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|Waiting for Godot|
1st English edition (Grove Press) translated by the author
|Written by||Samuel Beckett|
|Date premiered||5 January 1953|
|Place premiered||Théâtre de Babylone, Paris|
Waiting for Godot ( // GOD-oh) is an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. Godot's absence, as well as numerous other aspects of the play, have led to many different interpretations since the play's premiere. It was voted "the most significant English language play of the 20th century". Waiting for Godot is Beckett's translation of his own original French version, 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 première was on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. The production was directed by Roger Blin, who also played the role of Pozzo.
Waiting for Godot follows a pair of men who divert themselves while waiting expectantly, vainly for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim he's an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognize him when they to see him. To occupy the time they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide – anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay".
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. Please help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise. (October 2011)|
The play opens with Estragon struggling to remove a boot. Estragon eventually gives up, muttering, "Nothing to be done." His friend Vladimir takes up the thought and muses on it, the implication being that nothing is a thing that has to be done and this pair is going to have to spend the rest of the play doing it. When Estragon finally succeeds in removing his boot, he looks and feels inside but finds nothing. Just prior to this, Vladimir peers into his hat. The motif recurs throughout the play.
The pair discuss repentance, particularly in relation to the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus, and that only one of the Four Evangelists mentions that one of them was saved. This is the first of numerous Biblical references in the play, which may be linked to its putative central theme of the search for and reconciliation with God, as well as salvation: "We're saved!" they cry on more than one occasion when they feel that Godot may be near.
Presently, Vladimir expresses his frustration with Estragon's limited conversational skills: "Come on, Gogo, return the ball, can't you, once in a while?" Estragon struggles with this throughout the play, and Vladimir generally takes the lead in dialogue and encounters with others. Vladimir is at times hostile towards his companion, but in general they are close, frequently embracing and supporting one another.
Estragon peers out into the audience and comments on the bleakness of his surroundings. He wants to depart but is told that they cannot because they must wait for Godot. The pair cannot agree, however, on whether or not they are in the right place or that this is the arranged day for their meeting with Godot; they are not even sure what day it is. Throughout the play, experienced time is attenuated, fractured or eerily non-existent. The only thing that they are fairly sure about is that they are to meet at a tree: there is one nearby.
Estragon dozes off, but, after rousing him, Vladimir is not interested in hearing about his dream. Estragon wants to hear an old joke about a brothel, which Vladimir starts but cannot finish, as he is suddenly compelled to rush off and urinate. He does not finish the story when he returns, asking Estragon instead what else they might do to pass the time. Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, but they abandon the idea when it seems that they might not both die: leaving one of them alone, an intolerable notion. They decide to do nothing: "It's safer," explains Estragon, before asking what Godot is going to do for them when he arrives. For once it is Vladimir who struggles to remember: "Oh ... nothing very definite," is the best that he can manage.
When Estragon declares that he is hungry, Vladimir provides a carrot, most of which, and without much relish, the former eats. The diversion ends as Estragon announces that they still have nothing to do.
Their waiting is interrupted by the passing through of Pozzo and his heavily-laden slave Lucky. "A terrible cry" from the wings heralds the initial entrance of Lucky, who has a rope tied around his neck. His master appears holding the other end. Pozzo barks orders at his slave and frequently calls him a "pig", but is civil towards the other two. They mistake him at first for Godot and clearly do not recognise him for the self-proclaimed personage he is. This irks him, but, while maintaining that the land that they are on is his, he acknowledges that "the road is free to all".
Deciding to rest for a while, Pozzo enjoys chicken and wine. Finished, he casts the bones aside, and Estragon jumps at the chance to ask for them, much to Vladimir's embarrassment, but is told that they belong to the carrier. He must first, therefore, ask Lucky if he wants them. Estragon tries, but Lucky only hangs his head, refusing to answer. Taking this as a "no", Estragon claims the bones.
Vladimir takes Pozzo to task regarding his mistreatment of his slave, but his protestations are ignored. When the original pairing tries to find out why Lucky does not put down his load (at least not unless his master is prevailing on him to do something else), Pozzo explains that Lucky is attempting to mollify him to prevent him from selling him. At this, Lucky begins to cry. Pozzo provides a handkerchief, but, when Estragon tries to wipe his tears away, Lucky kicks him.
