Places Discussed

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Country Road

Country road. Unnamed road, alongside which Vladimir and Estragon await the arrival of Godot. No clues are given to identify the location, whose terrain is a flat and unbroken plain to the distant horizon. In a ditch nearby, Estragon has spent the night, despite beatings by an unknown...

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Country Road

Country road. Unnamed road, alongside which Vladimir and Estragon await the arrival of Godot. No clues are given to identify the location, whose terrain is a flat and unbroken plain to the distant horizon. In a ditch nearby, Estragon has spent the night, despite beatings by an unknown “they.” In effect, the road stretches to and from nowhere in particular, although Pozzo says he is leading his servant, Lucky, down the road to a fair. Pozzo’s claim that he owns the land is not necessarily true. Although Vladimir refers to past experiences together atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris and grape-picking “in the Macon country,” Estragon claims that he has never been in Macon country and has “puked [his] puke of a life away here . . . in the Cackon country.” None of these claims is verifiable.

Despite Beckett’s insistence that productions of his plays should always adhere to his specifications, the austere set he intended for this play has occasionally been radically altered by stage designers. For example, the set of the 1988 Broadway production of Waiting for Godot designed by Tony Walton was a stretch of Nevada highway, cluttered with debris and abandoned car parts.


Tree. Sole landmark by the road that helps direct Vladimir and Estragon to where they are to meet Godot. The scraggly tree is bare in the play’s first act. Although no other trees can be seen, Vladimir and Estragon are uncertain that this is the correct tree by which they should be waiting. Indeed, they think it might not be a tree at all, but rather a shrub or a bush. Vladimir suggests that it might be a willow but admits that he does not know. He also suggests that the tree may be dead. However, when the second act opens there are four or five leaves on the tree, proving that the tree is alive and that an indeterminable length of time has passed.

Beckett reportedly told a biographer that Waiting for Godot was inspired by Kaspar David Friedrich’s painting Two Men Observing the Moon, in which such a tree figures prominently.

Low Mound

Low mound. Slight slope of land on which Estragon sits at the beginning of the play, struggling to remove his boot. This is the only other feature of the landscape mentioned in the stage directions.

Historical Context

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The French Resistance Movement During World War II

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in the late months of 1948, three years after Allied forces had liberated France from German occupation, and some scholars suggest that his war experience might have served as an inspiration for the play. After German military forces had successfully invaded and occupied Northern France in the spring of 1940, a nominally free French government had been established in the South at Vichy and an underground French Resistance movement arose that attempted to frustrate and undermine German control of France. Beckett joined the Resistance movement in Paris in September of 1941 and helped pass secret information to England about German military movements. When an infiltrator began uncovering the names of Resistance members in Beckett's group, Beckett and his companion (later his wife), Suzanne, had to flee Paris and travel into the South, where they eventually found refuge in the small village of Roussillon, near Avignon. In the French version of the play, this village is named as the place where Vladimir and Estragon picked grapes, an activity that Beckett and Suzanne actually engaged in. This has led some scholars to suggest that Vladimir and Estragon can, at least in part, represent Beckett and Suzanne in flight from Paris to Roussillon or the two of them waiting in an extremely dangerous form of exile for the war to end. In Roussillon, Beckett earned food and shelter by doing strenuous manual labor for local farmers, eventually working for a small local Resistance group, and trying to keep his identity hidden from the Germans occupying outlying areas. After the war, Beckett was awarded two French medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Reconnaissance, for his contributions to the war effort.

Indeterminate Time and Place in Beckett's Play

More importantly for Beckett’s art, however, is that Waiting for Godot, on the whole, clearly detaches itself from particular aspects of the historical and cultural context in which Beckett wrote in order to universalize the experience of Vladimir and Estragon. And it achieves this universal quality initially by placing the two figures in an indeterminate setting and time. As the play opens, the setting and time is simply described as “A country road. A tree. Evening.” In the second act, the description is simply, “Next day. Same Time. Same Place.” This backdrop is left unspecified in order to emphasize that the action of the play is a universal “situation” rather than a particular series of events that happened to a particular set of characters.

