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Apr 10, 2010

Analyzing Waiting for Godot


THEATER OF THE ABSURD

Although audiences had already been introduced to modernist, experimental modes of theater before Beckett’s Waiting for Godot appeared in 1953, this is the play that had the most profound and wide-ranging impact. This is the play that started a trend which became known as “theater of the absurd.” Before this play, audiences could expect the “well-made” play—life-like, psychologically realistic characters, witty dialogue, and well-crafted, causal plots with neatly tied up beginnings, middles, and ends. But the theater of the absurd subverts these expectations at every turn. The characters are unfamiliar, weirdly motivated; their dialogue is filled with non-sequitors and “blather,” seeming nonsense. The movement of the plot is arbitrary; there’s no identifiable beginning, middle, and end—no “Freytag’s pyramid” to help us get a grip on the plot.

Most strikingly, Beckett, like other dramatists working in this mode, is not trying to “tell a story.” He’s not offering any easily identifiable solutions to carefully observed problems; there’s little by way of moralizing and no obvious “message.” The circularity of Waiting for Godot is highly unconventional. Even today, it’s not what we expect at all. But it’s very common in the tradition of the theater of the absurd.

Martin Esslin writes very lucidly about how the theater of the absurd works like poetry rather than narrative. Traditional narrative drama tells a story, develops dynamically. The characters grow and change before our eyes, and that is the point of the story—to reveal that growth, that change. We reflect on why it happened, what it implies, how we relate to it ourselves, what it means. But the theater of the absurd doesn’t aim for traditional narrative because it rejects such narratives as too artificial, too contrived. The world isn’t really as neat and tidy as all that. Things happen by chance, at random. Chaos and irrationality describe reality better than rationality and order. So the aim is not to create artificially causal plots, but to reveal for audiences a powerful image, which can be literal, metaphorical, analogical, or allegorical—like poetry. The ambiguity of the poetic image, then, replaces the dynamic development of traditional narrative in theater of the absurd. The image Waiting for Godot evokes, then, is poetic and lyrical in essence rather than narrative; like a lot of theater of the absurd, it’s both tragic and comic in nature. The play is therefore referred to as a tragicomedy, or “black comedy.” The tragedy is the futility—Vladimir’s desperation, his growing awareness of the absurdity of his situation; Gogo’s frustrated desire to leave. The comedy is everything else.

In Beckett’s work, too, we are aware of how the imagery (everything from plot to character to dialogue to set) is characteristically stripped to bare essences. His plays take on an abstract quality which many compare to a kind of abstract expressionism for the theater.

So we come back around to the question: why are these artists so unconventional? Why be abstract? Why not tell a story in the traditional way? Martin Esslin takes up this question in Absurd Drama (Penguin, 1965):

Why should the emphasis in drama have shifted away from traditional forms towards images which, complex and suggestive as they may be, must necessarily lack the final clarity of definition, the neat resolutions we have been used to expect? Clearly because the playwrights concerned no longer believe in the possibility of such neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world. If they could believe in clearly defined motivations, acceptable solutions, settlements of conflict in tidily tied up endings, these dramatists would certainly not eschew them. But, quite obviously, they have no faith in the existence of so rational and well ordered a universe. The “well-made play” can thus be seen as conditioned by clear and comforting beliefs, a stable scale of values, an ethical system in full working condition. The system of values, the world-view behind the well-made play may be a religious one or a political one; it may be an implicit belief in the goodness and perfectibility of men (as in Shaw or Ibsen) or it may be a mere unthinking acceptance of the moral and political status quo (as in most drawing-room comedy). But whatever it is, the basis of the well-made play is the implicit assumption that the world does make sense, that reality is solid and secure, all outlines clear, all ends apparent. The plays that we have classed under the label of the Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, express a sense of shock at the absence, the loss of any such clear and well-defined systems of beliefs or values.


Bottom line: these artists have lost faith in a well ordered, rational universe. The world is a place where things happen randomly, by chance. You live or you die by chance. The conditions you endure, you endure by chance. There is no well-crafted plan, no scheme of justice by which the universe operates.

Recall the Dante we found in Canto I of the Inferno. He was lost in just such a dark wood of meaninglessness. Didi and Gogo are equally lost in a dark wood, but Godot, unlike Virgil, never arrives.

