Summary of the Play
Waiting for Godot is a play in two acts. Act I begins on a country road by a tree. It is evening. Estragon, an old man, is sitting on a low mound trying to remove his boot. Vladimir, another old man, joins him. They begin to chat.
They have apparently known each other for years. Once perhaps respectable, they are now homeless, debilitated, and often suicidal. They wonder out loud why they did not kill themselves years ago; they consider the possibility of doing it today. They are waiting for someone they call “Godot”. While they wait, they share conversation, food, and memories.
Two other elderly men, Pozzo and Lucky, arrive on the scene. It is clear that Pozzo is the master, and Lucky is the slave. Upon command, the slave dances and thinks out loud for the entertainment of the others, until he is forcibly silenced.
After Lucky and Pozzo depart, a boy arrives. He tells Estragon and Vladimir that Godot will not be there today, but will be there tomorrow. He leaves, and they continue to wait.
The second act is almost the same as the first. The tree has sprouted leaves, Estragon and Vladimir chat while they wait for Godot, and Pozzo and Lucky arrive again. This time, Pozzo is blind and helpless, and Lucky is mute.
After some interaction, Pozzo and Lucky leave, and the boy arrives. He has the same message as before. Godot will be there tomorrow. Estragon and Vladimir are left to wait as before.
The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett
“I have a clear memory of my own fetal existence. It was an existence where no voice, no possible movement could free me from the agony and darkness I was subjected to.” So says Samuel Barclay Beckett who was born on or about Good Friday, April 13, 1906. He was born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, in a large house called Cooldrinagh.
Here, in this secluded three story Tudor home, surrounded by acres of gardens, a croquet lawn, stables for his mother’s donkeys and dogs, a hen house, and a tennis court, Beckett and his older brother spent their childhood. High brick walls separated them from the outside world, and ensured them uninterrupted tea parties, piano lessons, and formal dinners.
Their much-loved father took them hiking and swimming. Their mother, against whom Beckett rebelled almost all of his life, took them to church. By the time they were five, the boys were in school. By the time they were 12, they were local tennis champions—aiming all shots at their opponents’ heads.
Before he left for boarding school in 1920, Beckett had already developed into an avid reader. He kept his books on a small shelf above his bed, along with busts of Shakespeare and Dante. At boarding school, he excelled at sports, and received a solid educational foundation. He entered Trinity College (Dublin) in 1923.
There he became an intellectual. He read Descartes, French poetry, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire, and discovered the theatre of O’Casey and Pirandello. He was also rebellious and moody. He had a reputation for reckless driving, heavy drinking, and irreverent behavior. In spite of this, he graduated first in his class in 1927 with a major in modern languages.
In preparation for a teaching career at Trinity, Beckett went to France, where he worked with James Joyce, did research on René Descartes, and won a prize for his poem, Whoroscope. He wrote a study on Proust, noting: “We are alone. We cannot know, and we cannot be known;” and “There is no communication because there are no vehicles of communication.”
Living by these words, he resigned from teaching once he received his M.A. degree from Trinity in 1931. He had hated it, and his students characterized him thus: “An exhausted aesthete who all life’s poisonous wines had sipped, and found them rather tedious.”
By the time his father died in 1933, leaving him a small income, Beckett’s character had already been formed. Between bouts with physical and mental illnesses that included flus, colds, aching joints, depression, anxiety, boils, cysts, constipation, insomnia, and glaucoma in both eyes, he would live the rest of his life as a writer.
In the next fifty years he would go on to produce an impressive collection of work in a variety of genres. He created essays, poems, short stories, novels, plays, mime, and film. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In December 1989, after too long a stay in “an old crock’s home,” Samuel Beckett died of respiratory failure at the age of 83. Right before he died, he was asked if anything in life was worthwhile. “Precious little,” he replied.
Before attempting to make any sense out of Waiting for Godot, it is necessary to put some things into perspective. When Beckett wrote this play (from October 1948 to January 1949), he was already more than forty years old. Half of his life had passed. He considered himself a novelist who wrote Godot #1 “as a form of relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.” It was like a game to him, a momentary release from the real work of constructing fiction. It was not the vehicle he would have chosen to make him famous.
