Modest Proposals

Connecting third level research and current affairs

Autumn Essay, no 4. Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo and New Orleans

by Julie Bates.

When we set up Modest Proposals, back in March, 2013, one of our founding aims was to articulate the connection between disinterested research into the arts or sciences – of no matter how rarefied a type – and civic concerns.  The first essay in our autumn series (Niall Gillespie, ‘Stop Subsidising Waste’) savaged the idea of state subsidy of the arts and articulated a judgement where the only literary example left standing was ‘the fierce democratic genius of Roberto Bolaño.’  Niall’s was a lively and idiosyncratic line of argument, but one which, to my mind, occluded a fundamental point about the relevance and civic value of the arts.  In response, and to mark the last essay of 2013, I would like to take as my subject an intellectual, obscure and utterly rarefied play – Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – and to examine a pair of landmark productions which took place outside the traditional theatre space, in zones and communities in intense distress.

Waiting for Godot

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in a few months from 1948 to 49.  The play is organised around material that is provocatively undramatic: two homeless old men wait in a bare road with a single tree.  Although their speech patterns seem Irish and they are in a landscape that could arguably be either Irish or French, it is clear that Beckett intended for the setting to be both nowhere and everywhere.  The play is in two acts, corresponding to two days.  Over the course of these two days the central couple, Vladimir and Estragon, argue, get bored, clown around, repeat themselves, contemplate suicide, and wait for help to arrive in the form of the mysterious Godot about whom they seem to know very little, but in whose capacity for offering help they have a desperate, craven form of faith.  Their waiting is interrupted by the arrival of Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, to whom Pozzo is attached by a rope strung round Lucky’s neck.  In the first act, Pozzo is evidently in control, and whips Lucky onstage before him.  In the second act, Pozzo is blind, and holds onto the rope connecting him to Lucky like an umbilical cord.  Throughout both acts, Vladimir and Estragon keep repeating their purpose: that they are waiting for Godot.  At the end of the second act, having being told once again by the boy messenger who comes at nightfall that Godot will not come today, Vladimir suggests that Estragon and he leave and forget about their dimly remembered appointment with Godot.  Their final exchange is ‘Shall we go? / Yes, let’s go.’  The stage direction directly after this, the last line of the play, is: ‘They do not move.’

What, you might ask, can this mid-century play, written in French by an Irish man who at the time considered himself a poet and novelist – what can this play have possibly contributed to the people of two devastated cities – the first trapped in the midst of years of bombardment, the second in the immediate wake of a natural disaster?

While many critics and academics over the years have emphasised the difficulty and intellectual emphasis of Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot has from the start had an immediate appeal for actors and audiences who identify with the central couple’s cycle of hopeful waiting and disappointment for some change in their difficult circumstances.  One such group of people is prisoners.  Productions of Godot were staged in California’s San Quentin prison in the early 1960s.  The prisoner who played Vladimir said: ‘Waiting for Godot resonates with the incarcerated because it depicts a vacant landscape and characters imprisoned within themselves, but with great humour.’  Another group of people who identified with Beckett’s characters were South Africans under apartheid.  Beckett had banned productions of the play in front of all-white audiences, so it had never been put on until 1976, when Benjy Francis directed and played Pozzo in an all-black production in Cape Town.  Francis described the play as being fundamentally ‘very positive’ and concerned with ‘the resilience of human beings.’  A similar identification with the ethical qualities of Waiting for Godot was expressed in each case by those who staged it in Yugoslavia in 1956, Poland in 1957, Hungary in 1965, and in Belarus in 1968.

I propose that the productions of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo and New Orleans demonstrate in the most emphatic terms the vital role the arts have to play in society, and that this important role is theirs as a result of those disinterested, rarefied and abstract qualities which have been criticised on these pages so recently.  Many philosophers, and more recently, the cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, have observed that every aesthetics contain an ethics.  Beckett’s characters try and fail to make sense of the strange environment in which they find themselves.  Similarly, the audience of the play are denied a comfortable interpretative position of the events or meaning of the play.  This curious aesthetic unites the actors and audience in an experience of powerlessness, confusion, dull repetition, wariness of strangers and despair in circumstances ever improving. In this essay, I want to show how and why this scenario – and its ethical implications – resonated very strongly indeed with the two audiences under study.