NIHILISM and EXISTENTIALISM

Nihilism is a radical philosophy of meaninglessness. Wikipedia tells us that it is a “belief in nothing.” The world and all the humans in it exist without meaning, purpose, truth, or value. Any system of belief, or artistic expression, that denies or drains away meaning can be described as “nihilistic.” Nietzsche famously accused Christianity of being a nihilistic religion because it drained meaning away from earthly life and kept its followers focused on a hope-for afterlife. His declaration that “God is dead” reverberated throughout the 20th century.

It’s not too hard to understand why nihilistic philosophy, which eventually gave way to a very un-nihilistic existentialism, threatened to overwhelm us in the mid-20th century. The waning of religious faith which really began in the Enlightenment and grew even stronger with the steady rise in our faith in the sciences was helped along by the brilliance of Nietzsche and the horrors of the Holocaust. The devastation of WWI put a huge damper on the liberal ideals of secular social progress, and revolutionary movements like communism lost a lot of steam in the wake of Stalin’s totalitarianism. Hitler had plunged Europe into barbarism and genocide, justifying mass murder as the “civilized thing to do.” Atomic bombs demonstrated how fragile and insignificant human life could be. In the prosperous West, a kind of spiritual emptiness descended. Under these conditions, nihilistic philosophy and art flourished.

Existentialism is a progressive step up from nihilism, because whereas the nihilist asserts meaninglessness out there and leaves it at that (justifying any behavior at all), the existentialist asserts meaninglessness (out there) but goes on to assert that it’s the responsibility of the individual to create meaning (in here)—that to create meaning, as Dante created The Divine Comedy to rescue his world from meaninglessness, is our human purpose. Of course it’s more complex than that, but that’s a bird’s eye view of their relationship.

A thoughtful question to ask of Waiting for Godot is whether it expresses a nihilistic or existentialist perspective. And to kick that into high gear, you could also ask whether or not Waiting for Godot is a postmodern play. Before we realize it, several more “-ism’s” have begun to invite our analysis.

“-ISM’s TO CONSIDER FOR ANALYZING WAITING FOR GODOT

EXISTENTIALISM: “Existence precedes essence” is Jean Paul Sartre’s infamous dictum. Nothing “out there” defines or determines us; instead it is our own actions and free will, our own choices, that are most “fundamental to human existence.” The universe and we human beings in it aren’t primarily meaningful, orderly, or rational; instead we exist in a primarily “indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and “absurd” universe.” Although meaning is not “out there” we can create in “in here,” within ourselves.

NIHILISM: The world and human existence are “without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.” It is ideas, movements, or historical periods rather than people that are more likely to be described as nihilistic.

POSTMODERNISM: The cultural follow-up movement succeeding modernism, which was a period of rebellion, progressive innovation and change, a time when many cultural conventions and traditions were abandoned for new modes of expression. “Where modernists hoped to unearth universals or the fundamentals of art, postmodernism aims to unseat them, to embrace diversity and contradiction. A postmodern approach to art thus rejects the distinction between low and high art forms. It rejects rigid genre boundaries and favors eclecticism, the mixing of ideas and forms. Partly due to this rejection, it promotes parody, irony, and playfulness, commonly referred to as jouissance by postmodern theorists. Unlike modern art, postmodern art does not approach this fragmentation as somehow faulty or undesirable, but rather celebrates it. As the gravity of the search for underlying truth is relieved, it is replaced with ‘play.’”

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM: A 20th century artistic movement that emphasized spontaneous personal expression in large paintings that are abstract or nonrepresentational, meaning “there’s no recognizable relationship to anything in nature. The style reflects the innermost feeling of the artist and usually results as an emotional release of the artist’s anger, fear or frustration. ...” (artinsider.com). The idea is that the artist needed no realistic or even surrealistic figures in order to evoke emotion. Feeling could be aroused using just lines, shapes, and colors alone. “Additionally, [this movement] has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, rather nihilistic.” (wikipedia.org)

THEATER OF THE ABSURD: Althought this isn't an -ism, it's still an important concept! This is a term first used by critic Martin Esslin to describe the kinds of plays that explored the absurdity of the human condition. These plays are often characterized by their striking imagistic tableaus, their highly unconventional style of characterization, their nonlinear plots, spare or surreal sets, and seemingly irrational or nonsensical dialogue; they tend to explore the implications of a meaningless universe in which human values seem inconsequential or irrelevant. Existentialist themes often prevail.

