It is the peculiar richness of a play like Waiting for Godot that it opens vistas on so many different perspectives. It is open to philosophical, religious, and psychological interpretations, yet above all it is a poem on time, evanescence, and the mysteriousness of existence, the paradox of change and stability, necessity and absurdity.
—Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd
Two tramps in bowler hats, a desolate country road, a single bare tree—the iconic images of a radically new modern drama confronted the audience at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris on January 5, 1953, at the premiere of En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot ). Written during the winter of 1948–49, it would take Samuel Beckett four years to get it produced. It is easy to see why. As the play’s first director, Roger Blin, commented, “Imagine a play that contains no action, but characters that have nothing to say to each other.” The main characters—Vladimir and Estragon, nicknamed Didi and Gogo—are awaiting the arrival of Godot, but we never learn why, nor who he is, because he never arrives. The tramps frequently say “Let’s go,” but they never move. We never learn where the road leads nor see the tramps taking it. The play gratifies no expectations and resolves nothing. Instead it detonates the accepted operating principles of drama that we expect to find in a play: a coherent sequence of actions, motives, and conflicts leading to a resolution. It substitutes the core dramatic element of suspense—waiting—and forces the audience to experience the same anticipation and uncertainty of Vladimir and Estragon, while raising fundamental issues about the nature and purpose of existence itself, our own elemental version of waiting. If modern drama originates in the 19th century with Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, Beckett, with Waiting for Godot, extends the implications of their innovations into a radical kind of theatrical experience and method. The theatrical and existential vision of Waiting for Godot makes it the watershed 20th-century drama—as explosive, groundbreaking, and influential a work as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is for modern poetry and James Joyce’s Ulysses is for modern fiction. From its initial baffling premiere, Waiting for Godot would be seen, it is estimated, by more than a million people in the next five years and eventually became the most frequently produced modern drama worldwide, entering the collective consciousness with a “Beckett-like landscape” and establishing the illusive Godot as a shorthand image of modern futility and angst.
Like his fellow countryman and mentor Joyce, Beckett oriented himself in exile from his native Ireland, but unlike Joyce, who managed to remain relatively safe on the fringes of a modern world spinning out of control, Beckett was very much plunged into the maelstrom. He was born in Foxrock, a respectable suburb of Dublin, to Protestant Anglo-Irish parents. His education at Portora Royal School (where Oscar Wilde had been a student) and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received his degree in French and Italian, pointed him toward a distinguished academic career. In 1928 Beckett won an exchange lectureship at L’École normale supérieure in Paris, where he met Joyce and assisted him in his labors on Finnegans Wake. Beckett returned to Trinity as a lecturer in French but found teaching “grim.” He would state: “I could not bear the absurdity of teaching others what I did not know myself.” In 1932 he left Ireland for good, except for short visits to his family. When World War II broke out Beckett ended a visit home and returned to Paris, later stating, “I preferred France in war to Ireland in peace.” During the war Beckett joined the French resistance in Paris, and when his group was infiltrated by a double agent and betrayed to the Gestapo, he was forced to escape to unoccupied France in 1942, where he worked as a farm laborer until the war’s end.
In 1946 Beckett struggled to restart his interrupted and stalled literary career that had produced a critical study of Marcel Proust, a collection of short stories (More Pricks Than Kicks), a volume of poems (Echo’s Bones), and two novels (Murphy and Watt). The turning point came during a visit to his mother in Foxrock. He would later transfer the epiphany that gave him a new subject and method to the more dramatic setting of the pier in Dún Laoghaire on a stormy night in Krapp’s Last Tape: “Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. . . . What I suddenly saw then was this . . . that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most.” Krapp’s revelation breaks off, but Beckett himself completed his sentence, saying “that the dark I have always struggled to keep under” was “my most precious ally.” As Beckett biographer James Knowlson summarizes, Beckett’s insight meant that he would “draw henceforward on his own inner world for his subjects; outside reality would be refracted through the filter of his own imagination; inner desires and needs would be allowed a much greater freedom of expression; rational contradictions would be allowed in; and the imagination would be allowed to create alternative worlds to those of conventional reality.” Beckett would thereby find the way to bypass the particular to deal directly with the universal. His fiction and plays would not be social or psychological but onto-logical. To mine those inner recesses, Beckett would reverse the centrifugal direction of most writers to contain and comprehend the world for the centripetal, of reduction down to essentials. Beckett, who had assisted Joyce in the endlessly proliferating Finnegans Wake, would overturn the method of his mentor. “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one’s material,” Beckett would observe. “He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.” This realization required a means of presentation that Beckett found in minimalism and composition in French, which he found “easier to write without style.” Restricted to a voice and its consciousness, Beckett would eliminate the conventional narrative requirements of specificity of time and place and elaborate background for characters and a complex sequence of causes and effects to form his plots. In Beckett’s work the atmosphere of futility and stagnation around which Chekhov devised his plays and stories has become pervasive. The world is drained of meaning; human relationships are reduced to tensions between hope and despair in which consciousness itself is problematic. Beckett’s protagonists, who lack the possibility of significant action, are paralyzed or forced to repeat an unchanging condition. Beckett compresses his language and situations down to the level of elemental forces without the possibility of escaping from the predicament of the basic absurdity of existence.
