Next Day. Same Time. Same Place: How Waiting Out the Pandemic Is Like Waiting for Godot
Even though these times of self-isolating feel absurd, the Theater of the Absurd has a lot to teach us about waiting, time, isolation, and feeling like we exist.
Estragon: (very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?
Vladimir: (looking wildly about him, as though the date was inscribed in the landscape). It's not possible!
Estragon: Or Thursday?
Vladimir: What'll we do?
Estragon: If he came yesterday and we weren't here you may be sure he won't come again today.
Vladimir: But you say we were here yesterday.
Estragon: I may be mistaken.
The plot of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is pretty simple. Two guys, Vladimir and Estragon, are sitting by a road under a tree, waiting for Godot, who said he would meet them there, or so we've been told. And they wait.
It strikes me that Vladimir and Estragon's waiting is a lot like novel-coronavirus-COVID-19-global-pandemic-induced social-distancing-isolation-stay-at-home-shutdown-work-from-home-quarantine. I don't know what day it is as I write this. Weekends no longer exist. I type "our conversation last week" into my job's Slack channel and realize that conversation was two weeks ago. We're processing a month's worth of insane news in the time it takes to read the headline. The month of March felt like a whole year. The month of April felt like lava roiling down the side of a volcano, fast yet slow, fluid yet solid.
Two weeks after my research lab moved all operations online, I decided it was safe to end my self-isolation and drive to my parents' house to work from home with them and my sister, who came home for spring break and never left. I believe I've been here four weeks now. It's hard to differentiate one week from the next because they blur into each other; there is only now ("this week") and the week of my Last Normal Day (the "Week That Everything Went Down") which, when I say that to friends over Zoom, turns out to be universal. They nod their heads in quiet assent of yes, I know the week you're talking about. "The week the NBA was cancelled," I always say, because that's somehow the marker for my memory.
In Waiting for Godot, time is presented as cyclical as well as fluid. Slow, non-Newtonian fluid. In each act, Vladimir and Estragon appear, waiting. Lucky and Pozzo, a slave and his master, encounter the pair. Absurdity ensues. Lucky and Pozzo leave. A boy enters and says that Mr. Godot will come tomorrow. Vladimir and Estragon, resigned, ask each other if they should go. They agree to leave but do not move.
Though the play is only two acts (Beckett considered making it three) [Worton], we get the sense that Vladimir and Estragon and Lucky and Pozzo and the boy have been meeting in the same way, diminishing with variations, for eternity [Webb, Worton]. In the first act, Lucky and Pozzo have a long and involved—though often nonsensical—exchange with Vladimir and Estragon, including scuffles and dances and monologues and ending with:
Estragon: Then adieu.
Silence. No one moves.
Pozzo: And thank you.
Vladimir: Thank you.
Pozzo: Not at all.
Estragon: Yes yes.
Pozzo: No no.
Vladimir: Yes yes.
Estragon: No no.
Pozzo: I don't seem to be able… (long hesitation)… to depart.
Estragon: Such is life.
Pozzo turns, moves away from Lucky towards the wings, paying out the rope as he goes.
Vladimir: You're going the wrong way.
Pozzo: I need a running start. (Having come to the end of the rope, i.e., off stage, he stops, turns and cries.) Stand back! (Vladimir and Estragon stand back, look towards Pozzo. Crack of whip.) On! On!
Lucky moves off.
Pozzo: Faster! (He appears, crosses the stage preceded by Lucky. Vladimir and Estragon wave their hats. Exit Lucky.) On! On! (On the point of disappearing in his turn he stops and turns. The rope tautens. Noise of Lucky falling off.) Stool! (Vladimir fetches stool and gives it to Pozzo who throws it to Lucky.) Adieu!
Vladimir and Estragon: (waving). Adieu! Adieu!
Pozzo: Up! Pig! (Noise of Lucky getting up.) On! (Exit Pozzo.) Faster! On! Adieu! Pig! Yip! Adieu!
