With Beckett, theatre is already in its grave. —Pierre Marcabru, Arts Spectacles
Waiting for Godot is not a traditional allegory; its allusions and apparent symbols—like Kafka’s—do not yield a single coherent explicable meaning, though their resonance has evoked intriguing interpretations. Like Eliot’s ‘fragments shored against my ruins", Beckett’s allusions , including the play’s many over Christian references (e.g., the crucified thieves, the sheep and goats), are shards of a culture, used in the play for their suggestiveness but without exact allegorical equation . Among readers and audience members, as among the characters whom Beckett described as "non-knowers and non-can-ers", a disconcerting uncertainty about the meaning of the play is a crucial part of the experience of Waiting for Godot and any discussion of it.
Apart from the fact of the characters’ waiting and the occurrence of certain events during that time (the duration of which is itself uncertain), the only certainty is that any certainty about their plight is wrong. Accordingly, any interpretation that purports to know who Godot is (or is not), whether he exists, whether he will ever come, whether he has ever come, or even whether he may have come without being recognised (or possibly in disguise) is, if not demonstrably wrong, at least not demonstrably right. This principle of literary uncertainty, which Waiting for Godot brought to the theatre for the first time, is no less revolutionary than its counterpart in physics, discovered by Werner Heisenberg in 1927: The accuracy of a measurement (i.e., an assessment of the play) is given by the uncertainty in the result (i.e., in the interpretation), and the product of the combined uncertainties of simultaneous measurements of (critical) positions and momentum accounts for the seemingly endless variety of interpretations (those of Beckett’s play are second in volume and diversity only to those of Hamlet).
Other familiar literary parallels and precedents for the seemingly unprecedented aspects of Waiting for Godot [include the following]: The play’s sere, evening landscape, which obviously resembles that of Eliot’s "Waste Land", is fundamentally similar to Matthew Arnold’s "darkling plain" in "Dover Beach". Though Beckett’s plain is peopled by an unknown " they " that administers beating for unknown reasons rather than "ignorant armies [that] clash by night", it is also a world that "[h]ath really neither joy, now love, nor light/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain". Furthermore, Beckett’s emphasis on our inability to find a single coherent meaning in experience is anticipated in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, whose speaker seeks meaning and wisdom in life from "all the Saints and Sages who discussed/Of the Two Worlds so wisely" but to no avail, as the speaker nevertheless "came out the same door where in [he] went".
Ultimately, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, Beckett’s characters confront "helplessness, . . . terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God and the absence of God"—arguably the five most profound and recurrent themes of modern literature. The questions that Ivan Ilych asks resonate throughout Beckett’s works as well: "‘Why hast Thou done all this? Why has Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?’" Yet, invariably, Beckett’s characters do not weep, as Ivan Ilych does, "because there was no answer and could be none". Instead, they persevere and endure, going on even when they seem last able to, waiting and hoping, refusing to give in to the temptation of despair.
William Hutchings Waiting for Godot and the Principle of Uncertainty from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
What this new school of dramatists is telling us is that all the subjects which have traditionally engaged the attention of practitioners of the art —reversals of fortune, fall of princes, star-crossed lovers, etc— are superficialities, and that the real subject for the playwright is the basic minimum of human life , something that is not changed one jot by such trifles as jealousy or anger or lust.
Anthony Hartley from Cathleen Culotta Andonian Critical Response to Samuel Beckett
From Harold Clurman’s review of Godot:
Complete disenchantment is at the heart of the play, but Beckett refuses to honour this disenchantment by a serious demeanour. Since life is an incomprehensible nullity enveloped by colourful patterns of fundamentally absurd and futile activities (like a clown’s habit clothing a corpse), it is proper that we pass our time laughing at the spectacle.
We pass the time, Beckett tells us, waiting for a meaning that will save us—save us from the pain, ugliness, emptiness of existence. Perhaps the meaning is God, but we do not know Him. He is always promised us but he never recognisably appears. Our life is thus a constant waiting , always essentially the same, till time itself ceases to have significance or substance. "I can’t go on like this" man forever cries; to which the reply is "That’s what you think." "What’ll we do? What’ll we do?" man repeatedly wails. The only answer given—apart from suicide, which is reticently hinted at—is to wait: "In the meantime let us try to converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent."
Art, someone has said, is the articulation of an experience. Beckett’s experience is almost commonplace by now to the middle-class European intelligentsia and valid by virtue of that fact alone—and his expression of it is sharply witty, inventive, theatrically compact. (He even uses boredom as a means of entertainment.) Yet the play may be said to be too long, too simple, too clear, too symmetrical a fairy tale, because it is an abstraction. . . . In Waiting for Godot, almost everything is named. When abstraction is so clear, our attention weakens. As soon as we perceive the play’s design everything else appears superogatory.
Beckett is what in modern times we call a genius: he has built a cosmos out of the awareness of a passing moment. But what saves humanity is its mediocrity : its persistence in becoming wholly involved in the trivia of day-to-day physical concerns out of which arise all our struggles and aspirations, even to the most exalted level. It is this "stupid" appetite for life , this crass identity with it, which is its glory, sometimes called divine.
from Cathleen Culotta Andonian Critical Response to Samuel Beckett
The play does not, as it progresses, create a context in which one can risk an interpretation; its words and action do not grow "to something of great constancy"; and when pressed to tell what the play finally means, [one] may want to say with Bert Lahr, who played Estragon in the first American production, "Damned if I know".
Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, . . . was disarmed by the play: "Waiting for Godot is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time". Norman Mailer , apologising for an earlier attack on Godot, suggested that Lucky’s speech "is the one strangled cry of active meaning in the whole play, . . . a cry across the abyss from impotence to Apollo"; he added in parenthesis, " I am not altogether unconvinced that Lucky himself may be Godot —it is, at the least, a possibility".
Brecht’s description of the alienation effect in Chinese acting helps explain the way Godot works:[T]he audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.
While certainly not a piece of epic theatre, Godot hold members of the audience at a distance , insists throughout that they are watching a performance, and keeps them continually struggling, "on a conscious plane", to make sense of what is happening on the stage, of what is seen and heard.
"The "symbolism", said Jacques Audiberti in a review of the first Paris production, "is optional" and, one might add, too easily detachable from the words and action of the play, "but applause is obligatory".
Godot simultaneously demands that we interpret it and eludes all our efforts to do so. The play leaves us with another uncertainty as well, as Beckett suggested in one of his best-known comments on Godot: "There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. . . . ‘Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.’" Like King Lear, Waiting for Godot ends in a question. It asks not whether Godot will ever come but, more profound and troubling, whether we live in a sane or a lunatic universe. The question can never be answer, and yet, as Godot insists, it must always remain a question lest we give way to the arrogant presumption of certitude or the debilitating despair of scepticism.
Having shown how Waiting for Godot is life materialised, [one] can then discuss other "matter" of literature and drama: literary allusions, the nuances of language, rhetorical techniques, philosophical parallels, religious symbolism, lighting, staging devices. Without first grounding the play in the reader’s experience, however, all these interesting avenues into the text generally lead only to some regurgitating of half-remembered answers . . . in other words, to Lucky’s monologue.
Michael J Collins Let's Contradict Each Other": Responding to Godot from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
. . . Beckett’s writings , it might well be argued, are more than mere illustrations of the point-of-view of existentialist philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre; they constitute the culmination of existential thought itself, precisely because they are free of any abstract concepts or general ideas, and thus escape the inner contradiction of existentialist statements that are couched in the form of generalisations.
In this respect, for instance, they are certainly superior to those of Sartre’s works, in which the philosopher has followed the logic of his own position to the point of putting his ideas into the form of fiction or drama; and this is the case not only because Beckett’s work is on a higher level of artistic intensity and creativeness, but also because Sartre’s narrative prose and theatre clearly bear the marks of having been preconceived as an illustration of general concepts and are therefore denied the profound immediate experiential validity of Beckett’s writings. Beckett’s rigid avoidance of comments on his work must be seen in this light, and the correctness, the inevitability, of his position will be instantly recognised.
In the relentlessness of his self-denial, the purity of his dedication to his chosen talk, Beckett is akin to Kafka and Kierkegaard, who were equally committed to a life of the most uncompromising self-examination. Indeed, it is from the writings of Kierkegaard, the first and still incomparably the greatest of the existentialist thinkers, that we can , as it were, deduce the theoretical framework , the basic pattern that Kierkegaard sketched out for himself and tried to live up to, but which Beckett fulfills more radically, giving it a far more satisfying artistic realisation.
. . . Of course, we must always keep in mind in pursuing these fascinating correspondences and parallels that it is the shape of the thought, the symmetry that matters, that such enquiries must never rigidify into results —in Kierkegaard’s sense. . . . Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot, richly interlarded with references to the results of numerous authorities . . . is , among other things, a salutary warning against, and savage parody of, the belief that the sum of human wisdom, of "thinking", can be increased by citing the results of established authorities.
The so-called nihilism of Beckett . . . can thus be seen as no more than the necessary outcome of Beckett’s refusal to deal in generalisations and abstract truths. . . . The existential experience is thus felt as a succession of attempts to give shape to the void ; when nothing can lay claim to final, definitive reality, we enter a world of games, of arbitrary actions structures to give the illusion of reality. So Vladimir and Estragon think up their ways to pass the time, . . .
. . . it is not the content of the work, not what is said, that matters in a writer of Beckett’s stamp, but the quality of the experience that is communicated. To be in communication with a mind of such merciless integrity, of such uncompromising determination to face the stark reality of the human situation and to confront the worst without even being in danger of yielding to any of the superficial consolations that have clouded man’s self-awareness in the past; to be in contact with a human being utterly free from self-pity, utterly oblivious to the pitfalls of vanity or self-glorification, even that most venial complacency of all, the illusion of being able to lighten one’s anguish by sharing it with others ; to see a long figure, without hope of comfort, facing the great emptiness of space and time without the possibility of miraculous rescue or salvation, in dignity , resolved to fulfill its obligation to express its own predicament— to partake of such courage and noble stoicism , however remotely, cannot but evoke a feeling of emotional excitement, exhilaration.
Martin Esslin Samuel Beckett
[In attempting to understand the play, we consider] the intellectual and artistic climate of postwar Europe, the culmination of a centuries-long attack on Christian and humanist notions of humanity as part of a divinely ordered creation with established social and metaphysical definitions of meaning. We consider the undermining of this worldview by the Enlightenment; by developments in science, psychology, social science and philosophy; by industrialism and two world wars, and by breakdowns in the conventions of artistic representation. We consider philosophical existentialism as a reflection of this historical and cultural milieu: a radical denial of external meaning, a philosophy of human abandonment in a world where "existence precedes essence" (Sartre, Philosophy) . . . [and] the following quotations:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding What will suffice. It has not always had To find: the scene was set; it repeated what Was in the script. Then the theatre was changed To something else. Its past was a souvenir. . . . It has To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and With meditation, speak words that in the ear, In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat, Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound Of which, an invisible audience listens, Not to the play, but to itself, expressed In an emotion as of two people, as of two Emotions becoming one. (Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry")A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)
As Alain Robbe-Grillet notes in an essay on Beckett’s drama, "The condition of man, says Heidegger, is to be there. The theatre probably reproduces this situation more naturally than any of the other ways of representing reality. The essential thing about a character in a play is that he is ‘on the scene’: there."