Returning to Paris after his epiphany, Beckett began what he called “the siege in the room”: his most sustained and prolific period of writing that in five years produced the plays Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, and Endgame; the novel trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable; and the short stories published under the title Stories and Texts for Nothing. Beckett stated that Waiting for Godot began “as a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.” It gave dramatic form to the intense interior explorations of his fiction. The play’s setting is nonspecific but symbolically suggestive of the modern wasteland as the play’s protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, engage in chatter derived equally from metaphysics and the music hall while they await the arrival of Godot, who never comes. What Godot represents (Beckett remarked: “If I knew, I would have said so in the play,” and “If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God, not Godot.”) is far less important than the defining condition of fruitless and pointless waiting that the play dramatizes. Beckett explores on stage the implications of a world in which nothing happens, in which a desired revelation and meaningful resolution are endlessly deferred. At art’s core is a fundamental ordering of the world, but Beckett’s art is based on the world’s ultimate incomprehensibility. “I think anyone nowadays,” Beckett once said, “who pays the slightest attention to his own experience finds it the experience of a non-knower, a non-caner.” By powerfully staging radical uncertainty and the absurdity of futile waiting, Godot epitomizes the operating assumptions of the theater of the absurd.
The most repeated critique of Waiting for Godot is voiced in Irish critic Vivian Mercier’s succinct summary: “Nothing happens, twice.” The play, sub-titled A Tragicomedy in Two Acts, does not, in the words of Martin Esslin, “tell a story; it explores a static situation” that is encapsulated by the words of Estragon: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” In act 1, Didi and Gogo await the anticipated arrival of Godot, to whom they have made “a kind of prayer,” a “vague supplication” for something unspecified that Godot has agreed to consider. However, it is by no means certain whether this is the right place or day for the meeting. To pass the time they consider hanging themselves (“It’d give us an erection”), but the only available tree seems too frail to hold them, and they cannot agree who should go first. Another pair arrives: Lucky, with a rope around his neck, loaded down with a bag, picnic basket, stool, and great coat, being whipped on by the domineering Pozzo, who claims to be a landowner taking Lucky to a fair to sell him. They halt for Pozzo to eat, and he asks Gogo and Didi if they would like to be entertained by Lucky’s “thinking,” which turns out to be a long nonsensical monologue. After Pozzo and Lucky depart, a boy enters, addresses Vladimir as Mr. Albert, and delivers the message that Mr. Godot will not be coming this evening but will surely come tomorrow. After the boy exits, Vladimir and Estragon also decide to leave but make no move to do so.
Act 2 takes place apparently the next day at the same time and place, although the tree now has four or five leaves. Again Vladimir and Estragon begin their vigil, passing the time by exchanging questions, contradictions, insults, and hats, as well as pretending to be Pozzo and Lucky, until the originals arrive. However, Pozzo is now blind and bumps into Lucky, knocking them both down. After debating whether they should help them get up, Didi and Gogo also find themselves on the ground, unable to rise, with Vladimir announcing, “we’ve arrived . . . we are men.” Eventually, they regain their footing, supporting Pozzo between them. Pozzo has no recollection of their previous encounter, and when asked what he and Lucky do when they fall and there is no one to help them, Pozzo says: “We wait till we can get up. Then we go on.” When Didi asks if Lucky can “think” again for them before they leave, Pozzo reveals that Lucky is now “dumb”—“he can’t even groan.” Vladimir wonders about their transformation since yesterday, but Pozzo insists time is a meaningless concept:
Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.
After Pozzo and Lucky exit (with the sound of their falling again offstage), the boy arrives to announce that Godot will not be coming this evening but will be there without fail tomorrow. Although he appears to be the same boy as yesterday, he denies this and runs off when a frustrated Vladimir lunges at him. Estragon proposes going far away, but Vladimir reminds him that they must wait for Godot to come tomorrow. They return to the idea of hanging them-selves, but when they try to use Estragon’s belt cord, it breaks, and Estragon’s pants fall down. They decide to bring a stronger rope the next day, and “We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.” The play concludes:
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Beckett generates meaning in Waiting for Godot through image, repetition, and counterpoint. In their bowler hats and pratfalls, Vladimir and Estragon are versions of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, tragic clowns poised between despair and hope. Act 2 repeats the sequence of action of act 1 but deepens the absurdity as well as the significance of their Waiting for Godot . Unlike Pozzo and Lucky, whose relationship parodies the master-slave dynamic and a sadomasochistic conception of existence in which death is the only outcome of birth, Vladimir and Estragon complement each other and live in hope for Godot’s arrival and the revelation and resolution it implies (“Tonight perhaps we shall sleep in his place, in the warmth, our bellies full, on the straw. It is worth waiting for that, is it not?”). The hope that Godot might come, that purpose is possible even in the face of almost certain disappointment, is their sustaining illusion and the play’s ultimate comic affirmation. As Vladimir explains, “What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are Waiting for Godot to come. . . . We have kept our appointment and that’s an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?” To which Estragon replies: “Billions.” By the comic calculus of Waiting for Godot continuing to believe in the absence of the possibility of belief is true heroism and the closest we get to human fulfillment. Beckett’s play makes clear that the illusions that prevent us from confronting the core truth of human existence must be stripped away, whether in the storm scene of act 3 of King Lear when bare unaccommodated man is revealed or here on a “Country road. A tree. Evening.”