THE SET
What do we expect from a set when we go to the theater? How does Beckett’s set defy our expectations? What’s the purpose, do you think, of his unconventional approach to setting?

As precise as Beckett is in his set directions, and as spare as the stage is obviously supposed to be, there is still plenty of room for individual directors to interpret the setting in various ways. For instance, the following two sets are vastly different from the one you saw in the Beckett on Film production.

Here’s a set which appeared in a 1970 production at the Landestheater in Salzburg in Austria:


And here theater critic Joanne Klein describes the set used in the Studio Theater production in Washington, D.C. in 1998:

Russell Metheny’s set design situated Beckett’s vagrants in an environment that announced urban cataclysm ….In the sparsely articulated parking lot of a long abandoned drive-in movie site, Beckett's blasted tree shared the stage with a heap of shredded rubber (rubble?)…. Framed against the backdrop of a slightly askew, artfully corroded drive-in movie screen….

How important is setting to our understanding of the play? How do the different stages influence how we understand what’s happening in the play?
  • The Salzburg set suggests some kind of grand statement, because the setting seems grand. It’s a grand stage all set for a grand tragedy. You might find the play more than a little ironic in such a setting. The tragedy may seem more like tragicomedy. Notice the mirror at stage rear—what a great touch!
  • The Washington set brings the setting closer to home and makes it feel more “realistic.” It takes the play out of its surrealistic, dystopian, dream space and places us somewhere immediately identifiable. Suddenly we’ve seen these two tramps before; in fact we see them every day on East Market in downtown West Chester, by the Salvation Army shelter.
  • The “Beckett on Film” set is less grand than the Salzburg stage and less realistic than the Washington one; instead it opts for the sparseness of Beckett’s script: a country road, a tree. The road and the tree are surrounded by mounds of rubble on which little or nothing grows in the first act, and a little more green appears in the second. The set evokes a deadened, blasted landscape (War torn? Over-plowed? Desert? High altitude?), a weathered and beaten landscape that struggles for growth and renewal despite its devastation.
Each of these sets seeks to amplify some aspect of the play’s meaning, or reinforce its impact. Individual directors can pursue different interpretations of the play, which leads to each production being unique in its own right. That is the magic of the theater.


SOUND

In the film as in the theater there is no musical accompaniment. You might have noticed that in the film there was no music soundtrack. That probably seemed very odd to you, even if you didn’t think about it consciously. What were some of the profound effects achieved by the lack of a music track?
  • The effect most evident is that we hear the silences, which are an important part of the play’s imagery. The characters are always trying to fill the silence, which seems to represent some kind of intolerable void. Silence as void, as nothingness, is too disturbing, so they talk and talk ceaselessly to cover up their awareness of this scary, soul-crushing silence. There’s no music of the spheres to attend to in Waiting for Godot. But although the characters battle the silence again and again, Beckett seems intent for us, the audience, to hear it, experience it, think about it, feel it. The play creates several vivid images of silence and stillness.
  • Michael Worton, in “Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theater as Text” observes the multifaceted silences in Waiting for Godot, noting the “silences of inadequacy, when characters can’t find the words they need; silences of repression, when they are struck dumb by the attitude their interlocutor or by their sense that they might be breaking a social taboo; and the silences of anticipation, when they await the response of the other which will give them a temporary sense of existence.” In all of these ways, Beckett makes “silence communicate.”
LIGHTING

The one lighting effect is when day turns rapidly to night and the moon rises. The surrealistic, dreamlike effect of this heightened change from day to night amplifies the theme of uncertain time.

ALLUSION

Several biblical references enter the play, but some of the allusions that are less obvious are the play’s literary ones. For commentary on the biblical allusions, you can go to the file “Critical Commentary on Waiting for Godot,” also in the Virtual Notebook. Here I’d like to discuss the play’s more prominent literary allusions.

At the end of ACT I, Gogo (who claims to have once been a poet) recites a fragment from a Shelley lyric. The full poem is included below:

“To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I
AND, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.

II
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?



Shelley’s poetry continues to reverberate in ACT II. These allusions are some of the play’s very few external references. Macbeth later echoes faintly, but distinctly, in Pozzo’s speech about the brevity and apparent meaninglessness of existence; are we suspended for one flickering instant between the birth canal and the grave? These references let us know that Gogo really was a poet, that these were educated men. Here’s the relevant passage from Macbeth (V,v:10-30):

MACBETH: I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t: I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.