The image below shows Sarajevo residents salvaging the remains of trees for use as fuel for cooking and heating during the Serb siege of the city.  During the first winter of the siege most of Sarajevo’s parks and tree-lined boulevards were cut down by desperate citizens.

Image 1

Photo: Roger Richards, 1993

Almost 2,000 children, and over 10,000 people in total, were killed in Sarajevo during the three and a half year siege, which ended when NATO at last intervened with airstrikes and demanded a ceasefire.  One of the voices in the West advocating intervention was Susan Sontag, a writer and activist who had repeatedly argued for the need for art to be engaged with wider social issues, and whose stance on Sarajevo generated great controversy within the political Left.  In an article she wrote for the Observer upon her return in October 1993, this is how Sontag explained her decision to stage the play:

I went to Sarajevo in mid-July to stage a production of Waiting for Godot not so much because I’d always wanted to direct Beckett’s play (although I had), as because it gave me a practical reason to return to Sarajevo and stay for a month or more.  I had spent two weeks there in April, and had come to care intensely about the batter city and what it stands for; some of its citizens had become friends.  But I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heartbreaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight.  If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something.

No longer can a writer consider that the imperative task is to bring the news to the outside world.  The news is out.  Plenty of excellent foreign journalists (most of them in favour of intervention, as I am) have been reporting the lies and the slaughter since the beginning of the siege, while the decision of the western European powers and the United   States not to intervene remains firm, thereby giving the victory to Serb fascism.  I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct a play would make me useful in the way I would be if I were a doctor or a water-systems engineer.  It would be a small contribution. But it was the only one of the three things I do – write, make films and direct in the theatre – which yields something that would exist only in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.

During rehearsals, Sontag was encouraged by the actors to give interviews to newspapers to alert the outside world to what was happening – this was what they hoped would be achieved by the play, because they couldn’t understand how world leaders could stand by and allow the siege to continue: these world leaders had become ‘Godot’ for the people of Sarajevo long before Sontag considered putting on the production she directed, which was immediately nicknamed ‘Waiting for Clinton.’

There was no electricity, so rehearsals and performances took place by candle-light.  Like the city of Sarajevo itself, the cast was a mix of Bosnians, Muslims, Croats and Serbs.  Because there was no public transport, the actors risked their lives coming to the theatre every day on foot, often for long distances.  The costumes only arrived the day before the play opened, and inventiveness was required when putting together other props for the play.  Every morning before rehearsals Sontag stole a supply of bread rolls from her hotel, the breakfast offered to its guests consisted of rolls and coffee, and gave these bread rolls to her actors.

Sontag made several changes to the play: she increased the number of actors so that her production featured three different couples playing Vladimir and Estragon, one all-female, one all-male and one mixed.  Sontag decided on this change to Beckett’s use of one central couple because she didn’t want to refuse any of the actors she had shortlisted for the role, felt she could not deny them the opportunity to take part in the play.  The combination of three couples also had the advantage of suggesting that the plight of each couple was universal.  The second change she made was to have the messenger boy played by a man, which meant that he could be more roughly treated when he brings bad news.

Sontag’s most important change, however, was to cut the second, merciless act, which so nearly mirrors the first act that we are given the irresistible impression of an endless cycle of waiting, hoping and being disappointed.  In the second act, Beckett makes it clear that Godot will not come, was never going to come.  Sontag thought this would be too much for her audience, so she cut it.  The play ends with the characters waiting and hoping, everyone in the theatre like them holding their breath.  By staging only the first half of Beckett’s play in Sarajevo, Sontag conveyed to the outside world the extraordinary courage and refusal to be brutalised by its inhabitants.  She wrote of how acutely the play resonated with the circumstances of those in the city:

People in Sarajevo know themselves to be terminally weak: waiting, hoping, not wanting to hope, knowing that they aren’t going to be saved.  They are humiliated by their disappointment, by their fear and by the indignities of daily life – for instance, by having to spend a good part of each day seeing to it that their toilets flush, so that their bathrooms don’t become cesspools.  That is how they use most of the water they queue for in public spaces, at great risk to their lives.  This sense of humiliation may be even greater than their fear.

