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.
Samuel Beckett lived from 1906 until 1989, during which time the world went through enormous social, cultural, and political changes.
Socially, Beckett was born into a privileged Anglo-Irish Protestant family whose household seemed unaffected by the changes around it. However, as a child, he witnessed first-hand the destruction and devastation caused by the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Dublin.
As a young adult, he was exposed to the leading literary and political figures in Dublin. The pubs overlapped the world created by language and theater. He frequented the Abbey Theatre, home of Irish Nationalism, the Gate, home of experimental European drama, and the Queens Theatre, which was the center for melodrama. Beckett also got a taste of vaudeville; he loved the movies of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and, later, the Marx Brothers.
When censorship renewed itself in Ireland in the late 1920s, and Beckett’s book, More Pricks Than Kicks, came under attack, the stage was set for his subsequent move to France. He delighted in saying how he preferred “France in war to Ireland in peace,” even though he had been stabbed on a Paris street for no apparent reason in 1938.
Fiercely protective of his private life, especially his relationship and marriage to Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and not wanting to utter “another blot on silence,” Beckett claimed to be apolitical. However, his actions proved otherwise. He openly attacked anti-semitism, worked with the French Resistance during World War II, and joined an Irish Red Cross unit after the war to set up a hospital in Normandy.
In 1946, he began his most productive period. He wrote in French, perhaps in an attempt to “strip his language to the bare essentials of his vision.” The world had come to a temporary resting point, only to succumb again to the endless recurrent political battles of a “post-nuclear age.” In a world where traditional values and beliefs were under intense scrutiny, life seldom resembled a tidy, well-constructed play. In fact, it may have provided the right climate for Waiting for Godot.
En attendant Godot, (Waiting for Godot), was first presented on January 5, 1953, at the Babylone Theatre in Paris, France, to a packed house of more than 200 people. It had been financed by a small, state grant obtained by its producer, Roger Blin. Although the general public and conventional press winced in confusion over its meaning, it received enough praise from the “right” people to ensure its success.
In her review for La Liberation, Sylvain Zegel wrote: “Paris had just recognized in Samuel Beckett one of today’s best playwrights”. At 47, Beckett had become famous, and the phrase, “Waiting for Godot,” became an everyday expression of political cartoonists throughout the world.
The English version of Waiting for Godot opened in London at the Arts Theatre Club on August 3, 1955. Although the popular press initially dismissed it as “rubbish,” leading theater critics jumped to its rescue. As a result, it managed to play to capacity audiences until May, 1956. When it opened in Dublin, it received more favorable reviews.
Waiting for Godot had its premiere in the United States at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida on January 3, 1956. Reviewers hated it, and audiences walked out. The running joke was that the only place to be sure of finding a cab in Miami was outside of the theater, between acts.
The play got a better reception when it opened on Broadway, in April 1956. It was publicized as entertainment for “thoughtful and discriminating” audiences. In his review for The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Theater goers can rail at it, but they canNot Ignore it. For Mr. Beckett is a valid writer.”
Since then, Waiting for Godot has entertained audiences as diverse as children, prisoners and university students, and has been accepted as one of the classics of the twentieth-century stage.
Of course, it has never been without its critics. Norman Mailer characterized its admirers as “snobs of undue ambition and impotent imagination.” And Beckett himself, called it a “bad” play.
Clearly, Samuel Beckett is not a writer for the general public. His work is for students and scholars. They have created an abundance of literature of their own about Beckett, including The Journal of Beckett Studies, begun in 1976.
In 1988, however, both general public and scholar alike competed for tickets to a performance of Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center, in New York City. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin, it received enormous publicity. Most noteworthy was the fact that the audience included the extremes of Beckett followers, including those who sat with annotated texts, monitoring every word and every action.
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 sixties. This category, Theater of the Absurd, was used to describe the new kind of theater that Beckett represented. Martin Esslin defined it as dealing with “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.” It was characterized by absurd dialogue, characters and situations. It included the plays of Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.
Beckett resisted the impulse to explain or categorize this material. In fact, he abhorred all attempts to do so. He wanted form and content to remain inseparable, and the reading or experience of the play to speak for itself.
Master List of Characters
Estragon (Gogo)—Male vagabond in his later life; once a poet. Now ragged, with smelly and sore feet; longtime companion and friend of Vladimir.
Vladimir (Didi)—Male vagabond in later life; once respectable, now old and in pain, with garlic breath; possibly heavier than Estragon; more domineering and paternal.
Lucky—Obedient, male slave of Pozzo; with long, white hair; dances and thinks aloud on command in the first act; mute in the second act.
