|Waiting for Godot|
Waiting for Godot, staging by Otomar Krejca, Avignon Festival, 1978
|Written by||Samuel Beckett|
|Date premiered||5 January 1953|
|Place premiered||Théâtre de Babylone, Paris|
Waiting for Godot ( GOD-oh) is a play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives, and while waiting they engage in a variety of discussions and encounter three other characters.Waiting for Godot is Beckett's translation of his own original French play, En attendant Godot, and is subtitled (in English only) "a tragicomedy in two acts". The original French text was composed between 9 October 1948 and 29 January 1949. The premiere was on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. The English language version was premiered in London in 1955. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre in 1990 it was voted the "most significant English language play of the 20th century".
The play opens on an outdoor scene of two bedraggled companions: the philosophical Vladimir and the weary Estragon who, at the moment, cannot remove his boots from his aching feet, finally muttering, "Nothing to be done."[nb 1] Vladimir takes up the thought loftily, while Estragon vaguely recalls having been beaten the night before. Finally, his boots come off, while the pair ramble and bicker pointlessly. When Estragon suddenly decides to leave, Vladimir reminds him that they must stay and wait for an unspecified person called Godot—a segment of dialogue that repeats often. Unfortunately, the pair cannot agree on where or when they are expected to meet with this Godot.[nb 2] They only know to wait at a tree, and there is indeed a leafless one nearby.
Eventually, Estragon dozes off and Vladimir rouses him but then stops him before he can share his dreams—another recurring activity between the two men. Estragon wants to hear an old joke, which Vladimir cannot finish without going off to urinate, since every time he starts laughing, a kidney ailment flares up. Upon Vladimir's return, the increasingly jaded Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, but they abandon the idea when the logistics seem ineffective. They then speculate on the potential rewards of continuing to wait for Godot, but can come to no definite conclusions. When Estragon declares his hunger, Vladimir provides a carrot (among a collection of turnips), at which Estragon idly gnaws, loudly reiterating his boredom.
"A terrible cry" heralds the entrance of Lucky, a silent, baggage-burdened slave with a rope tied around his neck, and Pozzo, his arrogant and imperious master, who holds the other end and stops now to rest. Pozzo barks abusive orders at Lucky, which are always quietly followed, while acting civilly though tersely towards the other two. Pozzo enjoys a selfish snack of chicken and wine, before casting the bones to the ground, which Estragon gleefully claims. Having been in a dumbfounded state of silence ever since the arrival of Pozzo and Lucky, Vladimir finally finds his voice to shout criticisms at Pozzo for his mistreatment of Lucky. Pozzo ignores this and explains his intention to sell Lucky, who begins to cry. Estragon takes pity and tries to wipe away Lucky's tears, but, as he approaches, Lucky violently kicks him in the shin. Pozzo then rambles nostalgically but vaguely about his relationship with Lucky over the years, before offering Vladimir and Estragon some compensation for their company. Estragon begins to beg for money when Pozzo instead suggests that Lucky can "dance" and "think" for their entertainment. Lucky's dance, "the Net", is clumsy and shuffling; Lucky's "thinking" is a long-winded and disjointed monologue—it is the first and only time that Lucky speaks.[nb 3] The monologue begins as a relatively coherent and academic lecture on theology but quickly dissolves into mindless verbosity, escalating in both volume and speed, that agonises the others until Vladimir finally pulls off Lucky's hat, stopping him in mid-sentence. Pozzo then has Lucky pack up his bags, and they hastily leave.
Vladimir and Estragon, alone again, reflect on whether they met Pozzo and Lucky before. A boy then arrives, purporting to be a messenger sent from Godot to tell the pair that Godot will not be coming that evening "but surely tomorrow". During Vladimir's interrogation of the boy, he asks if he came the day before, making it apparent that the two men have been waiting for a long period and will likely continue. After the boy departs, the moon appears and the two men verbally agree to leave and find shelter for the night, but they merely stand without moving.
It is daytime again and Vladimir begins singing a recursive round about the death of a dog, but twice forgets the lyrics as he sings.[nb 4] Again, Estragon claims to have been beaten last night, despite no apparent injury. Vladimir comments that the formerly bare tree now has leaves and tries to confirm his recollections of yesterday against Estragon's extremely vague, unreliable memory. Vladimir then triumphantly produces evidence of the previous day's events by showing Estragon the wound from when Lucky kicked him. Noticing Estragon's barefootedness, they also discover his previously forsaken boots nearby, which Estragon insists are not his, although they fit him perfectly. With no carrots left, Vladimir is turned down in offering Estragon a turnip or a radish. He then sings Estragon to sleep with a lullaby before noticing further evidence to confirm his memory: Lucky's hat still lies on the ground. This leads to his waking Estragon and involving him in a frenetic hat-swapping scene. The two then wait again for Godot, while distracting themselves by playfully imitating Pozzo and Lucky, firing insults at each other and then making up, and attempting some fitness routines—all of which fail miserably and end quickly.
