Book Review: Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot is a 1953 play by Samuel Beckett that has become one of the most important and enigmatic plays of the 20th century. The story revolves around two men waiting for someone – or something – named Godot. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, landscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning. Beckett’s language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured post-World War II Europe. His play remains one of the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time.

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and commended for having “transformed the destitution of man into his exaltation”.

Waiting for Godot has frequently been described as an existentialist play, however – while it does have existentialist themes, it is not an existentialist play, it belongs rather, to what is known as “The Theatre of the Absurd”, focusing on absurdist fiction.

Jean Paul Sartre, who popularised the existentialist movement, tells us that “existence precedes essence”.  We first exist and only then do we define our essence. Just as a painter paints on a blank canvas, our life is a work of art and every action defines us. Therefore, man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. This freedom and responsibility creates a sense of angst, as we are completely on our own, with no ability to depend on others to create our meaning.

Waiting for Godot shares this existentialist condition, that there is no God or superior knowledge we can depend on. However, a major difference is that it does not share that we can create our own meaning. Thus, it is better described as an absurdist play. This stems from the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus, who describes the Absurd in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, as the human incapacity of finding meaning in a meaningless world. The characters are doomed to be faced with the Absurd, and all they can do is try to pass the time.

Waiting for Godot is subtitled “a tragicomedy in two acts”.

Act I

The first act opens up with the following line:

“Estragon: Nothing to be done”

This neatly captures the absurd despair of the play. The main characters are Estragon and Vladimir, they also refer to themselves as Gogo and Didi.

Vladimir is the more responsible and mature of the two, while Estragon seems helpless, always looking for Vladimir’s protection.

Vladimir often muses on religious or philosophical matters, showing his focus on his thoughts, while Estragon is preoccupied with mundane bodily needs such as food and sleep. The duality involves body and mind, making the characters complementary.

They meet at a leafless tree and discuss a variety of issues, ultimately revealing that they are waiting for Godot. Both of them try to pass the time to avoid thinking. They even contemplate hanging themselves from the tree, merely to pass the time. This is a key theme throughout the whole play.

Estragon has a poor memory and Vladimir has to remind him of the events that happened the previous day. But this may be what binds their relationship together. As Estragon forgets, Vladimir reminds him, and together they pass the time.

Estragon falls asleep while waiting¸ but Vladimir wakes him up because he feels lonely. Estragon starts to tell Vladimir about his nightmares, which Vladimir refuses to hear. This idea suggests that the setting of the play may be understood as a purgatory, from which neither man can escape.

The repetitiveness of the play is best illustrated by Estragon’s repeated questions to leave, which are followed each time by Vladimir telling him that they cannot leave because they are waiting for Godot.

While they wait, two other men enter. Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, who is bound by a rope around his neck. Lucky carries heavy bags full of sand and only puts them down when it is necessary to fulfil one of Pozzo’s orders, he immediately picks them back up afterwards. This symbolises humanity’s enslavement to burdens, fulfilling tasks mindlessly and without purpose. Lucky has been serving him for nearly sixty years and Pozzo is on the way to the market to sell Lucky.

We also see the first suggestions that Vladimir and Estragon might represent all of humanity. Later, when Pozzo asks Estragon what his name is, he replies “Adam”, suggesting the first man and the representation of all mankind, this link between Estragon and Adam might tempt one to relate the idea of Godot as God.

Everything commanded by Pozzo is obeyed by Lucky. He commands him to dance and entertain them, and then to think. Lucky performs a sudden monologue spouting a long stream of words and phrases that amount to gibberish. It is so unbearable that they beg him to stop, but he keeps on going, until they throw themselves on him.

Pozzo and Lucky soon depart, leaving Vladimir and Estragon to continue waiting for Godot.

In fact, Lucky seems to fit the role of the absurd hero. In Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus is a man condemned to rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder roll back down to the bottom, for him to start all over again – for eternity.

This is an allegory of the human condition. It is our punishment to our futile search for meaning in an indifferent and meaningless universe, while working on the same mundane tasks, we all have to push our own boulders only to watch it roll back down.

When Beckett was asked why Lucky was so named, he replied, “I suppose he is lucky to have no more expectations…”

Soon a boy shows up and explains to Vladimir and Estragon that he is a messenger from Godot, and that Godot will not be arriving tonight, but tomorrow. They try to ask about Godot, but the boy exits.

Vladimir’s statements that he has met Pozzo, Lucky and the boy before suggests that the same events have been going on for some time: the first act is merely an instance in a long pattern of ceaselessly repeating events.

Estragon: Well? Shall we go?

Vladimir: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

The inability of the characters to move renders both men unable to determine their own fates. Instead of acting, they can only wait for someone or something to act upon them.

Act II

In the second act, Vladimir and Estragon are again waiting near the tree, which has grown a number of leaves since last witnessed in Act 1. This indicates that a certain amount of time has passed between both acts. They are still waiting for Godot.

Lucky and Pozzo reappear, but they are different. Pozzo has become blind and Lucky has become dumb. The balance of power has been switched. Pozzo runs into Lucky and they both fall down, as Pozzo asks for help – Vladimir and Estragon are too busy talking. Vladimir suddenly recognises the problem of inaction when he decides that they should help Pozzo:

“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance!”

Despite this, Vladimir takes plenty of time to begin to help Pozzo to his feet. This suggests that, even with good intentions and resolution, the habit of inaction cannot be broken immediately.

Vladimir also declares at this point that: “all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.” This continues the theme of Vladimir and Estragon’s representation of mankind as a whole and shows that Vladimir is himself aware of this comparison.

After Pozzo and Lucky leave, the boy reappears again. Vladimir already knows what he will say. Godot is not coming this evening, but he’ll come tomorrow. Vladimir implores the boy to remember him the next day, but the boy leaves.

This further indicates that the play is just a representative sample of the larger circle that defines Vladimir and Estragon’s lives.

By this point, the dialogue about waiting for Godot has been repeated so many times that even Estragon knows it:

Estragon: “Let’s go. We can’t. Ah!”.

Vladimir and Estragon consider suicide, but they do not have a rope. They decide to leave and return the day after with a rope if Godot does not arrive.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Analysis

The repetition of these two final lines at the end of each act shows the continued importance of repetition in waiting for Godot. However, the characters switch lines from the previous act, suggesting that ultimately, despite their differences, they are interchangeable after all.

Waiting for Godot is about inaction, waiting for an action that never happens.

“It is a play that 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.” – Vivian Mercier

So, who might Godot be? Godot has often been interpreted as God and the fact that he never shows up reflects the death of God from the post-war world.

However, Beckett explicitly stated that:

“if by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God, and not Godot.”

Godot does not have any fixed definition. It can be described as any belief that promises a complete explanation of our life, this includes religion, science, and philosophy. The play is about the loss of all explanations and all answers.

In the title “Waiting for Godot”, the first part should be stressed. It is about waiting and enduring without answers, forcing us to confront time. It shows what we are like when we have got nothing left but time.

Estragon: I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir: That’s what you think.


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Waiting for Godot | Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot is a 1953 play by Samuel Beckett that has become one of the most important and enigmatic plays of the 20th century. The story revolves around two men waiting for someone – or something – named Godot. His play remains one of the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time.


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