|Waiting for Godot|
Waiting for Godot, staging by Otomar Krejca, Avignon Festival, 1978
|Written by||Samuel Beckett|
|Date premiered||5 January 1953|
|Place premiered||Théâtre de Babylone, Paris|
Waiting for Godot ( GOD-oh) is a play by Samuel Beckett in which two characters, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), engage in a variety of discussions and encounters while awaiting Godot, who never arrives.Waiting for Godot is Beckett's translation of his own original French-language play, En attendant Godot, and is subtitled (in English only) "a tragicomedy in two acts". The original French text was composed between 9 October 1948 and 29 January 1949. The premiere, directed by Roger Blin, was on 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. The English-language version premiered in London in 1955. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre in 1998/99, it was voted the "most significant English language play of the 20th century".
Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, have met near a leafless tree. Estragon spent the previous night lying in a ditch and receiving a beating from some unnamed assailants. The two men discuss a variety of issues, and it is revealed that they are waiting for a man named Godot. They are not certain if they've ever met Godot, or if he will even arrive. Two other characters show up, Pozzo and his slave Lucky, who are headed for the market, where Pozzo intends to sell Lucky. They pause in their journey, as Pozzo engages Vladimir and Estragon in conversation. Lucky performs a dance and a monologue. Lucky's monologue is a torrent of academic sounding phrases, mixed with sounds, such as "quaquaquaqua". Lucky's speech follows Pozzo's command: "Think!", and is seen to contain, in a cryptic manner, meanings that support the underlying themes of the play. Pozzo and Lucky then depart.
Soon a boy shows up and explains to Vladimir and Estragon that he is a messenger from Godot, and that Godot will not be arriving tonight, but tomorrow. Vladimir asks about Godot, and the boy exits. Vladimir and Estragon decide that they will also leave, but they remain there as the curtain falls.
It is the following night. Vladimir and Estragon are again near the tree waiting for Godot. Lucky and Pozzo reappear, but now Pozzo has become blind and Lucky has become dumb. Pozzo can't recall having met Vladimir and Estragon the previous night. Lucky and Pozzo exit, as Vladimir and Estragon go on waiting.
Soon, the boy reappears to report that Godot will not be coming. The boy claims that he didn't talk to Vladimir yesterday. The boy exits. Vladimir and Estragon consider suicide, but they don't have a rope. They decide to leave, but again they remain as the curtain falls on the final act.
Beckett refrained from elaborating on the characters beyond what he had written in the play. He once recalled that when Sir Ralph Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters."
When Beckett started writing he did not have a visual image of Vladimir and Estragon. They are never referred to as tramps in the text, though are often performed in such costumes on stage. Roger Blin advises: "Beckett heard their voices, but he couldn't describe his characters to me. [He said]: 'The only thing I'm sure of is that they're wearing bowlers.' " "The bowler hat was of course de rigueur for male persons in many social contexts when Beckett was growing up in Foxrock, and [his father] commonly wore one." That said, the play does indicate that the clothes worn at least by Estragon are shabby. When told by Vladimir that he should have been a poet, Estragon says he was, gestures to his rags, and asks if it were not obvious.
There are no physical descriptions of either of the two characters; however, the text indicates that Vladimir is possibly the heavier of the pair. The bowlers and other broadly comic aspects of their personae have reminded modern audiences of Laurel and Hardy, who occasionally played tramps in their films. "The hat-passing game in Waiting for Godot and Lucky's inability to think without his hat on are two obvious Beckett derivations from Laurel and Hardy - a substitution of form for essence, covering for reality", wrote Gerald Mast in The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Their "blather", which indicated Hiberno-English idioms, indicated that they are both Irish.
Vladimir stands through most of the play whereas Estragon sits down numerous times and even dozes off. "Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless." Vladimir looks at the sky and muses on religious or philosophical matters. Estragon "belongs to the stone", preoccupied with mundane things, what he can get to eat and how to ease his physical aches and pains; he is direct, intuitive. He finds it hard to remember but can recall certain things when prompted, e.g., when Vladimir asks: "Do you remember the Gospels?" Estragon tells Vladimir about the coloured maps of the Holy Land and that he planned to honeymoon by the Dead Sea; it is his short-term memory that is poorest and points to the fact that he may, in fact, be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.Al Alvarez writes: "But perhaps Estragon's forgetfulness is the cement binding their relationship together. He continually forgets, Vladimir continually reminds him; between them they pass the time." They have been together for fifty years but when asked by Pozzo they do not reveal their actual ages. Vladimir's life is not without its discomforts too but he is the more resilient of the pair. "Vladimir's pain is primarily mental anguish, which would thus account for his voluntary exchange of his hat for Lucky's, thus signifying Vladimir's symbolic desire for another person's thoughts." These characterizations, for some, represented the act of thinking or mental state (Vladimir) and physical things or the body (Estragon). This is visually depicted by Vladimir's continuous attention to his hat and Estragon to his boots. While the two characters are temperamentally opposite, with their differing responses to a situation, they are both essential as demonstrated in the way Vladimir's metaphysical musings were balanced by Estragon's physical demands.
