About twenty odd years ago there was a very popular TV show in the U.S. called “Murder She Wrote”. The idea was quite simple. Jessica Fletcher (played wonderfully by Angela Lansbury) was a mystery writer. Every week it would happen that somebody had been murdered in real life, and she would be caled upon to use her great powers of deduction – honed from years of writing murder mysteries – to uncover the criminal.
The odd thing about this set-up, as entertaining as it was, is that wherever she went – strange cities, foreign countries, resort communities – somebody, like clockwork, would be murdered. Of course this plot device was necessary – otherwise there would have been no show that week.
And yet, after a while, the whole thing began to seem strangely unseemly. I began to wonder whether all those people would still have been murdered if Jessica had not been there. What if her plane to New Jersey had been diverted to Ohio? Would somebody in, say, Newark, have found a miraculous reprieve from foul play, while some other poor soul in Cleveland bit the dust?
These mysteries, thoughts I hadn’t entertained for years, planted themselves firmly in my mind as I contemplated the latest Broadway revival of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – a performance I am very looking forward to seeing.
The entire point of “Godot” is that the artifice of a well rounded plot arc is just that – an artifice. We have become so used to expecting a tidy structure – a conflict introduced at the outset, and then gradually nursed first to climax and then resolution – that we tend to forget that it bears no relationship to our own lives.
The most horrific monster movie or slasher film is as strangely reassuring as a visit with Jessica Fletcher’s little TV universe. All are based on the polite fiction that the flow of time actually makes sense – that the events around us are not, in fact, random.
Beckett dares to pull the veil away from theis comforting fictional conceit. Vladimir and Estragon do not have the luxury of defining themselves against a neatly packaged Deus ex Machina. In their world, not only is there no Deus, there is not even a Machina.
And that, perhaps is where we can find a defining line between the pleasures of mere entertainment and the challenge of art. Jessica Fletcher has the luxury of being in a position to make sense of her world, to tend the comforting fire that keeps at bay the howling monsters of random chance – the inchoate reality that lurks beyond the cave door.
Vladimir and Estragon must live every moment amidst those howling monsters. They must create whatever meaning is to be had for themselves, by themselves. And that is why Beckett’s play, unlike the comforting fare we usually flock to on TV or at the Cineplex, achieves greatness.
“Godot” does not bring us out of ourselves, but rather toward ourselves, by reminding us that life does not create meaning for us. We must create that meaning for ourselves, every day, out of the raw materials at hand: the howling winds of random cicumstance – and each other.