I don’t know how Beckett did it. I don’t know how he made waiting seem graceful, provocative, iconic.
My life consists of a lot of waiting right now and I am BAD AT IT. It does not feel iconic. It feels clunky and frustrating and that cliché from the medieval poem “Piers Plowman” keeps echoing in my head:
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE.
(I hate that ^that is the suggestion pinned on the cork board at the back of my mind. I don’t want virtue; I want results! I want product!)
“Piers Plowman” is a classic Everyman allegory about the search for a pure Christian life. At the heart of that centuries-old cliché is a reminder to “trust in God’s timing,” which is the poetic Christian of saying,
“HEY! Just a friendly reminder that ultimately you have NO CONTROL over the way your life shakes out and you might as well just wait and see what happens!”
That’s what fuels the tension that exists at the root of waiting. Waiting for something to happen inherently means that you have no control over the result. It’s no wonder waiting has a special place in the theatre – it allows for the buildup of potential energy before a thing springs into motion.
Plus, waiting is an action that the audience can share with the characters they’re watching. Unless a character is sitting down and watching a play, it is rare that the audience and the characters are actively participating in the exact same thing.
And yet, waiting is not a primary action. It is almost always tertiary, accompanied by something more interesting. Waiting is one of those things that happens while doing something else.
Sitting, thinking, worrying, pacing, chatting, yelling, cooking, eating, sleeping, dancing, singing, going about a normal daily existence: these are all things that can be done while waiting. Even when the motivation to do any of these things is to distract from the waiting, the waiting is still happening.
Take the most extreme example of theatrical waiting- Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Think of how active Vladimir and Estragon are, even when apparently nothing is happening. Even when the most important thing they have to do is to wait, they still manage to fill 2 hours with language, movement, and conflict.
What we know as Waiting for Godot is actually an accepted English translation of En Attendant Godot. An equally acceptable, yet alternative translation is, While Waiting for Godot. Embedded in the original French title is the ambiguous notion that the play could either be about Waiting, or what happens While we are busy waiting (or both).
While Waiting for Godot reads like an unfinished thought begging to be completed. The title suggests that the waiting is secondary to all the other action of the play. Waiting for Godot is more of a statement, as if Beckett dictated, This Is What The Characters Are Doing In The Play: Waiting. None of the action matters as much as the overriding fact that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting.
Beckett doesn’t answer this question for us, but the difference between the two alternative titles is enormous (*ahh, the beauty of the French language*).
My personal hatred of waiting springs out of willing ignorance of the tension it brings – the same tension that makes “waiting for something” a common theatrical trope. I can feel my world becoming a liminal space. I am living in the tension.
I am waiting for the next chapter of my life to begin. Sure, I’m also applying, interviewing, planning, reflecting, journaling, writing about waiting, crying, stress-eating, planning again, job-searching, hoping, and about a million other things as one thing ends and another thing begins… but mostly, I’m just waiting.
New goal for the end of this semester: Be more like the alternative translation of En Attendant Godot. Life doesn’t just stop because I’m waiting for something. On the contrary, sometimes the most graceful, interesting, and provocative things in life happen While Waiting.