Waiting for Godot is a landmark in modern drama. When it premiered in Paris, its originality stunned audiences. No one had seen or heard anything like it before. Initially, some were disgusted, some were puzzled, and some were wildly enthusiastic. Within a short time, however, audiences came to the theater prepared for a wholly new dramatic experience and went away with praises for Samuel Beckett. The play ran for more than three hundred performances in Paris, and other productions were mounted in London and major cities on the Continent. The play was soon widely translated and performed around the world. After a disastrous U.S. premiere in Miami, Florida, Waiting for Godot went on to a successful New York run, suggesting that the play was best received by audiences made up of sophisticated intellectuals.
Nevertheless, audience enthusiasm for Waiting for Godot has not been matched by unalloyed critical acclaim. To be sure, many critics as well as eminent playwrights have paid high tribute to the play, but several other critics have been repelled or baffled by it, their reactions most often stemming from misunderstanding of the play. In order to avert such misunderstanding, it is necessary to examine two crucial aspects of the play: its language and its philosophical orientation.
First of all, the language of the play is intimately connected to Beckett’s own background in language studies and literary influences. Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, and took his bachelor’s degree in French and Italian at Trinity College. After teaching English in Paris for two years, he returned to Trinity to teach and complete his master’s degree in French. Next, he traveled in England and on the Continent, and he wrote poems, short stories, and novels in English. He at last settled permanently in Paris, except for a brief hiatus during World War II, and began writing in French in the late 1940’s. Waiting for Godot was originally written in French and then translated into English by Beckett himself. The play is full of verbal and linguistic play; it is the work of a master of words and wordplay.
Second, during Beckett’s first sojourn in Paris, from 1928 to 1930, he met James Joyce, a meeting that launched a long and mutually satisfying friendship between the two Irish expatriates and language experts. The philosophical influence of Joyce on Beckett’s work is evident in the language play in Waiting for Godot. Puns, allusions, and linguistic tricks abound. Joyce and Beckett had little respect for literary convention, including, to an extent, the convention that everything in a book should make perfect sense or be perfectly clear.
Critics have expended great effort, for example, in trying to decipher the word “Godot.” Beckett himself declined to explain, but critics, undeterred, continue to speculate. The most common view is that Godot is God, with the “ot” as a diminutive suffix. The French title, En attendant Godot, seems to lend support to this interpretation. Another suggestion is the analogy between Godot and Charlot (both utilizing the diminutive suffix), the latter being the French name for silent-film star Charles Chaplin’s famous character the Little Tramp. The kind of hat that the Little Tramp wears, a derby, plays a significant part in the stage business of Waiting for Godot. Some readings inevitably deteriorate into the preposterous—that Godot represents Charles de Gaulle, for example. A much more likely explanation involves an allusion to a highly obscure source: Honoré de Balzac’s comedy Le Faiseur (pr. 1849; also known as Mercadet; English translation, 1901). Balzac’s play revolves around a character named Godeau who strongly influences the action of the play but never appears onstage. The parallels between the Balzac work and Waiting for Godot are too close to attribute to mere coincidence. Beckett, like Joyce, had a marked fondness for the esoteric literary allusion. It is possible, of course, to circumvent these literary contortions and simply view Godot as a state of being: the waiting, bracketed by birth and death, that we call life.
In addition, Beckett plays other word games in Waiting for Godot. Estragon, for instance, begins a sentence that Vladimir then finishes. The overwhelming monotony of the dialogue, reflecting the monotony in the characters’ lives, is reminiscent of the exercise drills in old language texts of the “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” variety, further suggesting the debasement of language and the consequent breakdown of communication. The non sequiturs that emerge from rapid-fire exchanges in the dialogue echo the music-hall comedians of Beckett’s youth. Beckett’s penchant for wordplay reveals the influence of his language training and of his friend James Joyce.
The philosophical orientation of Waiting for Godot is another matter, however, for the years of Beckett’s residence in France coincided with a period of great ferment in existential philosophy, most of it centered in Paris. Beckett is not a formal or doctrinaire existentialist, but he could hardly avoid being affected by existentialism, for such ideas were part of his cultural milieu. There is no systematically existential point of view in Waiting for Godot—as there is in, for example, the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and the novels of Albert Camus—but a generally existential and absurdist view of the human condition comes through very clearly in the play. Vladimir and Estragon, and Lucky and Pozzo, are psychically isolated from one another; despite physical proximity, they are alienated and lonely, as indicated by their failure to communicate meaningfully. In that state of mind, each despairs, feeling helpless in the face of an immutable destiny. Unlike the formal existentialists, however, Estragon and Vladimir hope, and it is that hope that sustains them through their monotonous and immobile existence. They wait. They wait for Godot, who will surely bring them words of comfort and advice, and who will intervene to alter their destinies. By maintaining this hope, by waiting for Godot to come, Vladimir and Estragon avoid facing the logic of existential philosophy, which postulates hopelessness followed by a sense of futility, reducing humankind to absurdity. In this way, Vladimir and Estragon attain truly heroic proportions; they endure.
Beckett’s play has been criticized, even by Estragon, because, as the tramp puts it, “Nothing happens.” In fact, however, a great deal does happen: There is a lot of action, much coming and going. However, action in this sense is quite superficial, for all of it is meaningless. That very action assumes a rhythm and a pattern that constitute the structure of the play. The repetitious movements and dialogue reinforce the existential theme of the play: that life is a meaningless and monotonous performance of endlessly repeated routine. The pattern established in the first act is recapitulated in the second act, with only slight variation. Obviously the action in Waiting for Godot is not the action of conventional drama, but it is this unique fusion of theme and structure that accounts for the startling originality of the play and that rightly earns Beckett a place as one of the few genuine innovators in modern drama.