Pozzo—Sadistic, pipe smoking bald man who owns land and is a slave owner. Approximately in his sixties; intimidating voice; condescending attitude; in the first act, occasionally uses vaporizer for his throat and glasses for emphasis. Blind and helpless in the second act.
A boy—Timid and respectful. Of no particular age.
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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Estragon tries to take off his boot but fails. Vladimir agrees with him that it sometimes appears that there is nothing one could do. They are glad to be reunited after a night apart. With Vladimir’s help, Estragon succeeds in removing his boot, which was causing him pain. Vladimir, also in pain, cannot laugh in comfort; he tries smiling instead, but it is not satisfactory.
Vladimir muses on the one Gospel account that says Christ saved one of the thieves. Estragon wants to leave, but they cannot leave because they are waiting for Godot. They become confused about the arrangements and wonder if they are waiting at the right time, in the right place, and on the right day. They quarrel briefly but then, as always, they reconcile.
Estragon and Vladimir consider hanging themselves from the nearby tree but decide that it would be safer to do nothing until they hear what Godot says. They do not know what they have asked Godot for. They conclude that they have forgone their rights. Vladimir gives Estragon a carrot, which he eats hungrily. They decide that although they are not bound to Godot, they are in fact unable to act.
Pozzo enters, driving Lucky, who is laden with luggage, by a rope around his neck. Estragon and Vladimir mistake Pozzo for Godot but accept him as Pozzo. Although he attempts to intimidate them, he is glad of their company. After ordering Lucky to bring him his stool and his coat, Pozzo gives Lucky the whip. Lucky...
(The entire section is 1168 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Waiting for Godot is an unremitting picture of despair and futility. It established a new direction for modern theater and made Samuel Beckett one of the foremost dramatists of that new trend in theater. In each act, two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, longtime friends, appear at twilight on a desolate country road in the middle of nowhere to wait for an obscure figure named Godot, whom they have never seen, but whom they believe will rescue them from their otherwise empty and banal lives. The play may be understood as a metaphor for the human condition in the modern world.
Designed to cope with the banality and emptiness of their lives, this behavior is ritualistic. Every day they return to the same place to wait for the mysterious Godot. To pass the time and to fill the emptiness, they engage in comic banter and vaudevillian shtick. In act 1, just as the two tramps discuss whether they are tied to each other, this place, and to Godot, two others, Pozzo and Lucky, arrive, tied together by a long rope. Their arrival provides a grotesquely comic interlude that dramatizes the tramps’ condition. Bound together and inseparable, Pozzo and Lucky share a common fate: Neither can do without the other. Metaphysically, all these “ties” represent the desperation of humans bound to a meaningless existence they cannot abandon. Figuratively speaking, the tramps are at the end of their rope.
Aware that language has failed them, their thinking is...
(The entire section is 849 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Arguably, Waiting for Godot provides an optimum point of entry not only into Beckett’s enigmatic body of mature work but also into the antirational theater that emerged on the European continent during the decade following World War II, permanently altering the expectations of spectators (and playwrights) all over the world. In Beckett’s first performed and published play, as in contemporary (but quite different) plays by Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Max Frisch, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, plot is all but discarded as a necessary element of drama, the tension residing instead in metaphysical concerns and in interaction (or noninteraction) among the characters.
The play is set on a desolate roadside, requiring little in the way of scenery. Two aging tramps, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), reminiscent of the film comics Laurel and Hardy gone to seed, exchange desultory conversation as they wait for the arrival of a man called Godot, who in fact never appears. Vladimir, like Laurel, is spare of build; Estragon, like Oliver Hardy, considerably stouter. “Nothing to be done,” says Estragon in the play’s first line, which in fact summarizes all the ensuing dialogue and action, although Estragon, at that moment, refers only to the act of taking off his shoes. Beckett’s lines, even when translated into English from the original French, tend thus to send ambivalent messages and meanings that continue to reverberate long after the curtain...
(The entire section is 571 words.)
Act Summary and Analysis
Act I, Section A-1: Summary and Analysis
Estragon: (Gogo): half tramp, half clown, ex-poet, well over 50 years old; has sore feet, limps
Vladimir (Didi): once respectable friend of Gogo’s; protective but domineering; walks with short stiff strides and legs apart; has bladder pain
The play opens on a country road with a bare tree. It is evening. Estragon is sitting on a low mound, trying to remove his boot. “Nothing to be done,” he says, as Vladimir approaches.