. . . What is the experience of silence, of speechlessness? when one is alone? when one is with others? What is the specific experience of theatrical silence, the quality of being when a roomful of people sit without speaking? . . . [we attempt] to uncover the particular fullness of theatrical silence, the anxiousness, even the unbearableness of that stillness when language stops . . . the physiology of silence—the awareness of heartbeat and respiration, a heightened attention—and we note an acute consciousness of those around us, that awkward and inescapable proximity of others that silence heightens. We note the experience of self that rushes in when the shield of language gives way, the "suffering of being" that seems such and intrinsic part of self-consciousness, and we explore the urge to fill this silence with thought, distraction, anything. During such and exercise, it becomes clear that the theatre is (in Jean-Louis Barrault’s words) an "Art of Sensation" and that Beckett’s drama explores the "mystery of Presence" that the theatre shares with life. . . . It becomes clear, too, that the language games of Beckett’s world—the little canters—are responses to felt urgencies, ways of shielding oneself from the nakedness of exposure. Viewed this way, language in Waiting for Godot becomes a way of shaping silence, an almost sculptural act by which the stillness of theatrical space is alternately contained and liberated. The cross talk and routines, even Lucky’s torrential monologue, are seen as defensive manoeuvres, against the perceptual weight of a silence that the audience is made to share. Forced into an awareness of its own responses, Beckett’s audience listens, "Not to the play, but to itself, expressed/In an emotion as of two people, as of two/Emotions becoming one."
A tantalising gloss on the material "thereness" of Beckett’s world comes from Chekhov, in a 1904 letter to Olga Knipper: "You ask: What is life? That is just the same as asking: What is a carrot? A carrot is a carrot, and nothing more is known about it".
Stanton B Garner, Jr Teaching the Theatre, Teaching Godot from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
On that cold day in January 1965 I went hopefully to Sloane Square, feeling as though I was to be given a half-hour séance with Shakespeare or Racine—anyone who thinks this exaggerated should read George Devine’s account in Beckett at Sixty: "To meet Samuel Beckett for the first time must be described as the experience of a lifetime. . . . In that half-hour, I was in touch with all the great streams of European thought and literature from Dante onwards . . . "
Colin Duckworth: Is Lucky’s speech intended to be a parody of the Joycean style? SB: No CD: Does Godot come in the interval? SB: No CD: Do you feel a desire for self-destruction in the face of the horrors of the world? SB: The autobiographical aspect is not in the least important in Godot. I express no personal opinions in it. CD: Is a Christian interpretation of the play justified? SB: Yes, Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar. So naturally I use it.
Colin Duckworth Angels of Darkness
. . . Godot [is] remarkable by the mere fact of being a popular play on an unpopular theme. It popularity is a smack in the face for all those who say that to be a skillful playwright one must first be a "man of the theatre." As far as I know, Mr Beckett may never have been backstage in his life until Godot was first performed. Yet, this first play shows consummate stagecraft. Its author 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.
. . . Godot makes fun even of despair. No further proof of Mr Beckett’s essential Irishness is needed. He outdoes MM Sartre and Camus in skepticism, just as Swift beat Voltaire at his own game. . . . About the only thing Godot shows consistent respect for is the music-hall low-comedy tradition.
Vivian Mercier from Cathleen Culotta Andonian Critical Response to Samuel Beckett
. . . the play [is] both splendidly comic and unmitigatedly pessimistic. The piece is, after all, a tragicomedy, and it deals with that "mysterious situation before which, horrified, we laugh" (Sartre). Vladimir’s emphasis on the story of the two thieves, dwelling on its textual uncertainties, betrays his own conflicting hope and despair. Beckett’s placement of this story early in the play indicates his authorial concern with establishing immediately the theme of blighted hope, the tone of grieving despair. The comic mode of delivery underscores the tragicomic nature of the play.
Kristin Morrison Biblical Allusions in Waiting for Godot from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
. . . it is . . . significant that the first practitioners of the "Theatre of the Absurd" came from among a category of people particularly intensely exposed to . . . problems of loss and alienation—exiles: Adamov, a Russian-Armenian; Ionesco, a Romanian; Beckett, a Parisian Irishman; and Genet, an outcast of society everywhere as a criminal and ex-male-prostitute.
. . . there is their shared basic attitude to the world and life: a recognition that any certainties, any valid insights into the essential nature of the universe for the purpose of human life on earth are beyond our reach, humankind being too short-lived, too limited in its perceptual apparatus and in its intellect ever to penetrate these ultimate mysteries. Camus and Sartre, the creators of French postwar existentialism, coined the phrase that summed up this recognition: what is beyond explanation, inaccessible to any rational explanation or understanding must remain "senseless" and—in that special meaning of the word—"absurd". Like the protagonists of Waiting for Godot, all of us are uncertain about who we are and how we got here. Being rational creatures, we think there must be a purpose in our being here: we are all tending to wait for it to become clear to us, but that is an illusion. We might as well make the best of our situation as it is and learn to live within the limits of our understanding.
