Life is Three People

Waiting for Godot ( Samuel Becket)

When Christopher Dennis launched Beckett’s controversial play, Waiting for Godot, for two weeks at Worthing's Connaught in 1968 I knew it would cause a stir and decided I had to tackle it on a Sunday. I made it my business to see it early in the first week, deal with it the following Sunday, and urge members to see it for themselves in the second week.  

You can find the whole of life in my three people, and you can find my three people anywhere. They are in every crowd, audience or  congregation, and as we go home we pass them in the street. They are everywhere in the Bible too, and sermons have been preached about them Sunday after Sunday for years. This morning, by way of a change, I find them in 'Waiting for Godot', a controversial play by Samuel Beckett.

My first person is the man who idly stands and waits. When he was at school he was just waiting to start work. When he started work he was just waiting to meet a girl. With many others of their kind they just waited to get married, and then they waited on a long list for accommodation or a mortgage. They waited two years for a baby and then they waited nine months for it to arrive. He waited for promotion and she waited for the freedom that would come when the child grew up. They waited for retirement and the pension — until eventually they waited to die.

To bring out the problems of the waiting man Beckett invites us to think of him as two tramps waiting for someone to come. But the two tramps are really one person, representing the two sides of our nature. The one is essentially a doer and a practical man, moved much more by his heart than by his head. The other purports to be a thinker, though he never has any wonderful thoughts. Each is something of an irritation to the other, and yet each is indispensable to the other.

In the New Testament you can find this person in the crowds that throng the highway. They are there when somebody is healed or a story is being told. They are there when the Scribes and Pharisees stage a fight. They are there on Palm Sunday, shouting hosannas. They are there on Good Friday shouting ‘Crucify him’. Life for this man is never very deep, never very meaningful. One half of him feels that there ought to be some meaning, but he never quite finds it. It never comes. The other half just goes on waiting.

My second person is the man who crosses the stage of history for the attention of the waiting multitudes. Sometimes he receives their admiration; often he provides diverse entertainment and amusement. Life for him is not complete without the gullible masses and life also needs people able to offer some kind of meaning to life and some kind of principle by which they can live.

In Beckett’s play this man is called Pozzo; the word means ‘fool’, and he is a fool, but he  is a kind of impressive fool who makes the the tramps wonder. Pozzo is a man who has the gift of making the most ordinary things sound important and tremendous. Even sitting on a chair for him becomes a major operation. Going back on something he has said or done previously is almost impossible, unless he can be sure he is doing it without losing face. But in all his confusion he has found one thing in life that matters. In his case it is time — his life is build round his watch. And when later in the play he loses it the one thing he cannot bear is anybody referring to it.

At one level Pozzo is the person through whom you think you can escape from the monotony of living. He is the latest Celeb to dominate the tabloids or waves of radio, television or the social media. At another level he is the person through whom you think you can find some fresh key for living. He is the latest new toy. In the church he is the latest cleric to come out as the defender of the faith or to challenge the tradition with the latest ‘heresy', according to your theological propensities. In your family he is the one member who thinks he can tell the rest how they should live, and in the workplace he is the one person who sees himself as a cut above the rest.

My third person is the most impressive of all, whether you meet him in Beckett, in the Bible or in life. The difficulty is that I’m not sure where you do find him. Let me describe him first as he appears in the play, and see what you make of him.

His name is Luckie. Clearly he is a slave, and he is the slave of Pozzo. He comes on to the stage wearing a great rope around his neck, and leading Pozzo. He has no life or character of his own, and he is not very pleasant to look at. He is supposed to think if you put his hat on, but the one and only speech that he utters is a load of codswallop. He used to dance for Pozzo’s amusement, but now he can dance no longer. He is so weak and ill that he virtually dies on the stage, by a tree, the shape of a cross. In life he is what men have made him; in death he is what men have done to him.

You find this same person precisely in Isaiah 53. ‘He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him . . . he was despised and rejected by men . . . like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.’

But where do you find this man in life? Do you find him in somebody who is content — really content — to be used by others? Do you find him in the person ready to lay down his life and take the kicks? Do you find him in the person who is prepared to carry the can for another, or to become just what that other person wants to make him? See the play, and see if you can find through this third person what you have never been able to find through the biblical picture of Jesus, because few people can have appeared on stage bearing a closer resemblance to him?

So what does the Christian gospel say about this life that is three people? The New Testament doesn’t say much about the crowds — they just wait. Nor does it have much time for the seven day wonders — Jesus clearly had a horror of being a whiz kid, and rejected it firmly at the time of the temptations. The whole emphasis of the New Testament falls on this third person, and seems to say that when he is around, hopeless and helpless as he is, it is there that things happen and there that lives are changed.

The odd thing about Beckett’s play is that so far as I can see nobody’s life is changed. I looked hard and would have liked to find it; it would have made my job so much easier. I could then have pointed and said, ‘Look what he did; look at the effect he had; go and do the same’. And I would have felt  better if I could have seen some results from this man’s sufferings.

What Beckett has taught me about Christianity — and I certainly had not seen it so clearly before — is that the real results are the ones we don’t see. Not in this life. This side of the grave we are all of us ‘Waiting for Godot’. It is faith, not sight, that leads us to believe that it is with the Luckies and the Christs that the secret lies and that is why we have to bow before them.

Or perhaps it isn’t three people after all. Perhaps it is just three aspects of every one of us. The waiting tramps, Pozzo and Luckie are all inside of us. And Beckett and the New Testament together are trying to to tell which bit of our character matters most to God.


© Alec Gilmore 2014