However, once it was performed in 1953, it did make him famous. It inspired an abundance of critical comment, explanation and exegesis in a relatively short time. It became a contemporary classic.
Beckett consistently refused to comment on, or explain his work to the public. “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.”
Beckett maintained control over his text throughout his life. Originally writing it in French, he translated it for an English-speaking audience, and both translated and directed the German production in 1975. He had it memorized and, when appropriate, changed some of the dialogue and stage direction himself. He wanted to “get it right”, he said. He was not alone in this. Over the years, the material has been scrutinized by experts with their own biases, all trying to get it right.
There is a story in Beckett’s novel, Watt, written in 1942, about a Mr. Ash, who goes to a great deal of trouble to check his watch (one similar to the one that reappears in Pozzo’s pocket) for the exact time. “Seventeen minutes past five exactly, as God is my witness,” he says. However, right at that moment Big Ben, the official clock of Westminster, strikes six. “This in my opinion is the type of all information whatsoever, be it voluntary or solicited,” Beckett’s narrator concludes. If you want a stone, ask a turnover. If you want a turnover, ask plum pudding.”
This story characterizes some of the critics, as well as some of the interpretations of Waiting for Godot. It has been seen as existentialist (depicting man as lost as insecure in a world without God); Marxist (representing man turning away from his capitalist society, and embracing socialism and communism as alternatives to political alienation); Freudian (Vladimir represents the ‘ego’, Estragon represents the ‘id’); and Christian (the play as a parable illustrating man’s need for salvation). Yet, while these theories have some validity, they are all open to debate. They reflect a complex culture but limit understanding of the play. “The great success of Waiting for Godot,” Beckett said, “had arisen from a misunderstanding: critic and public alike were busy interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which strove at all costs to avoid definition.”
The inspiration for Godot may be found in the work of the late nineteenth-century symbolist playwrights. A description of symbolist drama, written by Remy de Gourmont in 1895, (which was also referred to as “static drama”), seems to have some relevance:
Hidden in mist somewhere there is an island, and on that island there is a castle, and in that castle there is a great room lit by a little lamp. And in that room people are waiting. Waiting for what? They don’t know! They’re waiting for someone to open the door, waiting for their lamp to go out, waiting for Fear and Death. They talk. Yes, they speak words that shatter the silence of the moment. And then they listen again, leaving their sentences unfinished, their gesture uncomplicated. They are listening. They are waiting. Will she come perhaps, or won’t she? Yes, she will come; she always comes. But it is late, and she will not come perhaps until tomorrow. The people collected under that little lamp in that great room have, nevertheless, begun to smile; they still have hope. Then there is a knock - a ‘knock’ and that is all there is: And it is Life Complete, All of Life.
While it may be helpful to examine the roots of Beckett’s work, it is also necessary to mention that a new category was invented by critics of the fifties and sixties to house Waiting for Godot. This category, Theater of the Absurd, was used to describe the new kind of theater that Beckett represented. While Martin Esslin defined it as “striving to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought,” other critics had their own interpretations. They characterized it as having absurd dialogue, characters and situations. It included the work of dramatists as diverse as Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco.
Some critics referred to Eugene Ionesco as the Grand Master of the Theater of the Absurd. His play, The Bald Soprano, produced in Paris three years before Waiting for Godot, ran for twenty years and was the first example of the “anti-theater theater.” Although it seemed to follow the outline for light comedy by using a drawing room setting, it quickly transformed the clichéd dialogue of two model British families into madness and hysteria. This was absurdity in its typical sense, as hilarious farce.
This was not the kind of absurdity represented by Beckett, whose work was characterized by despair and deprivation. His work more closely resembles Camus’ idea of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. Beckett’s characters live in a world that no longer makes sense, that has no God, and offers no easy answers or solutions. Godot never comes. Kierkegaard (1813-1835), in a more Christian sense, labeled this Despair.