[Re-enter SEYTON]

Wherefore was that cry?

SEYTON The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
What are we to make of these allusions to some of the best in English poetry by these particular characters, in this strange situation?

CHARACTER

In the typical drama, the main character or characters undergo some type of transformation, some significant growth or change. This was a theme we explored earlier in the semester in Ovid’s tales, in “Axolotl” and even in the Inferno. However, Beckett’s main characters, Didi and Gogo (Vladimir and Estragon), remain, annoyingly or amusingly depending on your sensibility, resolutely static and unchanging. While they remain static, the minor characters (Pozzo and Lucky) are dynamically transformed (Pozzo most obviously, Lucky more subtly). Addressing Pozzo, in recognition of his startling blindness and deep despair, Didi remarks melodramatically, “How you’ve changed!” (You may recall that Didi makes the same statement after Pozzo and Lucky leave in ACT I.) Other changes are evident in the second act, but the more we notice these the less important they seem. The dead tree has leaves. It still looks dead. Didi offers Gogo a radish rather than a carrot. Is it a case of the- more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same? What happens to that old cliché when it is applied to character?

PLOT / CONFLICT

Traditional cause/effect plot development is abandoned in Waiting for Godot. The movement of the play is circular and symmetrical. The second act parallels the first. Nothing new happens except the tree grows leaves, indicating a surrealistic passage of time. The characters engage in ways that closely parallel the first act; the key difference seems to be an increased struggle in the second act to “pass the time,” which passed quickly in the first act because of Pozzo and Lucky, whose appearance is briefer in the second act. The dilemma intensifies in the second act because Gogo is more and more desperate to leave and Didi has to continually remind him why they mustn’t leave because they’re waiting for Godot. There is a kind of climactic thematic crescendo in Pozzo’s parting speech and another in Didi’s brief speech just before Godot’s messenger boy arrives for the second time. These brief speeches don’t necessarily provide much of a climax to the action as much as they deepen themes already established.

You can see how this play presents us with a non-traditional plot, although there is a dilemma: the characters want to go but feel “stuck” waiting for Godot. They want to commit suicide, but have grown either too apathetic or too helpless to act on their desires. Habit deadens their own cries as surely as it deadens the cries of others.

THEME

We can’t fail to miss the theme of uncertainty in Waiting for Godot. Uncertainty is pervasive throughout the play: the uncertainty of purpose, of time, place, emotion, relationships, truth, and hope. Existence is the only certainty the play allows. The Cartesian dictum that declares with such certainty “I think, therefore I am,” is challenged, but essentially holds true. Didi and Gogo are themselves vivid dramatic representations of the Descartes’ body/mind split. Didi is all mind, Gogo all body. Thinking and inexhaustible talking may not be the same thing, but in the absence of the one the other will do. Throughout the play thinking is associated with doubt, uncertainty, difficulty, weariness, or absurdity. Clearly, our ability to think is challenged in this play.

Related to this critique of our rational capabilities is the play’s critique of language as essentially meaningless, repetitive blather and chatter on the one hand and oppressive tyranny on the other. At times it is coercive; other times it’s rhetorically empty, full of hot air—worse than blather—hypocrisy, or mystification. Only rarely does it serve us well, leading us to truth or beauty, but we can’t sustain those functions very well. Pozzo’s poetic description of the twilight may be true and even beautiful, but it peters out—“And that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.” Language fails us just when we most need it. Even when it hits home, our first impulse is to run away from the “melancholy truth” we’ve somehow managed to accurately express, a truth no longer buried in our subconscious awareness but given the full light of language, as Didi does near the end of the play when he empathizes with Pozzo’s despair. “What have I said?” he pulls back. However true, we don’t want to know.

VLADIMIR: I don’t know what to think anymore.

ESTRAGON: My feet! (He sits down again and tries to take off his boots.) Help me!

VLADIMIR: Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? To-morrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! What have I said? He goes feverishly to and fro, halts finally at extreme left, broods….