The recognition of the limitations of the range of our possible understanding of the world is linked with an awareness of our isolation as individuals: communication is difficult, if not impossible. We can never really know what other people feel, what it is like to be another human being. All we have is our own sensual apparatus, and that is limited, fallible, and subject to our individual moods. "Reality" is simply what we experience, and we can never be quite sure whether what we experience is dream, hallucination, wishful fantasy, or hard "reality", however that may be defined. The plays of the "Theatre of the Absurd" thus tend to hover in a borderland between dream and reality . . .
In a world so short of certainties, anything that smacks of too rational or logical structures is suspect: plots with rigid motivational chains of cause and effect . . . so does too firm a definition of character. If one believes, as Christians, do, that each human soul was specially created by God and will retain its unique identity for all eternity (whether in heaven or hell), character is a rigidly defined entity. To the playwrights of the "Theatre of the Absurd", there are no such definitions. The self itself is a mystery. We often experience ourselves as bundles of contradictory tendencies, and we know that we change through time. . . . With plot and character thus made more problematic, . . . we do never quite clearly know who the characters really are or where they come from, and endings tend to be inconclusive.
Moreover, language itself, in the light of so much uncertainty, will be perceived as being far from so unproblematic a medium of exchange and communication as it appears in traditional realistic theatre. The characters talk to each other, but are they really communicating? Or is language merely a form of reassurance that they are still there, that some sort of contact is still in being?
In stressing the "absurdity" of human existence, its evanescence and nugatory nature in the face of eternal mystery and the absence of a discernible purpose of our lives, even the saddest events cannot be taken too seriously, must—in the face of eternal darkness and the inevitability of death—appear as comic. The highest form of laughter (the "risus purus" Beckett calls it in his early novel Watt) is the laughter about human unhappiness.
Yet, ultimately, this tragicomic theatre is life-enhancing: for it tries to remind the audience of the need to face human existence "knowing the worst", which ultimately is a liberation, with the courage and the humility of not taking oneself and one’s own pains too seriously , and to bear all life’s mysteries and uncertainties, and thus to make the best of what we have rather than to hanker after illusory certainties and rewards.
Martin Esslin Beckett and the "Theatre of the Absurd" from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
"MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD COULD'VE PAINTED THAT"
. . . a letter I received from a doctor, who voiced such strong protest about the possible dangerous effects of Beckett’s plays, that his warning should be quoted at length:
My daughter has to study En attendant Godot at her university and it profoundly disturbs me that this sort of thing should be read by girls of 19. She referred me to your very interesting introduction to the play which reveals an apparent schizophrenic disorder in Godot—strikingly confirmed when one comes to read the text. There is an excellent and clear account of Schizophrenia in a little text book of Psychiatric Medicine but Curran and Gutmann and the following features are listed by Dr Curran:1—Nihilistic ideas
2—De-personalisation=loss of sense of "self"
3—De-realisation=loss of sense of reality
5—Failure of communication
6—Catatonia=spells of physical immobility, as at the end of Acts I and II
8—Preoccupation with disorders of excretory functions
11—Periods of silence and inertia
12—Neglect of personal hygiene
13—Flight of ideas (e.g. Lucky’s speech)
14—Word "salads", neologisms, auto-echolalia (Lucky’s speech)
15—Polyvalent ambiguous symbolism, vague metaphysical ideas and religious references
Godot is full of these things. It is interesting to note that Dr Curran mentions that some schizophrenics are successful in the theatre, the audience relishing the allusive odd style of talking.
I do not imply that Beckett himself suffers from the rather terrible disorder of Schizophrenia, in spite of the unfortunate photograph published with the play, but that he has learned to copy its mode of expression. There is certainly a grotesque sense of the comic Godot but one would need the sort of literary equivalent of coprophilia to find anything "beautiful" or "artistic" in it if these terms any longer have meaning.
From a medical point of view it is my opinion that this sort of play (and I am sure that Godot is far from being the worst of its genre) is dangerous to the immature unstable youngsters that today seem to gain entrance to our "universities" if it propagates an offensive noxious nihilistic anti-religious idea of life. Adherents of this barren idea solace themselves with drugs, sex and uncouth behaviour, and arrive at my Hospital Emergency Department poisoned or injured. They arrogantly replace the splendid positive attitudes which produced the great art of Florence and Venice with a series of boring platitudes . . . and wonder why they become miserable. The Chinese call it "seeking the Sacred Emperor in the low-class tea rooms".
Somebody ought to make a study of the psychopathology of novels and plays written since 1918; they are a mine of morbid introspection, nihilism, depression, schizophrenic ideas etc. Freudian free-association and the use of eccentric imagery and vague symbolism is commonplace to any doctor who has attended a psychiatric clinic, but I can understand its apparent novelty to lay persons. It offers an enormous and fascinating field of writing to those without much talent, being very easy to acquire, dispensing with rules and therefore difficulties, and being fashionable. . . . there is nothing clever about Beckett in this—I could do the same myself.
Colin Duckworth Angels of Darkness
Schizophrenia is such an important characteristic of Beckett’s heroes it is advisable to discuss the main features of it here. The essential element is a withdrawal of interest from the outside world and a concentration upon an inner world of phantasy , but there are many concomitant symptoms and variations in the degree of the malady.
In the catatonic form of the disease the patient is at times quite inert and seems in a stupor, while at other times he makes extraordinary gestures or takes up bizarre postures, or behaves in obviously maniacal ways, perhaps attempting suicide or homicide. Paranoic patients suffer from delusions of persecution or grandeur , hear inner voices and sometimes have visual hallucinations. The distinction between catatonic and paranoiac forms is perhaps rather one of clinical convenience than anything fundamental, since as the malady progresses it tends to include some symptoms of both types.
