Waiting for Godot is a play by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). It was first performed in 1953 and has become one of the most notorious plays of the 20th Century. It is probably most famous for the fact that nothing much happens throughout the play.
The play was written in French, and was first performed in Paris as En Attendant Godot. Beckett himself later translated it into English, but he wasn't very happy with the translation, so modern productions use a text based on a number of different performances that were directed by Beckett.
There are two acts, each about an hour long, both taking place in the same set: a wasteland, the only features being a tree and a rock.
Who Are the Characters?
The main characters in the play are two tramps by the name of Vladimir and Estragon. They are friends and have been for years. Vladimir has a questioning outlook on life - he constantly speculates. He is restless and paces up and down all the time. Estragon is more passive. He is confused and doesn't really know what is going on. He is content much of the time to sit and wait.
The other two important characters are Pozzo, a pompous old man, and his old slave, Lucky. Pozzo claims to be well known ('does that name mean nothing to you?') and important; he talks but seldom listens; but as the play progresses, his insecurity and self-doubt come to the fore. Lucky is a wreck of a man. As personal slave to Pozzo, he is forced to endure insults and indignity. He has lost all his ability to be human.
A small boy makes a brief appearance at the end of each act.
So What's it About?
The First Act
The first act is straightforward enough. Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting in a wasteland for another man, Godot (pronounced 'Godd-oh'), to arrive. He doesn't come. They spend an hour talking about this and that, complaining about their ailments (Vladimir's bladder, Estragon's sore feet), getting more and more frustrated as the time goes by.
They are amused and amazed when a pompous passerby, Pozzo (pronounced 'Potso') and his slave, Lucky, stop to talk. Lucky is very old and gnarled. He is led by a rope around his neck and answers to commands barked at him by Pozzo. Pozzo treats Lucky like dirt and swaggers around full of his own importance, but reveals his own insecurity as time goes on. He orders Lucky to 'think' (he can only think with his hat on) and Lucky makes his only speech of the whole play, an amazing torrent of words which no-one understands. He starts off sounding like a critical evaluation of an academic thesis, but stumbles over phrases, repeats himself and becomes more and more incoherent until Vladimir puts an end to the apparent gibberish by removing Lucky's hat. Pozzo and Lucky go on their way.
As night falls, a young boy arrives and tells them that Mr Godot will not be coming today but that he will surely see them tomorrow. Vladimir asks the boy to tell Godot that he (the boy) saw them.
The Second Act
It is in the second act that the full nightmare of their existence is revealed, because the second act is the same as the first. Not exactly the same, but enough to persuade us that this has been going on for ever and that Godot will never come. Vladimir thinks that only one day has passed since we saw him in the first act, but Estragon is confused and can't remember. The tree which was bare in the first act has leaves in the second act. A miracle? Or has a season passed?
When Pozzo and Lucky show up, they are different. Pozzo is blind and a much sadder individual, having lost all hope. Lucky can no longer speak.
As night falls, the same boy arrives and delivers the same message, but he doesn't remember them from the previous time. Godot never arrives.
So What's it Really About?
Your guess is as good as the next, since Beckett never explained the play. Part of the point of the play is that it explains nothing. It leaves us to guess. Beckett took the view that the playwright was not dealing out a message to the audience from on high; he was providing an experience for them. There's plenty of entertainment in Waiting for Godot, but there may be a message in the experience of the play, if we know where to look.
Is Godot really God?
Various people have suggested that the name Godot could come from 'God'. Vladimir says, 'when Godot arrives, we'll be saved'. But Godot never does arrive, so we don't find out. Beckett himself, asked who or what Godot was, replied 'If I knew, I would have said so in the play.'
The play is not about Godot, it is about waiting. Vladimir and Estragon do everything possible to occupy themselves while they wait. They discuss the Bible; they eat; they sleep; they even contemplate suicide.
The waiting seems to be a metaphor for our entire lives. Pozzo states it near the end of the play, in one of the most chilling lines ever:
They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
Vladimir and Estragon are not quite so disillusioned, though. They continue to wait. Perhaps Godot will arrive tomorrow.
Is it Enjoyable?
Bleak stuff, you might say, but in fact the play is incredibly funny and enjoyable. Beckett is an absolute master of language, leaving us wanting more. The play is packed with wonderful witticisms and quotable lines:
We are all born mad. Some of us remain so.
Vladimir - I'm glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Estragon - Me too.
[Talking about the two thieves who died with Christ] One of the thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage.
Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!
Like all good plays, it asks more questions than it answers and the audience will come out smiling, thinking, wondering. One wonders what was going through the reviewer's head when he wrote this most famous of reviews:
This is a play in which nothing happens. Twice.