The critique here seems to stem from a deep, postmodern distrust of the efficacy or absoluteness of language. We place our trust in it, but should we? Language is the source of all our illusions, the source of all the mythic fictions we’ve invented to console ourselves from an awareness of our real condition. These fictions have blinded us to the reality, the essential truth of our existence. The only truth is this present moment, which we are free to spend wisely or waste away, and to waste it away by hoping for some future “salvation,” by waiting for a Godot that almost certainly will never come, is tragic and absurd. The misery of the characters as they wait is palpable. If they weren’t waiting what better thing might they think to do, might they actually do?

The language of the play is stripped bare, scaled down to its naked essence. You won’t find a writer more capable than Beckett in this regard. The beauty of Beckett’s language is in its absolute economy. It’s a tight little fist that punches hard. The language of this play forces us to reflect on how we use language, really—what our talk consists of, in essence. Are we really that concerned about thinking hard, or using our rationality? To what use do we actually put this “gift” of language and rationality?

In all of its aspects, including its language, Waiting for Godot confronts the absurdity of existence and challenges us to figure out who we are exactly and what we’re doing with our time. In this random universe, where who lives and who dies, who’s up and who’s down, is a matter of pure chance, and the odds aren’t necessarily in our favor, what do we do? What’s our purpose? The existentialist would say that our purpose is to confront our existence, our being, to be aware of and a part of every passing moment—to make choices, to act—to live authentically, in good faith, aware of our essential freedom and responsibility. This is what Didi can’t or won’t do, and he persuades Gogo to keep him company while he continues to wait for Godot, while he pins his hopes on a future that almost certainly will never arrive. His futile waiting is either absurd or heroic, depending on your own interpretation.

Beckett was interested, it seems, in the relationship between hope and despair. Are Didi and Gogo in despair? Or do they have a saving faith?

There’s quite a lot more we could observe in terms of theme, though having said so much already, I think meaning in this play is probably best approached subjectively—the way you individually choose to understand it. How do you talk about the meaning of a circle? My observation of the play and everything I’ve read about it leads me to conclude there is very little objective interpretation which will make this play mean much more than it means quite obviously on the surface. Two lowly tramps are waiting for someone they think will help them, but this person, Godot, never arrives. It seems reasonable to assume that Godot will never arrive, but Didi and Gogo go on waiting, perhaps because they hold out hope that he will, perhaps because they have nothing better to do, perhaps because they have no choice. Do they have a choice?

There are those who will still be asking, but what is this play really about? What does it all mean? What does it all have to do with us? Some audiences see immediately how they, like Gogo and Didi, are waiting, too. Maybe not for “Godot,” but for something. A little help, a little push, a little sunshine, a little windfall. The play takes pains not to be specific, to provide the space to read into it any way we want to. It does not preach a “message.” But when you think about it even a little bit, you realize that, just like Gogo and Didi, we’re waiting all the time, too. Think about it: aren’t we waiting for the war in Iraq to end, waiting for the oil to flow, waiting to win the war on terror? We’re waiting for nicer weather, the end of exams. We could be waiting for an end to racism, an end to poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence… We might be waiting for environmental disaster, the next world war, the next flu pandemic, the next school shooting, the next terror attack… we’re waiting for security, a better economy, more equality; we’re waiting for the good times, that great vacation, that better job, nicer clothes, a better car, a newer cell phone, more friends, better friends, a bigger house; we’re waiting for the perfect soul mate, the perfect body, the perfect moment… we’re waiting for our hopes to be heard, our prayers to be answered, our wishes to be granted… we’re waiting, and meanwhile, we’re….here.