But there is one important and general feature, namely the poverty of the patient’s emotional life ; he seems to have no affection for anyone, and this trait is usually shown quite early in the course of the psychosis, or even before it is established. The patient, in Freudian terminology, has withdrawn his libido from people to concentrate it narcissistically on his own ego. This feature is characteristic of the Beckett "heroes".
When living in London (1933-35) [Beckett] visited the Bethlem Royal Hospital with a doctor friend who worked there; presumably this visit arose because he was already interested in psychotics, and doubtless he learned much both from observation and from discussion with the doctor.
More important than this, however must have been his earlier acquaintance with the Joyce family . . . the daughter, Lucia, [who] fell rather violently in love with Beckett, . . . [and] who was talented in music, dancing and painting, had seemed even in her teens to be odd and rather unbalanced, . . . One day in 1932 (aged twenty-five) she attacked her mother in an obviously psychotic outburst, and had to be put into a sanatorium. . . . Not very long after this she fell into a catatonic stupor and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic case. . . . It is hardly surprising that Beckett should have become interested in the symptoms of schizophrenia . . .
But thought’s the slave of life, and life’s time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. —Henry IV, Part I, V, iv
. . . in Waiting for Godot . . . he seems to be treating simultaneously on the stage the two basic selves of the split mind, the inner-self and the pseudo-self, embodied in a pair of characters whose inter-relationship is ambivalent , being based on mutual antagonism and mutual dependence. Though constantly at loggerheads they are at bottom "like to a double cherry, seeming parted, but yet an union in partition."
G C Barnard Samuel Beckett: A New Approach
If we stand back from the play and try to see it whole, we can read it as a parable that points into the philosophical domain. It is the parable of Two Tramps Waiting, in which waiting is the ontological position of humankind. Like a New Testament parable, Godot reveals the situation of the human being sub specie aeternitatis.
That the tramps represent all humanity is clear not so much from what they say (" all mankind is us ", which might only be a convenient aphorism and must anyway be unreliable) as from their unexplained, provisional and vulnerable status. They are human beings in a classic allegorical position, on a road. Unlike Bunyan’s Christian, however, they are not on a journey, instead they have nowhere to go. They are not travelling, but waiting—Godot has achieved almost mythic status as the waiting play. Sartre best expresses the meaningful side of the parable when he deals with waiting in Being and Nothingness.
Everything in the play is subsumed under the heading of waiting. Lucky’s speech, for instance, is at first waited for as it if might reveal something important: when he is ordered to speak. Vladimir and Estragon are at once " all attention ". But when nothing is revealed, Vladimir and Estragon "protest violently" and then fall on Lucky, punishing him, surely, for his failure to deliver what they have been waiting for. Pozzo waits to sell Lucky but is unable to do so. He waits for illumination, but he goes blind. Pozzo falls and waits for help to get up; the tramps assist him only because it is dramatically necessary that they are alone onstage at the end of the play. As soon as they get him off the stage, he collapses again.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre describes the limitations that freedom imposes on freedom: we freely choose to do something in the present, but the meaning of this choice will only become apparent in the future when, by another free choice, we confirm or deny what we thought we were about. Adolescents going through a religious phase may grow into adults who look back at that time when they were "passing through a crisis of puberty"; alternatively, they may "engage . . . in earnest in the way of devotion", in which case they will see their adolescent faith as the first step on the ladder of perfection. Only the future, then, allows us to know what the present is, but by the time we reach the future, the present will, of course, be the past. This predicament, says Sartre, creates the "necessity for us to wait for ourselves. Our life is only a long waiting: first a waiting for the realisation of our ends . . . and especially a waiting for ourselves". According to Sartre, people are human to the extent that they "temporalise" or tell stories about themselves. "Thus it is necessary to consider our life as being made up not only of waitings but of waitings which themselves wait for waitings". For Sartre, human beings can never catch up with themselves or be in any final or satisfying way. They are forever engaged in playing provisional rôles, in expectation of becoming fulfilled.
Such a chain of thought inevitably pushes us forward to the end of life:These waitings evidently all include a reference to a final term which would be waited for without waiting for anything more. A repose which would be being and no longer a waiting for being. The whole series is suspended from this final term which on principle is never given and which is the value of our being. (Being and Nothingness)
This "final term", for Sartre, if it ever came, would be God.
Or Godot. Vladimir and Estragon (and all humankind) wait for a final term from which they are quite obviously suspended (they are "hanging around", as we say). Were Godot to come, they would know the meaning of their lives, but he is ("on principle") never given. Godot does not come in the play not because he has better things to do but because by not coming he forces the tramps into the Sartrean position of waiting, that is, into an allegorical version of human life itself.
The pretense that Godot can come is analogous to the creation by human beings of an imaginary telos, a god who will at the end of time explain, adjust and fulfill all. It is not just a question of the simple equation Godot=God, there is no God so there is no Godot; such and emptiness could perhaps be filled by a robust atheist humanism. Beckett clearly wants to avoid that path. Why? It can only that his system of mathematics is different. For Beckett, as for Sartre, human beings are condemned to a life of waiting for a telos that, be definition, would be God if it came but that, also by definition, could not come without turning human beings into something that was not human. To be human is to wait for what cannot come.