At one time in our century this waiting could have stood for South Africans waiting for apartheid to end in their native land. More than a half century after the unleashing of atomic energy, this waiting could still represent our fears of nuclear catastrophe. On a more personal level, many know what it is like to wait for news of a test for cancer. But all of these specific situations reveal how specificity can reduce the poetic evocativeness of Beckett’s waiting to a mundane flatness. The unspecified nature of what Vladimir and Estragon wait for is what gives Beckett’s play its extraordinary power.

The peculiar quality of Vladimir and Estragon's waiting, of course, is that they wait with only the vaguest sense of what they are waiting for and that they wait without much hope while still clinging to hope as their only ballast in an existential storm. But even this narrower description of the play’s “waiting” leaves many possibilities for corresponding situations. For example, one of the most famous productions of Waiting for Godot perhaps reveals most clearly how the indeterminate time and place of the play permits it to speak to a wide variety of audience experiences. In The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin examined the famous 1957 production of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin penitentiary. Prison officials had chosen Beckett’s play largely because it had no women in it to distract the prisoners, but the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop group that was performing the play was obviously concerned that such an arcane theatrical experience might baffle an audience of fourteen hundred convicts. Much to their surprise, however, the convicts understood the play immediately. One prisoner said, “Godot is society.” Another said, “he’s the outside.” As Esslin reported, “a teacher at the prison was quoted as saying, “they know what is meant by waiting . . . and they knew if Godot finally came, he would only be a disappointment.” An article in the prison newspaper summarized the prisoners’ response by saying, “We’re still waiting for Godot, and shall continue to wait. When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever—but then, there’s no place to go!” Esslin concluded that “it is said that Godot himself, as well as turns of phrase and characters from the play, have since become a permanent part of the private language, the institutional mythology of San Quentin.” In 1961, one member of that convict audience, Rick Cluchey, helped form a group that produced seven productions of Beckett’s plays for San Quentin audiences from 1961 to 1964. Cluchey later earned his release from San Quentin and had a distinguished career acting on stage and in films, especially as an interpreter of Beckett roles.

Literary Style

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Theater of the Absurd

The seemingly endless waiting that Estragon and Vladimir undertake for the mysterious Godot has made Beckett’s play one of the classic examples of what is called Theater of the Absurd. The term refers both to its content—a bleak vision of the human condition—and to the style that expresses that vision. The idea that human life lacks meaning and purpose, that humans live in an indifferent or hostile universe, is frequently associated with existentialist writers like the French philosophers Albert Camus (Kam-oo) and Jean-Paul Sartre (Sart). But when these two writers expounded their ideas in novels and plays, they generally used traditional literary techniques—that is, lifelike characters; clear, linear plots; and conventional dialogue. But with writers like Beckett or the French dramatist Eugene Ionesco (E-on-es-co), the style is not an arbitrary choice but rather a necessary complement to the vision itself.

Beckett and those who adopted his style insisted that to effectively express the vision of absurdity one had to make the expression itself seem absurd. In other words, the audience had to experience what it felt like to live in an absurd world. Thus, the familiar and comforting qualities of a clear plot, realistic characters, plausible situations, and comprehensible dialogue had to be abandoned. In their place Beckett created a play where bizarre characters speak in what sometimes appears to be illogical, banal chit chat and where events sometimes appear to change with no apparent logic. In Waiting for Godot, for example, this quality is embodied in its most extreme form in Lucky’s first-act monologue where he demonstrates his “thinking.” For two full pages of text, Lucky goes on like this: “I resume alas alas on on in short in fine on on abode of stones who can doubt it I resume but not so fast I resume the skull to shrink.”

Many of the play’s original audience members and critics probably came to Waiting for Godot expecting something more traditional than Lucky’s speech and were not able to adjust to what they were confronted with. Even today’s reader may need a gentle reminder about expectations. As Hugh Kenner suggested at the outset of his book A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, “the reader of Samuel Beckett may want a Guide chiefly to fortify him against irrelevant habits of attention, in particular the habit of reading ‘for the story.’ ” For, as Martin Esslin explained in The Theatre of the Absurd,Waiting for Godot does not tell a story; it explores a static situation. ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful.’ ” Or, as Kenner put it, “the substance of the play is waiting, amid uncertainty. . . . To wait; and to make the audience share the waiting; and to explicate the quality of the waiting: this is not to be done with ‘plot.’ ”

Black Humor

Perhaps the easiest and also the most difficult thing to experience clearly in Waiting for Godot is its sense of humor. It’s the easiest thing to experience because once one accepts the play on its own terms Waiting for Godot is wildly funny. But the play’s humor is also the hardest thing to experience because the reputation of Beckett’s play has created another set of expectations—that its dark vision must be taken with utmost seriousness.