Here’s a little story I can share with you to illustrate this point a little further. One semester not too long ago, I asked one of my classes what I thought was a simple question intended as a first day ice-breaker: what are you most looking forward to this term? This turned out to be a more profound question than I had bargained for based on the response I received. Many students answered: summer vacation. Spring break. The end of the semester. As you can imagine, this amused everyone each time and in every way students managed to state and restate it. In my inexcusable naiveté, which continues to defy my years of accumulated wisdom, I hadn’t expected that kind of jaded answer! To intensify the matter, I arrive on this scene as a confirmed idealist, a person who likes shiny bright ideas as opposed to bitter realities. Buried somewhere beneath my frequent disappointment with the real world, I’m deep down an optimist. I had an optimistic illusion that students would be curious about what the semester would hold, what classes would be like—probably not our class in particular since it was (and still is) a general education class, a requirement, therefore, and not entirely a free choice—but a curiosity and enthusiasm about the semester in general, which is why I thought that’d be a good first-day ice-breaker topic. And although that shiny illusion was popped right away, I still could appreciate the honesty of the answer given. It was the truth, and acknowledged as such on that day one with an offhand, lighthearted, friendly humor. Afterwards, despite the easygoing flippancy which meant no harm, I found myself thinking about it because it had struck me as somehow terrible. Those students were waiting for the end of the semester and the semester had only barely started! If they were already waiting for the end, then it was almost certain that whatever might happen along the way would be all but lost, or maybe even meaningless. They were looking past it. Through it. Beyond it. What they really would have liked was to be saved from it, delivered on a magic carpet from January straight to May. After I gave it some thought I began to realize why that lighthearted joke had made me a little uneasy: it introduced the possibility that we were about to enter into an absurd situation, that instead of learning together we’d be killing time together (like Didi and Gogo in this play)—waiting for an end instead of living in the moment. As lighthearted as that response seemed, there was also something disturbing about it, because, in its offhand (and rare) truthfulness, it indicated such a profound disengagement with the moment, such an habitual posture of rejection, such a dispirited boredom (and classes had barely even started). To arrive at something waiting for it to end is to forfeit all the possibilities of the present moment, to hand everything over to pointlessness, absurdity, tragicomedy, as Waiting for Godot so poignantly reveals. But unlike the play, the semester did come to an end. Time passed and summer did arrive. So there was an end to the waiting. This was life, not a play! But we can all imagine that flickering of an instant that brought that particular summer to an end, too, brought those particular students back to those same or similar classrooms once again. Would the repeat their absurd vigil, continue to tune out and “wait” once again? I hope not. I would hope they’d be fully engaged in whatever gift of a moment they find themselves in, appreciating the present, instead of waiting for some better end. That is a perspective that Waiting for Godot has to offer.

Waiting for Godot is a poignant play about such waiting, about the repetition, the meaninglessness, the absurdity of waiting, of feeling (and being) suspended in time instead of moving forward in a meaningful direction. It’s not necessarily about the absence of God, or about Christian salvation, or existential despair, or nihilistic meaninglessness, or postmodern critiques of language, though interpretation is a subjective enterprise, and we can interpret literature how we choose. One way of understanding this play is to see it as an abstract play about waiting, about waiting for the possibility of a better future that we are not quite fully convinced will never arrive.

How do we arrive in this seemingly absurd state of waiting? Laying an existential interpretation atop the play, we might say that this play confronts an unpleasant truth about the human condition. As human beings we’re all clinging to the hope of some kind of salvation, some kind of Godot to come and save us from our intolerable suffering—our poverty, our disease, our boredom, our quiet desperation. This hoping, this waiting, removes us from the potentially liberating awareness that the moment we’re actually suspended in, this moment between birth and death that glows so briefly, is ultimately more important than any vague “better future” we might desire. This waiting is what prevents our passages, our meaningful transformations, our growth.

Everything in the play points to suspension: suspension of time, suspension of progress, suspension of reason, suspension of purpose. As drama, every convention has been suspended; the characters and their dialogue dance around in the ether of a nearly empty stage. “There’s no lack of void,” as Gogo declares. It seems the only thing that’s not suspended is our disbelief. Are these characters supposed to represent us? We resist. But ultimately Beckett’s art prevails.

Approaching Waiting for Godot

The critical reception that greeted Beckett’s first major play, and his first major success as a writer, was anything but ordinary. Some people seemed to recognize that a major talent had arrived on the scene, that they had witnessed the birth of a masterpiece in Godot, while others were completely baffled. Bewilderment best describes the feeling those first sophisticated theater-going audiences experienced; and that’s a feeling we may still have in the presence of this play today. At its opening in Paris in 1953, however, despite the bewilderment, it caused an immediate and deep sensation.

You can feel the bewilderment right from the start in this New York Times review—Mr. Atkinson declares in his opening sentence that we shouldn’t expect him to “explain” the play, which is fair enough. But then he goes on to call it “a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” which makes the play sound about as inaccessible, as remote and impenetrable as can be. To be fair, it must have seemed that way to audiences who were expecting one thing and then received something completely other. But if the play were really that inaccessible then it would strike no one as a work of “genius,” and it wouldn’t have catapulted Beckett into worldwide literary fame. With an open mind, an open eye and open ear, I think you find this play is anything but inaccessible. It’s immediately accessible. The images, the tableau, are so accessible they’re unforgettable. Nothing could be more spare and stripped of mystery and illusion and “fiction” and “hidden symbolism” than this play.