Suicide, then, is beside the point. It assumes that the problems in the play are problems within the world. Beckett’s concern, rather, is with the nature of the world itself, its condition of existence, which is Sartrean in the sense that there can be no world at all, no question of suicide, for instance, except on the basis of a human reality that exists only in a state of expectation, never in a state of fulfillment. Vladimir and Estragon would solve nothing by hanging themselves because, paradoxically, the only meaning they can have is the provisional Sartrean meaning that lies in the ever-deferred hope of present expectation (although "hope deferred maketh the something sick", we remember). Death is not God or Godot; death finally removes the possibility of even provisional meaning from life: "If I am a waiting for waitings for waiting and if suddenly the object of my final waiting and the one who awaits it are suppressed, the waiting takes on retrospectively the character of absurdity" (Sartre, Being and Nothingness). There lies the trap, Sartre’s and Beckett’s: there is an absurdity in life, which is waiting for that which never comes, and an absurdity in death, which cancels even the possibility of waiting for what never comes.
Lance St John Butler Waiting for Godot and Philosophy from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
Beckett’s choice of French as his medium is unique. Political or geographical necessities have often compelled writers to abandon their native languages, and a desire to imitate the classics prompted many English poets to turn their classical education into a reality.
Beckett’s decision, however, differs in purpose from all the accepted reasons. It seems to have been both voluntary and a necessity: voluntary because the decision was made without impersonal pressure, a necessity because it was urged by one of the frequent impasses at which his art arrives. Moreover the transition from English to French was made feasible by Beckett’s self-imposed exile in France. In this he deliberately chose the condition of his early exemplars, Joyce and Dante, and it is not likely that he was unaware of its effect on the artist. For exile forces writers to consolidate a vision of the world and to attempt to give the latter total expression in their works.
In Beckett’s case . . . his adopted language proved more tractable and assisted in the creation of his vision which became at once more complete and incisive than it had been in the English novels. In French his hero discovers his true accent and assumes a universal significance; . . . This achievement was doubly unique because it involves not only the use of French but also the arduous process or retranslation into the author’s native tongue.
. . . As a language English is more prone than most to diversions of meaning: its power of suggestion far exceeds the more explicit French. Moreover in the writer’s native tongue assimilated, concealed meanings are more difficult to discern than in the rational process of using a learnt language. The use of French, therefore, helps Beckett to maintain the tension on which his writing depends . . .
In French Beckett creates another literary personality, one who is able at times to separate himself from the tissue of implied meanings within the words. The tone now suggests fragments brought back from the edge of experience. The comparative certainty of the third-person narrative is replaced by the pained and worried first-person whose monologue is broken into breath pause and articulatory emphasis by the obsessive comma.
When asked about the contradiction which must exist if one continues to write under the conviction that language cannot convey a meaning, Beckett replied, "Que voulez-vous, Monsieur? C’est les mots; on n’a rien d’autre." [What do you want? They are words, we have nothing else.]
In the theater, or at least in the theatrical tradition with which Beckett aligns himself, language is only one vehicle among many and not the most important. The total meaning of a performance includes mime, silence, decor and above all action, that which is actually seen to take place by an audience.
This promises a firmer reality than a subjective monologue written and read in isolation: perhaps on the stage the reality behind the words may be revealed by the action which often contradicts their literal meaning. For example:
E Well? shall we go? V Yes, let’s go. They do not move.
The theatre allows Beckett a double freedom; the opportunity to explore the blank spaces between the words and the ability to provide visual evidence of the untrustworthiness of language.
Michael Robinson The Long Sonata of the Dead
The superficial comedy of the play which provokes in us an initial laughter is abruptly corrected by our sudden recognition of the potential tragedy in the human situation as it is portrayed here. However, there is every likelihood that the play comes full circle, so that though we may not realise it, we are perhaps called upon to laugh at things we do not usually laugh at. What may be appropriate here is the dianoetic laughter (the mirthless, the sardonic laugh) which comes with the recognition of an absurdity which overrides the tragedy in the human condition.
In other words, it is not so much a question of whether we have here a tragedy or a comedy but rather that a unilateral response to En attendant Godot is not appropriate. We, the audience, do not readily make this third step which would complete the cycle of responses from comedy to tragedy to comedy, but it is likely that Beckett himself has made the necessary transitions. He may then laugh not only at the characters in his play but at us when we "weep" for them.
If, then, Beckett views this tragic plight with which we tend to sympathise as ultimately comic, his opinion of man is indeed pessimistic and raises the question as to what his artistic ends may be. Again conventional answers, such as catharsis, punishment through ridicule, and so forth, are unacceptable.
Just how Beckett views art can be discerned to some extent from the play itself. We find evidence here (as in his other writings) that art may constitute a diversion, however momentary, from the tedium and the ennui of existence, as it may also deter withdrawal. If this is the case, then we are confronted with a paradox, and Beckett may be as much against as for art.
That aspect of comedy . . . is conventional in nature, having its origins in commedia dell-arte, pantomime and vaudeville traditions. Comic devices belonging in this category include physical comedy found in such things as falling and stumbling, and in the voyeurism of Estragon. On a somewhat higher level, we have linguistic comedy coming from puns, misunderstandings, scatalogical word play and from ceremonial and ritualistic uses of language. . . .
. . . What we are laughing at here is for the most part limitations in both the physical and intellectual domains. Our laughter in these cases may be classified as social because we are in agreement concerning the subject for laughter.
However in Godot the superficial comedy is extended to grotesque exaggerations. These appear in the egotism of the characters, especially the pompousness and platitudinousness of Pozzo, as well as his mistreatment of Lucky. They can also be observed in the macabre appearance of Lucky, and in the frenzied pace of games with which Estragon and Vladimir intend to cope with the ever-present ennui. This grotesqueness underlying the superficial comedy leads us , whether correctly or incorrectly, to the tragic mode.
