By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Waiting for Godot is one of the most important plays of the twentieth century. But analysing its significance is not easy, because Beckett’s play represents a major departure from many conventions and audience expectations regarding the theatre.
Beginning life as a French play which Beckett wrote in the late 1940s, Waiting for Godot premiered in London in 1955, initially to negative reviews, although the support of the influential theatre critic Kenneth Tynan soon transformed its fortunes.
Curiously, one of Beckett’s motives for writing the play was financial need: he was in need of money and so made the decision to turn from novel-writing to writing for the stage. Indeed, Beckett considered Waiting for Godot a ‘bad play’, but posterity has begged to differ, and it is now viewed as perhaps the greatest English-language play of the entire twentieth century.
Before we offer an analysis of the play’s meaning and structure, here’s a quick summary of its plot.
Waiting for Godot: summary
The ‘plot’ of Waiting for Godot is easy enough to summarise. The setting is a country road, near a leafless tree, where two men, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for the arrival of a man named Godot.
In order to pass the time while they wait for Godot to arrive, the two men talk about a variety of subjects, including how they spent the previous night (Vladimir passed his night in a ditch being beaten up by a variety of people), how the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ is described in the different Gospels, and even whether they should hang themselves from the nearby tree.
A man named Pozzo turns up, leading Lucky, his servant, with a rope around his neck like an animal. Pozzo tells them that he is on his way to the market, where he intends to sell Lucky. He eats a picnic, and Vladimir requests that Lucky entertain them while they wait for Godot to arrive.
After Lucky has performed a dance for them, he is ordered to think: an instruction which leads him to give a long speech which only ends when he is wrestled to the ground.
Lucky and Pozzo leave, and a Boy arrives with a message announcing that Godot will not be coming today after all, but will come tomorrow. Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave, but then promptly remain exactly where they are.
The second act of the play opens the next day – although, oddly, the tree has grown a number of leaves overnight, suggesting that more time than this has passed. Vladimir and Estragon discover Lucky’s hat which he had left behind, and the two men role-play at pretending to be Lucky and Pozzo.
They then throw insults at each other to pass the time. Lucky and Pozzo return, but they have changed overnight: Lucky can no longer speak, and Pozzo is blind.
When Lucky and Pozzo fall to the ground, Vladimir and Estragon try to help them up, but end up falling down too. Pozzo has no memory of meeting the two men the day before. He and Lucky leave again, with Vladimir and Estragon left to wait for Godot.
The Boy returns, but he denies being the same one that came to them yesterday. Once again, Godot will not be turning up today, but will come tomorrow, he tells them. The two men decide to hang themselves in their desperation, using Estragon’s belt, but all that happens is his trousers fall down.
They decide to leave, but stay exactly where they are – presumably determined to stay another day and continue ‘waiting for Godot’.
Waiting for Godot: analysis
Waiting for Godot is often described as a play in which nothing happens, twice. The ‘action’ of the second act mirrors and reprises what happens in the first: Vladimir and Estragon passing the time waiting for the elusive Godot, Lucky and Pozzo turning up and then leaving, and the Boy arriving with his message that Godot will not be coming that day.
With this structure in mind, it is hardly surprising that the play is often interpreted as a depiction of the pointless, uneventful, and repetitive nature of modern life, which is often lived in anticipation of something which never materialises. It is always just beyond the horizon, in the future, arriving ‘tomorrow’.
However, contrary to popular belief, this is not what made Waiting for Godot such a revolutionary piece of theatre. As Michael Patterson observes in The Oxford Guide to Plays (Oxford Quick Reference), the theme of promised salvation which never arrives had already been explored by a number of major twentieth-century playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill (The Iceman Cometh) and Eugène Ionesco (The Chairs).
And plays in which ‘nothing happens’ were already established by this point, with conversation and meandering and seemingly aimless ‘action’ dominating other twentieth-century plays. So, what made Beckett’s play so innovative to 1950s audiences?
The key lies not so much in the what as in the how. The other well-known thing about Waiting for Godot is that Vladimir and Estragon are tramps – except that the text never mentions this fact, and Beckett explicitly stated that he ‘saw’ the two characters dressed in bowler hats (otherwise, he said, he couldn’t picture what they should look like): hardly the haggard and unkempt tramps of popular imagination.
Precisely what social class Vladimir and Estragon come from is not known. But it is clear that they are fairly well-educated, given their vocabularies and frames of reference.
And yet, cutting across their philosophical and theological discussions is their plain-speaking and unpretentious attitude to these topics. Waiting for Godot is a play which cuts through pretence and sees the comedy as well as the quiet tragedy in human existence.
Among Beckett’s many influences, we can detect, in the relationship and badinage between Vladimir and Estragon, the importance of music-hall theatre and the comic double act; and vaudeville performers wouldn’t last five minutes up on stage if they indulged in pretentiousness.
In this regard, comparisons with Albert Camus and existentialism make sense in that both are often taken to be more serious than they actually are: or rather, they are deadly serious but also alive to the comedy in everyday desperation and futility.
An important aspect of Camus’ ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ is being able to laugh at the absurdity of human endeavour and the repetitive and futile nature of our lives – which all sounds like a pretty good description of Waiting for Godot.
In Camus’ essay, Sisyphus survives the pointless repetition of his task, the rolling of a boulder up a hill only to see it fall to the bottom just as he’s about to reach the top, by seeing the ridiculousness in the situation and laughing at it.
And the discrepancy between what the play addresses, which is often deeply philosophical and complex, and how Beckett’s characters discuss it, is one of the most distinctive features of Waiting for Godot. When the French playwright Jean Anouilh saw the Paris premiere of the play in 1953, he described it as ‘The Thoughts of Pascal performed by clowns’.
Given the similarity between ‘God’ and ‘Godot’, some critics have analysed the play as being fundamentally about religion: God(ot) is supposed to be turning up (possibly a second coming: Vladimir and Estragon cannot recall whether they’ve met Godot before), but his arrival is always delayed with the promise that he will come ‘tomorrow’.
And in the meantime, all that the play’s two main characters can do is idle away the time, doomed to boredom and repetitive monotony.
The anti-naturalist detail about the leaves on the tree – implying that, in fact, more than a ‘day’ has passed between the first and second act – supports the notion that we should extrapolate the action of the play and consider it as representative of a longer span of time. But to view the play through a narrowly religious lens ignores the broader ‘point’ that Beckett is making.
And what is that point: that everything in life is monotonous, dull, faintly absurd, and above all, pointless? Perhaps, but with the important follow-up point that, despite this futility and absurdity, life continues. Vladimir and Estragon’s decision to leave at the end of the play is contradicted by their physical unwillingness to move, suggesting that they have no intention of ‘leaving’ life.
Indeed, although they agree to end it all and hang themselves from the tree, their attempt to do so ends in absurdly comic farce, with Estragon’s trousers falling down.
They may well make another attempt the next day, but one of the key messages of Waiting for Godot is strikingly similar to what we find in Camus: an ability to see the comic absurdity amidst the tragedy of living, and to ‘go on’ despite everything.