Before he leaves, Pozzo asks if he can do anything for the pair in exchange for the company they have provided during his rest. Estragon tries to ask for some money, but Vladimir cuts him short, explaining that they are not beggars. They nevertheless accept an offer to have Lucky dance and to think.
The dance is clumsy and shuffling. Lucky's "think", induced by Vladimir's putting his hat on his head, is a lengthy and disjointed verbal stream of consciousness. The soliloquy begins relatively coherently but quickly dissolves into logorrhoea and only ends when Vladimir rips off Lucky's hat.
Once Lucky has been revived, Pozzo has him pack up his things and they leave. At the end of the act (and its successor), a boy arrives, purporting to be a messenger sent from Godot, to advise the pair that he 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 an indefinite period and will likely continue to wait ad infinitum. After the boy departs, they decide to leave but make no attempt to do so, an action repeated in Act II, as the curtain is drawn.
Act II opens with Vladimir singing a recursive round about a dog, which could illustrate the cyclical nature of the play's universe, and also point toward the play's debt to the carnivalesque, music hall traditions, and vaudeville comedy (this is only one of a number of canine references and allusions in the play). There is a bit of realisation by Vladimir that the world they are trapped in evinces convoluted progression (or lack thereof) of time. He begins to see that although there is notional evidence of linear progression, basically he is living the same day over and over. Eugene Webb has written of Vladimir's song that "Time in the song is not a linear sequence, but an endlessly reiterated moment, the content of which is only one eternal event: death."
Once again Estragon maintains he spent the night in a ditch and was beaten – by "ten of them" this time – though he shows no sign of injury. Vladimir tries to talk to him about what appears to be a seasonal change in the tree and the proceedings of the day before, but he has only a vague recollection. Vladimir tries to get Estragon to remember Pozzo and Lucky, but all he can call to mind are the bones and getting kicked. Vladimir realises an opportunity to produce tangible evidence of the previous day's events. With some difficulty he gets Estragon to show him his leg. There is a wound which is beginning to fester. Only then Vladimir notices that Estragon is not wearing any boots.
He discovers the pair of boots, which Estragon insists are not his but nevertheless fit when he tries them on. With no carrots left, Vladimir offers Estragon the choice between a turnip and a radish. He opts for the radish but it is black and he hands it back. He decides to try to sleep again and adopts the same fetal position as the previous day. Vladimir sings him a lullaby.
Vladimir notices Lucky's hat, and tries it on. This leads to a frenetic hat-swapping scene. They play at imitating Pozzo and Lucky, but Estragon can barely remember having met them and simply does what Vladimir asks. They fire insults at each other and then make up. After that, they attempt some physical routines which do not work out well, and even attempt a single yoga position, which fails miserably.
Pozzo and Lucky arrive, with Pozzo now blind and insisting that Lucky is dumb. The rope is much shorter, and Lucky – who has acquired a new hat – leads Pozzo, rather than being driven by him. Pozzo has lost all notion of time, and assures them he cannot remember meeting them the day before, and does not expect to remember the current day's events when they are over.
They fall in a heap. Estragon sees an opportunity to extort more food or to exact revenge on Lucky for kicking him. The issue is debated. Pozzo offers them money but Vladimir sees more worth in their entertainment since they are compelled to wait to see if Godot arrives. Eventually though, they all find their way onto their feet.
Whereas Pozzo in Act I is a windbag, he now (as a blind man) appears to have gained some insight. His parting words – which Vladimir expands upon later – eloquently encapsulate the brevity of human existence: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."
Lucky and Pozzo depart. The same boy returns to inform them not to expect Godot today, but promises he will arrive the next day. The two again consider suicide but their rope, Estragon's belt, breaks in two when they tug on it. Estragon's trousers fall down, but he does not notice until Vladimir tells him to pull them up. They resolve to bring a more suitable piece and hang themselves the next day, if Godot fails to arrive.
Again, they agree to leave but neither of them makes any move to go.
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. 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 (when he first came back with his beret ... his mother suggested that he was letting the family down by not wearing a bowler), and [his father] commonly wore one."
There are no physical descriptions of either of the two characters; however, the text indicates that Vladimir is likely 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 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 1979). Beckett also alludes to the comedy team specifically in his novel Watt (1953), when a healthy shrub is described at one point as "a hardy laurel."
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 him 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 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." (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6.). 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. 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 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.
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.'"