However, a quick look at the subtitle of the play reveals that Beckett called it “a tragi-comedy in two acts,” and this delicate balance between tragedy and comedy is probably the most essential ingredient in the play. Numerous critics have pointed out that Waiting for Godot is full of pratfalls, classic vaudeville “bits” like the wild swapping of hats in Act II, and the patter of comedians such as this from Act I:

Estragon: [Anxious] And we? Vladimir: I beg your pardon? Estragon: I said, And we? Vladimir: I don't understand. Estragon: Where do we come in? Vladimir: Come in? Estragon: Take your time. Vladimir: Come in? On our hands and knees. Estragon: As bad as that?

Hugh Kenner has even discovered what appears to be a “source” for the farcical dropping of trousers that ends the play. He pointed out that in Laurel and Hardy’s film Way Out West (1937), this dialogue occurs:

Hardy: Get on the mule. Laurel: What? Hardy: Get on the mule.

At the end of Waiting for Godot we have:

Vladimir: Pull on your trousers. Estragon: What? Vladimir: Pull on your trousers. Estragon: You want me to pull off my trousers? Vladimir: Pull ON your trousers. Estragon: [Realizing his trousers are down] True. [He pulls up his trousers.]

Black comedy is laughter that is generated by something truly painful. When we are led to laugh at tragedy or real suffering like death or the genuinely horrific, we are in the world of black comedy. In Endgame, Nell says, “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Beckett leads us to laugh because it may be the only viable response to extreme anxiety. In Waiting for Godot, of course, what follows the “trouser” passage above is the quite serious and even solemn concluding lines of the play—“they do not move.”

Media Adaptations

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A 1990 videotape production of Waiting for Godot is available from The Smithsonian Institution Press Video Division as part of a trilogy that includes productions of Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape. Performed by the San Quentin Drama Workshop, the production of Waiting for Godot includes Rick Cluchey as Pozzo. Act I on the first tape lasts seventy-seven minutes, and Act II on the second tape lasts sixty minutes. The whole trilogy is presented under the title Beckett Directs Beckett but only because it is based on Beckett's original staging for theater.

The 1987 film Weeds, starring Nick Nolte, is based loosely on the experience of Rick Cluchey in San Quentin prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for kidnapping, robbery, and aggravated assault, Cluchey witnessed the famous San Quentin production of Beckett’s play, became an actor, organized a prison drama group, and was eventually released after twelve years to become an accomplished interpreter of Beckett’s characters on stage and in film.

A forty-five-minute black and white version of Act II is available from Films for the Humanities (Princeton, NJ, 1988; orig. 1976) and features Zero Mostel, Burgess Meredith, and Milo O’Shea in a production directed by Alan Schneider, director of the ill-fated American premiere in Miami.

A fifty-minute lecture by Bert States entitled “Waiting for Godot: Speculations on Myth and Method,” was recorded on audiocassette in 1976 by the Cornell Literature Forum.

A thirty-six-minute lecture on audiocassette by Kathryn Ludwigson entitled “Beckett’s View of Man in Waiting for Godot and Endgame” was made in 1972 by King’s College. Part of a series entitled Christianity and Literature Cassettes, this lecture compares Beckett’s description of modern man as lost and disoriented with the biblical view of man and points out passages in the dramas analogous to biblical texts.

A thirty-five-minute audiocassette program on the play by Lois Gordon as part of the Modern Drama Cassette Curriculum series was created in 1971 by Everett/Edwards of Deland, Florida.

On June 26, 1961, a British television production of the play was broadcast with Peter Woodthorpe as Estragon and Jack MacGowran as Vladimir and directed by Donald McWhinnie. Beckett was not pleased with the production, feeling that the containment of the action in the small television frame misrepresented the drama of “small men locked in a big space.”

