Waiting for Godot and “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo”: Genre Pairings

“Bare” by John Benson

I watched Waiting for Godot in undergrad, I think. It was in a theater class. I think? I don’t have a vivid memory of it, but I do remember how it made me feel. I felt frustrated and trapped when watching it. I didn’t really “get” it, and I certainly did not want to read or see it again. I can’t remember the details and did not want to repeat the experience, but I never forgot how it made me feel.

At the beginning of this January more than ten years after first encountering Waiting for Godot, I was putting final touches on my syllabus for a course in modern drama. I had the feeling that something was missing from the syllabus, which I had crafted in an attempt to span the time period of the course while representing a diversity of voices. What was missing? Well, Waiting for Godot, of course. This realization gave me pause because I didn’t remember exactly having a pleasant time with it in my first encounter. Did I really want to teach Waiting for Godot? Would it be a slog for me and my students? I decided that it just might be, but that it would probably be worth it nonetheless given how much it is still referenced in our larger cultural sphere and how many of the playwrights coming after Beckett were influenced by his work. I put it on the syllabus, and it was worth doing so not only because of how it helped us read the rest of the plays on the syllabus, but also because it gave us a new light within which to read the works we had already encountered. In many ways, it became the center of our semester—the piece that illuminated the rest of the texts.

When I hesitated to put Beckett on the syllabus, I almost violated one of my own teaching rules. One of my rules for reading literature is that you don’t have to like the literature to have something to say about it.* People often think that professors teach literature that they love, and we do sometimes, certainly. However, I also think that liking or loving literature is not really the point in an individual reading of a text. I want my students to learn how to read texts; it doesn’t really matter if they like those texts or not. In fact, liking can often get in the way of critiquing a piece—the literary critic equivalent of kill your darlings—, and we are fundamentally in the literature classroom to analyze texts.

I ask my students to push away from their desire to like texts, but I do recognize that their aim in liking something is often predicated on how I introduce texts (especially with lower level students). One means of getting students into the discussion of a work is to ask them basic questions about their reactions to the text. What did you like about this? And what didn’t you like? Our reactions are the basis for how we interpret and analyze texts, so it is not wrong to ask students these things to get them into a close reading of a text. However, sometimes this approach narrows this response and teaches them that what is most important is if you liked a text or not. In my own teaching, I need to work on making it clear how we shifting from liking to analyzing when interpreting literature. This is important to me because as a literary critic, I fundamentally do not care if I like something that I am working on. And as someone who studies non-canonical texts historically and culturally, I’m not really looking for “good” works of art. I am asking what that work tells us about a moment in time, either within the literary tradition or in a wider cultural sphere. So, sometimes I give my students the, “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech” when they seem particularly unmotivated by a text.

When I was gearing up to teach Waiting for Godot, I had to give myself the “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech,” but I also had to examine why I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to teach Waiting for Godot because of how it made me feel. As an ambitious American who has absorbed the tenants of the American dream (even if I know better, it is still with me), I hate feeling stuck in one place. I want to go, to move forward. I want to know that my work is worth it. That I am working towards a larger goal. The feelings I had about Waiting for Godot are largely the point of Waiting for Godot. The play makes you feel the ennui of waiting—of asking for more—and knowing that not only will it not come but also that you will be in the same place tomorrow waiting and asking, asking and waiting.

Yes, Waiting for Godot gives me my own existential crisis. Once I had this realization, I was left with how to approach this with my students. Would they have a negative reaction to the play? And if so, would that reaction be insurmountable in terms of their desire to engage with the text and interpret it in class. My students this semester are advanced, so I don’t know if we would have struggled with the text regardless of how I approached it. I did find, though, that Susan Sontag’s “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” made for an excellent pairing with Waiting for Godot because it took the play that exists nowhere and showed how applicable it was to real experiences. Even if my students weren’t as skilled as they are, I imagine that this would be a very good way to begin a lesson on the play.

American Intellectual and Writer Susan Sontag

I stumbled upon “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” when I was looking for literary criticism to pair with Waiting for Godot. I wasn’t looking for a nonfiction text, but when I found it, I thought it might make for an insightful pairing with the play. As the title suggests, the article is about Sontag’s experience directing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while it was under siege in the 1990s. This pairing did several things for our class in terms of helping us understand the text. I’m going to outline a few important aspects in the following paragraphs.

