Background: Waiting for Godot

The Time Period of the Play

Waiting for Godot was written at a time period that has ambiguous ties to the cultural context of the play itself. Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot sometime between 1948 and 1949 in France, using a foreign language to portray his ideas. The play was first performed on January 5th, 1953 at Theatre de Babylone in Paris.

In the aftermath of World War II, cultural ideas such as Surrealism affected, and were affected by, the arts. The changes brought a critique of the ideological foundations of western civilization, and traditional values faded (Cousineau 2). Surrealism, which began in the early twenties, was able to resurface after the war and make an appearance in works such as Waiting for Godot. Surrealist poets were interested in “moments of intense perception that free the self from its bondage to ordinary consciousness” (2). In Beckett’s play, this cultural context can be found in moments such as Lucky’s speech, when a stream of consciousness takes the characters away from their monotonous lives for a moment. Unordinary consciousness can also be seen in Vladimir’s memory of events that stir no recollection for Estragon.

In post World War II France, the birthplace of Waiting for Godot, there was also a crisis of moral order. Moral standards had flip-flopped more than once with the occupation and exit of the Nazis in France. The eventual elimination of the Nazi influence led to some vague, undefined, and unique philosophies of morality. The two sides in World War II had extremely different ideas about what was right and wrong for the human race. Such widespread rejection of the traditional organization of morality reflected the philosophy of post-structuralism, which focuses on the instability of the human sciences. At this time, “Certain ideas of order themselves came to be seen as the cause of problems of injustice rather than a solution to problems of injustice”(Uhlmann 99). Beckett’s portrayal of humans in Waiting for Godot invites many different interpretations, and the complexity of the characters may prevent the audience from giving them an order, just as the human complexity prevents us from fully inspecting ourselves in post-structural philosophy.

Liberation of Paris

Existentialism also played a role in post World War II art. The Liberation of Paris in 1944 reinstated the nation’s independence, and allowed France to become a new country despite its old existence. The changes allowed the French to act as observers in a world in turmoil. This set the stage for the philosophy holding that existence precedes essence, and that human nature is shaped by the individual in that specific historical context. Waiting for Godot is classified as Absurdist theatre. The term “Theatre of the Absurd” was applied to plays that show  “a hostile, meaningless universe looming large over individuals who are either unsure of or unconcerned about what to make of themselves, their situation, and the other people and things they encounter” (Gale 214). By understanding Waiting for Godot in its Absurdist context, its intentional confusion emerges. The humans in the play seem unable to find inherent meaning in the universe, and our production should not try to impose order where none was intended.

Although the philosophical movements of France in the 1940’s seem to surface in Waiting for Godot, Beckett demands a freedom from such conventions. Beckett’s choice of the French language and the play’s French premiere do not have the purpose that many would assume: “for Beckett, to live in the French capital and defend the art produced there was not it itself a choice in favor of France… but a demand for international autonomy”(Weller 170). Beckett’s relation to his cultural context is ambiguous because his art shows resistance to nationalism, yet also to existentialism and absurdism. Beckett himself explained that an “artist who stakes his being is from nowhere” (Weller 170).

Perry Thompson, 2014


waiting-godot

The World of the Play

On the surface, the world of Waiting for Godot resembles our world. There is a country road, by a tree which sprouts leaves sometimes. There is sunset and then day. Men wear boots. And they use the same days of the week we use.

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However, the play’s world diverges from our common experience. Gogo sleeps in a ditch, and is routinely beaten by some group–which one he is not sure. The social structure of the world is equally uncertain. Didi and Gogo do not have power–they have “got rid of [their rights]” (Beckett I. 305), and are supplicants to Godot, who on the other hand has some power, and (at least in the minds of Didi and Gogo) possesses a home, family, friends, agents, correspondents, books, a bank account, and a horse (Beckett I.280-286). Both Gogo’s fear that they are “tied” to Godot (Beckett I.341) and the master-slave relationship of Pozzo and Lucky demonstrate that this world has a harsh and exacting hierarchy. Pozzo is even planning on selling Lucky at the fair (Beckett I. 637). However, the exact nature of the social order is not explicit, nor is the reality of Godot.

There is more to the world than brutality. Even the idea of a fair conjures familiar cultural images. Dancing and singing both exist, to pass time and for entertainment. The Bible is present in this world, also. Didi is obviously knowledgable about the Gospels, and Gogo recalls the pretty “maps of the Holy Land” (Beckett I.80). The overall impression of the culture is one of low vagabond entertainment spread through with remnants of our world’s classics.

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The time and location of this world operate differently from our time and location. Didi and Gogo cannot decide if they were in the same place the day before, or if it was a different place, as if either their memories or the landscape change at whim. Both acts end with the line “yes, let’s go” (Beckett I. 1243, Beckett II.1075), and yet they do not move. Whether this is from their own indecision or from the rules of their world is not clear. Yet the play’s cycles imply a cyclical world, where however far in time or space one travels, one returns.

Sounds of the World

The following songs may help enter the strange world of the play.

–“Jeux d’Enfants” conjures the endless iterations of time, their oddity, and increasing ominousness despite their clownish charm:

–“Zydeko” resembles the bombastic and furious entertainment of Pozzo and Lucky:

–“Time of No Reply” mirrors the background of unchanging space, time, and loneliness:

–“End of Amnesia” gives a similar soundscape to the endless waiting road:

 

Megan Behnke, 2014

Sources:

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for GodotSimon, Peter, ed. Norton Anthology of Drama Volume One. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.

Cirque du Soleil. “Zydeko.” Quidam, 1996. MP3.

Cirque du Soleil. “Jeux d’Enfants.” Alegria, 1994. MP3.

Cousineau, Thomas. Waiting for Godot: Form in Movement. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1990. Print.

Drake, Nick. “Time of No Reply.” Tim of No Reply. 1986. MP3.

Friedrich, Caspar David. “Two men at the sea.” Pictures: Posters by Caspar David Friedrich at Posterlounge.co.uk. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <http://www.posterlounge.co.uk/two-men-at-the-sea-pr177328.html>.

Gale, Thomson. “Theater of the Absurd.” Drama Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 28. Detroit: 2008. 214-320. Literature Criticism Online. 7 April 2014. Web. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitCrit/umn_stolaf/FJ2850950004>.

“Godot, Intro, 2006.” Godot, Intro, 2006. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <http://shows.vtheatre.net/godot/intro.htm>.

Larsen, E. Tage. Tree2. 2012. Sketches, Harlem Meer. E. Tage Larsen. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Uhlmann, Anthony. Beckett and Poststructuralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Ward, M. “End of Amnesia.” End of Amnesia, 2001. MP3.

Weller, Shane. Samuel Beckett in Context. Ed. Anthony Uhlmann. New York: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.