The above characterizations, particularly that which concerns their existential situation, are also demonstrated in one of the play's recurring themes, which is sleep. There are two instances when Estragon falls asleep in the play and has nightmares, about which he wanted to tell Vladimir when he woke. The latter refuses to hear it since he could not tolerate the way the dreamer cannot escape or act during each episode. An interpretation noted the link between the two characters' experiences and the way they represent them: the impotence in Estragon's nightmare and Vladimir's predicament of waiting as his companion sleeps. It is also said that sleep and impatience allow the spectators to distinguish between the two main characters, that sleep expresses Estragon's focus on his sensations while Vladimir's restlessness shows his focus on his thoughts. This particular aspect involving sleep is indicative of what some called a pattern of duality in the play. In the case of the protagonists, the duality involves the body and the mind, making the characters complementary.
Throughout the play the couple refer to each other by the pet names "Didi" and "Gogo", although the boy addresses Vladimir as "Mister Albert". Beckett originally intended to call Estragon "Lévy" but when Pozzo questions him he gives his name as "Magrégor, André" and also responds to "Catulle" in French or "Catullus" in the first Faber edition. This became "Adam" in the American edition. Beckett's only explanation was that he was "fed up with Catullus".
Vivian Mercier described Waiting for Godot as a play which "has achieved a theoretical impossibility--a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." Mercier once questioned Beckett on the language used by the pair: "It seemed to me...he made Didi and Gogo sound as if they had earned PhDs. 'How do you know they hadn't?' was his reply." They clearly have known better times, such as a visit to the Eiffel Tower and grape-harvesting by the Rhône; this is about all either has to say about their pasts, save for Estragon's claim to have been a poet, an explanation Estragon provides to Vladimir for his destitution. In the first stage production, which Beckett oversaw, both are "more shabby-genteel than ragged...Vladimir at least is capable of being scandalised...on a matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money."
Jean Martin, who originated the role of Lucky in Paris in 1953, spoke to a doctor named Marthe Gautier, who was working at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. Martin asked if she knew of a physiological reason that would explain Lucky's voice as it was written in the text. Gautier suggested Parkinson's disease, which, she said, "begins with a trembling, which gets more and more noticeable, until later the patient can no longer speak without the voice shaking". Martin began incorporating this idea into his rehearsals. Beckett and the director may not have been completely convinced, but they expressed no objections. When Martin mentioned to the playwright that he was "playing Lucky as if he were suffering from Parkinson's", Beckett responded by saying " Yes, of course", and mentioning that his own mother had Parkinson's.
When Beckett was asked why Lucky was so named, he replied, "I suppose he is lucky to have no more expectations..."
It has been contended that "Pozzo and Lucky are simply Didi and Gogo writ large", unbalanced as their relationship is. However, Pozzo's dominance is noted to be superficial; "upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that Lucky always possessed more influence in the relationship, for he danced, and more importantly, thought - not as a service, but in order to fill a vacant need of Pozzo: he committed all of these acts for Pozzo. As such, since the first appearance of the duo, the true slave had always been Pozzo." Pozzo credits Lucky with having given him all the culture, refinement, and ability to reason that he possesses. His rhetoric has been learned by rote. Pozzo's "party piece" on the sky is a clear example: as his memory crumbles, he finds himself unable to continue under his own steam.
Little is learned about Pozzo besides the fact that he is on his way to the fair to sell his slave, Lucky. He presents himself very much as the Ascendancy landlord, bullying and conceited. His pipe is made by Kapp and Peterson, Dublin's best-known tobacconists (their slogan was "The thinking man's pipe") which he refers to as a "briar" but which Estragon calls a "dudeen" emphasising the differences in their social standing. He confesses to a poor memory but it is more a result of an abiding self-absorption. "Pozzo is a character who has to overcompensate. That's why he overdoes things ... and his overcompensation has to do with a deep insecurity in him. These were things Beckett said, psychological terms he used."
Pozzo controls Lucky by means of an extremely long rope, which he jerks and tugs if Lucky is the least bit slow. Lucky is the absolutely subservient slave of Pozzo and he unquestioningly does his every bidding with "dog-like devotion". He struggles with a heavy suitcase. Lucky speaks only once in the play and it is in response to Pozzo's order to "think" for Estragon and Vladimir. Pozzo and Lucky have been together for sixty years. Beckett's advice to the American director Alan Schneider was: "[Pozzo] is a hypomaniac and the only way to play him is to play him mad."
"In his [English] translation ... Beckett struggled to retain the French atmosphere as much as possible, so that he delegated all the English names and places to Lucky, whose own name, he thought, suggested such a correlation".