Suddenly, Pozzo and Lucky reappear, but the rope is much shorter than during their last visit, and Lucky now guides Pozzo, rather than being controlled by him. As they arrive, Pozzo trips over Lucky and they together fall into a motionless heap. Estragon sees an opportunity to exact revenge on Lucky for kicking him earlier. The issue is debated lengthily until Pozzo shocks the pair by revealing that he is now blind and Lucky is now mute. Pozzo further claims to have lost all sense of time, and assures the others that he cannot remember meeting them before, but also does not expect to recall today's events tomorrow. His commanding arrogance from yesterday appears to have been replaced by humility and insight. His parting words—which Vladimir expands upon later—are ones of utter despair. Lucky and Pozzo depart; meanwhile Estragon has again fallen asleep.
Alone, Vladimir is encountered by (apparently) the same boy from yesterday, though Vladimir wonders whether he might be the other boy's brother. This time, Vladimir begins consciously realising the circular nature of his experiences: he even predicts exactly what the boy will say, involving the same speech about Godot not arriving today but surely tomorrow. Vladimir seems to reach a moment of revelation before furiously chasing the boy away, demanding that he be recognised the next time they meet. Estragon awakes and pulls his boots off again. He and Vladimir consider hanging themselves once more, but when they test the strength of Estragon's belt (hoping to use it as a noose), it breaks and Estragon's trousers fall down. They resolve tomorrow to bring a more suitable piece of rope and, if Godot fails to arrive, to commit suicide at last. Again, they decide to clear out for the night, but, again, neither of them makes any attempt to move.
Beckett refrained from elaborating on the characters beyond what he had written in the play. He once recalled that when Sir Ralph Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters."
When Beckett started writing he did not have a visual image of Vladimir and Estragon. They are never referred to as tramps in the text, though are often performed in such costumes on stage. Roger Blin advises: "Beckett heard their voices, but he couldn't describe his characters to me. [He said]: 'The only thing I'm sure of is that they're wearing bowlers.' " "The bowler hat was of course de rigueur for male persons in many social contexts when Beckett was growing up in Foxrock, and [his father] commonly wore one." That said, the play does indicate that the clothes worn at least by Estragon are shabby. When told by Vladimir that he should have been a poet, Estragon says he was, gestures to his rags, and asks if it were not obvious.
There are no physical descriptions of either of the two characters; however, the text indicates that Vladimir is possibly the heavier of the pair. The bowlers and other broadly comic aspects of their personas have reminded modern audiences of Laurel and Hardy, who occasionally played tramps in their films. "The hat-passing game in Waiting For Godot and Lucky's inability to think without his hat on are two obvious Beckett derivations from Laurel and Hardy - a substitution of form for essence, covering for reality", wrote Gerald Mast in The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies.
Vladimir stands through most of the play whereas Estragon sits down numerous times and even dozes off. "Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless." Vladimir looks at the sky and muses on religious or philosophical matters. Estragon "belongs to the stone", preoccupied with mundane things, what he can get to eat and how to ease his physical aches and pains; he is direct, intuitive. He finds it hard to remember but can recall certain things when prompted, e.g., when Vladimir asks: "Do you remember the Gospels?" Estragon tells Vladimir about the coloured maps of the Holy Land and that he planned to honeymoon by the Dead Sea; it is his short-term memory that is poorest and points to the fact that he may, in fact, be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.Al Alvarez writes: "But perhaps Estragon's forgetfulness is the cement binding their relationship together. He continually forgets, Vladimir continually reminds him; between them they pass the time." They have been together for fifty years but when asked-by Pozzo-they do not reveal their actual ages.
Vladimir's life is not without its discomforts too but he is the more resilient of the pair. "Vladimir's pain is primarily mental anguish, which would thus account for his voluntary exchange of his hat for Lucky's, thus signifying Vladimir's symbolic desire for another person's thoughts."
Throughout the play the couple refer to each other by the pet names "Didi" and "Gogo", although the boy addresses Vladimir as "Mister Albert". Beckett originally intended to call Estragon "Lévy" but when Pozzo questions him he gives his name as "Magrégor, André" and also responds to "Catulle" in French or "Catullus" in the first Faber edition. This became "Adam" in the American edition. Beckett's only explanation was that he was "fed up with Catullus".