A twenty-four-page musical score for a ten-minute performance entitled “Voices,” based on the play, was published in 1960 by Universal Edition (London) and attributed to Marc Wilkinson. The score features a contralto voice singing in English and German and an instrumental ensemble of flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and violoncello.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Alvarez, A. (1973). Samuel Beckett. New York: Viking Press.

Anouilh, Jean Review in Arts Spectacles, February 27-March 5, 1953, p. 1.

Atkinson, B. (1956, April 20). Theatre: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The New York Times, p. 21.

Bair, D. (1978). Samuel Beckett: A Biography. United States: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Beckett, Samuel. (1954). The Collected Works of Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot. (3rd printing, 1978). New York: Grove Press.

Beckett, Samuel. (1953). Watt. New York: Grove Press.

Bentley, Eric. Review in New Republic, May 14, 1956, pp. 20-1.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Samuel Beckett, Twayne, 1986.

Blin, Roger. "Blin on Beckett," Theater, Fall, 1978, pp. 90-2.

Bloom, H. (Ed.). (1987). Modern Critical interpretations: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. New York: Chelsea House.

Braun, S. (1989, December 27). Samuel Beckett Dies at 83; “Godot” Author, Nobelist. The Los Angeles Times, p.1.

Cohn, R. (1973). Back to Beckett. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cohn, R. (1980). Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cohn, Ruby, editor. Casebook on "Waiting for Godot," Grove, 1967.

Conner, Steven, editor. "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame": Samuel Beckett, St. Martin's, 1992.

Donoghue, D. (1986). We Irish. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Esslin, M. (1961). The Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Doubleday.

Esslin, Martin. "The Absurdity of the Absurd" and "Samuel Beckett: The Search for the Self," in his The Theatre of the Absurd, revised edition, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 1-65.

Fletcher, J., & Spurling, J. (1985). Beckett the Playwright. New York: Hill & Wang.

Gontarski, S. E. (Ed.). (1986). On Beckett: Essays and Criticisms. New York: Grove Press.

Gontarski, S. E. (Ed.). (1992) The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett: Endgame. New York: Grove Press.

Guicharnaud, J. (1967). Modern French Theatre. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hall, Peter. Extract from an interview on Third Programme, British Broadcasting Company (BBC), April 14, 1961. Re-printed in "Waiting for Godot": A Casebook, edited by Ruby Cohn, pp. 30-1, Macmillan, 1987.

Kalb, J. (1989). Beckett in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kennedy, A. (1989). Samuel Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kenner, Hugh. A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Lemarchand, Jacques. Review in Figaro Litteraire, January 17, 1953, p 10.

McMillan, D. & Fehsenfeld, M. (1988). Beckett in the Theatre. London: John Calder.

Mobley, J. P. (1992). NTC’s Dictionary of Theatre and Drama Terms. Illinois: National Textbook Company.

Montague, J. (1994, April 17). A Few Drinks and a Hymn: My Farewell to Samuel Beckett. The New York Times Book Review, p. 24.

O’Brian, E. (1986). The Beckett Country. Dublin: The Black Cat Press Limited.

Topics of the Times: The Rites of Godot (1988, November 21). The New York Times, page 18.

Zegel, Sylvain Review in Liberation, January 7, 1953.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, editor. Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," Chelsea House, 1987. Part of the Modern Critical Interpretations Series, this collection of modern critical commentary is designed for the college undergraduate.

Retcher, John and Beryl S. A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, Second Edition, Faber and Faber, 1985. Most valuable to the student because the book's section on Waiting for Godot includes notes explaining especially important or difficult details in the text of the play.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with and about Beckett, Grove Press, 1996. A collection of transcriptions and interviews, some involving Beckett—who generally refused to talk about himself and his work in public—others involving his artistic collaborators.

Schlueter, June, and Brater, Enoch. Approaches to Teaching Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," MLA, 1991. A rich and varied collection of teachers' approaches to teaching the play, valuable for students as well.

Worth, Katharine. "Waiting for Godot" and "Happy Days"' Text and Performance, Macmillan, 1990. Focusing on the play as a text for theatrical production, this book is aimed specifically at the senior high school and college undergraduate reader, discussing both traditional views of the play and its continued relevance.

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Critical Essays