03 April 2009

More Thoughts on 'Waiting For Godot'

Let’s pick up where I left off in my discussion of Waiting for Godot, focusing now on the characters. (You’ll note that many of the same terms appear here as did in the earlier analysis of the play as a whole.)



Spine: “To get someone to look after his (physical) needs.” This manifests itself in his clinging to Didi as his provider and protector (Didi keeps the food and Gogo is beaten when they are separated) and his begging Pozzo for the chicken bones in Act I and money in Act II. He waits for Godot to take care of his creature comforts. (In a passage cut from the English version, Vladimir convinces Estragon to continue waiting by suggesting they will probably sleep at Godot’s place that night--“warm and dry, our bellies full, on the straw.”)

Psychological Gesture (PG): Rubbing (or touching) some part of his body. Gogo is the more physically oriented of the pair. His concerns are his sore feet and his hunger. It is he who wants Lucky to dance (not think). His names suggest this: “Estragon” is French for tarragon, a spice used in making pickles and vinegar; “Gogo” suggests movement (go-go)--Estragon is the one who always wants to leave.

Gestus: He is earthy and physically oriented. He evokes animal images (e.g.: bear, dog). He responds to life almost instinctively and accepts himself and the world readily. He has little faith in abstract reasoning. He is subjective, skeptical, and sarcastic. He depends on Didi for security, leadership, and rational direction.


Spine: “To fulfill his responsibilities.” He looks after Gogo, insists on keeping their appointment with Godot, sympathizes with Lucky in Act I and wants to go to Pozzo’s aid in Act II.

PG: Looking to heaven (i.e., skyward). Didi is the spiritual/intellectual half of the pair. His concerns are often emotional (compassion for Lucky) or philosophical (the two crucified thieves). He remembers more and uses logic (to decide who should hang himself first), and it is he who asks Lucky to think. His names, too, suggest some of this: Vladimir is a saint’s name and means “ruler of the world” in Russian; “Didi” suggests “dis-dis,” from the French “to speak”--or “talk-talk” as opposed to “go-go.” (In the French version, there are frequent lines like this: “Dis, Didi . . . ,”-- “Say, Didi . . .”--usually translated as simply, “Didi . . . .”)

Gestus: He is more committed to the rational side of man’s nature. He is more verbal and more concerned with precision in language than Gogo. He seems more eager to present a good image to the outside world and is more susceptible to social embarrassment. He feels it is his duty to act as leader. He relates to the outer world through objective, social logic and is predisposed to accept the existence of a higher reality outside himself. He is having a hard time keeping the lid on the irrational.


Spine: “To serve; to please his master.” We know that, according to Pozzo, Lucky lives to serve him. Without this service, Lucky has no existence. He obeys all commands, and seems to have completely sublimated his own needs to those of his masters. When commanded to, he even obeys the orders of strangers. To avoid being sold away, he must serve Pozzo as well as he can. (The fact that he is inept and fails does not change his motivation or action.)

PG: Carrying burdens. Even when Lucky isn’t carrying Pozzo’s possessions, he is still carrying Pozzo and his world on his back--“Atlas, son of Jupiter,” as Pozzo (incorrectly) calls him. He is permanently stooped from his permanent burden.

Gestus: He symbolizes the Cartesian concept of man-as-machine. Clearly a cultured being, he is reduced to the status of an automaton. He seems to be more animal than human, and his actions seem unpredictable.


Spine: “To be ‘on top’; to be in control.” It is important to Pozzo that he be top man. He “owns” the land where Didi and Gogo wait; he is a person to know--and be obeyed. In order to be “on top” he will denigrate others--either implicitly (Didi and Gogo) or actually (Lucky).

PG: Cracking a whip. What more vivid action is there for a slave-driver/ringmaster/animal-tamer than cracking a whip? His commands to Lucky are whip-snap short; he even calls him his “knook”--a word Beckett made up from “knout,” a Russian whip of knotted cord. (The French version spells it “knouk,” whose pronunciation would sound very much like noeud, French for “knot.”)