. . . the tragic element . . . has been called an anti-play , on the grounds that it has no character development and no plot. . . . This is true because insofar as there are no events in Godot there can be no possibility of an outcome, no tragic recognition and no transcendence. In addition, we have in this play stylisation or character "types" without any clear identity. There is no development of the characters, no evolution, and indeed, if anything, a declension. This, of course, is to be expected, in view of the fact that these men are victims of their habits and are thus incapable of voluntary change. In fact, no one of the men can be designated as the tragic hero who falls (conventionally from great heights), and there is thus no sublimity involved.
Although in Godot there is no delving into individual psychological makeup of the four characters, they are psychological types. Furthermore, collectively these characters represent universal man. We do not identify with any one of the characters as we would do with a tragic hero, but rather with the general human situation as well as with the particular situation in which each character find himself.
While in the case of the tragic hero we identify with his exceptional and his uncompromising nature, we recognise in these four men another side of ourselves, that side which is all too willing to compromise. The characters of Godotcompromise not only with each other but also with their situation, and this is in part why the play can be called an ultra-modern tragedy. That is to say we do not have a catastrophe or some tragic condition which has been brought about through tragic error; it is man’s situation itself, neither remediable nor provoked by human manipulations, which is tragic.
The play, then, is tragic in the sense that it portrays man as a victim of himself, a victim of his own finite nature. It is a tragedy portraying the limitations of reason as well as of imagination. It is deterministic, showing that the will is limited and yet capable of putting man in a position of willful false optimism if not a willful lack of preoccupation with the tragic elements of his existence. Instead, the characters, who are bound to the realm of forfeiture described by Heidegger, are preoccupied only with trivia . . .
Man’s tragedy as seen here has, in fact, a double source—an internal one arising from his finite nature and an external one in which that nature collides with the cosmos. In En attendant Godot we have horror without exaltation. Our reaction to the scene that unfolds before us is one of horror and despair. We sympathise, whether rightly or wrongly, with the characters, who may also have a feeling of horror and despair, although with then it must be considered largely subconscious.
Be that as it may, by the close of the play we feel the despair and ennui of existence; we are made mindful of the foolishness of all activity between birth and death. What is proposed is a tendency toward death in the form of absolutes, of withdrawal, of a denial of life.
The central irony of all this is that while the compromises depicted result in absurdity through their imprisoning consequences, correctives such as withdrawal result in absurdity through their freedom. And this freedom must be viewed as paradoxical freedom because it represents life apart from life, a kind of death in life. It is freedom which is isolationist and nihilistic, freedom without responsibility.
. . . Just as we have superficial comedy, so also do we have physical suffering, the most elementary kind of suffering. Estragon’s feet hurt; he is hungry; he receives beatings during the night. Because of his condition, Vladimir cannot laugh but only smile (thus physical suffering may hamper the comic response), and he must urinate frequently (a source of amusement to Estragon).
On the other hand, while Lucky does not in any way shows signs of resentment over the physical abuse heaped upon him, he experiences anguish on another level when Pozzo threatens to get rid of him. However, from Pozzo’s point of view, whatever sorrow Lucky feels over this is short-lived. Indeed, as far as Pozzo is concerned, all states of suffering are momentary, and life is perpetually tossed between the tragic and the comic. He says, " the tears of the world are a constant quantity . For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh." This contention seems to be borne out in the play by the fact that whatever spiritual anguish the characters experience appears to be of a fleeting nature. . . . They are creatures who are willfully avoiding the basic issues of despair and death, and it is not unreasonable to think that Beckett views them as non-tragic because they do not suffer to any significant degree.
Indeed, upon close scrutiny we discover that the nihilism, the ironies, the ambiguities portrayed in the play are probably not tragic in the eyes of Beckett, but, rather, comic in a very special way. One might imagine Beckett is here indulging in what is . . . "the laugh of laughs . . . the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word, the laugh that laughs —silence please— at that which is unhappy ."
This laughter , which is sardonic and mirthless, compounds the horror of the play by laughing at what is essentially evil, the metaphysical condition of man as demonstrated through his many limitations. Such laughter is basically non-social in nature. In conventional comedy the main character is ridiculed, . . . however, in Godot Beckett is not ridiculing but mocking the main characters, who is, in reality, a composite of all four characters. That is to say, universal man is being mocked in this play.
The majority of us are too involved with the tragic elements to have proper perspective. Perhaps we also have habits in our concepts of tragedy and comedy which keep us from the greater suffering which comes from seeing humour in that which is unhappy. We are tempted to sympathise with the characters, or else with their situation, when we should perhaps be holding it in disdain. This is in part why we, the audience, are viewed as being dead. . . .
As Beckett himself writes , "Either we speak and act for ourselves—in which case speech and action are distorted and emptied of their meaning by an intelligence that is not ours, or else we speak and act for others‚ in which case we speak and act a lie." . . . [This is] the recognition that language inescapably separates a person from himself as well as from others . . . [which reflects] the desire of the literary artist to create the "perfect" work of art, a desire to make a full artistic and intellectual statement, but a desire which can, or course, never be fulfilled.
This ideal work of art is Beckett’s Godot, which he hopes for but can never attain, for he must necessarily distort his vision, whether he attempt to formulate it through language, with all its limitations, or through the mime, which, though less confining in one sense, is more so in another. The irony here is that Beckett knows that he cannot get at the perfect, undistorted art work and yet he continues to try because he must. Is his compulsion partially grounded in habit like the compulsions of Vladimir and Estragon?