Sontag also noted how much it meant to the actors to be involved in the production: ‘Putting on a play means so much to the local theatre professionals in Sarajevo because it allows them to be normal, that is, to do what they did before the war; to be not just haulers of water or passive recipients of “humanitarian aid.”’

Every explosion heard during rehearsals or performances saw the characters pause for a moment to register a moment’s relief that the theatre had not been hit, and then to try to calculate where in the city that mortar had hit, how near it was to their family.  Sontag described how many people were turned away for each performance (all of which were free) – they had only twelve candles to light the stage in Sarajevo’s Youth Theatre, so could fit only a limited number of people onto the planks they had set up onstage with the audience seated as near as possible to the actors who were lit only by candles to allow for some visibility, as the siege continued outside.  Sontag described tears coming to her eyes ‘during the long tragic silence … which follows the messenger’s announcement that Mr Godot isn’t coming today, but will surely come tomorrow.’  She noticed that one of the actors was also crying, but that ‘No one in the audience made a sound.  The only sounds were those coming from outside the theatre: a UN troop carrier thundering down the street and the crack of sniper fire.’

Image 2

Photo: Jennifer Boyer, 2011

Two days after Sontag’s death in 2004, the mayor of Sarajevo announced that the city would name a street after her, calling her an ‘author and a humanist who actively participated in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia.’  On March 30, 2009 Theatre Square in front of the National Theatre – where Sontag had made her decision to stage Beckett’s play in the city – was named after her.  When the decision to rename the square was announced, Haris Pasovic, the producer of Sontag’s Godot was interviewed, and he said he was delighted, because ‘The square is in the centre of the city so Susan Sontag’s name will be written in the heart of Sarajevo forever, where it belongs.’

New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina swept across the southern states of America in 2005.  As the hurricane moved towards New Orleans, there were many appeals to the residents of the city to leave their homes, but none of the authorities ever mentioned the possibility that the flood protection system for the city – the levees – would break.  And they broke catastrophically, with 80% of the city flooded, and the floodwaters lingering for weeks afterwards.  Over 800,000 people were displaced because of the flooding and destruction caused by the hurricane.


New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Tuyen Nguyen

The then American government, particularly President Bush and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), was seriously criticised for its response to Hurricane Katrina, which primarily consisted of criticism of mismanagement and lack of leadership in the relief efforts in response to the storm and its aftermath.

The visual artist Paul Chan is affiliated with the socially-engaged New York art group Creative Time.  A year after the hurricane, when the city was still in chaos, Chan visited New Orleans for the first time.  Having seen the effects of Katrina and inadequate state response, he felt compelled to do something.  Like Sontag, Chan’s immediate response was to imagine an outdoor performance of Beckett’s play, because, just as Sontag had said that Beckett’s play seemed to have been written about Sarajevo, Chan described being in New Orleans at the time as an experience where he suddenly found himself ‘in the middle of’ Waiting for Godot.  According to Chan, Beckett’s play offered him a way to make sense of the devastated environment in which he found himself:

Seeing Godot embedded in the very fabric of the landscape of New Orleans was my way of re-imagining the empty roads, the debris, and, above all, the bleak silence as more than the expression of mere collapse.  There is a terrible symmetry between the reality of New Orleans post-Katrina and the essence of this play, which expresses in stark eloquence the cruel and funny things people do while they wait: for help, for food, for tomorrow.