Ionesco once remarked, “I started writing for the theater because I hated it.” Beckett’s thoughts went even deeper. In his novel, Molloy, his character states, “You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.”
Ionesco made every attempt to explain himself and his work to the public. Beckett did just the opposite. He resisted the impulse to explain or categorize his material. In fact, he abhorred all attempts to do so. He wanted form and content to remain inseparable, and the reading or experience of his work to speak for itself.
Although he attempted to be silent on the subject of his own work, agreeing with the French poet Baudelaire (1821-1867), about “the devastating vanity and uselessness of explaining anything to anyone,” Beckett wrote literary criticism. Initially, he did it for the money, and toyed with the idea of making it a career. His essay on Joyce for Our Exagmination, his book on Proust, and his reviews for the Bookman and the Criterion, were all commissioned.
After 1934, however, Beckett’s criticism became more personal. He wrote in defense of friends and fellow artists who were unjustly attacked or ignored. At one point, railing against the idea that art has a primary duty to be clear and accessible, Beckett wrote: “The time is not perhaps altogether too green for the vile suggestion that art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.”
In his essay on Joyce, Beckett wrote “no language is so sophisticated as English—it is abstracted to death,” and claimed that the public’s inability to understand information stems from being “too decadent to receive it.” In another instance, he attacked the average reader by writing, “This rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation.”
The essay on Proust was Beckett’s critical masterpiece. In it he establishes his own basic philosophy about the inability to understand experience because of the dearth of methods for expression. He blames this on Time (“that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation”), Memory (“yesterday has deformed us or been deformed by us”), and Habit (“the ballast that chains a dog to his vomit”).
Throughout his life, Samuel Beckett also wrote poetry. In 1930, he received first prize in a contest conducted by the Hours Press for his 98 line poem Whoroscope. This poem was based on the life of René Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher and mathematician. Although it was praised for its swift and witty language, the poem was difficult to interpret. Beckett was asked to provide explanatory footnotes for it, which he did. Clearly, at that point in his life, he was compliant.
He continued to write poetry through the 1930s and 1940s in both English and French. Then, in 1974, after a break of twenty-five years, he began to publish poetry again.
Before, during, and after Waiting for Godot, Beckett wrote novels. His first published novel Murphy (1938), was one of grotesque but comic action, and included characters such as Miss Rosie Dew, Miss Carridge, Augustus Tinklepenny, Bim and Bom, Dr. Killiecrankie, and Murphy, who takes a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. At the end of the novel, Murphy dies accidentally. Although his last request is to be cremated and have his ashes flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theater, they remain scattered on the floor of a saloon.
From 1942 to 1944, while living in Roussillon, Beckett wrote Watt, which included veiled autobiographical accounts of his life. The main character is a patient in an asylum, who dictates his story to a fellow patient in a confusing language with a distorted chronology. A note in the addendum of Watt gives a sense of Beckett’s paradoxical humour. “The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.”
Watt was not designed for a postwar public’s reading pleasure. It did not get published until 1953, and it was immediately banned in Ireland. This did not prevent Beckett, the novelist, from continuing on. His next novel was Molloy (1947), the first of a trilogy that was to include Malone meurt and L’Innommable.
Molloy is presented in two phases with two stories—one about Molloy, and the other about Moran. Both characters suffer from paralysis. When Molloy speaks, it is difficult to know whether events are real or imagined. Boundaries between his conscious and unconscious mind are blurred. When Moran speaks, everything he says is immediately cancelled, and nothing that happens is to be believed. This novel was referred to by critics as an “epic of the absurd,” taking place in a “void” and outlining disintegration—of the heroes, of time, and of life.
Malone meurt was the book Beckett was writing in 1948 when he took his break and created Godot. Apparently Beckett’s friends and family were worried that the introductory sentences in this novel, “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month,” applied to Beckett himself. They insisted that he stop writing and rest. Whether or not he was heeding their advice, he did humor himself by writing Godot, “to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.”
