01 April 2009

Thoughts on 'Waiting For Godot'

A fair number of years ago, when I was taking a grad course in production dramaturgy, I did a term-long project on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The assignment had been to work up the script as if I were the dramaturg working with the director on a staging of the play. In addition to pure history (of Beckett and of Godot), the project entailed a prodigious amount of reading on interpretation, including both literary analysis and reviews of past productions, as well as deep analysis of the script as a performance text. Although much of the resultant booklet would be of little interest to potential audiences, especially a couple of decades on, some of the analysis and interpretation, though they are decidedly my own, might be helpful to someone contemplating seeing the forthcoming Roundabout production at Studio 54. Here are the fruits of some of my cohabitation with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Remember, please, that these are my own ideas--informed though they were by research and reading--and while you may disagree with my interpretations, perhaps even vehemently, I trust my thoughts will loosen up some of your thinking and maybe throw out an idea you hadn’t considered. Besides, none of this is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa: it’s not permanent. And you can cherry-pick. You don’t like one idea, toss it out and start over!

I’ll begin with some considerations of the play as a whole, saving the analysis of Beckett’s characters for another time. (In this discussion and the next, you’ll note that I use some theater jargon drawn from various sources. It’s shorthand, and I won’t take the time here to define the terms and expressions. All of them are standard in one teacher’s or writer’s system or another, and you can find them easily enough, probably even on the ‘Net somewhere. A few hints where to look: “spine” is a term used by Harold Clurman; “psychological gesture” [PG] is from Michael Chekhov; “gestus” is a Brechtian concept.)


Spine of the Play: “To find salvation”--which usually becomes “to survive; to get through the day,” or, to use Vladimir’s words, “to keep the ball in play.”

Theme: Universal helplessness and uncertainty. Beckett’s key word is “perhaps”; he deals not with knowledge and strength, but ignorance and, therefore, impotence. Beckett believed the first spoken words should introduce the theme of the play: “Nothing to be done”--i.e., we have no control over what happens.

It’s important to note that “helplessness”--the inability to have an effect on events--is not hopelessness. Lack of control isn’t synonymous in Godot with doom--there’s always the possibility of hope. We just can’t be sure. One of Beckett’s favorite statements is from St. Augustine: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved; do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.” Beckett liked it for the symmetry of its form; but it also balances hope with despair in equal measure--and Vladimir even sees this dichotomy in Godot.

Metaphor: The central situation of the play--the uncertain and endless waiting (the French title, En attendant Godot, actually means “while waiting for Godot”)--is analogous to waiting for a bus at night on a strange route without watch or timetable. [This was conceived, of course, before the advent of cell phones. So add in that you’re out of range of a tower or your battery’s dead.] You may be at the right spot for the bus to stop--or you may not; the last bus may have already passed--or you may be on time. If you wait, and the bus hasn’t gone by, and you’re in the right place, you’ll catch your bus and be on your way (i.e., “saved”). If the bus has passed, or you’re in the wrong place, you’ll wait all night to no avail and jeopardize your chances of catching another somewhere else or finding a taxi. But if you leave to find another spot, the bus may come at any moment and leave without you. Your complete ignorance of the essential facts--time, bus route, schedule--makes you impotent to take any specific action.

It’s important to note that this is not a hopeless situation. Beckett has presented Gogo and Didi--and us--with a situation that’s absolutely uncertain--we can never know what will happen in the next moment--but not without hope. There is a significant difference. After all, there’s as much chance that the bus will come as that it won’t. We simply cannot rely on any outside elements to provide us with guidance in making a decision. Hope exists--right alongside uncertainty.


Circularity: The play’s structure is circular. It seems to go nowhere, and returns to the start. Note the circular, repetitive activities--especially in the “routines” of Didi and Gogo; and Pozzo and Lucky travel in a circle. (They come in one side in Act I and return from the opposite way in Act II.) Even with the subtle changes that occur from Act I to Act II (and between repeated moments) we can see that “le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose.”

Pairings: Gogo and Didi are two halves of a whole personality. They are the Id and the Ego, the Body and the Mind, the Gut and the Head, the Unconscious and the Conscious. Pozzo and Lucky are also mated--Master and Slave, Sadist and Masochist, Operator and Machine, Exploiter and Exploited, Materialistic and Spiritual/Cultural.

Even the pairs are pairs: Gogo and Didi are essentially passive--waiters, longers, victims--while Pozzo and Lucky are active--doers, goers, searchers.