The cast list specifies only one boy.
The boy in Act I, a local lad, assures Vladimir that this is the first time he has seen him. He says he was not there the previous day. He confirms he works for Mr. Godot as a goatherd. His brother, whom Godot beats, is a shepherd. Godot feeds both of them and allows them to sleep in his hayloft.
The boy in Act II also assures Vladimir that it was not he who called upon them the day before. He insists that this too is his first visit. When Vladimir asks what Godot does the boy tells him, "He does nothing, sir." We also learn he has a white beard--possibly, the boy is not certain. This boy also has a brother who it seems is sick but there is no clear evidence to suggest that his brother is the boy who came in Act I or the one who came the day before that.
Whether the boy from Act I is the same boy from Act II or not, both boys are polite yet timid. In the first Act, the boy, despite arriving while Pozzo and Lucky are still about, does not announce himself until after Pozzo and Lucky leave, saying to Vladimir and Estragon that he waited for the other two to leave out of fear of the two men and of Pozzo's whip; the boy does not arrive early enough in Act II to see either Lucky or Pozzo. In both Acts, the boy seems hesitant to speak very much, saying mostly "Yes Sir" or "No Sir", and winds up exiting by running away.
The identity of Godot has been the subject of much debate. "When Colin Duckworth asked Beckett point-blank whether Pozzo was Godot, the author replied: 'No. It is just implied in the text, but it's not true.' "
Deirdre Bair says that though "Beckett will never discuss the implications of the title", she suggests two stories that both may have at least partially inspired it. The first is that because feet are a recurring theme in the play, Beckett has said the title was suggested to him by the slang French term for boot: "godillot, godasse". The second story, according to Bair, is that Beckett once encountered a group of spectators at the French Tour de France bicycle race, who told him "Nous attendons Godot" - they were waiting for a competitor whose name was Godot.
"Beckett said to Peter Woodthorpe that he regretted calling the absent character 'Godot', because of all the theories involving God to which this had given rise." "I also told [Ralph] Richardson that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly." That said, Beckett did once concede, "It would be fatuous of me to pretend that I am not aware of the meanings attached to the word 'Godot', and the opinion of many that it means 'God'. But you must remember - I wrote the play in French, and if I did have that meaning in my mind, it was somewhere in my unconscious and I was not overtly aware of it." (Note: the French word for 'God' is 'Dieu'.) However, "Beckett has often stressed the strong unconscious impulses that partly control his writing; he has even spoken of being 'in a trance' when he writes." While Beckett stated he originally had no knowledge of Balzac's play Mercadet ou le faiseur, whose character Godeau has an identical-sounding name and is involved in a similar situation, it has been suggested he may have been instead influenced by The Lovable Cheat, a minor adaptation of Mercadet starring Buster Keaton, whose works Beckett had admired, and who he later sought out for Film.
Unlike elsewhere in Beckett's work, no bicycle appears in this play, but Hugh Kenner in his essay "The Cartesian Centaur" reports that Beckett once, when asked about the meaning of Godot, mentioned "a veteran racing cyclist, bald, a 'stayer', recurrent placeman in town-to-town and national championships, Christian name elusive, surname Godeau, pronounced, of course, no differently from Godot." Waiting for Godot is clearly not about track cycling, but it is said that Beckett himself did wait for French cyclist Roger Godeau (1920-2000; a professional cyclist from 1943 to 1961), outside the velodrome in Roubaix.
Of the two boys who work for Godot only one appears safe from beatings, "Beckett said, only half-jokingly, that one of Estragon's feet was saved".
The name "Godot" is pronounced in Britain and Ireland with the emphasis on the first syllable, GOD-oh; in North America it is usually pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable, g?-DOH. Beckett himself said the emphasis should be on the first syllable, and that the North American pronunciation is a mistake. Georges Borchardt, Beckett's literary agent, and who represents Beckett's literary estate, has always pronounced "Godot" in the French manner, with equal emphasis on both syllables. Borchardt checked with Beckett's nephew, Edward, who told him his uncle pronounced it that way as well. The 1956 Broadway production split the difference by having Vladimir pronounce "Godot" with equal stress on both syllables (goh-doh) and Estragon pronounce it with the accent on the second syllable (g'doh).
There is only one scene throughout both acts. Two men are waiting on a country road by a tree. The men are of unspecified origin, though it is clear that they are not English by nationality since they refer to currency as francs, and tell derisive jokes about the English - and in English-language productions the pair are traditionally played with Irish accents. The script calls for Estragon to sit on a low mound but in practice--as in Beckett's own 1975 German production--this is usually a stone. In the first act the tree is bare. In the second, a few leaves have appeared despite the script specifying that it is the next day. The minimal description calls to mind "the idea of the lieu vague, a location which should not be particularised".
