A Tragicomedy in Two Acts
To our courageous director:
Two men, by a roadside, near a tree. Waiting for Godot. This is how the play begins, and how it ends. What happens in the two acts, and why is it important that these events happen in our theatre in front of an audience? In literal terms, very little happens. Pozzo and Lucky enter, twice, and exit, twice. A boy brings bad news twice. Lucky explodes forth in a speech which is either nonsensical or deeply meaningful, or both. And the tree sprouts leaves.
But surely there is more to the play than this. We have a deep identification with the two vagabond men who wait. We have all waited. We all long for something to give our lives meaning and purpose, something that will tell us “exactly how we stand” (1. 263). And, as Gogo says, we have all found “something … to give us the impression we exist” (2. 359). Our identification with Didi and Gogo is explained concisely by their statement “all mankind is us” (2. 643).
We are going to ask our audience to wait with Didi and Gogo for the mysterious Godot. Who is Godot? Does Godot exist? Do Didi and Gogo think he exists? These are the obvious questions, but perhaps they are not the most important ones. When Beckett was asked about the identity of Godot, he replied “If I knew, I would have said so in the play” (Berlin). If Beckett claims that there is no answer, any definitive answer we choose will be, at best, arbitrary. After all, how often do we really know what we are waiting for in life?
A clue to the deeper questions may be found in the original French title of the play, En Attendant Godot, which more literally translates to “While Waiting for Godot.” The focus, then, is not on the outcome of the waiting, but on the process and action itself. Instead of asking who Godot is, perhaps we should be asking how the state of waiting affects existence. There is repeated exchange in the play which demonstrates the hopelessness of any attempt to break out of the status quo:
“We’re waiting for Godot.”
The desire to wait prescribes what can and cannot be done. They cannot leave. What can they do instead? Exist. And remind themselves that they exist.
However, even their existence is problematic. What time and space are they in? Vladimir claims that “time has stopped” (1. 762) Has it? Pozzo cries out “[h]ave you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!” (2. 936-937). Is one set of characters moving in time, while the others are frozen? Or is time an endless iteration, just like the German drinking song with which Didi begins Act Two? How are the first and second acts related in time and space? The exact location of the deserted landscape is never mentioned, nor the year. The place they are in is surrounded and shaped by fear. Off stage they are beaten. They must take cover. They are not allowed to laugh, and have given up their rights. For Didi, this universe is hard enough to handle, and he cannot bear to know of the other universe in Gogo’s dreams. Whatever this world is, it has turned the once-attractive Lucky into a slobbering slave who can only mimic human movement and thought when he is ordered to. What world is this, that it is so full of terror? Overtones of purgatory resound throughout the piece. Endless waiting, suffering, no immediate hope of accomplishing anything.
Waiting for Godot has been used to present myriad positions–“Marxism … Structuralism, Psychoanalysis, Semiotics, [and] Feminism” (Levy 116). Our challenge is to approach the play as it is, without giving in to the fear that unless we impose a limiting interpretation on it, it will be incomprehensible.
Since the information contained in the play itself is limited and ambiguous, we have turned to the time period and location at which the play was written and originally performed to seek some context in which to create our world. The sections of this site on Samuel Beckett and the time period in which Waiting for Godot was written describe the historical bleakness and personal struggles that shaped the piece. We hope this information will illuminate references in the play to violence, strife, hunger and ambivalence by placing them in the deadly context of World War II and Irish struggles. Such specific dangers will help avoid generalizations and low stakes.
In our sections covering commentary from artists, critics, and the author himself, we examine the range of responses–from negative reactions to the praise of genius–which Waiting for Godot has inspired. Our aim is that by recognizing the variety of possible interpretations and reactions, we will inoculate ourselves somewhat to the danger of focusing only on the aspects of the play for which we ourselves have affinities. Each of us will have our favorite sides of each character, and aspects of the play which resonate most strongly, but to do justice to all facets of the work we must recognize and respect those themes, traits, and ideas we do not immediately favor. Knowledge of others’ responses will increase our awareness of previously invisible dimensions.
Despite the temptation to narrow our focus in specific research, we must not lose track of why we chose to perform this play now. We live in a time of fear, where feuds between powerful nations are capable of destroying even those who seem uninvolved, and where our climate is ricocheting out of control. We continue to repeat our old mistakes, abusing our dwindling resources and arguing over ownership to the oil fields which are fueling our destruction. Our old creeds are falling about our ears, just as old beliefs crumbled around Beckett after World War II. We, like Didi and Gogo, can claim that it seems there is “nothing to be done,” though we continue doing it over and over again. And yet somehow we keep living. We keep finding the beauty and magic in life which reminds us we exist, and why existence is worth it. We may not know what we are waiting for, or where our work is taking us, yet on we go. Waiting for Godot is a reminder, however confusing, that humanity has always persevered and that, despite our flaws and memory lapses, we don’t do too badly.
Good luck. You’ll need it.
The Chemistry Majors’ Dramaturgy Team
Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot.” The Norton Anthology of Drama, Volume Two. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 849-906. Print.
Berlin, Normand. “Traffic of our stage: Why Waiting for Godot?” Amherst; The Massachusetts Review, Autumn 1999. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. http://www.samuel-beckett.net/BerlinTraffic.html.
Kenton, Tristram. “I spy something beginning with G … Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot.” Photograph. Gardner, Lynn. “Never mind Godot … Patrick Stewart spooked by ghostly goings-on in theatre.” The Guardien., 2014. Web. 5 March 2014.
Levy, Shimon. Samuel Beckett’s Self-Referential Drama: The Sensitive Chaos. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2002. Print.