Translated into over a dozen languages, Waiting for Godot has been performed in little theatres and large theatres, by amateurs and professionals, on radio and television. Scarcely four decades old, Waiting for Godot has sold over a million copies in the original French and nearly that many in Beckett’s own English translation. Starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams, it was a smash hit at the Lincoln Center Theatre, with tickets available by lottery only. Quite an achievement for a comic drama in which absolutely nothing happens. (One reviewer, in fact, called it a two-act play in which nothing happens twice.)
Waiting for Godot contains clowning of the highest degree, which attracts audiences, and likely the play’s enigma contributes to its appeal. Its symbolism is obscure or non-existent; its “message” is individual to each audience member, and the “nothing happens” becomes our daily existence.
On a lonely country road near a tree, two elderly men, half-tramp-half-clown, amuse themselves with conversation that alternates between hope and despair as they wait for someone by the name of Godot who has, they believe, given them to understand that their patience at the rendezvous will be rewarded. Pozzo and Lucky, master and slave, enter and leave, and as the play ends, Vladimir and Estragon are still waiting.
The tramps are essentially without identity; although they appear on the cast list as Vladimir and Estragon, they address one another as Gogo and Didi, and when Godot’s messenger arrives to announce that he, Godot, cannot come that day, he addresses Vladimir as “Monsieur Albert.”
The play is particularly fertile ground for symbol-seekers. Perhaps Godot is God, Christianity, rebirth, redemption, hope and despair. After all, Didi and Gogo have memories of a proper Protestant Bible, and the barren tree of the first act sprouts a few leaves in the second act. Maybe God has come and gone and not been recognized.
Perhaps Waiting for Godot is an allegory of French resistance to the Germans. It was written in 1949; Samuel Beckett had survived World War II in France, and the play was originally written in French. Perhaps the play symbolizes Irish resistance to the English, or Beckett’s relationship to James Joyce, or any number of other possible meanings.
To all of these postulations, Beckett has emphatically denied symbolic explanation. The tree sprouting leaves, he says, is not to show hope or inspiration, but only to record the passage of time. At the time of first production, when Beckett was pressed hard for an answer, he snapped, “If I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play.” Or “If Godot were God, I would have called him that.” We shall not likely find out who Godot is, and shall waste our time trying.
On the other hand, nothing can be clearer than what Didi and Gogo are doing. They tell us a dozen times: They are waiting for Godot, and we are to leave it at that.
So what do we have left? Objectively, Didi and Gogo would like to die, but they are unable to kill themselves because the will to live (over which they have no control) is stronger than the will to die. They wearily occupy themselves with spinning out the skein of life. Their wordplay is all that separates them from nothingness; it is their only weapon against the void, enabling them to bear the unbearable wait; this ludicrous activity is intensely vital. They have miraculously preserved tenderness and humor: a solicitude that never becomes aggressive, a kind of desperate compassion that bathes the nameless desert of human relations.
“What we are doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is dear. We are waiting for Godot to come.”
The play is about waiting. This waiting is as likely to be the height of foolishness as the absolute of virtue. But man, no matter how tattered and inarticulate, is still there; he has not yet walked off and left the stage to darkness. Even if Godot never comes, the wait might as well include laughter.