Other clues about the location can be found in the dialogue. In Act I, Vladimir turns toward the auditorium and describes it as a bog. In Act II, Vladimir again motions to the auditorium and notes that there is "Not a soul in sight." When Estragon rushes toward the back of the stage in Act II, Vladimir scolds him, saying that "There's no way out there." Also in Act II, Vladimir comments that their surroundings look nothing like the Macon country, and Estragon states that he's lived his whole life "Here! In the Cackon country!"
Alan Schneider once suggested putting the play on in the round--Pozzo has been described as a ringmaster--but Beckett dissuaded him: "I don't in my ignorance agree with the round and feel Godot needs a very closed box." He even contemplated at one point having a "faint shadow of bars on stage floor" but, in the end, decided against this level of what he called "explicitation". In his 1975 Schiller Theater production, there are times when Didi and Gogo appear to bounce off something "like birds trapped in the strands of [an invisible] net", in James Knowlson's description.
"Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation", wrote Normand Berlin in a tribute to the play in Autumn 1999, "with Beckett himself placed in different schools of thought, different movements and "isms". The attempts to pin him down have not been successful, but the desire to do so is natural when we encounter a writer whose minimalist art reaches for bedrock reality. "Less" forces us to look for "more", and the need to talk about Godot and about Beckett has resulted in a steady outpouring of books and articles.
Throughout Waiting for Godot, the audience may encounter religious, philosophical, classical, psychoanalytical and biographical - especially wartime - references. There are ritualistic aspects and elements taken directly from vaudeville, and there is a danger in making more of these than what they are: that is, merely structural conveniences, avatars into which the writer places his fictional characters. The play "exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos." Beckett makes this point emphatically clear in the opening notes to Film: "No truth value attaches to the above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience." He made another important remark to Lawrence Harvey, saying that his "work does not depend on experience - [it is] not a record of experience. Of course you use it."
Beckett tired quickly of "the endless misunderstanding". As far back as 1955, he remarked, "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out." He was not forthcoming with anything more than cryptic clues, however: "Peter Woodthorpe [who played Estragon] remembered asking him one day in a taxi what the play was really about: 'It's all symbiosis, Peter; it's symbiosis,' answered Beckett."
Beckett directed the play for the Schiller-Theatre in 1975. Although he had overseen many productions, this was the first time that he had taken complete control. Walter Asmus was his conscientious young assistant director. The production was not naturalistic. Beckett explained,
It is a game, everything is a game. When all four of them are lying on the ground, that cannot be handled naturalistically. That has got to be done artificially, balletically. Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality [...]. It should become clear and transparent, not dry. It is a game in order to survive.
Over the years, Beckett clearly realised that the greater part of Godot's success came down to the fact that it was open to a variety of readings and that this was not necessarily a bad thing. Beckett himself sanctioned "one of the most famous mixed-race productions of Godot, performed at the Baxter Theatre in the University of Cape Town, directed by Donald Howarth, with [...] two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, playing Didi and Gogo; Pozzo, dressed in checked shirt and gumboots reminiscent of an Afrikaner landlord, and Lucky ('a shanty town piece of white trash') were played by two white actors, Bill Flynn and Peter Piccolo [...]. The Baxter production has often been portrayed as if it were an explicitly political production, when in fact it received very little emphasis. What such a reaction showed, however, was that, although the play can in no way be taken as a political allegory, there are elements that are relevant to any local situation in which one man is being exploited or oppressed by another."
"It was seen as an allegory of the Cold War" or of French Resistance to the Germans. Graham Hassell writes, "[T]he intrusion of Pozzo and Lucky [...] seems like nothing more than a metaphor for Ireland's view of mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means."
Vladimir and Estragon are often played with Irish accents, as in the Beckett on Film project. This, some feel, is an inevitable consequence of Beckett's rhythms and phraseology, but it is not stipulated in the text. At any rate, they are not of English stock: at one point early in the play, Estragon mocks the English pronunciation of "calm" and has fun with "the story of the Englishman in the brothel".
"Bernard Dukore develops a triadic theory in Didi, Gogo and the absent Godot, based on Sigmund Freud's trinitarian description of the psyche in The Ego and the Id (1923) and the usage of onomastic techniques. Dukore defines the characters by what they lack: the rational Go-go embodies the incomplete ego, the missing pleasure principle: (e)go-(e)go. Di-di (id-id) - who is more instinctual and irrational - is seen as the backward id or subversion of the rational principle. Godot fulfills the function of the superego or moral standards. Pozzo and Lucky are just re-iterations of the main protagonists. Dukore finally sees Beckett's play as a metaphor for the futility of man's existence when salvation is expected from an external entity, and the self is denied introspection."