Vivian Mercier described Waiting for Godot as a play which "has achieved a theoretical impossibility--a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." Mercier once questioned Beckett on the language used by the pair: "It seemed to me...he made Didi and Gogo sound as if they had earned PhDs. 'How do you know they hadn't?' was his reply." They clearly have known better times, a visit to the Eiffel Tower and grape-harvesting by the Rhône; it is about all either has to say about their pasts, save for Estragon's claim to have been a poet, an explanation Estragon provides to Vladimir for his destitution. In the first stage production, which Beckett oversaw, both are "more shabby-genteel than ragged...Vladimir at least is capable of being scandalised...on a matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money."
Although Beckett refused to be drawn on the backgrounds of the characters, this has not stopped actors looking for their own motivation. Jean Martin had a doctor friend called Marthe Gautier, who was working at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, and he said to her: " 'Listen, Marthe, what could I find that would provide some kind of physiological explanation for a voice like the one written in the text?' [She] said: 'Well, it might be a good idea if you went to see the people who have Parkinson's disease.' So I asked her about the disease ... She explained how it begins with a trembling, which gets more and more noticeable, until later the patient can no longer speak without the voice shaking. So I said, 'That sounds exactly what I need.' " "Sam and Roger were not entirely convinced by my interpretation but had no objections." When he explained to Beckett that he was playing Lucky as if he were suffering from Parkinson's, Beckett said, " 'Yes, of course.' He mentioned briefly that his mother had had Parkinson's, but quickly moved on to another subject."
When Beckett was asked why Lucky was so named, he replied, "I suppose he is lucky to have no more expectations..."
It has been contended that "Pozzo and Lucky are simply Didi and Gogo writ large", unbalanced as their relationship is. However, Pozzo's dominance is noted to be superficial; "upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that Lucky always possessed more influence in the relationship, for he danced, and more importantly, thought - not as a service, but in order to fill a vacant need of Pozzo: he committed all of these acts for Pozzo. As such, since the first appearance of the duo, the true slave had always been Pozzo." Pozzo credits Lucky with having given him all the culture, refinement, and ability to reason that he possesses. His rhetoric has been learned by rote. Pozzo's "party piece" on the sky is a clear example: as his memory crumbles, he finds himself unable to continue under his own steam.
Little is learned about Pozzo besides the fact that he is on his way to the fair to sell his slave, Lucky. He presents himself very much as the Ascendancy landlord, bullying and conceited. His pipe is made by Kapp and Peterson, Dublin's best-known tobacconists (their slogan was "The thinking man's pipe") which he refers to as a "briar" but which Estragon calls a "dudeen" emphasising the differences in their social standing. He confesses to a poor memory but it is more a result of an abiding self-absorption. "Pozzo is a character who has to overcompensate. That's why he overdoes things ... and his overcompensation has to do with a deep insecurity in him. These were things Beckett said, psychological terms he used."
Pozzo controls Lucky by means of an extremely long rope which he jerks and tugs if Lucky is the least bit slow. Lucky is the absolutely subservient slave of Pozzo and he unquestioningly does his every bidding with "dog-like devotion". He struggles with a heavy suitcase without ever thinking of dropping it. Lucky speaks only once in the play and it is a result of Pozzo's order to "think" for Estragon and Vladimir. Pozzo and Lucky have been together for sixty years and, in that time, their relationship has deteriorated. Lucky has always been the intellectually superior but now, with age, he has become an object of contempt: his "think" is a caricature of intellectual thought and his "dance" is a sorry sight. Despite his horrid treatment at Pozzo's hand however, Lucky remains completely faithful to him. Even in the second act when Pozzo has inexplicably gone blind, and needs to be led by Lucky rather than driving him as he had done before, Lucky remains faithful and has not tried to run away; they are clearly bound together by more than a piece of rope in the same way that Didi and Gogo are "[t]ied to Godot". Beckett's advice to the American director Alan Schneider was: "[Pozzo] is a hypomaniac and the only way to play him is to play him mad."
"In his [English] translation ... Beckett struggled to retain the French atmosphere as much as possible, so that he delegated all the English names and places to Lucky, whose own name, he thought, suggested such a correlation."
The cast list specifies only one boy.
The boy in Act I, a local lad, assures Vladimir that this is the first time he has seen him. He says he was not there the previous day. He confirms he works for Mr. Godot as a goatherd. His brother, whom Godot beats, is a shepherd. Godot feeds both of them and allows them to sleep in his hayloft.
The boy in Act II also assures Vladimir that it was not he who called upon them the day before. He insists that this too is his first visit. When Vladimir asks what Godot does the boy tells him, "He does nothing, sir." We also learn he has a white beard--possibly, the boy is not certain. This boy also has a brother who it seems is sick but there is no clear evidence to suggest that his brother is the boy that came in Act I or the one who came the day before that.
