Waiting for Godot (French: En attendant Godot, literally: While awaiting Godot), subtitled A Tragicomedy in Two Acts, is an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, written in the late 1940s and first published in 1952. Beckett originally wrote the play in French, his second language, and translated it into English in 1954.
Waiting for Godot originally received widely varied reactions from critics, and was seen as deliberately obscure, with Beckett himself resolutely refusing to add interpretation by saying, "It means what it says". Nonetheless, the play itself substantially redefined the notion of what a play had to be in order to have theatrical significance, and many renowned playwrights—notably Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard—were influenced by it.
Several unauthorized sequels, in which Godot actually arrives, have been written by other authors, as well as at least one prequel (see Directly related works).
The play is in two acts. The plot concerns Vladimir (also called Didi) and Estragon (also called Gogo), who arrive at a pre-specified roadside location in order to await the arrival of someone named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon appear to be tramps, as their clothes are ragged and do not fit, while another theory suggests that Vladimir and Estragon could be refugees or soldiers displaced from a conflict, such as World War II, which had recently ended when Beckett wrote the play and which provided him with much inspiration. Vladimir and Estragon pass the time in conversation, and sometimes in conflict. Estragon complains of his ill-fitting boots, and Vladimir struts about stiff-legged due to a painful bladder condition. Though they make vague allusions to the nature of their circumstances and to their reasons for meeting Godot, the audience never learns who Godot is or why he is important. They are soon interrupted by the arrival of Pozzo, a cruel but lyrically gifted man who claims to own the land they stand on, and his servant Lucky, whom he appears to control by means of a lengthy rope. Pozzo sits down to feast on chicken, and afterwards throws the bones to the two tramps. He entertains them by directing Lucky to perform a lively dance, and then deliver an ex tempore lecture, loosely based around the theories of the Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley. After Pozzo and Lucky depart, a boy arrives with a message supposedly from Godot, which states that Godot will not come today, "but surely to-morrow". The boy also confesses that Godot beats his brother and that he and his brother sleep in the loft of a barn.
The second act follows a similar pattern to the first, but when Pozzo and Lucky arrive, Pozzo has inexplicably gone blind and Lucky has gone mute. Again the boy arrives in order to announce that Godot will not appear. The much-quoted ending of the play might be said to sum up the stasis of the whole work:
The play was first performed in French at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris in 1953, directed by French actor and comedian Roger Blin (who also performed the role of Pozzo). The English-language premiere was in August 1955 at the Arts Theatre, London, directed by a 24-year-old Peter Hall . It transferred to the Criterion Theatre, in the London West End. At the time, theatre was strictly censored in England, to Beckett's amazement since he thought it a bastion of free speech. The Lord Chamberlain insisted that the word "erection" be removed. Indeed, there were attempts to ban the play completely. For example, Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, saying: "One of the many themes running through the play is the desire of two old tramps continually to relieve themselves. Such a dramatisation of lavatory necessities is offensive and against all sense of British decency." The U.S. debut in 1956 was at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida (that theatre's first production in the year it first opened its doors), starring Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz) and Tom Ewell. Given Lahr's reputation as a broad comic actor, a raucous comedy was expected. According to the Playhouse's website, the audience reaction was sharply negative, and it closed quickly. It resurrected itself by being performed in 1957 in maximum security San Quentin prison where the 1400 inmates who viewed it, deeply affected by the "waiting" themes, loved it, wrote articles about it in the prison newspaper and started a prison drama society.
Skilled comedians, like Robin Williams and Steve Martin in one US production (also Bert Lahr in the 1950s -- see above), have had the most success with the characters in popular esteem, and there is a heartfeltness about the dialogue and situation that is not always completely aligned with despair, along with dream-like, poetic passages; perhaps this is why the play is loved by its fans.
Beckett went on to resume his march towards the void in his new medium, and his later plays have had much less popular success, though they continue to be produced, and are generally accepted as important works.
One of the most interesting new interpretations of the play was the performance directed by Alexander Arotin in 2005, with music of Olga Neuwirth and the installation of an animated space non-lieu by Alexander Arotin, multimedia by Mariapaz Montecinos
Interpretations and commentaries
The intentionally uneventful and repetitive plot of Waiting for Godot can be seen as symbolizing the tedium and meaninglessness of human life, which loosely connects the play to one of the themes of existentialist philosophy. It is noteworthy that the audience never learns who Godot is or the nature of the business that Vladimir and Estragon expect to transact with him. One common interpretation of the mysteriously absent Godot is that he represents God, though Beckett always categorically denied this. As a proper noun, the name "Godot" may derive from any number of French verbs, and Beckett stated it might be a derivative of godillot, which is French slang for "boot". The title, in this interpretation, could be seen as suggesting that the characters are "waiting for the boot".
Left to speak for itself, without Beckett's interpretation, Waiting for Godot initially confused interpreters and critics. A play that spoke without interpretation, it confounded at first many assumed rules by which actors looked for motivation and critics looked for storyline. Depending upon director, some performances played it for comedy and slapstick, others for pathos and drama.
Some 50 years after its writing, it is now more clear that Waiting for Godot holds some form of mirror up to individuals who see it. Directors often favour a "less is more" philosophy, a bleak stage with a tree, a rock, and perhaps three or five leaves only, to draw out the precision of the powerful juxtaposing of inadvertent humor and emotional pathos expressed through the lives of the characters. It is a play which requires great precision and focus to act well, where the silences and actions express a view on existence rather than just tell a storyline.
