Last Updated on December 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965
Waiting for Godot, or En attendant Godot in its original French-language iteration, was composed by Irish writer Samuel Beckett between 1948 and 1949, published in 1952, and premiered in 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. The first English-language production of the play premiered in London in 1955, with considerable censorship. While initial reviews of the UK and US stage adaptations lambasted the play for its plotlessness and perceived pretensions, it has since endured as one of the most significant plays of the twentieth century.
Famously summated by literary critic and Beckett’s fellow Irishman Vivian Mercier as “a play in which nothing happens, twice,” Waiting for Godot is a tragicomic two-act play that centers on Vladimir and Estragon, two acquaintances who, for reasons undisclosed, wait in vain at a barren country road for a certain Mr. Godot. While waiting, the two pass the time with rituals, empty disputes, and verbal games. The end of act 2 mirrors that of act 1, as Vladimir and Estragon are once again informed that Godot will not be coming, and so they resign themselves to waiting another day—or, as it is hinted, possibly in perpetuity.
Waiting for Godot is a play marked by absence—not only of Godot, but also of definitiveness, lacking grounding details such as a specific place or point in time. The set possesses a dreamlike and caged configuration, with only two occurrences breaking down its monotony: the moon rising at night and the few leaves that appear on the tree in act 2. The dialogue also gives few hints as to who exactly Vladimir and Estragon are, their personal circumstances and histories, and their relationship with each other.
Apart from absence, the play also operates on repetitions, challenging the onward march of time through the interactions between Vladimir and Estragon, which are fraught with misrememberings, misunderstandings, and never-ending clarifications. In fact, the rhythmic back-and-forth interchanges between the two are riddled with echoes and circularities. This repetition in speech can also be observed in action, in Estragon’s fixation on his boot and Vladimir his hat, in the former’s persistent attempts to nap, and in the latter’s frequent urination offstage. Another thing that points to the play’s themes of eternal recurrence is the song Vladimir sings to himself at the beginning of act 2. The song, which is circular in form, is about a dog who steals a crust of bread and is beaten, killed, and entombed with a cautionary inscription of the manner of his death. The conclusion of the song is its opening verse, and vice versa—mirroring the play’s core structure of extinction, resurrection, and repetition.
The central tension that governs Waiting for Godot is the individual, or pair of individuals, confronted with nothingness and its passive attendees: boredom, appetite, and despair. Vladimir’s and Estragon’s main concern is how to fill the vacuum of time with language and movement, as if silence is a horror too difficult to bear.
We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
In act 2, this becomes more desperate, as the two more frantically engage in banter and playacting—they even display somewhat of an awareness of their absurd condition. The pair become crueler as well, attempting to take advantage of and even striking the now-blind Pozzo. Finally, toward the end of the play, Estragon and Vladimir entertain the notion of hanging themselves. However, the belt they try to use breaks between them—a meaningful signification that all forms of closure and attainment, even death, are beyond their grasp.
The ambiguity of Waiting for Godot lends to the flexibility and range of its stage adaptations. The 1981 Baxter Theatre adaptation, which was sanctioned by Beckett himself, was an all-Black and explicitly political production that depicted Pozzo as an Afrikaner landlord. The play has also been allegorized in theater houses around the globe as the emancipation of Poland from Russia, the distribution of land to Algerian peasants, and the enslavement of Aborigines in the Australian outback. In 2013, New York University also produced a modern-day adaptation of the play, set among the city’s homeless. The dynamics present in the play—the master and the slave, those who have and those who have not—are so ubiquitous that it can be adapted and localized with ease.
Perhaps the secret of the play, however, lies in the success of its prison adaptations, one of the first being in 1953 at the Lüttringhausen Prison in Germany, based on an inmate’s personal translation of the original French-language text. This inmate also wrote a moving letter to Beckett, and the author would go on to praise this production in a 1969 interview.
The true Godot was the one produced in a German prison, with the convicts as actors. They understood that “Godot” is hope, “Godot” is life—aimless, but always with an element of hope.
Most famously, the play was also staged in 1957 at the San Quentin State Prison in California, a momentous literary event that Hungarian-born British critic Martin Esslin covers in the introduction to the Theatre of the Absurd. Met with glowing reviews, the production inspired several of the inmates to ask permission to set up a theater troupe inside the prison. One of these inmates, Rick Cluchy, would go on to act in Beckett’s other plays under the author’s own guidance.
Indeed, the fact that Waiting for Godot was so well-received in San Quentin, and has been subsequently staged in prisons worldwide, discloses the heart of the play—the disempowered tormented with hope, who wait and writhe within this waiting. As Beckett put it in a 1994 interview with actor Peter Woodthorpe, who played Estragon in the first British production of Waiting for Godot, “My play was written for small men locked in a big space.”