In the second act, Pozzo has gone blind and Lucky has gone dumb. Pozzo's conversation with Vladimir and Estragon is much shorter and less coherent. Though Vladimir and Estragon remember the events of the previous day and expect continuity from their recurring meeting, Pozzo does not seem to remember them.
Estragon: Oh the brute!
He sits down on the mound and tries to take off his boot. But he soon desists and disposes himself for sleep, his arms on his knees and his head on his arms.
Pozzo: What's gone wrong now?
Vladimir: My friend has hurt himself.
Pozzo: And Lucky?
Vladimir: So it is he?
Vladimir: It is Lucky?
Pozzo: I don't understand.
Vladimir: And you are Pozzo?
Pozzo: Certainly I am Pozzo.
Vladimir: The same as yesterday?
Vladimir: We met yesterday. (Silence.) Do you not remember?
Pozzo: I don't remember having met anyone yesterday. But tomorrow I won't remember having met anyone today. So don't count on me to enlighten you.
Pozzo: Enough! Up pig!
Vladimir: You were bringing him to the fair to sell him. You spoke to us. He danced. He thought. You had your sight.
Pozzo: As you please. Let me go! (Vladimir moves away.) Up!
As in Waiting for Godot, days have begun feeling weirdly cyclical. Living with my parents again brings me back in some déjà vu to the first act: high school. But it's the second act, and now I'm wearing hoodies from my high school, rummaging through drawers for old sweatpants I didn't take with me when I moved out. My room, years ago cleaned of most personal affects, has the Twilight-Zone-y feeling of an empty Airbnb—bulletin boards with nothing on them, mismatched furniture from other parts of the house, a seemingly random smatter of remaining décor.
Even in my interactions with my parents, there are echoes of repetition: In the evening, instead of asking who has swim practice tomorrow and who needs a ride and who needs to get to school early as we did when I was in high school, we ask who has Zoom calls during what parts of the day; who needs to be in what parts of the house when; when will it be quiet enough for Mom to record her lectures?
Act One resurfaces in many ways: dusting off our old Wii (why is my Mii Ginny from Harry Potter instead of me? Wasn't the point of Miis that they looked like you?); in the resurge of interest in Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch, we booted up our 15 year-old Nintendo DS to resume paying off our mortgage in now-ancient Animal Crossing: Wild World. To top off that throwback 2007 feeling, I received two chain emails (yes, CHAIN EMAILS) in one day. I haven't gotten a chain email since the days when AIM was my primary text-based messaging platform.
As order in the Waiting for Godot universe slowly disintegrates, so it feels like my family has begun reversing roles in some respects. As my siblings and I have gotten older and my parents have started to enjoy their empty-nester life, Mom is now the one begging us to come down and watch an episode of The Crown with her and Dad. My sister and I are the ones saying it's too late at night; we're tired; we need to go to bed soon; okay, fine, but we can't watch more than one episode.
Time in Waiting for Godot seems arbitrary; night falls suddenly and day passes in spurts. Perhaps the reason that time is so relative is because time does not pass on its own; Vladimir and Estragon must mechanically force it to pass by making things happen (Worton). After Pozzo and Lucky visit, they say:
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.
To make the time pass, Vladimir and Estragon start a pointless game of trading each other's hats, they make an ordeal of eating a carrot and a radish, and they put on and take off Estragon's boot. In the beginning of the second act, Vladimir sings a cyclical song about a dying dog. They speak for the sake of speaking, ask each other questions, call each other names, and philosophize and muse about the world.
Vladimir and Estragon: (turning simultaneously). Do you—
Vladimir: Oh pardon!
Estragon: Carry on.
Vladimir: No no, after you.
Estragon: No no, you first.
Vladimir: I interrupted you.
Estragon: On the contrary.
They glare at each other angrily.
Vladimir: Ceremonious ape!
Estragon: Punctilious pig!
Vladimir: Finish your phrase, I tell you!
Estragon: Finish your own!
Silence. They draw closer, halt.
Estragon: That's the idea, let's abuse each other.
They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.
