Samuel Beckett - Waiting for Godot

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Still waiting, after half a century

Nov 5, 2003 (Updated Nov 5, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:wit and mystery

Cons:overlong

The Bottom Line: If you can't see it, read it.


In the half century since its première in French, millions of words have been written about Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. It is probably the most famous twentieth-century play. Beckett himself rejected the interpretation, which is all too easy in English, that Godot is a longer name for God. and that the nonappearance of Godot is a symbol of the silence or absence of God. The French word for "god" is "dieu," and it would have been possible to make a rhyme with that by calling the one being waited for "Godieu," "Dodieu," etc., but Beckett did not do that. (Still, as a native speaker of English, it's hard to believe that he failed to notice the first syllable of the name!) Beckett's emphasis was on the waiting rather than on the awaited: his original title was simply "En attendant"—while waiting.

The production of "Waiting for Godot" that I saw (at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater) treated it as less an abstract play about the human condition than as a representation of desolated, long-occupied country: not specifically Nazi-occupied France, but strongly suggesting a rendez-vous like those of the French Resistance in which Beckett was active.

The structure of the French Resistance was for one member to know hardly any other members and to be assigned to rendez-vous someone the member did not know anything about (such as appearance) except a code-name. When a rendez-vous occurred, messages were delivered in code.

Despite such precautions, infiltration was common. Beckett and his wife Suzanne had to flee south, sleeping in ditches like Didi and Gogo in the play, and bickering. The two and a half years Beckett spent in the south of France during the war were (in Marjorie Perloff's words) a "mix of danger and boredom known only in wartime. Communication with strangers (and everyone but Suzanne was a stranger to Beckett here) was always coded or at least guarded: one could trust no one, even as one worked with cut-outs [anonymous liaisons within the resistance organization] referred by friends in other places. Mostly, the time was spent waiting." (She also suggests that the frustrated conversations of Didi and Gogo owe much to those Beckett and Suzanne had while stranded waiting for something to happen, though Beckett "removed the specificity of reference that would limit the drama's range").

Because Beckett stripped the situation of any particular historical cues, "Waiting for Godot" has mostly been interpreted as symbolic rather than mimetic. Nevertheless, some have seen Pozzo, a bullying landlord who passes through in both acts, as a disguised Gestapo agent with a Jewish slave (Lucky) who is surviving, albeit in a very abject state, by clinging to his sneering master. This makes him a peril to Didi and Gogo, who are , however, so bored with waiting and with each other's company that they seek the entertainment of Lucky dancing, singing, and thinking.

(He dances and thinks when Pozzo and Lucky stop going through in one direction. Gogo still wants to hear Lucky sing when the two pass through going the other direction. After Pozzo and Lucky depart the first time, Didi remarks, "That passed the time." Gogo sneers back, "It would have passed in any case." "Yes, but not so rapidly," Didi retorts, and I would extrapolate that boring as their existence is, it would be even more so if each of them was alone.)

It does not seem to me that Didi and Gogo are waiting for divine revelation or the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. I don't see any indications that Didi and Gogo expect ultimate salvation from their appointment with Godot. It seems to me that they would like to be saved from boredom, and that if Godot showed up, it would probably be to bid them to undertake something dangerous.... which would break the tedium. That they have an appointment with someone they have never met fits with recurrent experiences of the Resistance and better fits with their conversations (which are close to interrogations) with the boy(s) who do arrive with messages that Godot will not be able to keep his appointment tonight (two twilights in a row), but implores them to wait again the next dusk for him.

This may seem like biographical reductionism, and the play has spoken to people for half a century about a more generalized anxiety and the ennui of expectation for the future, and I do not mean to suggest that the play must be understood autobiographically.

I do firmly believe that speculating about who Godot might be is a distraction from what is mostly shown within the play, which is the repulsion-attraction of the two pairs of characters. Pozzo and Lucky absolutely do not like each other, but stay together. (In good Hegelian fashion, the master cannot shake loose from the slave; the slave craves the master and even the master's contempt and indifference.) Didi and Gogo are more conventionally warring buddies each of whom is unlike the other (in the Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tradition). (I wonder how "Waiting for Godot" would play with an all-female cast... or with Pozzo and Didi played by women...) Like many long-term couples (George and Martha in ALbee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", for instance) Gogo and Didi needle and even torment each other, but they are going to go on being miserable together. In contrast to the picture of hell being other people in Sartre's No Exit, hellish as waiting for what may never happen is, it's better to wait together (or go on pointless journeys, as Lucky seems to have concluded).

In a play famously summarized as "nothing happens—twice," there are variations in the second act of lines and actions from the first act, not exact repetitions. One of the more interesting ones, is that Didi and Gogo to some extent have switched roles (switched characters, that is). The reader/audience knows they will be back waiting again. Both acts end with:

Shall we go?
Yes, let's go.
(Neither moves.)

But who says which of the last two lines switches.

Human beings mostly go on, even in situations of great duress and/or great boredom while waiting for something to happen. There is no salvation (or even revelation) in Beckett, though back before Pozzo and Lucky arrive in the first act, Didi speaks of one of the two thieves crucified with Christ being saved. Is one out of two good odds for either of the pairs in "Waiting for Godot"? Or is it a myth, since three of the four gospels don't mention it, as Didi notes? Well, one does not look for answers in Beckett, only questions about the human question.

Reading Plays

Urbanist's epinion about Waiting for Godot (http://www.epinions.com/book-review-3E0A-26B391C-3A214588-prod1) counsels "see it, don't read it." Having taken that advice, I am not convinced. Live actors no doubt can bring out humor—slapstick and other kinds—, but the play takes a long time to go nowhere (two and a half hours including a quarter-hour intermission). Yeah, yeah, I know all about sharing the experience with the characters of being stalled and going nowhere as nothing happens (twice), but the spectators know what the characters only suspect: that Godot is not going to show up. One major advantage of reading the play rather than seeing it performed is being able to zoom through the three pages of Lucky's hebephrenic discourse (when he is called upon to perform "thinking") near the end of the first act instead of suffering with Pozzo, Gogo, and Didi as every nonsensical phrase is spoken.


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