Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
“Nothing to be done” – Vladimir
In 1953, the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris premiered the brand new play by Irish novelist and short-fiction writer Samuel Beckett, named En Attendant Godot. This play, which received warm but unexcited reactions in France, would later be translated into English; cause a storm of debate and controversy on the West End; and become one of the most influential plays of all time.
The above quote is the first spoken line of the play; perfectly encapsulating what was fascinating to critics at the time, and continues to infuriate high school students today. Curtains open on two seemingly vaudevillian archetypes, complete with bedraggled clothes and bowler hats, named Vladimir and Estragon. They are waiting for a man named Godot. Neither of them know who Godot is, what he looks like, when he will be arriving, where they are meant to meet him, or even why they are waiting for him. Yet still they wait. Over the course of the play they engage with strange characters, discuss philosophy, tell stories, complain about their lives, consider suicide, take naps, urinate, and continue to wait. In a masterful display of circular logic and repetitive dialogue, Vladimir and Estragon end the play exactly where they began, with nothing gained or lost. This is Waiting for Godot.
It may not sound like much, but this exercise in staged entropy shook up the theatre establishment, being simultaneously praised and condemned. Some thought it was offensive and sacrilegious, others thought it was genius. What cannot be denied however is that Waiting for Godot has become endlessly influential, inspiring decades of imitators and becoming the priceless gemstone at the centre of the “Theatre of the Absurd” (More on that in a moment). Samuel Beckett, whether consciously or not, picked up and neatly summarized the theatrical experiments that modernist practitioners had been conducting for roughly 70 years; drawing on elements of Dadaism and Surrealism, and channelling the fractured worlds and characters of Luigi Pirandello and August Strindberg. Mix it all in with a bit of Elizabethan Tragicomedy, and Waiting for Godot is both a pastiche of modernist values and something truly original in its own right.
It is almost impossible to mention this play without also discussing Martin Esslin and his “Theatre of the Absurd”. In 1962, theatre critic Martin Esslin described a recurring trend in contemporary theatre of plays with little connection to reality. A supposed reaction to a post-war society, where worldwide violence had stripped many of their faith, Esslin believed that these plays aligned themselves with Albert Camus’ theories of the absurd; they portrayed characters suffering through a meaningless existence. Their worldview was often bleak, the characters ridiculous, and the language repetitive or incomprehensible. While these features can also be found in the works of playwrights like Arthur Adamov and Eugene Ionesco, it is Waiting for Godot that Esslin always returned to as the prime example of his new theatrical form. “Theatre of the Absurd” is how we tend to categorize not only this play, but most of Beckett’s works. It is one of the first things we are taught in school when studying Waiting for Godot. It is also something Beckett neither agreed with nor understood. Beckett had no desire to align himself with absurdism or existentialism, or to be forced into a movement with playwrights that he had little to do with.
The purpose of this article is not to tell you whether Esslin’s theories are correct or not. This is neither the time nor place to dispute 60+ years of theatre scholarship. However, it can be said that Waiting for Godot is something that transcends its critical definition. Despite our insistence on defining it as the product of an artistic movement, no scholarly research is required to enjoy this play. Case in point, two of the earliest productions of Waiting for Godot, and Beckett’s personal favourites, were mounted in the least traditionally cultured places imaginable; Luttringhausen Prison, and San Quentin Prison. In 1953 and 1957, respectively, audiences full of violent prisoners calmly enjoyed one of the most highly debated and complex plays in history. It is doubtful that any of them could tell you anything about Albert Camus, Luigi Pirandello or Dadaism, yet they loved it. Night after night, they sat entranced by the story of two down on their luck beggars, with nothing to do but wait, and hope something happens. It was this simple concept that touched those prisoners, and it is this same simple concept that will keep Waiting for Godot relevant for decades to come.