"The four archetypal personalities or the four aspects of the soul are grouped in two pairs: the ego and the shadow, the persona and the soul's image (animus or anima). The shadow is the container of all our despised emotions repressed by the ego. Lucky, the shadow, serves as the polar opposite of the egocentric Pozzo, prototype of prosperous mediocrity, who incessantly controls and persecutes his subordinate, thus symbolising the oppression of the unconscious shadow by the despotic ego. Lucky's monologue in Act I appears as a manifestation of a stream of repressed unconsciousness, as he is allowed to "think" for his master. Estragon's name has another connotation, besides that of the aromatic herb, tarragon: "estragon" is a cognate of estrogen, the female hormone (Carter, 130). This prompts us to identify him with the anima, the feminine image of Vladimir's soul. It explains Estragon's propensity for poetry, his sensitivity and dreams, his irrational moods. Vladimir appears as the complementary masculine principle, or perhaps the rational persona of the contemplative type."
Broadly speaking, existentialists hold that there are certain fundamental questions that all human beings must come to terms with if they are to take their subjective existences seriously and with intrinsic value. Questions such as life, death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in that existence are among them. By and large, the theories of existentialism assert that conscious reality is very complex and without an "objective" or universally known value: the individual must create value by affirming it and living it, not by simply talking about it or philosophising it in the mind. The play may be seen to touch on all of these issues.
Martin Esslin, in his The Theatre of the Absurd (1960), argued that Waiting for Godot was part of a broader literary movement that he called the Theatre of the Absurd, a form of theatre which stemmed from the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. Absurdism itself is a branch of the traditional assertions of existentialism, pioneered by Søren Kierkegaard, and posits that, while inherent meaning might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it due to some form of mental or philosophical limitation. Thus humanity is doomed to be faced with the Absurd, or the absolute absurdity of the existence in lack of intrinsic purpose.
Just after Didi and Gogo have been particularly selfish and callous, the boy comes to say that Godot is not coming. The boy (or pair of boys) may be seen to represent meekness and hope before compassion is consciously excluded by an evolving personality and character, and in which case may be the youthful Pozzo and Lucky. Thus Godot is compassion and fails to arrive every day, as he says he will. No-one is concerned that a boy is beaten. In this interpretation, there is the irony that only by changing their hearts to be compassionate can the characters fixed to the tree move on and cease to have to wait for Godot.
Much of the play is steeped in scriptural allusion. The boy from Act One mentions that he and his brother mind Godot's sheep and goats. Much can be read into Beckett's inclusion of the story of the two thieves from Luke 23:39-43 and the ensuing discussion of repentance. It is easy to see the solitary tree as representative of the Christian cross or the tree of life. Some see God and Godot as one and the same. Vladimir's "Christ have mercy upon us!" could be taken as evidence that that is at least what he believes.
This reading is given further weight early in the first act when Estragon asks Vladimir what it is that he has requested from Godot:
Other explicit Christian elements that are mentioned in the play include, but are not limited to, repentance, the Gospels, a Saviour, human beings made in God's image, the cross, and Cain and Abel.
According to biographer Anthony Cronin, "[Beckett] always possessed a Bible, at the end more than one edition, and Bible concordances were always among the reference books on his shelves." Beckett himself was quite open on the issue: "Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar so I naturally use it." As Cronin argues, these biblical references "may be ironic or even sarcastic".
"In answer to a defence counsel question in 1937 (during the libel action brought by his uncle against Oliver St. John Gogarty) as to whether he was a Christian, Jew or atheist, Beckett replied, 'None of the three' ". Looking at Beckett's entire oeuvre, Mary Bryden observed that "the hypothesised God who emerges from Beckett's texts is one who is both cursed for his perverse absence and cursed for his surveillant presence. He is by turns dismissed, satirised, or ignored, but he, and his tortured son, are never definitively discarded."
Waiting for Godot has been described as a "metaphor for the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks [...] during the day and walked by night [... or] of the relationship of Beckett to Joyce." Beckett told Ruby Cohn that Caspar David Friedrich's painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon, which he saw on his journey to Germany in 1936, was a source for the play.
Though the sexuality of Vladimir and Estragon is not always considered by critics, some see the two vagabonds as an ageing homosexual couple, who are worn out, with broken spirits, impotent and not engaging sexually any longer. The two appear to be written as a parody of a married couple. Peter Boxall points out that the play features two characters who seem to have shared life together for years; they quarrel, embrace, and are mutually dependent. Beckett was interviewed at the time the play was premiering in New York, and, speaking of his writings and characters in general, Beckett said "I'm working with impotence, ignorance. I don't think impotence has been exploited in the past." Vladimir and Estragon consider hanging themselves, as a desperate way to achieve at least one final erection. Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, arrive on the scene. Pozzo is a stout man, who wields a whip and holds a rope around Lucky's neck. Some critics have considered that the relationship of these two characters is homosexual and sado-masochistic in nature. Lucky's long speech is a torrent of broken ideas and speculations regarding man, sex, God, and time. It has been said that the play contains little or no sexual hope; which is the play's lament, and the source of the play's humour and comedic tenderness.Norman Mailer wonders if Beckett might be restating the sexual and moral basis of Christianity, that life and strength is found in an adoration of those in the lower depths where God is concealed.