Like Ibsen and Brecht before him, and even more radically, Beckett completely changed our expectations for what can happen on a theater stage. Until Beckett audiences expected the “well-made” play, though they had learned to accept Ibsen’s “problem plays” and had even experimented, perhaps, with Brecht’s “alienation effect.” They were even hip to a “theater of ideas,” though these plays could be dull. Most people, even today, are pretty conventional in their expectations for drama, for what they expect to see when they go to the theater or to a film. They expect a well crafted, clever plot with interesting foils, intrigues and sidestories that amplify the main narrative. They expect narrative, storytelling. They expect characters they can “relate to” or “identify with”—people who are constructed to resemble people in real life. These people can be unusual, eccentric, quirky and interesting, but they should be life-like characters. It’s an expectation that goes all the way back to Aristotle, who demanded that the hero of tragedy be, among other things, “life-like.” People going to the theater expect elaborate scenery designed to evoke an illusion of reality. They expect verbal inventiveness, dialogue and action that “reveal character” and “provide exposition.” By a writer’s clever use of all of these devices have audiences traditionally been wooed into believing that the fictional drama they are witnessing is real.

But Beckett withholds all of these things, without exception. He strips the set down to its absolute bare essence. The set for Waiting for Godot is famously stripped of everything that might provide a broader frame of reference, a sense of “reality.” Yet it seems real enough in its way; there’s the road, there’s the tree. We know what those are. We may even begin, or try to begin, to see them, bare as they are, as profoundly “symbolic.” We’re trained that way—making meaning is an ingrained, thoroughly familiar and usually rewarding activity—and besides, nothing else appears, so we have to make something out of it. Because what Beckett does to his set, he also does to character, story, and dialogue. There’s no character “development.” There’s no fictional “story.” There’s no linear action or dialogue that leads anywhere. There’s absolutely nothing to distract us from the unsettling tragicomedy of the characters’ fundamental thereness, the painful existential condition they keep returning to. As an audience, we are trapped in the web of their meaningless (but provocative) conversation. Is it meaningful, we wonder? We’re tempted to work at making it mean something. (Some of us are more tempted and more diligent than others.) But ultimately we return to an acute awareness of the essential absurdity of the condition we’re witnessing. Is that the point then, we wonder? What is the point, we may wonder, exasperated.

But if reviewers are unwilling to “explain” the point—and they’re the experts, supposedly—should we even expect a point? And if we find one, should we try to “explain” it?

Perhaps Waiting for Godot, like the poem in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” “should not mean but be.” It just is. This place and these characters are just there, expressing their “thereness.” They don’t mean anything so much as they are an image of an experience; looking at them is like looking at a way of seeing, of seeing the way Beckett sees, just as looking at a painting you see the thing the way the artist has seen it. The play may be, as MacLeish describes poetry, an image of “heaven and earth in the cage of form.” I would rather say, though, that it’s an image of human suffering in the cage of form.

When this play was performed in 1957 at San Quentin—the first play to be performed there since 1913—the prisoners understood it right away. There are some audiences that respond immediately and empathetically to Didi and Gogo’s absurd paralysis. These audiences may even start to wonder—does this whole thing represent our condition? Do these clowns, this existential Laurel and Hardy act, represent us, they wonder? Could it be?

One critic said memorably, and scathingly, of this play, “Nothing happens twice.” That may be true. But is it true? Can it be true and at the same time not true? Nothing would be more postmodern. If nothing happens, then how does a director fill a two hour film, or a writer a 109 page manuscript?

What happens in this play? Might watching the film be a less disorienting, less bewildering experience if we lay some groundwork?


What happens in Waiting for Godot?

