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The Unthinkable Community


#1

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two men wait by the side of a country road for a man who never comes. If done right, that is to say, if done with humor, fortitude, and a whiff of desperation, the play is as contemporary, funny, precise, courageous, and unknowable as I imagine it was back in 1952, when the play premiered in Paris.

When I worked with others to stage Godot in New Orleans in 2007, we took many liberties to make it work at that place, for that moment in time. We set the entire play in the middle of a street intersection for one set of performances, and then in front of an abandoned house for another. The actors let the musical cadence of New Orleanian speech seep into the dialogue. We used trash that was left on the streets as props. But there was one thing I wanted to do, but didn’t in the end: I wanted Vladimir and Estragon, the two main characters, to wait for Godot with people loitering nearby. So the country road that was supposed to be empty would teem with strangers walking by, sitting on the grass, or wandering aimlessly while talking on their phones, all ignoring the plight of these two homeless and luckless tramps. I think it would have worked. And this is because, in 1952, being alone literally meant not having anybody near. But today, one can be surrounded by, and in contact with, anyone and everyone, and still feel inexplicably abandoned.

One of the great mysteries of our time—besides the reason why the United States is still in Iraq after seven years, the magical thinking that enabled banks around the world to sell bad debts as good investments, and perhaps we can add here the enduring significance of Jeff Koons—is how the ever-expanding methods by which we communicate with one another—from cell phones to SMS, from e-mail to Twitter, from Facebook to Chatroulette—are alienating us from others and ourselves.

There is no doubt that advances in technology have fundamentally transformed the nature and reach of communication in social life. These advances have also generated new forms of economic empowerment, cultural exchange, and, ultimately, new modes of living. Making connections is a serious business. And this business is, in turn, transforming the way such connections shape our sense of self.

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