Beckett was not open to most interpretative approaches to his work. He famously objected when, in the 1980s, several women's acting companies began to stage the play. "Women don't have prostates", said Beckett, a reference to the fact that Vladimir frequently has to leave the stage to urinate.
In 1988 a Dutch theatre company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur, put on a production directed by Matin Van Veldhuizen with all female actors, using a French-to-Dutch translation by Jacoba Van Velde. Beckett brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the theatre company. "The issue of gender seemed to him to be so vital a distinction for a playwright to make that he reacted angrily, instituting a ban on all productions of his plays in The Netherlands." This ban was short-lived, however: in 1991 (two years after Beckett's death), Judge Huguette Le Foyer de Costil ruled that productions with female casts would not cause excessive damage to Beckett's legacy, and allowed the play to be duly performed by the all-female cast of the Brut de Beton Theater Company at the prestigious Avignon Festival.
The Italian Pontedera Theatre Foundation won a similar claim in 2006 when it cast two actresses in the roles of Vladimir and Estragon, albeit in the characters' traditional roles as men. At the 1995 Acco Festival, director Nola Chilton staged a production with Daniella Michaeli in the role of Lucky.
"[O]n 17 February 1952 ... an abridged version of the play was performed in the studio of the Club d'Essai de la Radio and was broadcast on [French] radio ... [A]lthough he sent a polite note that Roger Blin read out, Beckett himself did not turn up." Part of his introduction reads:
I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not - those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible ... Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other.
The play was first published in September 1952 by Les Éditions de Minuit and released on 17 October 1952 in advance of the first full theatrical performance; only 2500 copies were printed of this first edition. On 4 January 1953, "[t]hirty reviewers came to the générale of En attendant Godot before the public opening ... Contrary to later legend, the reviewers were kind ... Some dozen reviews in daily newspapers range[d] from tolerant to enthusiastic ... Reviews in the weeklies [were] longer and more fervent; moreover, they appeared in time to lure spectators to that first thirty-day run" which began on 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Early public performances were not, however, without incident: during one performance "the curtain had to be brought down after Lucky's monologue as twenty, well-dressed, but disgruntled spectators whistled and hooted derisively ... One of the protesters [even] wrote a vituperative letter dated 2 February 1953 to Le Monde."
The cast comprised Pierre Latour (Estragon), Lucien Raimbourg (Vladimir), Jean Martin (Lucky) and Roger Blin (Pozzo). The actor due to play Pozzo found a more remunerative role and so the director - a shy, lean man in real life - had to step in and play the stout bombaster himself with a pillow amplifying his stomach. Both boys were played by Serge Lecointe. The entire production was done on the thinnest of shoestring budgets; the large battered valise that Martin carried "was found among the city's refuse by the husband of the theatre dresser on his rounds as he worked clearing the dustbins", for example.
A particularly significant production - from Beckett's perspective - took place in Lüttringhausen Prison near Remscheid in Germany. An inmate obtained a copy of the French first edition, translated it himself into German and obtained permission to stage the play. The first night had been on 29 November 1953. He wrote to Beckett in October 1954: "You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps." Beckett was intensely moved and intended to visit the prison to see a last performance of the play but it never happened. This marked "the beginning of Beckett's enduring links with prisons and prisoners ... He took a tremendous interest in productions of his plays performed in prisons." In 1957, four years after its world premiere, Waiting for Godot was staged for one night only at the San Quentin State Prison in California. Herbert Blau with the San Francisco Actor's Workshop directed the production. Some 1,400 inmates encountered the performance. Beckett later gave Rick Cluchey, a former prisoner from San Quentin, financial and moral support over a period of many years. Cluchey played Vladimir in two productions in the former Gallows room of the San Quentin California State Prison, which had been converted into a 65-seat theatre and, like the German prisoner before him, went on to work on a variety of Beckett's plays after his release. Cluchey said, "The thing that everyone in San Quentin understood about Beckett, while the rest of the world had trouble catching up, was what it meant to be in the face of it." The 1953 Lüttringhausen and 1957 San Quentin Prison productions of Waiting for Godot were the subject of the 2010 documentary film The Impossible Itself.
The English-language premiere was on 3 August 1955 at the Arts Theatre, London, directed by the 24-year-old Peter Hall. During an early rehearsal Hall told the cast "I haven't really the foggiest idea what some of it means ... But if we stop and discuss every line we'll never open." Again, the printed version preceded it (New York: Grove Press, 1954) but Faber's "mutilated" edition did not materialise until 1956. A "corrected" edition was subsequently produced in 1965. "The most accurate text is in Theatrical Notebooks I, (Ed.) Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson (Faber and Grove, 1993). It is based on Beckett's revisions for his Schiller-Theatre production (1975) and the London San Quentin Drama Workshop, based on the Schiller production but revised further at the Riverside Studios (March 1984)."