They greet each other as before. They have been apart, at least for the night, and Estragon tells of having been beaten by strangers in a ditch. Vladimir reminds himself of the burden of caring for Estragon. Suicide seems like a better idea. He laments not having done it years ago with Estragon, hand-in-hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Now it is too late. They are no longer respectable. They would not even be allowed to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Estragon asks for help with his boot, but gets none. Vladimir has his own problems; he has even forgotten to button his fly.
Estragon succeeds in removing his boot, and examines it. Vladimir removes his hat, and Estragon does the same. Vladimir suggests repenting. “Our being born?” Estragon says. Vladimir’s laugh makes him grab himself in pain. He can’t laugh, because he has too much physical pain. A smile will suffice.
Vladimir remembers a tale from the...
(The entire section is 1202 words.)
Act I, Section A-2: Summary and Analysis
Estragon gets up from the mound. He is in pain. He limps around and wants to leave. Vladimir reminds him that they must stay and wait for Godot. Estragon is not sure that they are waiting in the right spot or on the right day. Vladimir examines the spot, points out the tree as the landmark, but gets confused about the day.
Estragon naps on the mound. Vladimir paces, then wakes him. “I felt lonely,” Vladimir says. Estragon wants to share his dream, but Vladimir resists. They argue, then embrace.
The idea of suicide seems to appeal to both of them. They chat about the possibility of hanging themselves from the tree. “It’d give us an erection,” Vladimir says. “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!” Estragon concludes.
However, the method is problematic. The tree may not sustain Vladimir’s weight, and he may be left all alone. Also, the possibility exists that Godot may come and offer them something they want, something they may have asked for. And so they wait.
When Estragon gets hungry, Vladimir produces a carrot. This leads to talk about food, then more talk about Godot. Estragon wants to know if they are “tied” to Godot. “Tied?” Vladimir asks. “Ti-ed.” Estragon repeats. “But to whom? By whom?” Vladimir asks. “To your man,” answers Estragon, who by this time seems to have forgotten Godot’s name.
This discussion ends. Estragon repeats, “Nothing to be...
(The entire section is 964 words.)
Act I, Section A-3: Summary and Analysis
Lucky: male, looks very old and tired; has long gray hair and bulging eyes; his neck has running sores caused by the rope that is tied around it; once a great dancer and thinker, he now serves as Pozzo’s slave; carries Pozzo’s things and responds to his commands; has a temper that he uses against Estragon, and cries easily
Pozzo: gentleman landowner; bald and old; commanding presence; sadistic owner of Lucky; occasionally wears glasses, smokes a pipe
Lucky enters with a rope around his neck. He is carrying “a heavy bag, a folding stool, a picnic basket and a greatcoat.” Behind him, jerking the end of the long rope, is Pozzo. He is cracking a whip and yelling out commands.
At first, Estragon thinks this may be Godot. However, in a “terrifying voice,” Pozzo introduces himself. He seems surprised that Estragon and Vladimir do not know of him. He puts on his glasses to make sure they “are human.”
Pozzo inquires about Godot. This is Pozzo’s land, although he admits, “The road is free to all”, he wants to know why Estragon and Vladimir are there.
Almost immediately, however, he loses interest. He has his own business to attend to. Referring to Lucky as “pig” and “hog,” he orders him to give him his coat, hold the whip, and open the stool so he can sit.
Lucky does as he is told, moving back and forth from his original spot. In...
(The entire section is 749 words.)
Act I, Section A-4: Summary and Analysis
Lucky goes back to his spot. Pozzo opens the basket, removes the chicken and wine, and starts eating.
Vladimir and Estragon takes a closer look at Lucky. They inspect his face and the sores on his neck. They wonder out loud whether he is “a halfwit” or “a cretin.”
Estragon wants the chicken bones Pozzo’s thrown on the ground. He is told to ask Lucky for permission to eat them. When Lucky ignores him, Pozzo grants him permission to eat them.
While Pozzo smokes his pipe, Vladimir and Estragon complain about the “disgrace” of Lucky’s treatment. They decide to leave. However, Pozzo reminds them about their appointment with Godot. He does not want them to go; he wants company while he smokes his second pipe.
Estragon and Vladimir wonder why Lucky does not put down his bags. They ask Pozzo about this, but he is too busy talking about himself. They ask again. This time, Pozzo relishes the attention (“Is everybody listening? Is everybody ready?”), and even jerks Lucky to attention. However, by the time he is ready to answer, he has forgotten the question.
When it is repeated, Pozzo goes into a lengthy explanation. He explains that he is on his way to sell Lucky at the fair. Since Lucky does not want to be sold, he is trying to impress Pozzo with his actions.
At this point, Lucky starts crying. Pozzo gives Estragon a handkerchief to wipe away the tears. As Estragon...
(The entire section is 971 words.)
Act I, Section A-5: Summary and Analysis
Pozzo wants to repay Estragon and Vladimir for being “civil” to him. Although Estragon suggests money, Pozzo offers entertainment.
He proposes that Lucky dance, sing, recite, or think for them. Estragon suggests that Lucky first dance, then think. On command, Lucky puts down his bags and dances the same step twice.
Although this attempt proves disappointing, Vladimir wants to hear Lucky think. Pozzo insists that Vladimir return Lucky’s hat to his head in order to get him to perform. Once this task is accomplished, Pozzo commands, “Think, pig!”
Lucky does so. He shouts out a litany of remarks. At long last, Vladimir grabs his hat. Lucky falls and is finally silent.
Pozzo, in his anger, takes the hat, tramples it, and announces, “There’s an end to his thinking!”
Worried that Lucky may now be dead, Vladimir and Estragon attempt to lift him and hold him up. They quickly grow impatient with this, and allow him to fall.
Upon Pozzo’s insistence, they finally get him standing again on his own, holding the bags. Pozzo hunts for his watch, doesn’t find it, realizes he must have left it at home, and attempts to go.
This is not an easy task. “I don’t seem to be able…(long hesitation)…to depart.” he says. “Such is life,” Estragon agrees.
However, before long, Pozzo and Lucky exit.
A-5 focuses on...
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Act I, Section A-6: Summary and Analysis
Boy: delivers messages for Godot and takes care of his goats; somewhat fearful and shy
Estragon wants to leave. Vladimir reminds him that they must wait for Godot. A boy arrives with a message from Godot. Before he has a chance to continue, Estragon grabs him and shakes him. Vladimir intervenes.
Estragon admits that he is “unhappy,” but doesn’t remember why. He manages to limp to his mound, sit down, and remove his boots.
Finally, the boy blurts out the message. “He tells them that Godot will not come this evening but surely tomorrow.”
Vladimir questions the boy about his job, his brother, and his relationship with Godot. The boy tells him that he takes care of Godot’s goats while his brother “minds the sheep.” Godot is good to him, but beats his brother. The boy asks what he should tell Godot. “Tell him you saw us,” Vladimir replies.
The boy runs off. It is night. The moon rises. Estragon leaves his boots on the ground, for someone with “smaller feet.” He wants to go barefoot, like Christ.
Vladimir assures Estragon that “Tomorrow will be better;” Godot will be there. Estragon wants to bring rope to hang himself. He reminisces about a former suicide attempt.
They consider the possibility of parting, but they stay together. They agree to leave, but they do not move.
A-6 is the...
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Act II, Section B-1: Summary and Analysis
It is the next day, the same time, the same place. Estragon’s boots are where he left them, “heels together, toes splayed.” The tree has a few leaves.
Vladimir enters and sings a song. Estragon arrives, barefoot and unhappy. They greet each other and embrace. Vladimir’s singing made Estragon feel unwanted. “He’s all alone, he thinks I’m gone forever, and he sings.”
Vladimir tries to explain his mood, but can’t. Estragon’s been beaten again, this time by “ten of them.” Vladimir is reminded of Estragon’s dependence on him. They agree to say to each other, “We are happy.”
Vladimir remembers “yesterday,” the tree, Pozzo and Lucky, the scenery. Estragon has forgotten the tree. He remembers getting kicked and eating bones. Vladimir talks of the Macon country, of picking grapes with Estragon, some time before. Estragon becomes angry. He doesn’t remember that part of his life. He only knows where he is now—in the Cackon country.
They talk of the dead and death. They remember Godot. Again they wait. While they wait, they contradict each other and question each other. They manage to pass the time.
B-1, like A-1, defines the situation. Vladimir and Estragon question the time and place of their appointment, and go through their verbal patter to pass the time.
The “round-song” that Vladimir sings while he “comes and goes”...
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Act II , Section B-2: Summary and Analysis
Vladimir talks about what just occurred. He notices how the tree has changed. The tree was bare and black and now it is covered with leaves.
He tries to remind Estragon of the encounter with Pozzo and Lucky. He succeeds in finding Estragon’s wound. Then he sees Estragon’s boots. Estragon insists they are not his.
Estragon is tired and wants to leave. Vladimir reminds him about Godot.
This time, the only food in Vladimir’s pocket is a black radish and turnips. He offers to go find carrots, but he does not move.