Whether the boy from Act I is the same boy from Act II or not, both boys are polite yet timid. In the first Act, the boy, despite arriving while Pozzo and Lucky are still about, does not announce himself until after Pozzo and Lucky leave, saying to Vladimir and Estragon that he waited for the other two to leave out of fear of the two men and of Pozzo's whip; the boy does not arrive early enough in Act II to see either Lucky or Pozzo. In both Acts, the boy seems hesitant to speak very much, saying mostly "Yes Sir" or "No Sir", and winds up exiting by running away.
The identity of Godot has been the subject of much debate. "When Colin Duckworth asked Beckett point-blank whether Pozzo was Godot, the author replied: 'No. It is just implied in the text, but it's not true.' "
Deirdre Bair says that though "Beckett will never discuss the implications of the title", she suggests two stories that both may have at least partially have inspired it. The first is that because feet are a recurring theme in the play, Beckett has said the title was suggested to him by the slang French term for boot: "godillot, godasse". The second story, according to Bair, is that Beckett once encountered a group of spectators at the French Tour de France bicycle race, who told him "Nous attendons Godot" -- they were waiting for a competitor whose name was Godot.
"Beckett said to Peter Woodthorpe that he regretted calling the absent character 'Godot', because of all the theories involving God to which this had given rise. "I also told [Ralph] Richardson that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly." That said, Beckett did once concede, "It would be fatuous of me to pretend that I am not aware of the meanings attached to the word 'Godot', and the opinion of many that it means 'God'. But you must remember - I wrote the play in French, and if I did have that meaning in my mind, it was somewhere in my unconscious and I was not overtly aware of it." (Note: the French word for 'God' is 'Dieu'.) However, "Beckett has often stressed the strong unconscious impulses that partly control his writing; he has even spoken of being 'in a trance' when he writes."
Unlike elsewhere in Beckett's work, no bicycle appears in this play, but Hugh Kenner in his essay "The Cartesian Centaur" reports that Beckett once, when asked about the meaning of Godot, mentioned "a veteran racing cyclist, bald, a 'stayer,' recurrent placeman in town-to-town and national championships, Christian name elusive, surname Godeau, pronounced, of course, no differently from Godot." Waiting for Godot is clearly not about track cycling, but it is said that Beckett himself did wait for French cyclist Roger Godeau (1920-2000; a professional cyclist from 1943 to 1961), outside the velodrome in Roubaix.
Of the two boys who work for Godot only one appears safe from beatings, "Beckett said, only half-jokingly, that one of Estragon's feet was saved".
The name "Godot" is pronounced in Britain and Ireland with the emphasis on the first syllable, GOD-oh; in North America it is usually pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable, g?-DOH. Beckett himself said the emphasis should be on the first syllable, and that the North American pronunciation is a mistake. Georges Borchardt, Beckett's literary agent, and who represents Beckett's literary estate, has always pronounced "Godot" in the French manner, with equal emphasis on both syllables. Borchardt checked with Beckett's nephew, Edward, who told him his uncle pronounced it that way as well.
There is only one scene throughout both acts. Two men are waiting on a country road by a tree. The men are of unspecified origin, though it is clear that they are not English by nationality since they refer to currency as francs, and tell derisive jokes about the English - and in English-language productions the pair are traditionally played with Irish accents. The script calls for Estragon to sit on a low mound but in practice--as in Beckett's own 1975 German production--this is usually a stone. In the first act the tree is bare. In the second, a few leaves have appeared despite the script specifying that it is the next day. The minimal description calls to mind "the idea of the lieu vague, a location which should not be particularised".
Other clues about the location can be found in the dialogue. In Act I, Vladimir turns toward the auditorium and describes it as a bog. In Act II, Vladimir again motions to the auditorium and notes that there is "Not a soul in sight." When Estragon rushes toward the back of the stage in Act II, Vladimir scolds him, saying that "There's no way out there." Also in Act II, Vladimir comments that their surroundings look nothing like the Macon country, and Estragon states that he's lived his whole life "Here! In the Cackon country!"
Alan Schneider once suggested putting the play on in a round--Pozzo has often been commented on as a ringmaster--but Beckett dissuaded him: "I don't in my ignorance agree with the round and feel Godot needs a very closed box." He even contemplated at one point having a "faint shadow of bars on stage floor" but, in the end, decided against this level of what he called "explicitation". In his 1975 Schiller Theater production, there are times when Didi and Gogo appear to bounce off something "like birds trapped in the strands of [an invisible] net", in James Knowlson's description.
"Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation" wrote Normand Berlin in a tribute to the play in Autumn 1999, "with Beckett himself placed in different schools of thought, different movements and 'ism's. The attempts to pin him down have not been successful, but the desire to do so is natural when we encounter a writer whose minimalist art reaches for bedrock reality. 'Less' forces us to look for 'more,' and the need to talk about Godot and about Beckett has resulted in a steady outpouring of books and articles.
