Godot Was a Eurocrat
The crisis in Greece isn't an ancient tragedy; it's a modern farce only Samuel Beckett could have written.
Over the course of the confrontation between the Greek government and the leaders of the eurozone, the word “tragedy” has been on the tip of every pundit’s tongue. Some of us will recall our undergraduate days with ancient Greek texts, anxiously rummaging through our memories for passages from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, perhaps glimpsing parallels between the hubris of mythic kings and contemporary chancellors, between the inexorability of the gods and fate on the one hand and the inflexibility of the banks and finance on the other.
But what if, all this time, we’ve been turning to the wrong tragedians?
This crisis — with its endless rounds of last-chance conferences, its relentless repetition of final warnings and threats, its prolongation, and its persistence — brings to mind Karl Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Is a tragedy like Oedipus Rex or The Trojan Women best suited to provide insight into Greece’s confrontation with its creditors? Or instead, might not Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot best fit the bill? Just as the ancient tragedians leave us in awe at the obscure workings of fate and the gods, Beckett also leaves us in awe — but doubled over in laughter at the absurdity of our predicament. That seems about right here.
The despair-driven heroes of Beckett’s play, Vladimir and Estragon, wait without end for an answer to a question they don’t understand. This is absurd, of course, but perhaps no more absurd than current events in Europe, where promises are always forgotten, threats are never delivered, and calamity has become the norm. Few lines better summarize the perennial eurozone crisis than Beckett’s definition of tragedy: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Before their meeting at the Elysée Palace on Monday, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to the press. Rarely was so little said by so few on so critical a subject. Were Beckett alive today and had he attended the conference, he might, apart from wishing he were still dead, have given us a sequel to his signature play.
Let’s call it, “Waiting for Euro.”
Scene: A fading presidential palace. Two podiums. Evening. Frankie, wearing a tricolored sash, is leaning against one podium, reading a paper. “Greeks say ‘No!’” proclaims the headline. He sighs, puts it down, sighs, and picks it up again.
Enter Angie, wearing a dowdy green suit and carrying a practical handbag. Stops at other podium.
Frankie: Nothing to be done. (Sighs and puts down the paper again)
Angie: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life, I put it off, saying Angela, be reasonable, they will come around. And I resumed the struggle. (Smiles) Mein Kampf.
She rubs at a coffee stain on her blouse and pulls a tube of powder, marked “Oxi,” out of her handbag.
Angie: Better yet, camphor. (Turns to Frankie, purses her lips) So there you are again.
Frankie: (Irritated) And here we are again. May I inquire where Her Highness spent the night?
Angie: In a meeting with my economy minister. (Moistens a rag with her lips and rubs some more at the stain) Better if I had spent it in a ditch.
Frankie: (Astonished) And he didn’t beat you?
Angie: Of course he beat me. Moral hazards, harrowing haircuts, enraged bürgers. It’s too much for one woman.
Frankie: (Switches his sash to the other shoulder) Suppose we repented?
Angie: Repented for what? For getting — forgetting — the restructuration of our own debt in 1953? For being born?
Frankie: (Wraps the sash across his waist, like a cummerbund) For being boring.
Angie: (Steps behind the podium and looks out at audience) Charming spot. (Distant strains of “La Marseillaise” are heard) Inspiring prospects. (Looks at Frankie) Let’s go.
Frankie: (Has turned the sash into a sling) We can’t.
Angie: Why not?
Frankie: We’re waiting for euro.
Angie: Are we tied? (Silence) I asked if we are tied.
Frankie: How do you mean?
Frankie: T-O W-H-A-T?
Angie: To our euro.
Frankie: What an idea! Pas du tout. (Wraps sash around his head, peers above podium as if it were a barricade) We are tied to values. We are tied to the value of values. (“La Marseillaise” again filters through the air) Like solidarity. In Europe, there is a place for solidarity. (Chorus of “La Marseillaise” grows louder)
Angie: (Now crouching behind her podium) Ach, we are also tied to the idea of ties. (Begins to rummage in her handbag)
Frankie: (Throws her a worried glance from under his headband) And we are tied to the idea of responsibility. In Europe, there is a place for responsibility. (Removes headband and wipes brow with it. “La Marseillaise” fades.)
Angie: Egalité, ja? We’re all equal, but some of us are…
She stops as two characters enter, one with a blue and gold tie around his neck led by the other cracking a whip. Frankie crouches more deeply behind the podium and looks hopefully at the man with the whip.
Frankie: Er … euro?
Brussels: (Aggrieved at the case of mistaken identity) Who is euro? I present myself: Brussels. (Eyes Frankie) Bruxelles to you, sprout. (Sees Frankie and Angie stare at his panting companion) Why are you staring?
Frankie: (Holds sash to his mouth) His neck!
Angie: I see nothing.
Frankie: Look, here. A running sore. It’s the tie.
Angie: It’s his past.
Frankie: It’s inevitable.
Brussels: It’s for his own good. When he learns to knot his own tie, he will agree. (Cracks the whip and the creature, on all fours, staggers to its feet. Frankie turns to Angie.)
Frankie: (Unable to take his eyes off the creature) Time is running out, and there is urgency. (Turns to Brussels) Urgency for him and urgency for us. (Still crouched behind his podium, he folds his sash and sits on it.)
Angie: (The powder has spread the stain on her blouse. She frowns and turns to the creature.) We will urgently leave the door open for our friend.
Frankie makes haste slowly from behind the podium, approaches the creature, and reaches out with his sash to wipe the wound. The creature kicks him in the knee, and Frankie drops the sash, hopping on one leg and moaning in pain.
Frankie: I’ll never walk again!
Angie: I’ll carry you. Maybe. (Brussels cracks his whip, swears, and lumbers off with his tied creature.)
Frankie: I can’t go on like this.
Angie: That’s what you think. Shall we go?
Frankie: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Illlustration by Ed Johnson/FP