‘What If the Thing You’re Waiting for Never Arrives?’

Waiting for Godot is a classic that feels like it was written for the Delta era of the pandemic.

An illustration of a man sitting on a wire, with a representation of the coronavirus off to the side
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty; Selvanegra / Getty; The Atlantic

During the first year of the pandemic, we at least had something to wait for: Effective vaccines were the gift that would theoretically deliver us back to normalcy. But the vaccines arrived, and the pandemic is still very much here. Many countries don’t have the doses that their residents need, and even the nations with wide availability, such as the U.S. and the U.K., haven’t reached a vaccination level that has stifled transmission of the coronavirus. Sure, some important milestones are ahead—vaccine authorization for young kids, a sustained nationwide lifting of restrictions, the expansion of vaccine access around the globe—but we are now in a fuzzier state of biding our time, one that lacks a clear endpoint.

Postwar avant-garde theater is not the first place most people will turn to for wisdom in this time of uncertainty and impatience, but perhaps something like solace can be found in a classic work of literature about waiting, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

The play is hard to summarize in a way that makes it sound coherent, probably because it isn’t. On a literal level, it is about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting on a country road for another man named Godot. “While they wait, they bicker, they banter, they amuse themselves,” Shane Vogel, a professor at Yale who specializes in theater and performance, explained to me. “They eat carrots, they comfort each other, they suffer, they grieve, they lose sense of what day it is, they engage with passersby, they do yoga. And then they repeat this all again in Act II.”

At one point, Estragon remarks, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” “This is a pretty good summary of the play itself,” Vogel said.

The supposed resolution to all this nonsense—the mysterious Godot—never actually arrives. Given that many of us have spent the pandemic feeling similarly thwarted, I spoke with Vogel about what lessons the play might hold for this moment of drawn-out waiting. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: What do you see as the main messages of Waiting for Godot, and how do they apply to the experience of living through a pandemic?

Shane Vogel: The characters are almost pitiable in their effort to create some kind of routine or rhythm to occupy themselves and avoid thinking about the absurdity of their situation. Beckett never says who or what Godot is or represents, and in some sense, he’s not really concerned with that as much as he is with the fact of waiting itself. During the pandemic, we’ve lost many of our routines, our daily rhythms, and without the scaffolding that those things provide, we’re often forced to confront our existence itself—the fleetingness of time and our mortality. And that’s part of what Beckett is after: How do we fill our time in order to avoid sitting with ourselves and confronting our existence?

Pinsker: So do you think Beckett would regard the pandemic as an unfortunate but useful occasion to pause and reflect on how we want to spend our lives?

Vogel: Beckett was notoriously evasive, so he would probably not want to make a kind of one-to-one connection between his plays and the pandemic. If we asked him for advice, he would have probably responded with silence, but that silence itself would be his answer.

Pinsker: And how would you interpret that silence?

Vogel: It’s a kind of refusal to retreat into the noise and distractions of everyday life that allow us to not think about the senselessness of the world and the inevitability of death that the pandemic forces into our consciousness every day. So instead of creating more words to fill the space, Beckett would greet you with silence, and you would have to sit with the uneasiness of not having an answer. I think that’s what a lot of his work asks us to do.

Pinsker: We’ve been waiting for the pandemic to be over for a year and a half now, but there still isn’t a clear end in sight. Is there any wisdom or guidance you might extract from the play to help us cope with the remainder of our waiting?

Vogel: I might ask, is our desire for the end of the pandemic a desire to reestablish not just our day-to-day routines but also to return to all the distraction and noise that allow us not to think about the meaning of life? This is not to say that the pandemic is a good thing, but it’s an opportunity to ask, what if the thing you’re waiting for never arrives? What if instead of waiting, you act or think differently instead of trying to go back to the way things were?

Pinsker: A term that has been applied to Waiting for Godot and other plays is the “theater of the absurd.” What does that mean, and what is the philosophy behind it?

Vogel: The theater of the absurd is a kind of loose description of a bunch of plays that were written and staged in the aftermath of World War II. It was a response to the profound loss of faith in reason, meaning, and authority that followed the devastation across Europe and Japan.

The philosophy of absurdism in the literature and plays of that postwar era recognizes the meaninglessness of existence, but it does not flee from it—it flees towards it. Part of the philosophy of absurdism is that humans have an innate desire for meaning, which comes into conflict with the fact that there is no deeper meaning in the world, nothing to tell us what to do or how to live. So absurdity happens in that confrontation between our desire for meaning and the absence of meaning. And in some ways, that’s what Godot’s arrival is: We’re constantly looking for meaning and it never comes.

Pinsker: Do you think that the way the characters in the play cope with waiting for Godot is relatable? Does it line up with how people today have reacted to waiting for the pandemic to end?

Vogel: They line up uncannily. Waiting for Godot and some of Beckett’s other plays have very small casts. There are two or three or four characters at the most, usually two—they almost live in pods, where they’re constantly with each other all the time. We get to see the bickering, the small victories that happen in a day, the attempt to take space from each other in these confined situations, the sense that you’re in this together, which quickly flips into the sense of being trapped with each other.

There are feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger, but no clear object or person to direct the anger towards. They’re angry at their existential situation, and then Beckett shows how that plays out in interpersonal relationships.

Pinsker: I noticed a bunch of little moments in the play that mirror daily life during the pandemic—the characters seem to do the same things each day, and sometimes they lose track of how time passes. Is it a coincidence that a play that emerged from postwar Europe is also resonant now?

Vogel: I do think pandemics, like war, suspend the normal business of our lives, and Beckett’s plays are about how characters, like all of us during the pandemic, tend to muddle on even as the world collapses around us, trying to feel our way across a new terrain. As Vladimir puts it in Act I, “I get used to the muck as I go along.” Extended crises or extended traumas that rearrange our sense of the world are part of what Beckett’s plays speak to.

Pinsker: If Beckett were alive now and writing a play about living through a pandemic, what aspects of this experience do you think he’d be drawn to?

Vogel: All of Beckett’s plays are governed by this sense of entropy, of things breaking down, of the seams fraying—even the formal conventions of things like plot and set and character begin to slide into a kind of disorder. And I think in a way, many of Beckett’s best-known plays, like Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, but especially his play Endgame, are already plays about living through a pandemic, as much as they are about anything.

Pinsker: So he wouldn’t write a pandemic play, because he already has?

Vogel: Yes, in a way. Early in the pandemic, readers in lockdown made Albert Camus’ novel The Plague a best seller because it helped to explain something about living in a plague, even though it was a novel that was really an allegory about Nazism and the French Resistance during World War II. If Camus was a good touchstone for the beginning of the pandemic, then Waiting for Godot seems like an excellent one for the era of the Delta variant.