Throughout Waiting for Godot, the audience may encounter religious, philosophical, classical, psychoanalytical and biographical - especially wartime - references. There are ritualistic aspects and elements taken directly from vaudeville and there is a danger in making more of these than what they are: that is, merely structural conveniences, avatars into which the writer places his fictional characters. The play "exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos." Beckett makes this point emphatically clear in the opening notes to Film: "No truth value attaches to the above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience." He made another important remark to Lawrence Harvey, saying that his "work does not depend on experience - [it is] not a record of experience. Of course you use it."
Beckett tired quickly of "the endless misunderstanding". As far back as 1955, he remarked, "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out." He was not forthcoming with anything more than cryptic clues, however: "Peter Woodthorpe [who played Estragon] remembered asking him one day in a taxi what the play was really about: 'It's all symbiosis, Peter; it's symbiosis,' answered Beckett."
Beckett directed the play for the Schiller-Theatre in 1975. Although he had overseen many productions, this was the first time that he had taken complete control. Walter Asmus was his conscientious young assistant director. The production was not naturalistic. Beckett explained,
It is a game, everything is a game. When all four of them are lying on the ground, that cannot be handled naturalistically. That has got to be done artificially, balletically. Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality [...]. It should become clear and transparent, not dry. It is a game in order to survive."
Over the years, Beckett clearly realised that the greater part of Godot's success came down to the fact that it was open to a variety of readings and that this was not necessarily a bad thing. Beckett himself sanctioned "one of the most famous mixed-race productions of Godot, performed at the Baxter Theatre in the University of Cape Town, directed by Donald Howarth, with [...] two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, playing Didi and Gogo; Pozzo, dressed in checked shirt and gumboots reminiscent of an Afrikaner landlord, and Lucky ('a shanty town piece of white trash') were played by two white actors, Bill Flynn and Peter Piccolo [...]. The Baxter production has often been portrayed as if it were an explicitly political production, when in fact it received very little emphasis. What such a reaction showed, however, was that, although the play can in no way be taken as a political allegory, there are elements that are relevant to any local situation in which one man is being exploited or oppressed by another."
"It was seen as an allegory of the Cold War" or of French Resistance to the Germans. Graham Hassell writes, "[T]he intrusion of Pozzo and Lucky [...] seems like nothing more than a metaphor for Ireland's view of mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means."
Vladimir and Estragon are often played with Irish accents, as in the Beckett on Film project. This, some feel, is an inevitable consequence of Beckett's rhythms and phraseology, but it is not stipulated in the text. At any rate, they are not of English stock: at one point early in the play, Estragon mocks the English pronunciation of "calm" and has fun with "the story of the Englishman in the brothel".
"Bernard Dukore develops a triadic theory in Didi, Gogo and the absent Godot, based on Sigmund Freud's trinitarian description of the psyche in The Ego and the Id (1923) and the usage of onomastic techniques. Dukore defines the characters by what they lack: the rational Go-go embodies the incomplete ego, the missing pleasure principle: (e)go-(e)go. Di-di (id-id) - who is more instinctual and irrational - is seen as the backward id or subversion of the rational principle. Godot fulfills the function of the superego or moral standards. Pozzo and Lucky are just re-iterations of the main protagonists. Dukore finally sees Beckett's play as a metaphor for the futility of man's existence when salvation is expected from an external entity, and the self is denied introspection."
"The four archetypal personalities or the four aspects of the soul are grouped in two pairs: the ego and the shadow, the persona and the soul's image (animus or anima). The shadow is the container of all our despised emotions repressed by the ego. Lucky, the shadow, serves as the polar opposite of the egocentric Pozzo, prototype of prosperous mediocrity, who incessantly controls and persecutes his subordinate, thus symbolising the oppression of the unconscious shadow by the despotic ego. Lucky's monologue in Act I appears as a manifestation of a stream of repressed unconsciousness, as he is allowed to "think" for his master. Estragon's name has another connotation, besides that of the aromatic herb, tarragon: "estragon" is a cognate of estrogen, the female hormone (Carter, 130). This prompts us to identify him with the anima, the feminine image of Vladimir's soul. It explains Estragon's propensity for poetry, his sensitivity and dreams, his irrational moods. Vladimir appears as the complementary masculine principle, or perhaps the rational persona of the contemplative type."
Broadly speaking, existentialists hold that there are certain fundamental questions that all human beings must come to terms with if they are to take their subjective existences seriously and with intrinsic value. Questions such as life, death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in that existence are among them. By and large, the theories of existentialism assert that conscious reality is very complex and without an "objective" or universally known value: the individual must create value by affirming it and living it, not by simply talking about it or philosophising it in the mind. The play may be seen to touch on all of these issues.