Chan made several changes made to the play, all of which were designed to add ‘touches’ of New Orleans to the performances, to make Beckett’s play, written by a dead white European half a century beforehand, relevant to the audience.  Chan made street signs with the opening stage directions of the play on them, and distributed these signs all around the city.  The signs worked to publicise the play, while aligning it with the mood and state of the city.  Many of the street signs were attached to telegraph posts which already bore similar-looking signs with the names of missing people that their families and loved ones were searching for:


Photo: Tuyen Nguyen, 2007

A more joyful change that further aligned Beckett’s play with the city was Chan’s decision to tap into the tradition of street art and celebration in New Orleans: brass bands escorted people to the four performances, bringing them on an impromptu parade through the devastated streets:


Photo: Tuyen Nguyen, 2007

Chan also decided to make props for the characters that would tie them into the setting.  Here are drawings for Lucky and Pozzo’s props, both of which identify them with local homeless people – which, of course, was the condition of nearly everyone in New   Orleans after the hurricane:


Chan, ‘Bicycle for Pozzo’, 2007


Chan, ‘Cart for Lucky’, 2007


Photo: Tuyen Nguyen, 2007

The final, most important change made by Chan, was the setting of the play.  It was decided to use two sites: the first was a street corner like many others in New   Orleans at the time.  Decimated by the hurricane and floods after the levees broke, almost everything had been washed away, including houses, apart from a few spindly trees, precisely like the one in Beckett’s stage directions:


Photo: Tuyen Nguyen, 2007

The second setting was in front of a ruined house, typical of all the other condemned houses in New Orleans.  Even if these houses were still standing, and didn’t have the signs taped across to indicate that there were corpses within, the owners and families of these houses were barred from them.  Staging a play full of characters talking about how they have nowhere to go outside a ruined house was by all accounts a particularly evocative decision.


Photo: Tuyen Nguyen, 2007

To call both spaces that Chan used site-specific doesn’t do them justice.  The audience at either production could look around and see the foundations of homes that once stood peeking out from the encroaching weeds, the telltale signs of entire streets that had been washed away.  The dead were powerfully present, as they are for Vladimir and Estragon in their exchange:

ESTRAGON:             All the dead voices.

VLADIMIR: They make a noise like wings.

ESTRAGON:             Like leaves.

VLADIMIR: Like sand.

ESTRAGON:             Like leaves.


VLADIMIR: They all speak together.

ESTRAGON:             Each one to itself.


VLADIMIR: Rather they whisper.

ESTRAGON:             They rustle.

VLADIMIR: They murmur.

ESTRAGON:             They rustle.


VLADIMIR: What do they say?

ESTRAGON:             They talk about their lives.

VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.

ESTRAGON:             They have to talk about it.

VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them.

ESTRAGON:             It is not sufficient.


VLADIMIR: They make a noise like feathers.

ESTRAGON:             Like leaves.

VLADIMIR: Like ashes.

ESTRAGON:             Like leaves.

As in Sarajevo, the Godot in New Orleans brought the plight of the inhabitants and people who had been displaced to the attention of a wider community, but Chan was very clear from the outset that the actual performances would be only a small part of a prolonged engagement with the community.  His intention was to show the people of New Orleans that they had not been forgotten, to provide a communal activity and focal point that would give voice to local pride and resilience, and, hopefully, to force authorities to match the agency and determination of the city’s inhabitants by taking responsibility and addressing the damage done by the hurricane.  Chan set up a range of activities and groups in the rehearsal period, including pot luck dinners, community theatre workshops for adults and children, and roundtable discussions of the purpose of art in terms of Beckett’s play and contemporary local art practices in local schools and in New Orleans University.  Since the performances, the project has become a wider social production involving free art seminars, educational programmes, theatre workshops, conversations with the community, and the generation of a shadow fund to help rebuild the area.  This book, produced by Chan, is a physical record of the extended project of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans:


Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide, edited by PaulChan (2010)

Every night of the four free performances in New Orleans, hundreds upon hundreds of people came together and stood in the darkness watching the play on a street corner or in front of a ruined and uninhabitable house.  They stood in silence and listened to lines that could have been written with the setting in mind – the following, where Estragon is dozing and his friend Vladimir is pondering their options, watching Estragon, literally looking out for him:

VLADIMIR:  Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?  Am I sleeping now?  Tomorrow, when I wake or think I do, what shall I say of today?  That with Estragon my friend, at this place until the fall of night, I waited for Godot?  That Pozzo passed with his carrier, and that he spoke to us?  Probably.  But in all that what truth will there be?  [ESTRAGON, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again.  VLADIMIR stares at him.]  He’ll know nothing.  He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. [Pause.] Astride of a grave and a difficult birth.  Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.  We have time to grow old.  The air is full of our cries. [He listens.] But habit is a great deadener. [He looks again at ESTRAGON.] At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

Waiting for Godot was performed under enemy gunfire in Sarajevo, and in ruined and abandoned streets in New Orleans.  In both cases, it seemed that the government and wider international community had chosen to forget the terrible events that had happened and were still happening.  Every time I’ve been to see Waiting for Godot in the theatre, someone – usually, it must be said, a man who looked like he had been dragged along for some edification largely against his will – has fallen asleep beside me.  I severely doubt any heads slumped onto their neighbour’s shoulder at Sontag or Chan’s productions.

The Polish professor of theatre Jan Kott once said that ‘in Poland we do Brecht when we want fantasy.  When we want realism, we do Waiting for Godot.’  This seemingly perverse identification of the Marxist and historical work of Bertolt Brecht with fantasy, and that of Beckett with realism, makes perfect sense when you know that during the Second World War Kott was imprisoned by the Soviets and Nazis and Beckett served in the resistance in Paris, and if you accept the proposal of this essay that art may, paradoxically, serve the civic good most effectively when it is least explicitly engaged with identifiable social, political or didactic issues.  I wanted to tell you the story of Sontag and Chan’s extraordinary productions because I hoped to show that both are animated by Chan’s observation: ‘art is the reason that makes reason ridiculous’, and that their use of Beckett’s play illustrates the potential of art to interrogate and rival the prevailing ‘reason’ in society.  To rail against the inactivity, inertia or apathy of politicians using the language of politics is, to my mind, clearly ineffective.  It is a blind alley, a cul de sac where the rationale in use is more often reified than challenged.  To appeal to the ‘reason’ as Chan puts it, the logic in force at that particular moment that allowed the suffering of the inhabitants of both Sarajevo and New Orleans to happen and continue to happen, would similarly achieve nothing.  What is required is a rival reason, an alternative vocabulary and model of meaning-making – one that does not speak to power, or reaffirm authority.  What is needed is art, particularly a naturally collaborative form of art, such as theatre.  This is what I think Chan has in mind when he speaks of reason being made ‘ridiculous.’

Staging Beckett’s play in both cities offered tangible assistance in the form of a focal point, a communal, purposeful activity in spaces where such things had of necessity been largely replaced by routines designed to manage basics and daily needs.  In this sense, Waiting for Godot helped in both contexts by charging all those who participated in or experienced the productions with an agency they would not otherwise have had, but I want to suggest that it also offered another, less tangible, form of help by virtue of its aesthetic of weakness, confusion and indecision, its focus on waiting without an end in sight, the groundless optimism of its central characters, and its setting in a meaningless and unfriendly world.  I propose that it is precisely because the piecemeal dramatic narrative of Beckett’s play so acutely represents, in its shape as well as its dialogue and line of action, the experience of being lost and trapped in a strange, hostile place, that it resonated so powerfully in the two very specific settings of these cities: the first under siege, the second devastated by natural forces.  It is little wonder that the audiences and actors in both cities identified so strongly with Beckett’s abandoned characters struggling to find meaning in an inhospitable landscape, when they too were subject to the apathy and inaction of those that might help, the various Godots that never arrived.


Julie Bates is one of the co-founders of Modest Proposals.  She was awarded a PhD in February 2013 for her dissertation ‘The art of salvage: Beckett’s repertoire of objects.’ At present, she is a researcher in the Global Relations Office in Trinity, is pursuing publication options for her thesis as a monograph, and is preparing a digital edition of Beckett’s novel Malone meurt / Malone Dies with the Beckett Digital Manuscripts Project, an international collaborative project based in the University of Antwerp.

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This entry was posted on December 30, 2013 by in Uncategorized.


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