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.

Pairing Mother Courage and Her Children and The Body of an American

I’m currently teaching a 100-level literary analysis class that is a motley crew indeed: senior bio majors who put off taking a writing-intensive course until the very end of their college careers; freshman English majors who are super excited; and a lot of kids in between who just want to fulfill a general education requirement and get on with their lives. It’s at 8:30 in the morning, many of them are falling asleep, and I have to really put on my dog-and-pony show to get them to stay engaged.

Nonetheless, this is a fun class to teach for me because it allows me to teach texts that I otherwise wouldn’t get to teach. I typically teach either creative writing or nineteenth century American poetry, but because the purpose of this course is to introduce students to different literary genres, I get to pair up anything I want from any time period I choose. I structure intro classes like this around a theme in order to help the students (and myself) to better focus. The theme for this iteration of the class is war, a theme explored from a variety of angles. So we’re reading poetry, plays, and novels from a variety of eras, from Beowulf to Toni Morrison’s Korean War-era novella Home.

We just finished up our unit on drama, in which I paired Tony Kushner’s fantastic translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play Mother Courage and Her Children with American playwright Dan O’Brien’s fragmented play about war photographer Paul Watson, 2014’s Edward Kennedy Award-Winning The Body of an American. Mother Courage is about the Thirty Years’ War, which took place in Europe (mostly in what would become Germany) in the 17th century. The Body of an American is set in the present day and follows a variety of conflicts, including U.S. involvement in Somalia in the 1990s, the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, and the recent (and still going) American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, the play focuses on Watson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, who was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. (This photo is graphic, so I won’t post it here, but it’s easily found online.)

These plays work nicely together. Both are experimental and dark, with strange bits of comedy threading through. Both are theatrical—meaning that they are supposed to be experienced as artifice, as theatre (we are not supposed to get lost in the story and think it’s real—there are distancing effects in place in both plays to prevent this from happening). Both plays force students to pay close attention to things like stage setting and stage directions. And neither makes any attempt to sugarcoat the trauma and ugliness of war.

In this post, I want to highlight some technical similarities between these plays, as this was a significant reason I paired them. (There are plenty of thematic similarities, particularly with respect to trauma and the intersections between war and capitalism, but I’ll leave that to y’all to discover!) Because all students in the class were required to perform scenes from these plays, I will talk about a couple of things students learned from these performances as well.

Epic Theatre, the Alienation Effect, and Documentary Theatre

Brecht and his circle created a style of drama known as epic theatre, which employs a variety of techniques to created distance between the audience and the drama unfolding on the stage. Some of these techniques are as follows:

  • Casting famous actors in lead roles (so the audience won’t stop thinking, “That’s Meryl Streep!” rather than getting caught up in the character and thinking she is real)
  • Having actors play multiple roles, thereby confusing the audience
  • Having actors play characters of different genders
  • Breaking up the action with songs
  • Having actors wear anachronistic costumes
  • Having the set be “stagey”—i.e. not realistic, purposefully creating a spectacle in which you never forget you are watching a play, not watching reality

These elements and others can combine to create what Brecht called Verfremsdungeffekt, or alienation or distancing effect, in which the audience retains a critical distance from the actors and the story. Ideally, instead of emotionally identifying with the characters, the audience is critically engaged, asking “Why is this happening?” or “Why is this character doing this?” This doesn’t mean that the play doesn’t evoke emotions, but that’s not its primary purpose.

Bertolt Brecht; Dan O’Brien and Paul Watson.

The Body of an American is largely based on the real-life correspondence and friendship between Dan O’Brien and Paul Watson, so it’s a different kind of play, one that O’Brien calls documentary theatre. This means that the play is constructed from factual material, rather than being a work of fiction. It’s kind of like putting a memoir onstage. Examples of nonfictional materials O’Brien includes in this play are:

  • Paul’s August 2007 NPR interview and Dan’s hearing of it
  • Paul’s and Dan’s e-mails to each other
  • Projected Google maps images as part of the play’s set
  • Projected images of Paul’s photography as part of the play’s set
  • Characters’ names as “Dan” and “Paul,” like their real-life counterparts, rather than being changed to something else

These nonfictional elements already create a distancing effect akin to Brecht—it’s strange to watch a play comprised of e-mail exchanges (doubly strange because the actors deliver the lines as e-mails, i.e. not looking at or talking to each other on the stage). O’Brien also has actors playing multiple roles: there are only two actors in The Body of an American, and they play more than 40 roles. One actor begins the play with its first line; the second actor reads the next line, and it goes on that way, alternating, regardless of which character is speaking. It gets confusing in a wonderful way, particularly when O’Brien chops up the monologue of one character so that it gets spoken by both actors, back-and-forth:

PAUL.                                   We were on the roof

of the Sahafi, where the journalists were


PAUL.                                    if they were staying.