Like all of Beckett's translations, Waiting for Godot is not simply a literal translation of En attendant Godot. "Small but significant differences separate the French and English text. Some, like Vladimir's inability to remember the farmer's name (Bonnelly), show how the translation became more indefinite, attrition and loss of memory more pronounced." A number of biographical details were removed, all adding to a general "vaguening" of the text which he continued to trim for the rest of his life.
In the 1950s, theatre was strictly censored in the UK, to Beckett's amazement since he thought it a bastion of free speech. The Lord Chamberlain insisted that the word "erection" be removed, " 'Fartov' became 'Popov' and Mrs Gozzo had 'warts' instead of 'clap' ". Indeed, there were attempts to ban the play completely. Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, saying: "One of the many themes running through the play is the desire of two old tramps continually to relieve themselves. Such a dramatisation of lavatory necessities is offensive and against all sense of British decency." "The first unexpurgated version of Godot in England ... opened at the Royal Court on 30 December 1964."
The London run was not without incident. The actor Peter Bull, who played Pozzo, recalls the reaction of that first night audience:
Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus, which was to form such a feature of the run of the piece, started quite soon after the curtain had risen. The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting ... The curtain fell to mild applause, we took a scant three calls (Peter Woodthorpe reports only one curtain call) and a depression and a sense of anti-climax descended on us all.
The critics were less than kind but "[e]verything changed on Sunday 7 August 1955 with Kenneth Tynan's and Harold Hobson's reviews in The Observer and The Sunday Times. Beckett was always grateful to the two reviewers for their support ... which more or less transformed the play overnight into the rage of London." "At the end of the year, the Evening Standard Drama Awards were held for the first time ... Feelings ran high and the opposition, led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, threatened to resign if Godot won [The Best New Play category]. An English compromise was worked out by changing the title of the award. Godot became The Most Controversial Play of the Year. It is a prize that has never been given since."
The play had its Broadway premiere at the John Golden Theatre on 19 April 1956 in a production directed by Herbert Berghof with Bert Lahr as Estragon, E. G. Marshall as Vladimir, Alvin Epstein as Lucky, and Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo.
Although not his favourite amongst his plays, Waiting for Godot was the work which brought Beckett fame and financial stability and as such it always held a special place in his affections. "When the manuscript and rare books dealer, Henry Wenning, asked him if he could sell the original French manuscript for him, Beckett replied: 'Rightly or wrongly have decided not to let Godot go yet. Neither sentimental nor financial, probably peak of market now and never such an offer. Can't explain.' "
In 1978, a production was staged by Walter Asmus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City with Sam Waterston as Vladimir, Austin Pendleton as Estragon, Milo O'Shea as Lucky and Michael Egan as Pozzo.
The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center was the site of a 1988 revival directed by Mike Nichols, featuring Robin Williams (Estragon), Steve Martin (Vladimir), Bill Irwin (Lucky), F. Murray Abraham (Pozzo), and Lukas Haas (boy). With a limited run of seven weeks and an all-star cast, it was financially successful, but the critical reception was not particularly favourable, with Frank Rich of The New York Times writing, "Audiences will still be waiting for a transcendent Godot long after the clowns at Lincoln Center, like so many others passing through Beckett's eternal universe before them, have come and gone."
The play was revived in London's West End at the Queen's Theatre in a production directed by Les Blair, which opened on 30 September 1991. This was the first West End revival since the play's British première. Rik Mayall played Vladimir and Adrian Edmondson played Estragon, with Philip Jackson as Pozzo and Christopher Ryan as Lucky; the boy was played by Dean Gaffney and Duncan Thornley. Derek Jarman provided the scenic design, in collaboration with Madeleine Morris.
On 2 and 3 November 2007, two performances were staged in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, two years after the neighborhood had been devastated by the failure of the federal levee system caused by Hurricane Katrina. This was followed by two performances in the similarly damaged neighborhood Gentilly on 9 and 10 November. The production was staged by American artist Paul Chan, the NYC-based arts organization Creative Time, and the Classical Theatre of Harlem. It featured New Orleans native Wendell Pierce as Vladimir and J. Kyle Manzay as Estragon.
On 30 April 2009, a production with Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon and Sir Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London's West End. Their performances received critical acclaim, and were the subject of an eight-part documentary series called Theatreland, which was produced by Sky Arts. The production was revived at the same theatre in January 2010 for 11 weeks and, in 2010 toured internationally, with Roger Rees replacing Stewart as Vladimir.