The play’s main characters are Gogo (Estragon) and Didi (Vladimir) who are two destitute tramps—homeless, rootless, penniless, frequently beaten. They are physically suffering from various ailments but not critically; they are frequently confused, disoriented and forgetful, but not deranged. They are long-time friends, who are passing the time together, waiting together, though Gogo periodically wonders whether it might not be better for them to part. Why are they waiting? They are hoping for a solution to their present condition—Godot, they think, will help them by providing food and shelter (a loft in a barn, with hay). If they don’t wait for Godot, they imagine there will be a punishment. What do they want from Godot? Their needs seem simple enough. Food and shelter is about all they ask for, all they hope for, but Godot never appears. It’s not certain he ever will appear, since he keeps putting off their meeting for a tomorrow that never arrives. The futility of their waiting seems unbearable at times—their lives have no meaning or purpose. There’s “nothing to be done” (a frequently repeated refrain). The only two solutions they can think of, the only possible ways to move forward, are “salvation” or “suicide,” both of which are considered and re-considered. But neither seems possible and they are still waiting at the end of the play, wanting to go somewhere “far away,” but powerless to do so.

The play’s symbolic resonances (since we can’t and won’t wholly avoid thinking in these terms) should seem immediate and obvious. Didi is talking about “salvation” as the play opens, and “Godot” may come to represent “God” in many viewers’ minds, or perhaps the absence of God. The waiting tramps are “faithful” in their perseverance, as the Christian interpretation goes….Didi’s kindness and friendship is Christian charity…. BUT to interpret the play this way, critic Martin Esslin explains, you’d have to ignore the ever-present uncertainty of the supposed appointment with Godot, not to mention Godot’s seeming unreliability. You’d have to bury your awareness of the futility of the hope attached to this fruitless waiting that the play enacts. If Godot is God, then the condition of waiting for God is made to seem essentially absurd . What Gogo and Didi really want to do is commit suicide, but since they can’t they are waiting for Godot; their “waiting” is really a rationalization to cover up their inability to act decisively or effectually. This would make it not only absurd but inauthentic, in existentialist terms. They really are just waiting out of habit. “Habit is the great deadener,” Didi declares—it rescues us from the painful awareness of suffering, but it is not in and of itself meaningful or purposeful or authentic in the existentialist sense of the word. Occasionally, despite the deadening effect of habit, of routine, our boredom is pierced by an awareness of suffering, our own, and others’.

There’s enough reason to agree with Times reviewer that Waiting for Godot is about the “lost souls of the earth” who “go on living without knowing why.” But to call it “uneventful, maundering, loquacious” (in the pejorative sense) is to do it an injustice. Nothing was ever constructed more meticulously, artfully. No dialogue ever pared down so economically. What it adds up to is not “nothing” but an extraordinarily powerful vision of existential truth, an awareness of the essential meaninglessness of existence and the uncertainty of “truth,” an awareness of the problems inherent in living and the fact that there are no magical solutions to these problems. This is something perhaps not very difficult to explain, but painful to explain.

Beckett’s philosophical muse is a dour and formidable pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer, who describes life as a “task” and as “drudgery” filled with

…universal need, ceaseless cares, constant pressure, endless strife, compulsory activity, with extreme exertion of all the powers of body and mind….the tumult is indescribable. But the ultimate aim of it all, what is it? To sustain ephemeral and tormented individuals through a short span of time in the most fortunate case with endurable want and comparative freedom from pain, which, however, is at once attended with ennui; then the reproduction of this race and its striving. In this evident disproportion between the trouble and the reward, the will to live appears to us from this point of view, if taken objectively, as a fool, or subjectively, as a delusion, seized by which everything living works with the utmost exertion of its strength for something that is of no value. But when we consider it more closely we shall find here also that it is rather a blind pressure, a tendency entirely without ground or motive.

Waiting for Godot seems inspired by these sentiments. The play is almost as ruthless as Schopenhauer in its catalogue of problems that are imagined as tragic and comic by turns: boredom, monotonous repetition, meaninglessness, despair, futility, mental and physical pain and suffering, illusion, delusion, and paralysis.

We may have trouble explaining Waiting for Godot in the traditional ways we talk about theme and “meaning” because the play is so unconventional. Development is circular rather than linear, and this frustrates our linear, logical minds. Time moves repetitiously rather than progressively, frustrating another of our ordinary expectations. The characters, rather than developing in the traditional sense, echo the same conversation again and again; language is mystifying and meaningless, futile rather than fruitful (especially when Lucky “thinks”). All action in Waiting for Godot is mere distraction; it doesn’t lead anywhere other than to the central awareness with which it began, though by the play’s end we see it all the more distinctly, and feel the resounding thud: “Nothing to be done.”