The first thing it did was simply introduce the play and its themes. I had students say that they skimmed through the play while reading Sontag’s piece, so they could better understand her point of view on why she decided to stage the play in Sarajevo. Sontag also introduces details about the play that help the reader understand the way the plot of the play works. For example, she notes that because of choices she made in the casting and practical concerns of the theater in Sarajevo, such as the lack of electricity, she decided to only perform the first act of the play. Sontag writes that this decision would work because the second act of Waiting for Godot repeats much of the first act and, in fact, starts and ends in the same place as Act I. Sontag notes, “For this may be the only work in dramatic literature in which Act I is itself a complete play.” This is an interesting concept to ponder. How can half of a play be a complete play? If it is so, what does that mean about Act II? How do we approach reading Act II? Sontag’s words give students a heads up as to how to read the play. I imagine that my students might have been less frustrated by Waiting for Godot than I was because they understood that the meaning of the play was not as closely linked to the plot. They weren’t not as focused on what happens next because they already knew it was more of the same.

Interspersed throughout Sontag’s texts to mark the sections of her piece are quotes from the play. The first quote is “Nothing to be done,” which is the opening line of the play. Even without reading the play, students can think about this line. Why would you start a work of art with this sentiment? Isn’t any work of art about what is done, about what is coming in the work? If there is “nothing to be done,” then why are we reading this at all? The quote also applies to what Sontag was doing in Sarajevo. She had previously visited the city while it was under siege, and she felt she wanted to return, and that if she “went back,” she would find a way to “pitch in and do something.” Sontag got a lot of questions from media in Sarajevo and from friends and colleagues when she was home about what exactly she was doing there and what effect it had. The second paragraph of her essay answers this quite succinctly; she helped make something “that would only exist in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.” Yes, that is a simple achievement, but it was still an achievement for the actors she worked with and the audience that came to see their production. Estragon and Vladimir’s games and skits in Waiting for Godot, seem much more futile, but they still help them cope and if not make sense of, then make use of their situation. The gift of expression is not the biggest gift in the world, but it can help people persist. One of the takeaways of Godot is persistence in the face of lack of clear answers about the future. Maybe Sontag just helped her actors mark time, but even those moments of reprieve “do something.”

via Adam Muszalski

Waiting for Godot could seem like it is about nothing. Nothing really happens. It ends where it starts and then starts over again. The dialogue is repetitive and hard to make sense of. What could this have to do with anything? Sontag’s piece helps us see that the questions of Waiting for Godot are the questions of humanity. No matter who we are or what we are doing on earth, humans ask themselves questions about their circumstances and situations and try to make sense of their world—even if no one ever gets closer to the truth. The play can ask us to think about these things in a disorientating way, but Sontag helped my students see themselves in the play because she helped them see themselves in the citizens of Sarajevo. One of the questions that people often asked Sontag about her experience was if Waiting for Godot was too depressing to put on in Sarajevo. Sontag replied that people didn’t just want a reprieve from their lives; she writes, “In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.” My students went into a reading of the play with those thoughts bouncing around in their heads, and I think it made them more receptive to the play and the lessons it has for its readers. Beckett’s lessons delivered in exchanges, such as, “I can’t go on like this/That’s what you think,” are not lessons in the traditional sense. He does not give us hope to end on, but he does give us two characters who have each other and who work together to fight off despair. That isn’t much, but it is something essentially human.

A lot more could be said about teaching Waiting for Godot, but I wanted to emphasize some of the prep work that went into my approach to the play. I would also love to hear about how people incorporate introductory material and critical essays into their lessons, especially with upper-level students. How much do you prepare your students? What do you let them figure out? How do you see literary criticism working in your classroom? I never really considered a pairing like the one I just described until I happened upon it. What are your best pairings?

*When thinking about liking literature, I looked back to see if I had written about this point in any other PALS post. I don’t think that I have. Perhaps it feels so familiar because I have thought about the point a lot and explained it to many students. However, that I can’t remember if I have written about this before while writing about a play about not remembering is not lost on me. Not for nothing, Waiting for Godot alters your thinking.

History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.