PAUL.                                                You could count

on one hand who was still there.

PAUL.                                                            I’d have to

count on one hand because my other hand

PAUL.                        isn’t really a hand at all.

PAUL.                                                          I was

born this way.

(O’Brien, Dan. The Body of an American. London: Oberon Books, 2014.)

Try to imagine two actors delivering these lines in rapidfire succession and you’ll get a sense of why it’s hard to lose yourself in this play (which I think is part of O’Brien’s point—is it responsible to lose oneself in narratives of war and trauma?).

Staging scenes

 When I teach drama, I do show video clips from performances as they are available (I mean, Meryl Streep’s Mother Courage is pretty amazing), but I also require students to stage scenes during class. I put them into groups and give them a range of scenes to choose from the day’s reading; it’s up to them to select an excerpt, decide how to stage it, make decisions about props, and then come up with discussion questions about the scene to pose to the class. Some students hate this, but the majority of them get into it. Much like having to write in a poetic form helps students to understand that form better, having to stage scenes from these two experimental plays helps students to better understand the effect of dramatic techniques on an audience. (Plus, drama is meant to be performed, not just read. I think we do it a disservice if we don’t perform it when we study it.)

Meryl Streep playing Mother Courage in the Public Theater production of the play at Delacorte Theatre in Central Park (2006)

Playing multiple roles

For The Body of an American, there cannot be more than two actors in the scene. For Mother Courage, I make sure to keep the groups small enough that students will be forced to play more than one role. Some students took this and ran with it, playing three or even four roles in a scene. They indicated character changes by moving to different spots on the “stage” (typically the center of our circle of chairs), by costume changes (one student kept changing hats to indicate a change of characters, which was hilarious because he played three characters who tended to speak all in a row, meaning hats were flying!), or even by their hair (one student wore a man-bun for one character, let his hair down for another character, then put it back into its bun to resume the first character). In the climactic scene of the play, in which the character Kattrin sacrifices herself to warn a village of an impending army attack, the role-switching produced so much comedy (one student playing both a soldier and a farmer’s son had to argue with herself, then push herself to the ground) that we were laughing all through Kattrin’s great compassionate act. Students really got the idea of alienation effect from acting out (and from viewing) this scene! I also enjoyed another group’s gender-bending Mother Courage scene, in which Mother Courage was played by a male student and the male roles in the scenes were played by female actors. It’s a small thing, but it points out to the audience our gendered expectations for casting and dashes them; it also creates a wonderfully Brechtian distancing effect.

Dan Bender and Ryan Hallahan in StageLeft’s production of The Body of an American (2016)

Stage directions and setting

There’s a gold mine of potential for literary analysis in stage directions and stage settings, but in my experience, students often skip over reading these elements. Mother Courage and The Body of an American are great plays for teaching the importance of stage directions and stage settings. Mother Courage features the aforementioned character Kattrin, who is mute from war trauma. The character has no lines; to play her, and to understand her, one must focus on Brecht’s stage directions. In the aforementioned scene, Kattrin begins banging a drum to awaken the townspeople. The student playing Kattrin brought in a wooden spoon and a giant Tupperware storage container. The scene lasted 8 minutes, and she pounded the Tupperware with the spoon so loudly that I’m pretty sure I’ll never be scheduled to teach a class in this particular building again. It was difficult to even hear the dialogue over her insistent pounding. Again, this was a great example of Brecht’s distancing effect—the stage directions, when followed, contribute to the absurdity of a scene that might otherwise be played as heart-stirring and Hollywood-heroic.

To fully experience the O’Brien play, it’s not enough to read the characters’ exchanges; you must also look at all of the projected background images O’Brien indicates in the margins of his play. These images include Google maps of war-torn places Paul has visited, as well as places Dan O’ Brien has lived; an array of Paul Watson’s photos; and occasional songs or videos (a particularly memorable video is of Miami Tribune owner Sam Zell saying “Fuck you” to a journalist). Although one O’Brien scene group did indeed ignore these images, the other group went the extra mile and found them, projecting them as part of the set during their scene. It was off-putting and weird to watch the images change and still try to follow the dialogue (already hard to follow due to its fragmentation), yet these images, which were of Paul Watson’s photographs of the effects of war, are absolutely crucial to understanding the character Paul’s trauma in the scene. He can’t get the images of the wars he’s seen out of his mind, and this becomes the audience’s experience too as we look at his photos.

Give it a try!

 I’d absolutely recommend teaching either of these plays in an introductory course on genre, or in other courses (the O’Brien play would be great in a course on contemporary American drama, for example). They really sing, however, when paired together and when performance is part of the analysis. If you try it, let me know how it goes!