Balance: Besides the pairs (active/passive, slave/master, thinker/doer, etc.), there are other balances in Godot. Hope is balanced with death (green leaves on the dead tree). Pain is balanced with pleasure (hanging may bring on sexual gratification). Salvation is balanced with damnation (one thief was saved, the other condemned). Comedy is balanced with tragedy (to hang himself, Gogo loses his pants). It’s this balance that manifests the disproof of Beckett’s touted pessimism. He can’t be pessimistic--implying a certainty of doom--since he offers alternatives at every turn. He just doesn’t know which will turn up. Life is a crap-shoot.

Barrenness: There is, of course, the devastated landscape (Beckett’s “blasted heath”?) and the bare tree; note, also, the tramps (Beckett thought of them as circus clowns) are dressed in tatters and eat roots and bones. There are few objects (i.e., “props”) on the stage. (I don’t hold with the Peter Hall notion of strewing the place with garbage and trash. Spareness was Beckett’s style, not clutter.) Even the theme is barren: “Nothing to be done.”

Circus/Burlesque: Gogo and Didi are evocative of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Emmet Kelley’s “Sad Willie”--they engage in vaudeville routines, music-hall stychomythy and pantomime, and Commedia lazzi. They also represent the traditional music-hall team reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and even Martin and Lewis (or Martin and Rowan a generation later--or Martin and Aykroyd another generation further on). Pozzo is the image of the ringmaster and animal-tamer (whip and chair, and his monosyllabically barked commands to Lucky) and Lucky is his wild beast (he even has a leonine mane of white hair--the “lion wig” of Kabuki theater).

The significance of circus to Beckett is born out by the fact that his Film starred the great silent clown Buster Keaton. Roger Blin, the original French director of Godot, wanted at first to stage the play as a circus (but decided Beckett was right that that would be too restricting).


Locale: Barrenness of the landscape = emptiness of life; isolation in space and time. Unlocalized setting = life is the same the world over; no place is special.

The road suggests movement--but it goes nowhere. The “active” people use the road, though they get no place.

The tree - more barrenness; lifelessness. No sustenance from outside.

Time: Circular - same things happen in same sequence. Important to Pozzo when he can see; loses significance when he can’t. Didi and Gogo can’t keep time straight - it’s all the same.

Past and Future: There is none. Both past and future require temporal relativity, and these characters have no reference points to judge pasts and futures. They’re not even sure what day today is, and can’t judge the passing of time in any sense. Were they here yesterday--or some place else? They don’t know. Did they meet one another before? Have they ever met? They aren’t sure. Where will they go tomorrow? How can they know--the future, in the concrete sense, doesn’t exist for them: if they have no past, how can they have a future?

Absolutes: Beckett has said that the key word in his play is “perhaps.” There are no certainties--neither hope nor despair are inevitable. Nothing is predictable or sure. As Beckett observed about James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, his own work is characterized by an “absolute absence of the Absolute.”

Light and Dark: After the message that Godot won’t come, darkness falls: light = hope; dark = despair.

Tragicomedy: A strong balance of the lamentable and the laughable. Almost every subject or situation is inherently ironic and dramatic because it can be both tragic and comic, depending on the point of view. Eugene Ionesco: “Light makes shadow deeper, and shade accentuates the light.” Tragicomedy provides Beckett the most natural way to represent the confusion, ambiguity, and absurdity of life. Laughter is a substitute--or preventative--for crying.

Theater of the Absurd: Absurdist plays convey a sense of alienation and of people having lost their bearings in an illogical, unjust, and incomprehensible world. Although serious, this perspective is generally depicted with considerable comedy, often low comedy of the vaudeville variety; an ironic note runs through much of the Theater of the Absurd. The comic turns are often balanced by tragic or threatening images (see tragicomedy).

Absurdist dramatists structure their plays so that they not only proclaim absurdity, they embody it. The structure of absurdist scripts departs from conventional dramatic structures, logical from a beginning through the development of the plot to a conclusion. Plots are often circular and repetitive, sometimes parodying the conventional “well-made play.” Events and characters are frequently illogical in the Theater of the Absurd and so, too, is language, which often employs non sequitur as well as nonsense and cliché. Samuel Beckett reduced character, plot, and dialogue to a minimum to emphasize fundamental questions of human existence.

There's an element of the ridiculous in the actions of absurdist characters: they frequently exemplify an existential approach to human behavior. The two main characters in Waiting for Godot are devoid of biographies and personal motivation. We are told nothing of their backgrounds or their family life or their occupations. As characters they exist; they are, but without explanation: there is no cause-and-effect of traditional character development. Having no past, they exist for the moment, in the here and now. Consequently, they have no future, either.

The first absurdist plays, such as the works of Jean Genet (The Maids, 1947) and the early plays of Eugène Ionesco (The Bald Soprano, 1950; The Lesson, 1951; The Chairs, 1952) in addition to Beckett’s first plays, often shocked audiences and confused critics at their premières, but their techniques are now common in avant-garde theater and in some mainstream works.

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