Martin Esslin, in his The Theatre of the Absurd (1960), argued that Waiting for Godot was part of a broader literary movement that he called the Theatre of the Absurd, a form of theatre which stemmed from the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. Absurdism itself is a branch of the traditional assertions of existentialism, pioneered by Søren Kierkegaard, and posits that, while inherent meaning might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it due to some form of mental or philosophical limitation. Thus humanity is doomed to be faced with the Absurd, or the absolute absurdity of the existence in lack of intrinsic purpose.
Just after Didi and Gogo have been particularly selfish and callous, the boy comes to say that Godot is not coming. The boy (or pair of boys) may be seen to represent meekness and hope before compassion is consciously excluded by an evolving personality and character, and in which case may be the youthful Pozzo and Lucky. Thus Godot is compassion and fails to arrive every day, as he says he will. No-one is concerned that a boy is beaten. In this interpretation, there is the irony that only by changing their hearts to be compassionate can the characters fixed to the tree move on and cease to have to wait for Godot.
Much of the play is steeped in scriptural allusion. The boy from Act One mentions that he and his brother mind Godot's sheep and goats. Much can be read into Beckett's inclusion of the story of the two thieves from Luke 23:39-43 and the ensuing discussion of repentance. It is easy to see the solitary tree as representative of the Christian cross or the tree of life. Some see God and Godot as one and the same. Vladimir's "Christ have mercy upon us!" could be taken as evidence that that is at least what he believes.
This reading is given further weight early in the first act when Estragon asks Vladimir what it is that he has requested from Godot:
Other explicit Christian elements that are mentioned in the play include, but not limited to, repentance, the Gospels, a Saviour, human beings made in God's image, the cross, and Cain and Abel.
According to biographer Anthony Cronin, "[Beckett] always possessed a Bible, at the end more than one edition, and Bible concordances were always among the reference books on his shelves." Beckett himself was quite open on the issue: "Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar so I naturally use it." As Cronin argues, these biblical references "may be ironic or even sarcastic".
"In answer to a defence counsel question in 1937 (during the libel action brought by his uncle against Oliver St. John Gogarty) as to whether he was a Christian, Jew or atheist, Beckett replied, 'None of the three' ". Looking at Beckett's entire oeuvre, Mary Bryden observed that "the hypothesised God who emerges from Beckett's texts is one who is both cursed for his perverse absence and cursed for his surveillant presence. He is by turns dismissed, satirised, or ignored, but he, and his tortured son, are never definitively discarded."
Waiting for Godot has been described as a "metaphor for the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks [...] during the day and walked by night [... or] of the relationship of Beckett to Joyce." Becket told Ruby Cohn that Caspar David Friedrich's painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon, which he saw on his journey to Germany in 1936, was a source for the play.
Though the sexuality of Vladimir and Estragon is not always considered by critics, some see the two vagabonds as an ageing homosexual couple, who are worn out, with broken spirits, impotent and not engaging sexually any longer. The two appear to be written as a parody of a married couple. Peter Boxall points out that the play features two characters who seem to have shared life together for years; they quarrel, embrace, and are mutually dependent. Beckett was interviewed at the time the play was premiering in New York, and, speaking of his writings and characters in general, Beckett said "I'm working with impotence, ignorance. I don't think impotence has been exploited in the past." Vladimir and Estragon consider hanging themselves, as a desperate way to achieve at least one final erection. Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, arrive on the scene. Pozzo is a stout man, who wields a whip and holds a rope around Lucky's neck. Some critics have considered that the relationship of these two characters is homosexual and sado-masochistic in nature. Lucky's long speech is a torrent of broken ideas and speculations regarding man, sex, God, and time. It has been said that the play contains little or no sexual hope; which is the play's lament, and the source of the play's humour and comedic tenderness.Norman Mailer wonders if Beckett might be restating the sexual and moral basis of Christianity, that life and strength is found in an adoration of those in the lower depths where God is concealed.
Beckett was not open to most interpretative approaches to his work. He famously objected when, in the 1980s, several women's acting companies began to stage the play. "Women don't have prostates", said Beckett, a reference to the fact that Vladimir frequently has to leave the stage to urinate.
In 1988 a Dutch theatre company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur, put on a production directed by Matin Van Veldhuizen with all female actors, using a French-to-Dutch translation by Jacoba Van Velde. Beckett brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the theatre company. "The issue of gender seemed to him to be so vital a distinction for a playwright to make that he reacted angrily, instituting a ban on all productions of his plays in The Netherlands." This ban was short-lived, however: in 1991 (two years after Beckett's death), Judge Huguette Le Foyer de Costil ruled that productions with female casts would not cause excessive damage to Beckett's legacy, and allowed the play to be duly performed by the all-female cast of the Brut de Beton Theater Company at the prestigious Avignon Festival.
