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An introduction to Waiting for Godot

  • Article by: Chris Power
  • Themes: Capturing and creating the modern, European influence, 20th-century theatre
  • Published: 7 Sep 2017
Chris Power explores how Waiting for Godot resists straightforward interpretation, producing audiences as uncertain as its characters.

Waiting for Godot is a play that prompts many questions, and answers none of them. As the title suggests, it is a play about waiting: two men waiting for a third, who never appears. ‘And if he comes?’ one of Beckett’s tramps asks the other near the end of the play. ‘We’ll be saved’,  the other replies, although the nature of that salvation, along with so much else, remains undefined: for both characters and audience, Waiting for Godot enforces a wait for its own meaning.

Production photographs of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953 premiere at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris)

Production photographs of Waiting for Godot, 1953

Jean Martin as Lucky, Lucien Raimbourg as Vladimir, Pierre Latour as Estragon and Roger Blin as Pozzo, in the French premiere of En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), Paris, 1953.

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Notebook drafts of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Notebook drafts of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

‘A country road. A tree. / Evening.’: Stage directions from Act 1 of Waiting for Godot, in Beckett’s own hand.

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Usage terms: Samuel Beckett: © The Estate of Samuel Beckett. The above selected images reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett c/o Rosica Colin Limited, London.

Harry Ransom Center: © Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Vladimir and Estragon

The first step towards engaging with the play is accepting that it won’t supply solutions to its mysteries. The critic Hugh Kenner wrote that all of Beckett’s works ‘can be grasped as a whole, if we are willing to let the patches of darkness fall where they do, and not worry at them. We shall not find out who Godot is, and shall waste our time trying’. Godot’s purpose in the play is to be that which is waited for, and that is that. When it comes to who is doing the waiting, we know more. Vladimir and Estragon, or Didi and Gogo, are tramps that meet each day by a solitary tree (the sole piece of set dressing stipulated in the play script) to wait for a man called Godot. Vladimir, ‘an ineffective man of the world’, and the ‘marvellously incompetent’ Estragon have been compared to Laurel and Hardy, and they are indeed essentially a comedy double act transplanted into a tragedy. In its English-language edition (the play was originally written in French) Beckett called the play ‘a tragicomedy in two acts’, and his biographer Anthony Cronin points out that ‘[o]ne of Beckett’s most notable characteristics is his ability to make truly funny jokes about the genuinely worst aspects of human existence, and nowhere is this talent more evident than in Godot’.

Lord Chamberlain's report and correspondence about Waiting for Godot

Lord Chamberlain's report and correspondence on Waiting for Godot

In 1954 examiner C W Heriot failed to appreciate Waiting for Godot, recounting that he ‘endured two hours of angry boredom’ for ‘a piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’.

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Usage terms: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

Laurel and Hardy aren’t the only film comedians who appear to have fed into the creation of Vladimir and Estragon. Beckett was a great admirer of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and in fact a 1915 film of Chaplin’s, The Tramp, includes a scene in which Chaplin’s character, bowler-hatted and shabbily suited, much like Beckett’s tramps, stops along a dusty road to eat lunch beside a tree. The blend of misfortune and comedy that typically besets Chaplin’s Tramp clearly has a parallel in Beckett’s work, as does the plight of a character who is forced to exist as an itinerant and an outcast. But the sentimentality Chaplin indulged in is completely absent in Waiting for Godot, and from Beckett’s entire body of work.

Photograph of Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp in The Gold Rush, c. 1925

Photograph of Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp in The Gold Rush, c. 1925

Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp: one of Samuel Beckett’s inspirations for the characters of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.

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Dramatic structure in Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot defies traditional dramatic structure, in which backstories reveal the causes of the crisis the audience watches unfolding before them, and which are resolved at the play’s conclusion. We know nothing about Vladimir and Estragon other than that they sleep in ditches, that Estragon is beaten at night by violent gangs, and that he might have once been a poet – ‘Isn’t that obvious?’ he says, gesturing to the rags he wears. Additionally, we know that they are waiting for Godot. We don’t know how long they have been waiting, although the way they speak about it suggests it is long enough for tedium to have set in:

Estragon  Let’s go.

Vladimir  We can’t.

Estragon  Why not?

Vladimir  We’re waiting for Godot.

Estragon  [Despairingly] Ah!

