So, whazzup with this Godot person?
Godot is someone or something that has coursed throughout my life like a Pachelbel leit motif— a refrain that revisits, at times expectedly, at times surprisingly, all times essentially.
While in high school in the 60s, an exceptional drama teacher, Kay Baird, introduced a group of adolescents to a new type of theater, depicting a sometimes surreal world inhabited by plays that broke molds and traditional rules of play-craft, a genre of drama that became known as the Theater of the Absurd. I was hooked.
One of the foremost dramatist raising eyebrows and unanswerable questions among critics and audiences and meager students like us was Samuel Beckett. Born in Ireland, Beckett felt obligated to write his plays in French so his English-speaking parents wouldn’t be exposed to this absurd world he was creating, an intensely personal and autobiographical world often unkind to his parents. This work, thought-provoking, existential, frequently misunderstood is Waiting For Godot.
This is a play about waiting. We all wait for something most of the time, don’t we? We find ourselves waiting for that important phone call or text, for lunch time, for the bell to ring (teachers and boxers do a lot of this), for the weekend, for a kiss or a hug or a little recognition, for when we can finally retire– you get my point. We spend our lives waiting for stuff. One irony of Waiting For Godot is, despite spending a lifetime waiting for that something, perhaps we wouldn’t even recognize Godot if he/she/it were standing outside our door at this moment, waiting to visit. Or perhaps Godot has already come and we just don’t remember and therefore we continue to wait. A wonderful play. I’ve been very lucky in my relationship with Godot; I studied it, I taught it, I directed it, I sailed it, and now I live in it.
Teaching Waiting For Godot was a privilege I enjoyed at the University of Southern California as part of a teaching fellowship in the late 70s. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors at this university were introduced to the ‘theater of the absurd’ by enrolling in the elective course, Contemporary Theater. I tried to generate the same sense of awe and wonder that had gripped me 15 years earlier when I was in high school. However, I believe I failed. Teaching is a craft, honed by years of experience, and those poor guys were exposed to Godot at the beginning of my teaching profession– my abject apologies, hereby tendered.
Godot next sauntered into my life almost 15 years later when I directed the play at a junior high school in Cucamonga, California. Frankly, I believe the only reason I got the green light to do this play is that my boss didn’t fully grasp the merits or demerits of this relic of the Theater of the Absurd. Due to its complexity, this play is rarely performed in high school, much less in middle schools. But we did it! A number of very talented and dedicated students gave life to this production, making it one of my proudest lifetime achievements. And then, years later, I sailed Godot.
Steve Markley, my friend and sailing companion, accompanied me to get my new sailboat, a Cascade 29, in Oxnard, California. We then sailed it down to its new home at Larson’s Marina in L.A. Harbor. During this day and a half motor-sail, we spent hours kicking around suggestions for a name for my new boat. Steve, having known me for years, wisely suggested the name “Godot”. So perfect.
Sailing had been a big part of my life since I helped my father rebuild a 16 foot Snipe in our garage in 1962. After 8 laborious, sometimes gruelling months of sawing, fiberglassing, sanding and cursing, we finally had a boat. We didn’t know a thing about sailing it, but we finally had a boat. That Saturday we went to Newport Beach to learn how to sail. My father, my 10-year-old sister Teri and I gingerly boarded a Lido 14 accompanied by our sailing instructor, a grizzled veteran of 70 years or so, her prominent jaw thrust into the wind, eyes gleaming, faint mustache twitching. I remember her shouting, in her commanding tone, “Don’t sit there, sit over there!” (Which we promptly did as instructed.) And then the big moment came when we had to turn the boat and she shrilled, “It’s all so very easy. To come about, push the tiller into the sail that billows out.” And that, sailors world-wide must surely agree, sums up the essential elements of sail-craft: when changing direction, turn through the wind. It’s all so very easy, you see? Well yeah, if you have a tiller instead of a wheel, but then that’s a different story.
My sailing experience drifts from that little Snipe to a 24 foot Drake sloop I lived aboard for two years. Later on, I moved aboard a 38 foot motor sailer attached to mooring balls in the middle of Newport Harbor. Imagine getting to row out to your home in the middle of the bay, late at night, in a 10′ dew-saturated dinghy, fish jumping, seagulls and pelicans screeching– marvelous! Finally I made my eventual return to the sea with Godot. A great boat– I miss you and hope you are doing well. Then, in the final stages of my life, I moved into Godot– how appropriate.
“Thank you so much for coming. Nobody ever comes to visit me. (Pause. Smile.) What’s your name?”, this 83-year-old lady that so resembled my mother asked while seated on a concrete bench near the cage of birds in the San Dimas Retirement Village.
“Mom, it’s me. Kip, your son,” I repeated.
“Oh, of course. And how are the girls doing? I never see them,” confusing me with Ron, my brother-in-law. (Heavy sigh.)
“Mom, the girls were here yesterday to visit.” (Mom smiles, trying to recall their visit.) “Mom, look. I have a present for you. It’s an orchid. Where I live in Costa Rica there are lots of orchids. I have a big collection of them.”
“That’s nice. (Pause.) “Now, who are you?” (Smile.)
“I’m Kip, you son. I retired from teaching and moved to Costa Rica four years ago.”
“Costa Rica. How nice. Where’s that?”
I draw a map of Central America depicting Costa Rica’s position between Panama and Nicaragua. I show her the map. She nods, smiles and says, “That’s nice.” (Pause. quizzical smile.) “So nice of you to visit. Nobody ever comes to visit.” (She smiles.)
I still see that smile. Love you, mom. Miss you.
Turning through the wind in my effort to ‘come about’ to a new heading in life, I retired to Costa Rica, questing for a richer coastline hinting of a more fulfilling lifestyle. I found it and named it Endgame, another play by Samuel Beckett, a play considered to be act three of the two act play Waiting For Godot.Endgame is even more intense, absurd and existential than Waiting For Godot in its search for a meaning to life. An endgame is the final series of moves in a game of chess. It is the most exciting part of the game, the part that leads to check mate, moves that are most critically examined once the king is finally taken; a denouement that lingers.
I remodeled my house in Costa Rica around absurdist themes found in Waiting For Godot and Endgame. My patio and garden walkway resemble a chessboard, my greenhouse looks like a theater, concrete steps melt into one another in a surreal depiction of lava flowing from one of the many volcanoes ringing my house.
The characters in Endgame still wait, perhaps outside my door– or maybe outside yours. But Hamm and Clove seem more optimistic, more active in their search for Godot. They have lives with purpose and direction. They manage to chuckle at the absurdity of it all.
And so do I.