friend of mine sent me an article from the NY Times by Andrew Russeth, (Sept 17, 2020), “Art About Waiting and What It Takes to Endure.” Naturally, this article will turn to Godot. But first it begins with an artist, Tehching Hsieh, who created for himself a remarkable feat of waiting. He prepared a wooden crate (11.5 x 9 x 8 ft) in his NY apartment and then locked himself inside for one whole year! This kind of artistic performance can be called “waiting art: work that addresses what it means to live with uncertainty and to keep going often with no clear end in sight.” This certainly describes how we cope (or don’t) with this damn COVID 19 and all its ramification, such as mask-wearing as a political statement.
We learn that artist Paul Chan mounted a production of Waiting for Godot after the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in 2007. Chan states that Beckett “saw the ruins of Europe. . . He lived through it, and he was in the French Resistance. I think he understood on an emotional and intellectual level and maybe even an aesthetic level what it means to cobble together whatever is available to just go on.”
I agree that the aftermath of war is an important leitmotif that runs through Beckett’s play. A world in ruins is reflected in the stark desolate landscape, marked by a leafless tree. In fact, one surmise is that the Godot in the title is taken from the French word, godillot, which means military boots. And perhaps indicates all the waiting in military life, particularly for good boots, or mail or food. My father, who served in World War II, used to say that life in the army was, “Hurry up and wait.” And as far as boots go, one of the tramps, after all, keeps fiddling with his shoe.
Because we are approaching Veterans Day, I wanted to talk about this day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers. I am always struck by the solemn celebrations on this day in Europe, a bank holiday. The Girl Scouts, (or in our case, the Daisies) would actually go to a little chapel in St. Cloud to honor the remains of the Lafayette Escadrille. These were American pilots who volunteered in France during WW I and are buried there.
In fact, in a coincidence, we have a dear family friend whose father, the great polo player Tommy Hitchcock, flew as a combat pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille, the youngest to be brevetted. (He did not die during WWI but during a research and development test flight in England in 1944.)
On the eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven o’clock, 1918, the armistice came into effect. Fighting did not cease until eleven, yielding 2,738 casualties on that last morning of the war. Imagine the ill luck of being one of those men whose life was not spared during the war’s final minutes.
It happened that I took a group of high school students to London in 2014, the centenary of the beginning of World War I. An intrepid fellow teacher and an excellent group of students joined me as we hiked over to the Tower of London to see the poppies planted in honor of this remembrance.
The only flower to grow on the devastated battlefields of northern France and Flanders, the red poppy quickly became the sign of remembrance for those who died in World War I. My father always wore a poppy in his lapel on November 11.
Most teachers hire touring companies for trips, say to Scotland or Ireland, but we did it ourselves. We planned the itinerary: Churchill’s WWII bunkers, the Tate Modern, and the Greenwich Meridian Line, which, if you straddle it, part of your body is in one hemisphere and the rest of you in another. Of course, we included Shakespeare’s Globe, and a ceremony at a Hindu temple, with a vegetarian lunch. A student was very worried about the absence of meat for his lunch, but most surprisingly to him, he loved it.
I may have mentioned that I get lost easily. Now you might well be asking how I managed to guide 20 students around London, from hostel to event, to dinner, to a play commemorating WWI (Ah the play! An elaborately fashioned mechanical horse and a rotating stage for War Horse, the story of the farm boy Albert and his horse Joey, conscripted into World War I.) Well, you had to invoke Tom Sawyer. I appointed students in charge of the metro routes, the walking routes, the bus routes, the way to the theatre, the restaurants. This was a learning experience, I told them. I wonder how many of them divined my subterfuge.
Just before Veterans Day, I’d often teach this poem, written by Edward Thomas, a World War I poet. The happy-go-lucky English farmer keeps his favorite bush, the place he’d sleep off his drink, a secret. Notice the, “bores.” The propaganda promoting WWI was that it was a great adventure. I am struck by the very different secret he keeps in France, an unmarked grave.
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
“At Mrs Greenland’s Hawthorn Bush,” said he,
“I slept.” None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover’, a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -that, too, he secret keeps.
If you haven’t read the novel, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, it’s an endearing story, a tribute to all the horses conscripted during WWI, originating in a true story from a small English village.