Samuel Beckett:Waiting for Godot

SAMUEL BECKETT(1906 – 1989)

Samuel Beckett belongs to the second generation of modernists and many critics consider him the last modernist.

LIFE:He was born in a small suburb of Dublin in 1906, into a middle-class protestant family. He was first educated at a public school and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in modern languages (French and Italian) with first-class honours and other academic distinctions.

In 1928 he went to France to work as an assistant at Ècole Normale Supèrieur in Paris where he met James Joyce. He made friends with him and acted as his secretary when Joyce’s sight began to fail.

Three years later, in 1931, he went back to Dublin where he taught French at Trinity College. He gave up his jobs before even ending his academic year and began travelling through Europe living in an annuity he had received after his father’s death. Finally he settled down in Paris and he was there when the II world war broke out. He decided to join the French Resistance Movement, working as an underground agent in Paris. He was persecuted by the Gestapo and risked of being arrested. When the war ended he worked as an interpreter in a military hospital and then devoted himself to writing. In 1952 he meet success with   En Attendant Godot and in 1969 he won the Nobel Prize for literature for his great contribution to novel and drama.

He died in Paris in 1989.

WORKS: The most creative period of Beckett literary career was after the war. He wrote novels, poetry, radio and TV plays but he is mainly known as a playwright. Among his plays we can mention  Waiting for Godot ,  Endgame (it consists of only one act with two characters always active on the stage, who are trying to escape from a tower, where they live isolated, but they never do),  Krapps’s Last Tape (1958- a man realizes the emptiness of his life while listening to his voice that had been tape-recorded when he was young), Happy Days (1961- a monologue by a woman who is gradually buried alive till, in the second of the two acts, only her head is visible), Come and Go (made up of only 120 words),  Breath (1970- lasting only 35 seconds with neither characters nor action, only a long prolonged breath) and  Not I (1973- the protagonist is a mouth, unattached to any body, talking from a darkened stage).

THE USE OF THE FRENCH LANGUAGE: Beckett started writing books in French and only after he translated them into English. He chose to write in French because, he explained, he would write simply in a foreign language, reducing his speech to the essentiality and would avoid thinking consciously about style.

FEATURES:The KEY-WORDS to understand his works are: poverty, staticity and meaninglessness.

In his plays everything is reduced to the bare essentials from the characters’ clothes to their material possessions. The setting, too, is reduced to the minimal: in Endgame the whole action takes place in one unfurnished room, in Happy Days all Winnie’s possessions are contained in a large hand-bag, in  Waiting for Godot even the “ rich “ Pozzo seems to possess few things. Beckett deprives his characters of all external superficialities so as to make it impossible for the audience to elude full consciousness of man’s tragic situation.

Beckett world is a static one where, as Estragon says in Waiting for Godot, ‘nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes’. Almost all the characters are either handicapped or moribund creatures, imprisoned in a single place, unable to leave it, confined to wheel-chairs or to their death-bed.The world  has become a senseless chaos and there is no possibility of salvation.

The concept of staticity is reinforced by the concept of time: while in traditional plays the events develop chronologically in Beckett’s ones they seem to have no time, there is no past, no future but just repetitive present.   The characters are obsessed with the problem of time as if they were trapped in Time and forced to fill it with futile dialogues, gestures, gags or puns. In Waiting for Godot,  though we are told that the two acts are set on two successive days, the tree is bare in the first act and with some leaves in the second. Pozzo and Lucky in the second act are different, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb and we are told that Pozzo has been blind for some time and Lucky has been dumb for years.

Beckett’s central belief is that there is no meaning to life at all, except the existentialist duty to face the fact that our lives are devoid of any purpose in a totally absurd and indifferent Universe. To create a sense of anguish and loss, he questions all of man’s certainties: one cannot trust science, human reason, human language and even oneself.

Life and society have become absurd and Arts, too. He believes that literature and the language have reached their end:   there is nothing to  be said or written because someone else has already said and written it. Consequently he sees  literature as  a heap of others’ words which have now become meaningless.

CHARACTERS: In her book Beckett, Beckett Vivien Mercier denies that Beckett’s world may be seen as tragic, because the protagonists of his plays are not tragic: they are poor representatives of mankind, usually old and mostly ill. They are not powerful and proud tragic heroes, they haven’t got tragic flaws because they do not aspire and expect so little from life, thus they can never fall. In Beckett’s world, according to Vivien, there is the absence of free will because all his characters become slaves to Fate: even suicide, which is the supreme act of free will, seems to be beyond their capacity.

As we can see, in Beckett’s plays we are very far from Shakespeare’s tragic heroes: at the end of each great tragedy by Shakespeare the audience feel pity on the poor hero who has been brought to his ruin and fall by the operation of the Fate working trough the faults or errors of the hero or through the evil embodied in   other characters who live  next to him. Further every tragedy has got positive effects and there is eventually a certain redemption of the hero. Watching a play by Beckett instead, we can laugh at his characters because of their ugliness of body and mind, and we cannot pity them or identify with them.