Beckett uses the characters' interaction to bring home the existentialist view of the tedium and meaninglessness of modern life. Some of the business involving hats was adopted from a routine done by the Marx Brothers, and it may be noted that the character schema - four characters, one of whom is mute (except when ordered to think), and one of whom bears an Italian name - may have been derived from the same source. Critic Kenneth Burke argued that the interaction of Vladimir and Estragon is based on that of Laurel and Hardy. Near the end of the play, to give one example of the play's sillier moments, Estragon removes the cord holding his trousers up so he can hang himself with it, and his trousers fall down. In the original French production Beckett was adamant that the actor playing Estragon, who was reluctant to perform so foolish a piece of business, follow the directions to the letter.
Initially, reviews were mixed, with critics very unsure how to respond to the rule-breaking play. Critic Vivian Mercier initially summed up the two-act play with the words "nothing happens, twice." Another critic, referring to the work's drawn-out scenes and scarcity of characters, summed up his review with a line from the play: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" And yet, despite its essential bleakness, it has many moments of comedy, some of it even recalling the deadpan slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Many readers of this play have understood the character "Godot" as a symbolic representation of God. They see Godot's persistent failure to appear and Vladimir and Estragon's aimless waiting as representations of the masses hoping for a being who will never appear. This is a common interpretation of the play, but one that Beckett himself vehemently denied all his life, saying "If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot". Other interpretations hold Pozzo as the all encompassing "exploiter" or dictator, because of his tyrannical abuse of his servant and slave, Lucky, who won't even think without being told to (and when he does refuses to listen to Pozzo's orders for a time afterwards). His using of Vladimir and Estragon's search for Godot to make them stay and talk with him is compared with opportunistic leaders use of their citizens' devotion to God to further their own means.
This was Beckett's third attempt at drama after an abortive attempt at a play about Samuel Johnson, and the considerably more conventional Eleutheria (which Beckett suppressed after writing Godot). Godot was the first to be performed. It was a big step back towards normal human experience after his novel The Unnamable. Subtitled "a tragicomedy," the script has little indication of setting or costume (but for Beckett's specific footnote that all four of the major characters wear bowler hats); the only indication for decor is the typically succinct "A country road. A tree. Evening" prior to Act I. As such, Godot is capable of sustaining a wide range of interpretation, including who, or what, Godot is. There have even been suggestions that Vladimir and Estragon are lovers.citation needed
Pronunciation of 'Godot'
The name "Godot" is pronounced in Britain and Ireland with the emphasis on the first syllable (i.e. "GO-doh"); in North America it is usually pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable (i.e. "guh-DOH"). Beckett himself said the emphasis should be on the first syllable, and that the North American pronunciation is a mistake . Etymologically, however, the name is French, so when saying the name in French, equal emphasis should be placed on both syllables - "goh-doh".
Directly related works (other authors)
The title character of Balzac's 1851 play Mercadet is waiting for financial salvation from his never seen business partner, Godeau. Although Beckett was familiar with Balzac's prose, he only learned of this play after finishing Waiting for Godot. Coincidentally, Balzac's play was closely adapted to film as The Lovable Cheat (with Buster Keaton, whom Beckett greatly admired) at about the same time Beckett was writing his own play.3
Clifford Odets' famous 1935 play Waiting for Lefty was about workers oppressed by capitalism, waiting for the salvation in the form of union organizer Lefty. But the play ends as the workers learn that Lefty will not come after all (having been murdered).
An unauthorized prequel, of sorts, formed part II of Ian McDonald's novel King of Morning, Queen of Day (partly written in Joycean style). Two main characters are clearly meant to be the original Vladimir and Estragon.
An unauthorized sequel was written by Miodrag Bulatović in 1966: Godo je došao (Godot has come). It was translated from the Serbo-Croatian into German (Godot ist gekommen) and French. Although Beckett was noted for disallowing productions that took even slight liberties with his plays, he let this pass without incident.
Another unauthorized sequel was written by Daniel Curzon in the late 1990s: Godot Arrives.
A radical transformation was written by Bernard Pautrat, performed at Théâtre National de Strasbourg in 1979-1980: Ils allaient obscurs sous la nuit solitaire (d'après En attendant Godot de Samuel Beckett). The dialog consisted of excerpts from Godot, rearranged among ten actors (Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky and six others).
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, written by Tom Stoppard and first staged in 1966, contains a set of characters whose dialogue and themes are strongly influenced by the characters in Godot. Many claim that R & G overturns the dreary philosophical conclusions presented in Godot, while other critics disagree, claiming that R & G actually reinforces and strengthens those themes. Either way, R & G arguably continues the dialogue about existentialism and absurdism (though the latter is disputed by Stoppard) that Beckett started with Godot.
Alexei Sayle's TV sketch show Alexei Sayle's Stuff included a skit in which Godot desperately tries to hitch-hike to his waiting friends, but fails to get a lift. Eventually he finds his way to Estragon and Vladimir, but two other Godots arrive at the same time. Estragon says "Typical - you wait ages for Godot and then three show up at once".
Note 1: Similarly, Beckett only learned of the champion Parisian cyclist Roger Godeau, whose fans reportedly "waited for Godeau", after finishing his play.