Friday, November 09, 2007

Preparing to wait (with my students) for Godot

I've just come from the Friday morning writing lab meeting with some of my freshman composition students.

Today, I decided to spend the 50-minute lab preparing them for seeing the Gentilly-area production of "Waiting for Godot." I realized that while the production rocked me to the core, my students may not be quite so willing to give themselves over to the ambiguity of the play. In fact, I had this vision of my students giggling with each other, eye-rolling, and then leaving before the second act, all "What the heck was THAT?!"

Before class began, I wrote a quotation from a recently-published (August, 2006) piece in the New Yorker: "Beckett's work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn't have a Godot?"

When the students arrived, a few launched into excuses: "What if I can't go? I mean, some of us have to work."

I had to restrain myself. I mean, do they THINK I don't know about having to work?! Have I taught them NOTHING about audience-awareness?

Anyway, I explained that their final writing assignment would be to write an evaluation of something--a play, a movie, a restaurant, a book, an exhibit, a festival, this class, etc.--and that those who attended the play would have a built-in subject at their disposal. Those who couldn't would evaluate something else.

"But is that fair?" Christy asked.

Obviously, the question was rhetorical. What she meant to say was, "That's not FAIR!" I do have to applaud her for having enough awareness of her audience--enough self-restraint--to forego reverting to a straight-up whine.

"We'll use our common experience to talk specifically about writing an evaluation of the play," I explained, "but the tasks those who attend the play will engage in when writing their evaluations are no different from the ones you'll engage in."

Christy seemed placated, if not sure that it was, in fact, "fair."

Then, I passed out the play's program (last week, I'd been lucky to get my hands on one, so I made copies to distribute to my students--I figured reading star Wendell Pierce's bio would help inspire the nay-sayers to attend).

The students read paragraphs from the program's "Introduction" by Anne Pasternak, the President and Artistic Director of Creative Time:

"Creative Time is proud to present a site-specific outdoor production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, directed by Christopher McElroen [my student called him "Chris Mac-E"] of the Classical Theatre of Harlem with artistic direction by Paul Chan. More than a play, the project has evolved into a collaboration between local residents, artists, and community leaders on the subject of waiting. St in an intersection of the Lower Ninth Ward and a front yard in Gentilly, this production allows Beckett's play to contextualize the unfolding story of New Orleans as a controversial and renewing city."

We then read aloud the "Synopsis and Production History of Waiting for Godot":

"Two tramps meet on the side of the road. The two men remember that they are supposed to wait under a tree for a man named Godot. It appears they do not remember this man very well, but they think he was going to give them an answer to a question they don't know."

We also read about the play's many prison-stagings and its 1993 staging in war-torn Sarajevo ("war-torn" meant something to them, but Sarajevo didn't.) We talked about the play's 2006 production in Harlem, where rather than on a country road, Vladimir and Estragon waited atop a roof over water--like New Orleanians waiting for rescue after the storm.

"How do you think the staging in Gentilly will 'contextualize' the play?" I asked. "What does 'contextualize' mean, anyway?"

"To put into context," a student offered.

I then directed their attention to the quotation on the board: "Beckett's work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn't have a Godot?"

"So," I said,"two tramps wait in Gentilly for a man named Godot who never comes. They think he is going to give them an answer to a question they don't know. Within the context of New Orleans, now, who is Godot, and what kind of answer are the men hoping for"?

"He's FEMA."

"He's the Road Home."

"He's their neighbors."

"They're hoping for help."

"For relief."

"For security."

Me: "Yes! But who was Godot for the prisoners in San Quentin?"

"The parole board."

"And who could it be if the two men are simply on a plain old, ambiguous country road on a darkened stage, with a twig of a tree? Who else could Godot be?"





"The point is, the 'universality' means that the play can mean something to anyone--to everyone, because we all wait for something."

We then talked about Beckett, who explained at one point in his career that he felt a bit like the young girl Carl Jung mentioned in a lecture Beckett once attended, who "had never really been born." Beckett, author Benjamin Kunkel explains in his New Yorker piece, "Sam I Am," "was willing to confide to people throughout his life that he considered himself a similar case. The notion of an incomplete birth seemed to explain something of his feeling of unreality--many a Beckett character seems uncertain whether he really exists."

"What's that all about?" I asked. "Seems pretty absurd to me."

"Is that what he means by 'We are all born mad'?" Felecia asked, referring to a quotation from the play included before Beckett's biography in the program.

"What do you think?"

"Like, it's madness that we're here 'cuz we don't know why we're here?"

"Maybe so. Why don't we know we're here?"

"Because we're human!" yelled Blake from the back of the room.

"Yup! We sure are," I said. We talked about how maybe Beckett felt uncertain about whether he really existed because here he was, a human, but he didn't know why. We didn't ask to be born, after all. And given that truth--that we ARE but don't know WHY--what do we do with ourselves?

"We wait!"

"For what?" I asked.

"For Godot!"

"What's Godot got to give us?"

"We don't know!"

At this point, the absurd seemed to have taken over class, and we all broke down into a bit of "What THE?!!" But to me, it felt like an epiphany--like here we were, talking about art, about ourselves, and my students WEREN'T lost. They GOT it, ambiguity at all, and it was universal. It just made sense.

We ended class by reading Jarvis DeBerry's column from the T-P. One of my students said, when we were through, "Damn, that was good!" And, of course, I--the writing teacher--had to keep myself from cartwheeling: to hear a student say, "Damn, that was good" to a piece of writing!

As the students left, I distributed copies of Paul Chan's artist-statement (which has some remarkable similarlities in content to Susan Sontag's writing on her staging in Sarajevo), and Mapquest copies of the play's location. As the students filed on by, eye-rolling Christy stopped to say that she really wanted to go to the play, that was "on call" for work tonight and would try to go, but that she didn't want to go by herself. So, I've promised to meet Christy here on campus and to go to the play together. And really, I just can't wait. For real.

I can't wait to see the play again (this time I will hopefully hold myself together a little better!) I can't wait to stand in line with my students--to talk, to eat with them. I can't wait to sit next to Allie, who asked if she could ask me questiosn if she didn't "get it." I can't wait to see how my studentsabsorb the play--to see what they take from it. I promise to report on the experience, and to share more about how this play has impacted my teaching in this final unit of my freshman comp class.

Since I know most of you (Mom!) can't see the play, I recommend you watch this multi-media presentation on It was compiled using images and sounds from the night Simon and I attended the play.

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