Critics assumed that the philosophical underpinnings of Malone meurt were from the writings of Descartes (1596-1650), who wrote about the supposed split between the physical/mechanical and the mental/spiritual universes. There was also the influence of Geulinex (1624-1669), who wrote “Where you are worth nothing, there you should want nothing;” and Berkeley (1685-1753), who said there is no reality except in the mind.
Beckett, as usual, responded by claiming, “I don’t know where the writing comes from and I am often quite surprised when I see what I have committed to paper.”
His novels end with failure or death, the concept of “lessness is part of them”. They become more and more difficult to follow as the humor is engulfed by tragedy, and the language is used to imitate what is being narrated. When Malone dies, his pencil finally gives out along with his consciousness:
or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his
fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
The last book of the trilogy, L’Innommable, completed in 1950, begins with a character who is neither male nor female, has no nose, and cannot move. All it does is sit in a jar with its hands on its knees, narrating a story which ends with the paradox, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
After the success of Waiting for Godot, Beckett wrote more plays. “The best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text. I’m trying to think of a way to write one,” he said.
True to his word, he attempted to eliminate his characters. While Waiting for Godot had five actors, Endgame (1958) had only four. One character was dying, and two others were consigned to ashcans. The stage poem, “Play” (1964), was down to three performers, all stashed away in funereal urns. Happy Days (1961) had a woman buried to her waist and then her head in sand. Her husband remained invisible until he crawled out of his hole to say hello.
Krapp’s Last Tape (1960) was a monologue with a single actor. Breath, first performed in 1969, had entirely buried its protagonist in a pile of garbage or expelled him to the wings. Even that was too much for Beckett, who then reverted to body parts. In Not I (1972), there is nothing but a blackened stage and a lit-up pair of lips.
Estimated Reading Time
The play is in two acts, and it is about 100 pages long. The entire play can be read in less than two hours. The material requires more than one reading, and students should be patient with themselves and their ability to absorb its meaning. This is not an easy play; scholars have been dissecting it for years.
It is suggested that the play be read straight through the first time, in order to get a sense of the characters, the dialogue, and the concentric action.
Although it can be read silently, it may be helpful to stop at various points and read sections out loud. This will Breathe life into the characters and center attention on the sound of the language. The monologues lend themselves to this kind of reading, but students should select sections based on their individual preferences, learning styles and background knowledge. If possible, students should work cooperatively with others and participate in a series of oral readings.
Videotapes and audiotapes are available at public libraries for various productions of Waiting for Godot. It is strongly suggested that you make use of these additional resources.
This summary is based on the Third Printing, 1978, by Grove Press, of The Collected Works of Samuel Beckett — Waiting for Godot.
The subdivisions for Act I (A-1 to A-6) and Act II (B-1 to B-5) are based on the Regiebuch, a detailed director’s prompt book, written by Samuel Beckett as Director of the 1975 German production of Warten auf Godot.
In 1975, Samuel Beckett directed the German production, Warten auf Godot, at the Schiller Theater. For this occasion, “To give form to the confusion,” he divided the play into eleven sections. These divisions served as a guide to the play’s structure.
The format of this MAXnotes guide follows Beckett’s outline. His Regiebuch, the guide for the German production, divides the play into the following sections:
A-1: Opening of Act I to “People are bloody ignorant apes.”
A-2: Estragon’s inspection (“Rises painfully…”) to entry of Pozzo and Lucky.
A-3: The entrance of Pozzo and Lucky until Pozzo sits.
A-4: From Pozzo sitting down to Pozzo: “My memory is defective.”
A-5: Estragon: “In the meantime nothing happens.” to the exit of Pozzo and Lucky.
A-6: Exit of Pozzo and Lucky to end of Act I.
B-1: Opening of Act II to Vladimir: “Ah! Que voulez-vous. Exactly.”
B-2: Estragon: “That wasn’t such a bad little canter.” to the entry of Pozzo and Lucky.
B-3: Entry of Pozzo and Lucky to Vladimir: “We are men.”
B-4: Estragon: “Sweet mother earth!” to exit of Pozzo and Lucky.
B-5: Exit of Pozzo and Lucky to end of Act II.