A 2009 Broadway revival of the play starring Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover and Bill Irwin was nominated for three Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play (John Glover), and Best Costume Design of a Play (Jane Greenwood). It received rave reviews, and was a huge success for the Roundabout Theatre. Variety called it a "transcendent" production.
For Ontario's Stratford Festival's 61st season in 2013, Jennifer Tarver directed a new production at the Tom Patterson Theatre starring Brian Dennehy as Pozzo, Stephen Ouimette as Estragon, Tom Rooney as Vladimir and Randy Hughson as Lucky.
A new production directed by Sean Mathias began previews at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in late October 2013, with Ian McKellen as Estragon, Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, Billy Crudup as Lucky and Shuler Hensley as Pozzo.
In November 2018, the Druid Theater Company staged "Godot" at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in Manhattan, starring Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea and Rory Nolan, and directed by Garry Hynes.
Beckett received numerous requests to adapt Waiting for Godot for film and television. The author, however, resisted these offers, except for occasional approval out of friendship or sympathy for the person making the request. This was the case when he agreed to some televised productions in his lifetime (including a 1961 American telecast with Zero Mostel as Estragon and Burgess Meredith as Vladimir that New York Times theatre critic Alvin Klein describes as having "left critics bewildered and is now a classic"). When Keep Films made Beckett an offer to film an adaptation in which Peter O'Toole would feature, Beckett tersely told his French publisher to advise them: "I do not want a film of Godot." The BBC broadcast a production of Waiting for Godot on 26 June 1961, a version for radio having already been transmitted on 25 April 1960. Beckett watched the programme with a few close friends in Peter Woodthorpe's Chelsea flat. He was unhappy with what he saw. "My play", he said, "wasn't written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you're all too big for the place." One analysis argued that Beckett's opposition to alterations and creative adaptations stem from his abiding concern with audience reaction rather than proprietary rights over a text being performed.
On the other hand, theatrical adaptations have had more success. For instance, Andre Engel adapted the play in 1979 and was produced in Strasbourg. In this performance, the two main characters were fragmented into 10 characters. The first four involved Gogo, Didi, Lucky, and Pozzo while the rest were divided into three pairs: two tramps, a pair of grim heterosexuals, and a bride raped by her groom. Each of these embodied some characteristics of Estragon and Valdimir. A similar approach was employed by Tamiya Kuriyama who directed his own adaptation of the play in Tokyo. These interpretations, which only used extracts from the dialogues of the original, focused on the minds of the urban-dwellers today, who are considered to be no longer individuals but one of the many or of the whole, which turned such individuals into machines.
A web series adaptation titled While Waiting for Godot was also produced at New York University in 2013, setting the story among the modern-day New York homeless. Directed by Rudi Azank, the English script was based on Beckett's original French manuscript of En attendant Godot (the new title being an alternate translation of the French) prior to censorship from British publishing houses in the 1950s, as well as adaptation to the stage. Season 1 of the web series won Best Cinematography at the 2014 Rome Web Awards. Season 2 was released in Spring 2014 on the show's official website whilewaitingforgodot.com.
Planning for an American tour for Waiting for Godot started in 1955. The first American tour was directed by Alan Schneider and produced by Michael Myerberg. Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell acted in the production. The first part of the tour was a disaster. Initially, the play was set to be shown in Washington and Philadelphia. However, low advanced sales forced the play to be performed in Miami for two weeks, where the audience was made up of vacationers. It was first described as "the laugh sensation of two continents" in the advanced publication done by Myerberg in the local newspapers. However, when it was shown to the audience, theatregoers would leave after the first act, describing it as a play where "nothing happens", and taxi drivers would wait in front of the theatre to take them home. The Miami showing caused the cancellation of the showings in New York. By April 1956, new showings were planned. That month, Schneider and most of the cast were replaced. Herbert Berghof took over as director and E. G. Marshall replaced Tom Ewell as Vladimir. The New York showing of the play prompted discussions of the play being an allegory. One reviewer, Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review, identified Godot as God, Pozzo as a capitalist-aristocrat, and Lucky as labour-proletarian. This prompted Beckett to issue a rare statement, stating that the reaction was based on a misconception of the play. To Beckett, the play tries to not be able to be defined. The New York showing of the play was well-received with critics. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times praised Lahr for his performance as Estragon.
After the New York showing, the play was taken over by The Actors Workshop of San Francisco in 1957. Herbert Blau directed the play. The attitude of this troupe was to move it away from a commercial attitude to an avant garde attitude. As well, the play did not have competition between the actors playing Vladimir and Estragon for being the star of the show. The most successful showing was in November 1957 at the San Quentin prison, where the play had a profound impact on the inmates and spurred them to start a drama group in the prison. They would go on to produce seven of Beckett's works. In 1958, the play, produced by the San Francisco Actors Workshop, would be chosen to go to Brussels for the 1958 World's Fair.