To pass the time they talk, play games and argue. These goings-on are conscious attempts to stave off boredom, the boredom of interminable waiting. The entire play, in fact, is made up of attempts to fill the time. For Vladimir and Estragon life appears to be on hold until Godot appears, and it is tempting to see this aspect of the play in a universal light. To see life as a succession of attempts to pass the time. ‘That wasn’t such a bad little canter’, says Estragon after a rapid-fire exchange. ‘Yes’, Vladimir says, ‘but now we’ll have to find something else’.

Notebook for Samuel Beckett's Schiller production of Warten auf Godot (Waiting for Godot)

Notebook for Samuel Beckett's Schiller production of Warten auf Godot (Waiting for Godot)

‘E’s feet’: Beckett lists the many instances where Estragon tries to pull on his boots, or take them off. His actions are one of several attempts to fill the time.

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Usage terms: Samuel Beckett: © The Estate of Samuel Beckett. The above selected images reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett c/o Rosica Colin Limited, London.

© Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading

Pozzo and Lucky

Something else, or someone else: midway through the first act, Pozzo and Lucky appear. Lucky is harnessed by a rope around his neck and carries a large bag, a folding stool, a picnic basket and a greatcoat. Behind him comes Pozzo, holding the other end of the rope and a whip. Pozzo, with his loud voice and dominating manner, is the first of several tyrants in Beckett’s work for the stage, but he is not a straightforward villain. Like every other character in Waiting for Godot, he has his ambiguities. His whip is frayed, and before long the watch he is so proud of – a prized and unique possession in this land of waiting, where time seems to work differently, or not at all – goes missing. So although Pozzo seems powerful compared to Vladimir and Estragon, and his relationship with Lucky is clearly one of master and servant, some critics believe that Pozzo is fleeing something rather than freely roaming the landscape, and that the frayed rope and lost watch represent his crumbling authority. As for Lucky, he is regularly abused by Pozzo and forced to execute several tasks for the supposed entertainment of Vladimir and Estragon, including dancing and ‘thinking’. In response to Pozzo’s command to ‘Think!’, Lucky performs the longest unbroken speech in the play, an apparently chaotic stream of consciousness that takes in theology, philosophy, golf, history and scatological humour (‘it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labours of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown…’).

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, 1954 American edition

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, 1954 American edition

The first part of Lucky’s long, seemingly unintelligible monologue – referred to as a ‘tirade’ in the stage directions.

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Usage terms: Samuel Beckett: © The Estate of Samuel Beckett. The above selected images reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett c/o Rosica Colin Limited, London.

Production photographs of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953 premiere at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris)

Production photographs of Waiting for Godot, 1953

Pozzo and Lucky played by Roger Blin and Jean Martin.

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The staging

The almost bare stage set on which Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky interact magnifies the theatricality of what we, the audience, are watching. At times, Vladimir and Estragon’s dialogue seems to taunt the audience about their position and role in this artificial space – emphasised by references to popular culture and different forms of entertainment. During the first episode featuring Pozzo and Lucky, as Pozzo pontificates like a ham actor, Vladimir and Estragon take on the role of audience members, and in the process force the ‘real’ audience to consider the theatrical medium itself.

Vladimir  Charming evening we’re having.

Estragon  Unforgettable.

Vladimir  And it’s not over.

Estragon  Apparently not.

Vladimir  It’s only beginning.

Estragon  It’s awful.

Vladimir  Worse than pantomime.

Estragon  The circus.

Vladimir  The music hall.

Estragon  The circus.

As Fintan O’Toole writes: ‘Waiting for Godot is essentially a joke on the whole theatrical experience, an extended invitation to the audience to get up and leave. Nothing is going to happen, the play keeps telling us, it’s going to get more boring… Why do you insist on hanging around in futile expectation? Like Didi and Gogo, our decision to stay is the triumph of hope over experience’.

Violence in Waiting for Godot

At the end of Act 1, following the departure of Pozzo and Lucky, a boy appears with a message for Vladimir and Estragon: ‘Mr Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow’. Vladimir questions the boy about the work he does for Mr Godot (he minds the goats), and asks if Mr Godot beats him. He doesn’t, the boy says, but he beats his brother. This piece of information adds to the pattern of beatings given and received throughout the play: the gangs beat Estragon in the night, Pozzo beats Lucky (who violently kicks Estragon) and Mr Godot beats the messenger boy’s brother. Violence and humour are the two extremes that puncture the boredom which Vladimir and Estragon struggle against, the poles of the harsh, absurd world presented in the play.