Estragon: (with finality). Crritic!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.
Estragon: Now let's make it up.
Vladimir: Your hand!
Estragon: Take it!
Vladimir: Come to my arms!
Estragon: Yours arms?
Vladimir: My breast!
Estragon: Off we go!
They separate. Silence.
Vladimir: How time flies when one has fun!
Estragon: What do we do now?
Vladimir: While waiting.
Estragon: While waiting.
Vladimir: We could do our exercises.
Estragon: Our movements.
Vladimir: Our elevations.
Estragon: Our relaxations.
Vladimir: Our elongations.
Estragon: Our relaxations.
Vladimir: To warm us up.
Estragon: To calm us down.
In the same way, it seems that in quarantine we've had to find new ways to make time pass. Puzzles are sold out everywhere, probably for the first time since puzzles were invented (Doubek and Silverman). When capital-S Sports ended suddenly in March, "Day 2 without sports" memes about men rediscovering their families popped up all over Twitter (@IsoJoeJR). And even at a time when screen time is up on all of our devices, we're still forced to interact with our significant others, our roommates, and our kids in new ways because, like Vladimir and Estragon, we are stuck here together, waiting.
Samuel Beckett thoroughly examines philosopher George Berkeley's saying "Esse est principi" or "To be is to be perceived" in Waiting for Godot. In the first act, the boy asks what he is to tell Mr. Godot, and Vladimir replies: "Tell him… (he hesitates)… tell him you saw us. (Pause.) You did see us, didn't you?" In the second act, the boy professes not to recognize Vladimir even though Vladimir recognizes him. Vladimir says, "Tell him… (he hesitates)… tell him you saw me and that… (he hesitates)… that you saw me (Pause… With sudden violence.) You're sure you saw me, you won't come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!"
I saw a tweet a few weeks ago (that I regrettably haven't been able to track down since) that explored the weird feeling you get when you log off of a Zoom call. Upon leaving a busy Zoom call, other people's images are snatched away and your reflection confronts you in your laptop screen, making you realize you've actually been alone this whole time. Even though I've lived in a digital world for most of my life, leaving the virtual presence of people without physically leaving a location is still counter to my intuition. Seeing the little box that holds our entire perception of someone's existence so abruptly disappear off of our screens, as the tweet said, in some ways lets us deny their existence.
Especially for those sheltering in place alone, life suddenly feels very "if a tree falls in a forest…" "If I got sick, if I died," I asked myself in the early days, "what would happen? How long would it take for anyone to notice?" Like Zooming with your video off, like Vladimir shouting because the boy claims he doesn't know him, it's easy to feel like you don't exist if you feel that no one sees you.
Many people have asked who Godot is—is he a person, is he God, is he meaninglessness? Beckett admitted that he did not know who Godot actually is: "If I knew," he said, "I would have said so in the play" (Schneider). Popularly, people have interpreted Godot as representing death. While I'm not so dark as to say that our deaths are the only thing waiting for us at the end of the pandemic (call me an optimist), Godot's amorphousness, his unknowns, express the same kind of waiting we're doing during this pandemic.
"Personally I wouldn't even know [Godot] if I saw him," says Estragon. For us, we don't know what "the end" of this looks like, though day by day, we're realizing it's not going to be some specific date when we're unleashed to party at a club packed with strangers after finally getting a haircut (Allen et al.) As Vladimir and Estragon don't know when Godot is going to come, though they always think it will be tonight, so we also watch our statewide shutdowns and restrictions get extended another two weeks, another month. The line between wondering when the end will come very quickly blurs with wondering if an end will come.
But we carry on, marking the days, squeezing the toothpaste of time, waiting for the end. Though it's hard to believe in an era where even the Onion struggles to come up with new headlines, we are not in an Absurdist play. We know an end is coming, though we don't know what it will be like. Unlike poor Vladimir and Estragon, we know we will not keep spiraling forever, that one day we will meet Godot. On that day, we will emerge back into linear time; on that day, we will again be with and be perceived by other humans.