Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
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 Bible, while Estragon remembers the maps from the Bible. The men have their own thoughts. When Vladimir questions the judgment of “Everybody,” Estragon concludes, “People are bloody ignorant apes.”
Section A-1 establishes that there is “nothing to be done.” It associates Estragon with boots and stone, and Vladimir with a hat and a tree. It introduces the theme of suicide and the “two thieves.”
A-1 opens on a barren stage with a mound and a tree. This minimalistic landscape immediately invokes the theme of emptiness or nothingness, referred to by some critics as “the void.” The play could be happening anywhere, at any time, although one of the critics noted that it seems to take place in the mountains of Dublin, at the lonely summit of Glencree, with its occasional threatened tree.
Estragon and Vladimir are tramps or vagabonds. They may belong to the category of people in Paris known as “clochards,” who have known better times and have originally been cultured and educated. When Vladimir suggests, “you should have been a poet,” Estragon tells him, “I was.” In a conversation with one of his critics, Beckett was told that, at times, Estragon and Vladimir sound like they have earned advanced degrees. “How do you know they hadn’t?” Beckett replied. Clearly homeless, they may also represent the rootless Anglo-Irish middle class in Ireland, who were neither English nor Irish and were caught between two cultures in a politically charged environment.
Estragon spends a great deal of time trying to remove his boot. The stage directions read “He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before.” During this period, there is no dialogue, and nothing much happens. This occurs throughout the play. Often, the directions read “silence” and “pause,” marking important themes of waiting and nothingness.
“If they did it my way, they would empty the theater,” Beckett said. He wanted the audience to experience the agony of waiting, right along with the characters. Such is the essence of the play. The play is an event to be experienced; everyone waits, while nothing happens. One of Beckett’s working titles was En attendant, which can be translated simply as “while waiting.”
After the elapsed time, Estragon states, “Nothing to be done.” This sentence is key to the rest of the play. It is a world in which nothing happens and nothing can be done.
Vladimir and Estragon talk to themselves before they talk to each other. For a brief moment they are separate individuals who come together to form two halves of a couple. One of their functions is to verify the existence of the other. “So there you are again,” Vladimir says. “Am I?” Estragon wants to know.
Estragon, sitting on his mound, “is on the ground, he belongs to the stone,” Beckett said. “Vladimir is light, he is oriented towards the sky. He belongs to the tree.” The stone and the tree are visual symbols for the pair.
This seems to tie in philosophically with the division of body and mind, earth and sky. In this first section, Estragon seems more grounded in his body and more of a concrete thinker. He needs to sit; he has trouble with his boot and his feet. Vladimir seems more mobile, more philosophical; he needs to stand; he has trouble with his hat. Vladimir’s memory of the Bible is a literary image; Estragon’s has a visual image.
The relationship of Estragon and Vladimir is outlined from the beginning. Although they are different, they seem to understand each other and depend on each other. They remain outside of each other’s pain, but they play with its effects. Their antics have been compared to those of the Hollywood comedy team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Beckett was a fan of theirs and could easily have lifted the hat and boot routines from their movies.
The two men entertain themselves with their use of language. They welcome each other; they reminisce; they joke; they complain; they question each other; they tell stories; they scold each other. Their dialogue is a game. At one point, Vladimir pauses and says, “Come on, Gogo, return the ball,” as if he and Estragon were rallying on the beloved tennis court of Beckett’s youth.
The tale Vladimir remembers of the four evangelists and the two thieves creates a thread of insecurity. If, in this myth, only one of the four remembers that Christ saved a sinner who was crucified with him, although all four were there, is there any truth to the story? How does one know what to believe?
The reference to the “Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Savior” brings up the much-debated question of the significance of religion in the play. The story of the Gospels, as relayed by Vladimir, refers to the works of Saint Augustine, although the exact source is not clear. Beckett quoted it as “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.” He used the theme of the two thieves throughout his play.
“I am aware of Christian mythology,” Beckett said. “I have had the Bible read to me as a child, and have read the writing of others who were affected by it and who used it in one form or another. Like all literary devices, I use it where it suits me. But to say I have been deeply affected by it . . . is utter nonsense.”
He also noted, “My mother and brother got no value from their religion when they died. At the moment of crisis it had no more depth than an old school tie.” Clearly, Godot is not a religious play. The reference is a literary one, not a religious one.