Conversation

Colin Bundy, Honorary Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford and William Beinart, Professor, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.