The Italian Pontedera Theatre Foundation won a similar claim in 2006 when it cast two actresses in the roles of Vladimir and Estragon, albeit in the characters' traditional roles as men. At the 1995 Acco Festival, director Nola Chilton staged a production with Daniella Michaeli in the role of Lucky.
"[O]n 17 February 1952 ... an abridged version of the play was performed in the studio of the Club d'Essai de la Radio and was broadcast on [French] radio ... [A]lthough he sent a polite note that Roger Blin read out, Beckett himself did not turn up." Part of his introduction reads:
I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not - those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible ... Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other.
The Minuit edition appeared in print on 17 October 1952 in advance of the play's first full theatrical performance. On 4 January 1953, "[t]hirty reviewers came to the générale of En attendant Godot before the public opening ... Contrary to later legend, the reviewers were kind ... Some dozen reviews in daily newspapers range[d] from tolerant to enthusiastic ... Reviews in the weeklies [were] longer and more fervent; moreover, they appeared in time to lure spectators to that first thirty-day run" which began on 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Early public performances were not, however, without incident: during one performance "the curtain had to be brought down after Lucky's monologue as twenty, well-dressed, but disgruntled spectators whistled and hooted derisively ... One of the protesters [even] wrote a vituperative letter dated 2 February 1953 to Le Monde."
The cast comprised Pierre Latour (Estragon), Lucien Raimbourg (Vladimir), Jean Martin (Lucky) and Roger Blin (Pozzo). The actor due to play Pozzo found a more remunerative role and so the director - a shy, lean man in real life - had to step in and play the stout bombaster himself with a pillow amplifying his stomach. Both boys were played by Serge Lecointe. The entire production was done on the thinnest of shoestring budgets; the large battered valise that Martin carried "was found among the city's refuse by the husband of the theatre dresser on his rounds as he worked clearing the dustbins", for example.
A particularly significant production - from Beckett's perspective - took place in Lüttringhausen Prison near Remscheid in Germany. An inmate obtained a copy of the French first edition, translated it himself into German and obtained permission to stage the play. The first night had been on 29 November 1953. He wrote to Beckett in October 1954: "You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps." Beckett was intensely moved and intended to visit the prison to see a last performance of the play but it never happened. This marked "the beginning of Beckett's enduring links with prisons and prisoners ... He took a tremendous interest in productions of his plays performed in prisons ... He even gave Rick Cluchey, a former prisoner from San Quentin, financial and moral support over a period of many years." Cluchey played Vladimir in two productions in the former Gallows room of the San Quentin California State Prison, which had been converted into a 65-seat theatre and, like the German prisoner before him, went on to work on a variety of Beckett's plays after his release. (The 1953 Lüttringhausen and 1957 San Quentin Prison productions of Waiting For Godot were the subject of the 2010 documentary film The Impossible Itself, produced and directed by Jacob Adams.)
The English-language premiere was on 3 August 1955 at the Arts Theatre, London, directed by the 24-year-old Peter Hall. During an early rehearsal Hall told the cast "I haven't really the foggiest idea what some of it means ... But if we stop and discuss every line we'll never open." Again, the printed version preceded it (New York: Grove Press, 1954) but Faber's "mutilated" edition did not materialise until 1956. A "corrected" edition was subsequently produced in 1965. "The most accurate text is in Theatrical Notebooks I, (Ed.) Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson (Faber and Grove, 1993). It is based on Beckett's revisions for his Schiller-Theatre production (1975) and the London San Quentin Drama Workshop, based on the Schiller production but revised further at the Riverside Studios (March 1984)."
Like all of Beckett's translations, Waiting for Godot is not simply a literal translation of En attendant Godot. "Small but significant differences separate the French and English text. Some, like Vladimir's inability to remember the farmer's name (Bonnelly), show how the translation became more indefinite, attrition and loss of memory more pronounced." A number of biographical details were removed, all adding to a general "vaguening" of the text which he continued to trim for the rest of his life.
In the 1950s, theatre was strictly censored in the UK, to Beckett's amazement since he thought it a bastion of free speech. The Lord Chamberlain insisted that the word "erection" be removed, " 'Fartov' became 'Popov' and Mrs Gozzo had 'warts' instead of 'clap' ". Indeed, there were attempts to ban the play completely. 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 first unexpurgated version of Godot in England ... opened at the Royal Court on 30 December 1964."
The London run was not without incident. The actor Peter Bull, who played Pozzo, recalls the reaction of that first night audience:
Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus, which was to form such a feature of the run of the piece, started quite soon after the curtain had risen. The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting ... The curtain fell to mild applause, we took a scant three calls (Peter Woodthorpe reports only one curtain call) and a depression and a sense of anti-climax descended on us all.