The next day

The second act, which the stage directions describe as the same time the next day, is a variation of the first. Again Vladimir and Estragon wait, again they engage in conversation and play to while away the time. At one point they play at being Pozzo and Lucky. Estragon takes Pozzo’s part, an irony because it is a part Vladimir seems more suited to: he sometimes shouts at and abuses Estragon, suggesting that one day their relationship could perhaps become like that of Pozzo and Lucky. When Pozzo and Lucky reappear they are greatly changed. Pozzo can no longer see, and Lucky can no longer speak. The difference that has come over them suggests that this isn’t the next day after all, that more time has elapsed. But when Vladimir asks how long it has been since Lucky went dumb, Pozzo responds angrily:

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 like any other day, 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? [Calmer.] They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Pozzo’s speech suggests that talk of time is immaterial – another change from Act 1, when his watch was so important to him. But what is really happening here? Could it be the case that Vladimir and Estragon are mistaken, and that what they think was yesterday – what the very stage directions suggest was yesterday – in fact lies much further in the past? Estragon’s boots, abandoned because they are too small for him, occupy the same place on the stage at the beginning of Act 2 as they do at the end of Act 1, but it is possible that he has repeated the same actions many times, and that we are simply witnessing two occurrences in an infinitely repeated sequence. The idea receives some support from the fact that the two tramps are so forgetful: Estragon needs to be reminded 13 times throughout the play who they are waiting for and why, and after their first meeting with Pozzo and Lucky the following conversation takes place:

Vladimir  How they’ve changed!

Estragon  Who?

Vladimir  Those two.

Estragon  That’s the idea, let's make a little conversation.

Vladimir  Haven't they?

Estragon  What?

Vladimir  Changed.

Estragon  Very likely. They all change. Only we can’t.

Vladimir  Likely! It's certain. Didn't you see them?

Estragon I suppose I did. But I don’t know them.

Vladimir  Yes you do know them.

Estragon  No I don’t know them.

Vladimir  We know them, I tell you. You forget everything. [Pause. To himself.]
Unless they're not the same...

This uncertainty characterises certain exchanges between Vladimir and Estragon throughout the play. Very near the beginning Estragon looks around and says, ‘We came here yesterday’:

Vladimir  Ah, no, there you’re mistaken.

Estragon  What did we do yesterday?

Vladimir  What did we do yesterday?

Estragon  Yes.

Vladimir  Why… [Angrily.] Nothing is certain when you’re about.

Notebook for Samuel Beckett's Schiller production of Warten auf Godot (Waiting for Godot)

Notebook for Samuel Beckett's Schiller production of Warten auf Godot (Waiting for Godot)

In this production notebook Beckett notes moments of ‘Doubts [and] confusions’ throughout the play, such as ‘E denies they were there evening before’.

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Usage terms: Samuel Beckett: © The Estate of Samuel Beckett. The above selected images reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett c/o Rosica Colin Limited, London.

© Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading

Despair, futility… and hope?

This uncertainty about time, and about what is new experience versus repetition, feeds into the air of futility that hangs about the play. The first thing we see is a man trying, and failing, to take off his boot, and the last is the two tramps agreeing ‘Let’s go’, but then remaining still. Looking at the tree Estragon says, ‘Pity we haven’t got a bit of rope’, but Vladimir suggests they wouldn’t even be able to kill themselves successfully. Yet there are some patches of light in the play beyond the gallows humour, and the bitterly funny absurdity of the tramps’ situation. That same tree Estragon wants to hang himself from, bare in Act 1, has a few leaves in Act 2. The precise meaning of that is uncertain; perhaps it is a different tree altogether, but it is a small sign of life in an otherwise barren landscape. And on a human level, in the midst of the bickering and despair that Vladimir and Estragon trade in, there is occasional tenderness, as when Estragon is hurt and Vladimir tells him, ‘I’ll carry you. If necessary’. It would be too much to say that these moments of respite enable an optimistic reading of the play, but they prevent it from being completely without hope. As is so often the case throughout Beckett’s work, any conclusion beyond that must be interpretation and speculation.

  • Chris Power
  • Chris Power’s Brief Survey of the Short Story has featured in the Guardian since 2007. He reviews books for that paper and the New Statesman. His fiction has appeared in the White Review, the Stinging Fly and elsewhere. He has written a collection of short stories Mothers (Faber, March 2018).

     

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