Passing the time and the art of Samuel Beckett - Ian McMillan

One of my favourite lines in any drama is in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, spend around three hours hanging around for a chap called Godot who never turns up.

Ian McMillan is a fan of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. (Picture: JPIMedia)
Ian McMillan is a fan of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. (Picture: JPIMedia)

At the end of both acts a little boy arrives who tells them that Mr Godot was sorry he couldn’t come today but he will surely come tomorrow. At one point one of the tramps says to the other that they should do something “because it helps to pass the time” and the other one retorts: “It would have passed anyway.”

Time would have passed anyway; isn’t that just a fact? It doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t speed up. It just passes. Oh, I know that at times time seems to creep and at times it seems to sprint. When you’re waiting for a bus and it’s late, time moves like sludge; when you’re running for a bus and it’s about to go, time rushes like a stream in full spate.

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We studied Waiting for Godot at Wath Grammar School and I remember becoming obsessed with those lines; me and my mate Steve Sutcliffe would take turns at quoting them at what we thought were hilariously inappropriate times.

So we’d be standing in the interminable dinner queue and we’d quote them or the teacher would ask us if we’d done our English homework and we’d quote them. I realise now that we must have sounded really smug and irritating but at the time we thought we were sitting in the guard’s van of the avant-garde.

As a class we went to see a number of productions of the play; one in Liverpool where a humorous Scouser directed our bus the wrong way so we ended up down a back street and we were able to make use of our favourite lines, much to the bus driver’s displeasure.

The other exchange of dialogue that I find marvellous in Waiting for Godot is right at the end where Vladimir and Estragon, having been told by the small boy that Godot isn’t coming, decide to go. Vladimir says: “Let’s go.” Estragon says “Yes, let’s go.” And then the stage direction says, devastatingly – “They do not move.” Again, Steve and I used those sentences as we waited to go into school after break or if the school bus rolled up and everybody else rushed to get on it.

Mind you, I once saw an amateur production of the play somewhere in Shropshire when I was college in Stafford and the end, after the “Let’s go/Yes, let’s go/They do not move” exchange, they walked off chatting with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

When I asked the director afterwards why he did that, he said it would have felt odd to have them standing there forever. I tried to argue by saying that time would have passed anyway but he didn’t see my point and wandered off. “They do not move!” I said, a little too loudly.

Oh well, it helped to pass the time.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson