Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett is an example of Theater of the Absurd, a term created by literary critic Martin Esslin to describe plays in the 1950s that feature existentialist themes in irrational worlds where people have lost a sense of meaning in life.
Early in his career as a writer, Beckett worked for Irish author James Joyce, assisting him with the creation of Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, a masterpiece of experimental fiction. After working with the Joycean style, which incorporated dizzying wordplay, Beckett developed a contrasting modernist, minimalist style.
The characters in Waiting for Godot illustrate Absurdist themes, as they seem to have little or no meaning in their lives, engage in repetitive motions, and communicate in fragments. Vladimir and Estragon spend an aimless life, wandering and waiting by a barren tree for Godot. When Lucky appears in act 1, he seems to be an independent person with a purpose, as he enters the stage first. But then it’s revealed that Lucky is tied by a long rope to Pozzo, who controls Lucky. In act 2, the characters are still tied together, but their roles are reversed with Lucky now leading a blind Pozzo.
In his plays, Beckett often features character pairs he termed “pseudo-couples” to illustrate relationship dynamics. Lucky and Pozzo symbolize power-imbalanced relationships, the forces that drive and enslave people’s minds, and how roles between the powerful and powerless can change and shift from one person in the dynamic to the other. Lucky’s mind is enslaved, and his sense of self is lost to the point where he can’t recognize kindness from Estragon and responds with violence. Pozzo admits that Lucky taught him “beautiful things,” but from his own enslavement to his role as master, he continues to abuse Lucky and commands him to dance. When Lucky finally speaks with help of a hat, his speech is a rambling pastiche of ideas broken up by a nonsensical phrase. His lifelong enslavement has damaged his sense of self, thought, and speech.
Despite the unhappy arrangement, Lucky and Pozzo appear to be addicted to their relationship. Pozzo doesn’t sell off Lucky, and despite the abuse, Lucky stays with Pozzo. Perhaps in a meaningless, absurd world where people wander and wait, their relationship, abusive as it is, gives Pozzo and Lucky some sense of meaning and purpose.
Lawley, Paul. Waiting for Godot: Character Studies. London, Bloomsbury, 2013.