"When Roger Blin asked him who or what Godot stood for, Beckett replied that it suggested itself to him by the slang word for boot in French, godillot, godasse because feet play such a prominent role in the play. This is the explanation he has given most often."
"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, // gə-DOH. Beckett himself said the emphasis should be on the first syllable, and that the North American pronunciation is a mistake. The T is silent.
It should be noted that, although Beckett wrote in French and translated to English, his native language was, in fact, Irish. Beckett was fluent in Gaelic, and if we look at "Godot" from that standpoint, we find something really interesting, and typical of Samuel Beckett. If you accept Beckett's own statement that "Godot" should be pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, // (GOD-oh), then it is only a small step to the realization that that pronunciation could be written "go deo" in Irish. "Go deo" is Irish for "forever". With this Irish language sensibility in mind, the title of the play becomes "Waiting For Forever", and the meaning of "Godot", or "Go deo", is clear.
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 (and in English-language productions 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".
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-Theatre 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. Didi and Gogo are only trapped because they still cling to the concept that freedom is possible; freedom is a state of mind, so is imprisonment.
"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 reader or viewer 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 Laurence 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 Woodthrope [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."
The pair is 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 fulfils 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 oestrogen, 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 every human being must come to terms with if they are to take their subjective existences seriously and with intrinsic value. Questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of (or lack 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.
Much of Beckett's work – including Godot – is often considered by philosophical and literary scholars to be part of the movement of the Theatre of the Absurd, a form of theatre which stemmed from the Absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. Absurdism itself is a branch off 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 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 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, indeed, the tree of life. Similarly, because The Boy describes God as having a white beard, and Godot, if the boy's testimony is to be believed, also has a white beard, many 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:
VLADIMIR: Oh ... nothing very definite.
ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer.
ESTRAGON: A vague supplication.
Much of the play, steeped as it is in scriptural allusion, deals with the subject of religion. The entire play takes place atop a hill, which some may interpret as being closer to heaven, giving the play a purpose as religious parable. Similarly Godot keeps sheep and goats.
According to 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 (one of his biographers) points out, his biblical references "may be ironic or even sarcastic".
"In answer to a defence counsel question in 1937 (during a libel action brought by his uncle) as to whether he was a Christian, Jew or atheist, Beckett replied, 'None of the three'". Looking at Beckett's entire œuvre, 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." The earliest drafts contain significant personal references, but these were later excised.
That the play calls on only male actors, with scarcely a reference to women, has caused some to look upon Vladimir and Estragon's relationship as quasi-marital: "they bicker, they embrace each other, they depend upon each other [.... They might be thought of as a married couple." In Act One, Estragon speaks gently to his friend, approaching him slowly and laying a hand on his shoulder. After asking for his hand in turn and telling him not to be stubborn, he suddenly embraces him but backs off just as quickly, complaining, "You stink of garlic!"
When Estragon reminisces about his occasional glances at the Bible and remembers how prettily coloured were the maps of the Dead Sea, he remarks, "That's where we'll go, I used to say, that's where we'll go for our honeymoon. We'll swim. We'll be happy." Furthermore, the temptation to achieve post-mortem erections arises in the context of a world without females. Estragon in particular is "[h]ighly excited", in contrast with Vladimir, who chooses this moment to talk about shrieking mandrakes. His apparent indifference to his friend's arousal may be viewed as a sort of playful teasing.
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, Beckett took a Dutch theatre company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur to court over this issue. "Beckett [...] lost his case. But 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 the production would not cause excessive damage to Beckett's legacy", and the play was 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, and a 2001 production at Indiana University staged the play with women playing Pozzo and the Boy.
"[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:
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 Wuppertal 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 Luttringhausen and 1957 San Quentin Prison productions of Waiting For Godot was 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 nineteen-fifties, 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. 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 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:
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 John Lahr's book about his father, Notes on a Cowardly Lion.
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), and F. Murray Abraham (Pozzo). 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.
Another production in the West End, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, opened on 30 April 2009. Sir Ian McKellen played Estragon and Sir Patrick Stewart played Vladimir. Their performances garnered critical acclaim. The Daily Telegraph reported that Patrick Stewart saw the ghost of John Baldwin Buckstone standing in the wings during a performance at the Haymarket. The production was revived at the same theatre in January 2010 for 11 weeks. In 2010, this same production toured internationally, with Roger Rees replacing Stewart as Vladimir.
A 2009 Broadway revival of the play, starring Nathan Lane 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.
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