Vladimir puts the boots on Estragon’s feet. They are loose but fit. Estragon sits on his mound and tries to sleep while Vladimir sings. At first, the singing is too loud. When it is softer, Estragon falls asleep.
When he awakens, he wants to tell his dream, but is silenced. Then he wants to leave. They can’t because of Godot.
They find Lucky’s hat. They play at exchanging and adjusting hats. Estragon wants to leave; Vladimir wants to play.
They play at being Lucky and Pozzo—Vladimir as Lucky; Estragon as Pozzo. They part, then come together again.
They fear someone is approaching. They try hiding behind the tree. The tree can’t hide them. They are safe anyway because nobody comes.
They exchange insults, ending with Estragon’s “Crritic!” They make up, do exercises, deep breathing, and play at being the tree....
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Act II, Section B-3: Summary and Analysis
Pozzo and Lucky enter. Pozzo is now blind. Otherwise they seem the same. The rope is shorter than before and seems to be pulling Pozzo; the other trappings are the same. As they enter, Pozzo bumps into Lucky, and they both fall.
Vladimir recognizes Pozzo; Estragon thinks he is Godot. Although Pozzo asks for help again and again, his pleas are ignored.
Estragon and Vladimir discuss the situation. Vladimir philosophizes about this-and-that. Estragon concludes, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.”
Pozzo offers to pay for help. Vladimir finally attempts to pull him up, but fails. Estragon threatens to leave. Someone farts. Estragon tries to help Vladimir up, but he also falls. They are all down on the ground. Pozzo asks “Who are you?” Vladimir replies, “We are men.”
B-3 is a reversal of A-4. Pozzo, who dominated Vladimir and Estragon with his chatter, is now on the ground crying for help, and it is Vladimir who dominates this section with his rhetoric.
Pozzo and Lucky have changed since Act I. Pozzo is blind and, although it is not apparent until B-4, Lucky is dumb. There are no outward changes in Vladimir and Estragon. They may be sentenced to life forever. They seem not to have aged, nor are they dead. Neither one, however, immediately recognizes Pozzo and Lucky. Vladimir then notices Pozzo, and reminds Estragon of the previous events.
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Act II, Section B-4: Summary and Analysis
Pozzo crawls away but remains down. Vladimir, is afraid Pozzo is dying. Estragon responds by amusing himself. He calls Pozzo, “Abel,” and Lucky, “Cain.” Then he ponders a cloud.
Vladimir and Estragon decide to pass the time by helping Pozzo. Once up, Pozzo tells them he is blind. They carry him around for a while, then release him. Pozzo has lost his sense of time, and wants to locate Lucky. “Where is my menial?” he asks.
Vladimir suggests this is Estragon’s chance to get back at Lucky for kicking him. Lucky is down, and Estragon can revive him by following Pozzo’s suggestions of pulling the rope or giving him “a taste of his boot, in the face and the privates....”
Estragon starts kicking him. In the process, he hurts himself, retires to the mound, and falls asleep.
Pozzo commands Lucky to get up. When he is up, he lifts the bags, puts the end of his rope in Pozzo’s hand, and they are ready to go.
Vladimir wants to hear Lucky sing or think or recite. “But he is dumb,” Pozzo responds. “Since when?” Vladimir asks. Furious at his obsession with time, Pozzo blurts out, “One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second.... They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Pozzo pulls on...
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Act II, Section B-5: Summary and Analysis
Vladimir and Estragon are alone. Vladimir awakens Estragon,does not want to hear his dream, and wonders about Pozzo’s blindness. Estragon again asks if Pozzo was Godot.
Estragon’s feet hurt. Vladimir ponders the “truth” of what happened, and what will continue to happen.
The boy enters. He doesn’t recognize Vladimir and doesn’t remember being there before. Vladimir knows the message by heart. He says it for the boy. He asks the boy about his brother. “He’s sick, Sir,” the boy says. Vladimir asks if Godot has a beard, if it’s “fair” or “black.” The boy replies, “I think it’s white, Sir.”
Again, the boy wants to know what to tell Godot. “Tell him you saw me....” Vladimir answers. Then he grabs the boy and warns him not to forget this meeting.
“The sun sets, the moon rises.” Estragon gets up, removes his boots, puts them on the ground, and talks about leaving. Vladimir reminds him about Godot.
They look at the tree, and wonder if it’s a willow. They would like to hang themselves. Estragon removes the cord from his waist that was holding up his pants. His pants fall down to his ankles.
They remain there while they test the strength of the cord. It breaks. Estragon says they can bring a stronger rope when they return. They agree to hang themselves unless Godot appears.
Vladimir tells Estragon to pull up his trousers. He does...
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