Waiting for Godot‘s success came as a surprise, even for its author. Becket expected the theater to be half empty for the majority of his shows, and certainly did not strive for the worldwide fame that his work received. Although the first Paris performance in 1953 left audience members “baffled, bored, and irritated” (Graver 9), others were soon inspired to develop various interpretations of the mysterious play.
Critics received the play with several different attitudes and conclusions. Some praised Waiting for Godot as revolutionary art, while others dismissed it as nonsense. In 1953, the playwright Jean Anouilh reviewed the play, remarking that ‘“nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.’ This line… provides [the play’s] best summary” (Cohn 11). Despite this comedic restatement of one of the lines from the play, Anouilh was among those who were captivated by the work’s brilliance, and wrote a praising review of the play. Sylvain Zegel, writing the first review at the Theatre de Babylone in 1953, suggests the Didi and Gogo represent all of humanity with thier lack of understanding and attempts to pass time. They try to “live or give themselves the illusion that they are living… [Godot] might be happiness, eternal life, the ideal and unattainable quest of all men – which they wait for and which gives them the strength to live on” (Cohn 12). Zegel quickly recognized the importance of the play, and accurately predicted it’s long term success. John Gielgud, however, wrote in the spring of 1953 that the play was “‘a load of old rubbish”’ (Graver 13). He was not alone in this opinion. Marya Mannes, a visiting American journalist, expressed her distaste with Beckett by claiming the play was, “‘typical of the self-delusion of which certain intellectuals are capable, embracing obscurity, pretense, ugliness, and negation as protective coloring for their own confusions.”’ (Cohn 14). For different reasons, the Lord Chamberlain had some objections with the play. The official censor of plays disliked the language and gestures used by the characters, and Becket agreed to make some changes while refusing to alter other aspects of the play. To sidestep the Lord Chamberlain, the London production opened at the private Arts Theatre Club on August 3rd, 1955 (Graver 13).
Among those who praised Waiting for Godot, disagreement over the “hidden” meanings created many interpretations. In 1953, Alain Robbe-Grillet, the young novelist of the Nouveau Romain, insisted that the play was not an allegory that contained all sorts of hidden symbolism, and that Beckett succeeded in his “dramatization of the human condition: the state of ‘being there’” (Graver 12). He tells that the characters who are waiting for Godot do not experience a future or past, but are simply there (Graver 12). Beckett himself was not pleased by the success of his play because of the tendency audience and critics had to see religious and philosophical meanings that were not purposely included. Beckett insists that “the key to the play was the literal relations among its surface features, not any presumed meanings that could be deduced from them” (Cousineau 11). In this light, Dina Scherzer suggests that Beckett’s resistance to meaning in Waiting for Godot asserts that “language is not an inert substance; rather, it is a material that can be shaped and transformed” (Cousineau 18). Scherzer views the play as a way to express the potentials in language that are normally suppressed. This viewpoint more closely aligns with Beckett’s desire for the analysis of literal relations as opposed to symbolism. Waiting for Godot could be Beckett’s way of liberating language from its rational entrapment.
Other critics of Beckett sought symbolism and philosophy in the piece of art. G.S. Fraser authored an article in the 1956 Times Literary Supplement suggesting that the play is a metaphor about the nature of human life “‘which makes a particular appeal to the mood of liberal uncertainty which is the prevailing mood of modern Western Europe”’ (Graver 15). He also insists that it is a modern morality play on permanent Christian themes, and that Didi and Gogo represent the fallen state of man and the contemplative life. Pozzo and lucky represent the life of practical action adopted as an end in itself. The tree stand for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree of life, the cross, and (for hanging) the Judas tree (Graver 15).
Katherine M. Wilson disagrees with G.S. Fraser in 1956, and writes that Waiting for Godot conveys modern life in its full horror so that, “‘the audience, finding it unendurable, may be forced to remedy it’” (Graver 16). Wilson suggests that Fraser’s analysis leads the audience to blame all our misery on God and fate, excusing us of the responsibility to do anything about it. Taking existentialist views, Wilson feels the need to begin analysis of the play with the human individual. By focusing on the person instead of religion and mystery, the audience members may understand the purpose of the art and become inspired to initiate the change that Beckett desires. Wilson sees the moral of the play as a question: “If this is what waiting for Godot is like, must we wait for him?”
Although critics of Waiting for Godot have written reviews ranging from positive introspection to disgusting confusion, there is no debate on the success and longevity of this play. Other playwrights may have dissected the play in more ways than Beckett believed possible, but the audience may never know Beckett’s true intentions. We must accept this ambiguity as part of the play’s essence, and not impose heavy-handed interpretations upon Waiting for Godot.
By: Perry Thompson
Cohn, Ruby. Casebook on Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove, 1967. Print.