Gestus: He is the personification of Raw Power and acts like the nouveau riche at its most arrogant. He believes that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and it’s important to know Pozzo.


Spine: “To do Godot’s bidding.” There is little depth to this character in the sense of his own purpose. (He symbolizes many things to Didi, Gogo, the audience, and the critic, but for himself, he has one purpose--to please Godot.) He does provide important information about Godot, but all in the line of delivering his message.

PG: Running away home. The boy is uncomfortable in the presence of Didi and Gogo (and he says he was afraid of Pozzo and Lucky in Act I), and would feel far better back with his goats.

Gestus: He functions as ironic contrast to the Greek messenger whose arrival signifies resolution. He is a goatherd--his brother, who is beaten, is a shepherd. (See Matthew, Chap. 25: “. . . he will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.”) He is the intermediary between the human and the divine.

GODOT: Since no actor plays the role, no spine or PG is needed for him, but a word or two is important. Whether or not Godot is (or stands for) God is irrelevant to a performance of the play. All we must concern ourselves with is that he represents something outside their control that Didi and Gogo both want and need so much they will return day after day in the hopes of attaining it. Though this may sound God-like to most Westerners (in the Judeo-Christian world), the intellectualizing over his label is ultimately moot and masturbatory. Each actor/audience will find its own meaning--and it will be right.


Beckett originally conceived of Didi and Gogo as clowns, not tramps. He makes frequent use of “low comedy” techniques, vaudeville routines, and Commedia lazzi. Some of the traditional bits used are:

Didi makes Gogo pull up his trouser leg so they can see the wound from Lucky’s kick. The actions are those found in burlesque with Didi holding up Gogo’s leg while Gogo can hardly keep his balance. Against this background of farcical comedy is the contrasting idea of the metaphysical and spiritual wounds that man carries about with him.

Didi has found Lucky’s hat and, in the tradition of burlesque, there follows an exchange-of-hats act between Didi and Gogo. Didi gives his own hat to Gogo and replaces it with Lucky’s. Gogo then does the same, offering his hat to Didi, who replaces it for Lucky’s and hands Lucky’s hat to Gogo, who replaces it for Didi’s and so on. Here is the cyclical, endless nature of life. It is also empty and fruitless, since the hats are all identical bowlers. No advancement is made, but no loss either.

Didi suggests to Gogo: “Lets abuse each other.” There follows in rapid succession a series of name-calling. This form of insult one-upmanship is common in music-hall comic routines. This is followed by the two “doing their exercises,” described in a stychomythic exchange. Both of these comic interludes are attempts to pass the time while they wait. The play is about what happens while waiting for Godot. Both attempts end without any consequences--except that they passed some time.

Lucky falls and drags Pozzo with him. Didi and Gogo try to help them up, with the result that all four end up on the ground. Except for being under it, this is the lowest point on earth the four could be. This is “low” comedy at its most literal.

When the clown/tramps attempt to hang themselves using the cord Gogo uses to hold up his pants, the cord breaks, and Gogo loses his pants. In what ought to have been the most sublime moment in their lives--an attempt to take control of their existence--Gogo suffers the rudest indignity: his pants fall down, and he doesn't even notice. It’s the emperor’s new clothes in reverse.

Aside from these specific examples of music-hall and burlesque routines, there are many occasions for mime, pantomime, and visual lazzi. Gogo’s constant examination of his feet, Didi’s playing with his hat and his urinary problems, Pozzo’s feasting on chicken legs--all are fertile ground for great comic turns. Beckett was taken with the Marx Brothers and his movie Film starred Buster Keaton, the great silent-movie pantomimist; it stands to reason that Godot should make frequent use of the comic acting techniques of this genre. It is not for nothing that his characters so closely resemble Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.” It should also not be surprising that the roles of Didi and Gogo have been played by some of the greatest vaudeville clowns, circus mimes, and stage comics we've produced: Bert Lahr, Zero Mostel, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Bill Irwin.

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