The critics were less than kind but "[e]verything changed on Sunday 7 August 1955 with Kenneth Tynan's and Harold Hobson's reviews in The Observer and The Sunday Times. Beckett was always grateful to the two reviewers for their support ... which more or less transformed the play overnight into the rage of London." "At the end of the year, the Evening Standard Drama Awards were held for the first time ... Feelings ran high and the opposition, led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, threatened to resign if Godot won [The Best New Play category]. An English compromise was worked out by changing the title of the award. Godot became The Most Controversial Play of the Year. It is a prize that has never been given since."
The first production of the play in the United States was at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coconut Grove, Florida on 3 January 1956. It starred Tom Ewell as Vladimir and Bert Lahr as Estragon. It bombed, but a Broadway version with Lahr, a new director (Herbert Berghof), and E. G. Marshall as Vladimir met with much more favour. The production and its problems are described in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, John Lahr's book about his father.
Beckett resisted offers to film the play, although it was televised in his lifetime (including a 1961 American telecast with Zero Mostel as Estragon and Burgess Meredith as Vladimir that New York Times theatre critic Alvin Klein describes as having "left critics bewildered and is now a classic"). When Keep Films made Beckett an offer to film an adaptation in which Peter O'Toole would feature, Beckett tersely told his French publisher to advise them: "I do not want a film of Godot." The BBC broadcast a production of Waiting for Godot on 26 June 1961, a version for radio having already been transmitted on 25 April 1960. Beckett watched the programme with a few close friends in Peter Woodthorpe's Chelsea flat. He was unhappy with what he saw. "My play", he said, "wasn't written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you're all too big for the place."
Although not his favourite amongst his plays it was the work which brought Beckett fame and financial stability and as such it always held a special place in his affections. "When the manuscript and rare books dealer, Henry Wenning, asked him if he could sell the original French manuscript for him, Beckett replied: 'Rightly or wrongly have decided not to let Godot go yet. Neither sentimental nor financial, probably peak of market now and never such an offer. Can't explain.' "
In 1978, a production was staged by Walter Asmus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City with Sam Waterston as Vladimir, Austin Pendleton as Estragon, Milo O'Shea as Lucky and Michael Egan as Pozzo.
The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center was the site of a 1988 revival directed by Mike Nichols, featuring Robin Williams (Estragon), Steve Martin (Vladimir), Bill Irwin (Lucky), F. Murray Abraham (Pozzo), and Lukas Haas (boy). With a limited run of seven weeks and an all-star cast, it was financially successful, but the critical reception was not particularly favourable, with Frank Rich of The New York Times writing, "Audiences will still be waiting for a transcendent Godot long after the clowns at Lincoln Center, like so many others passing through Beckett's eternal universe before them, have come and gone."
The play was revived in London's West End at the Queen's Theatre in a production directed by Les Blair, which opened on 30 September 1991. This was the first West End revival since the play's British première. Rik Mayall played Vladimir and Adrian Edmondson played Estragon, with Philip Jackson as Pozzo and Christopher Ryan as Lucky; the boy was played by Dean Gaffney and Duncan Thornley. Derek Jarman provided the scenic design, in collaboration with Madeleine Morris.
On 30 April 2009, a production with Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon and Sir Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London's West End. Their performances received critical acclaim, and were the subject of an eight-part documentary series called Theatreland, which was produced by Sky Arts. The production was revived at the same theatre in January 2010 for 11 weeks and, in 2010 toured internationally, with Roger Rees replacing Stewart as Vladimir.
A 2009 Broadway revival of the play starring Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover and Bill Irwin was nominated for three Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play (John Glover), and Best Costume Design of a Play (Jane Greenwood). It received rave reviews, and was a huge success for the Roundabout Theatre. Variety called it a "transcendent" production.
For Ontario's Stratford Festival's 61st season in 2013, Jennifer Tarver directed a new production at the Tom Patterson Theatre starring Brian Dennehy as Pozzo, Stephen Ouimette as Estragon, Tom Rooney as Vladimir and Randy Hughson as Lucky.
A web series adaptation titled While Waiting for Godot was produced at New York University in 2013, setting the story among the modern day New York homeless. Directed by Rudi Azank, the English script was based on Beckett's original French manuscript of En attendant Godot (the new title being an alternate translation of the French) prior to censorship from British publishing houses in the 1950s, as well as adaptation to the stage. Season 1 of the web series won Best Cinematography at the 2014 Rome Web Awards. Season 2 was released in Spring 2014 on the show's official website whilewaitingforgodot.com.
A new production directed by Sean Mathias began previews at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in late October 2013, with Ian McKellen as Estragon, Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, Billy Crudup as Lucky and Shuler Hensley as Pozzo.