Although Beckett writes that "suffering opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience", in Godot we find Estragon unable to transcend his existence, unable to appreciate things external to himself (such as the landscape), unwilling to grasp nuances—all of which things would be necessary for the appreciation or creation of art. His boredom—"Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils"—obviates the possibility of an aesthetic experience.
The audience too is brought into the realm of the play . . . in Act I the audience is viewed as a bog —hence, like Estragon who says he is sunk in the mire and sand, it is unable to grasp the full intellectual and aesthetic portent of the play. Furthermore, in Act II the audience is viewed as being dead , hence beyond hope of being reached by the artist.
It is precisely because the destructive forces of the twentieth century have given the lie to progress, reason, stability, perfectibility and simplicity that Beckett subscribes to none of them and his writing is as it is. The one fundamental behind all of Beckett’s work is the ancient tragic knowledge which has been revived by the absurd, of man’s solitude, imprisonment and pain in an intolerable universe that is indifferent to this suffering.
The world in which Beckett begins to write is without unity, clarity, rationality or hope, and where man, absurdly conscious that he is conscious and bound to die, feels himself alone and a stranger in a place which itself will one day cease to exist. The conflict between the world’s irrationality and man’s hopeless desire for unity is most acute in the artist who, having once believed in his near omnipotence is now forced to recognise his almost total impotence.
Yet there remains the right to fail. Creating, or not creating, changes nothing, and the words which are written will remain at best, only a hesitant approximation of those finer words which, if they do exist, continue to elude his need.
But if he persists in this endeavour which he knows to be futile he will have sustained his consciousness in the face of the universe and its absurdity. The artist is his own clown. For him too, his perseverance is his dignity and his failure the emblem of his unextinguished revolt. For Beckett it is the writing, not the writer nor the reader, the ultimately matters:a cause which, while having need of us to be accomplished, was in its essence anonymous, and would subsist, haunting the minds of men, when its miserable artisans should be no more.
Ramona Cormier and Janis L Pallister from Cathleen Culotta Andonian Critical Response to Samuel Beckett
Beckett in interview:
I speak of an art . . . weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.
And preferring what?
The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
The kind of work I do is one in which I’m not master of my material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He’s tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance. I don’t think impotence has been exploited in the past.
Kevin J H Dettmar Waiting for Godot and Critical Theory from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
In an essay on Beckett Alan Schneider relates an "apocryphal story about Sam’s next play": "Untitled, of course. In two acts, the usual pause between. In the first act, the curtain rises on a bare stage. No actors, of either sex. Runs about half an hour. In the second act, the curtain doesn’t rise at all; but it’s a very short act."
Lois Oppenheim Directing Beckett
From Beckett’s obituary
The most evident social trend of the 20th century has been consolidation —multinationalised business, globalised politics, homogenised cultures. Amid this bustling bigness and togetherness has been heard a persistent cry of smallness and aloneness , a sense that comforting certainties are being stripped away and each individual left isolated with nameless terrors, deterioration and death.
. . . Beckett regarded himself as a sort of historian, a chronicler of misbegotten times. "I didn’t invent this buzzing confusion," he said. "It’s all around us, and . . . the only chance of renewal is to open our eyes and see the mess." Yet he had nothing of the reformer, no impulse toward public life.
. . . [a] real-life influence on Beckett’s work . . . came in 1938. As Beckett walked along a Paris street, a panhandler stabbed him in the chest, perforating a lung and narrowly missing the heart. When Beckett later asked why the attack happened, the assailant replied, "I don’t know, sir." That glimpse of the random perils of existence may be confirmed Beckett’s dark vision but did not initiate it.
. . . Beckett’s life and work taught others the lesson he said he learned from Joyce: the meaning of artistic integrity. His vision never yielded. Even on a sunny day in London, as he strolled through a park in evident pleasure, when a friend remarked that it was a day that made one glad to be alive, Beckett turned and said, "I wouldn’t go that far."
[Time Magazine, 8 January 1990]
. . . Finally, and fundamental to all Beckett’s works, there is his compassion; an intense and moving regard for man’s condition in this world from which meaning is withheld and mortality —"a long day’s dying"— the one certainty. In Godot the tree flowers between the acts but Godot still does not come. Pozzo goes blind, Lucky dumb, things human decay and Lucky’s famous speech of the first act is realised. This speech is a lament for:"man in short or man in brief [who] wastes and pines . . . abandoned . . . and . . . for reasons unknown [continues] to shrink and dwindle [into] the great cold the great dark the air and the earth abode of stones in the great cold alas alas . . . "
It is in this that the universality of Beckett’s writing lies, and the haunting, poetically resonant language of such passages is the flowering of his futile yet continual revolt against the whole idea of mortality, . . . His writing in this dimension does not make any ultimate pretensions for our existence or attempt to provide a final answer.
Instead he speaks of the heroic absurdity of human endeavour in the fact of death , a subject which always leads to his most sustained passages of poetic prose filled with a basic imagery and emotion yet all the more powerful for their constraint within a form that is classical in its precision.
This revolt . . . . is against the intolerable imprisonment of man within the determination of cause and effect , of beginning and ending, of being obliged to end because something else is beginning or begin because something else is ending in the transient course of life. At its most basic it is a revolt against the meaningless limitations and compulsions of birth and death, and the universe which imposes such conditions on man can never be accepted even if the earth is neutral. As Beckett writes . . . in what might be taken as an epigraph for all his work, the superb and enigmatic comment: "the whisky bears a grudge against the decanter."
Michael Robinson The Long Sonata of the Dead
Program Notes Didi/Gogo Pozzo/Lucky Godot Influences/Resonances Staging
Act I text
Act II text