Waiting for Godot is Beckett’s most famous play. The plot is very simple: two characters wait for the arrival of a person, a Mr Godot, who  never arrives. Beckett described it as “a tragi -comedy in two acts”. The comic element is important through the play because the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, resemble a pair of music-hall comedians: their actions and speeches make the audience laugh a great deal, but actually the final impression is not comic because we can realize the absurdity of their waiting, which will never end, the absurdity of their life and consequently, since they stand for the modern man, the miserable human condition.

Originally written in French under the title En Attendant Godot it was translated from Beckett himself into English.

It was an unusual play and nobody expected it would be a success all over the world. Nobody believed that the public could find anything interesting in a two-act play, with five male-players, a single tree as scenery and a plot that a critic said to be “ a case of nothing happening twice” because, even if it is divided into two acts, there is little difference between the first and the second act.

The plays is said to have a circular and symmetric structure. There is neither actual beginning nor conclusion and the two acts start and finish in the same place, at the same time and in the same way: in the evening, in a desert country road with a barren tree in the first act and with some leaves in the second, with the protagonists saying they have to go away. In the middle of the two acts there is the symmetrical arrival of a couple of passers-by, Pozzo and Lucky, and in the end there is the arrival of a boy who says that Mr Godot won’t come; in both act the two protagonists quarrel on the same matter, talk of nothing and make an attempt of suicide.

CHARACTERS: There are six characters in the play: five are real characters and one, Mr Godot, is only mentioned. He never shows us, he only sends a message saying that he will come the following day but he never does. But who is Godot? God? Death?a person who can solve their problems? a manufacturer who can offer them a job? a play on word, that is ‘go+dot’(full stop) to  reinforce ironically the idea expressed in the ending ‘Let’s go’ (they don’t move)? We are not given enough information to identify him; we only know what the boy says of him: ‘ a man with a white beard. Some think that he might be God because the description fits to the traditional image of God. The name, too, seems to suggest it: God with the addition of the French final ‘ot’. Some critic think that he got the idea from the French  mask Pierrot. Beckett himself does not know who Godot is. When he was asked about Godot’s identity, he said:”If I knew,I would have said so in the play”.

Vladimir and Estragon are the main characters. They are two tramps who have got an appointment with Mr Godot and are waiting for him. They have nothing to do but filling in their time while waiting and they do that with trivial actions and meaningless conversations. They are complementary personalities and might be considered as a normal couple that we can meet in a cross-talk comedian of the music-hall. Some critics have compared them to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the famous Stanlio and Onlio, while some other to Charlot, the little man made famous by Charlie Chaplin, because like him, they are endowed with sense of Humour, are worried about food and clothes and struggle to make a living. They embody the two fundamental sides of man: Vladimir the intellect or rational side, Estragon the emotional side. They are the only characters to have some memory even if they are not sure of anything. The other characters have no memory (in the second act they do not remember having met Vladimir and Estragon before).

There is a second couple of man, Pozzo and Lucky. Their appearance in the central part of the act and the appearance of the boy in the end are the only events in the play which goes on a static situation. Pozzo is a cruel master and Lucky is his slave. Their relationship has been interpreted in different ways: as a capitalist and a proletarian (Pozzo is the cruel master who exploits the poor Lucky) or as a tamer and a wild beast in a circus (Pozzo brandishes a whip and orders Lucky to attend to his needs). Pozzo and Lucky represent respectively the body with its basely material satisfaction and the mind which is subjected to the body: Pozzo eats, drinks and smokes his pipe, Lucky can think but he has to obey Pozzo’s orders.

The boy has only the function to inform them that Mr Godot won’t come that evening and that he will come the following day. We are not sure if he is the same boy who had come the day before.He is the only one to give us some information about Godot.

MAIN THEME: The main theme is the waiting. It means that man, deprived of all traditional values and spiritual certainties, is waiting without knowing for who or for what, waiting for something which will never happen and that is the absurdity of his destiny: to know that there will be no change and nevertheless to keep on waiting just because the waiting fills the emptiness of his existence and helps him to kill the time. Martin Esslin  wrote: “The subject of the play is not Godot but waiting, the act of waiting as an essential and characteristic aspect of the human condition. Throughout our lives we always wait for something, and Godot simply represents the objectiveof our event, a thing, a person,death”.The Audience, too, is involved in the absurdity of the waiting. They are kept waiting for what is going to happen next and when the play ends nothing has happened at all and Vladimir and Estragon don’t leave the stage but remain there to convey the idea that their waiting is going on.

There are some other themes in the play, the theme of sterility (the total absence of women), the theme of monotony of life (the circular and repetitive structure of the play) and the theme of inability to act and to communicate. In his future works, above all in Endgame, Breath and Not I the characters are progressively deprived of any form of movement and even of their limbs or voices.

THE GENERAL ATTITUDE of the play is a pessimistic one, even if in the last part of each play there is a sentence that seems to contradict it:  -We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow unless Godot comes,  says Vladimir, -and if he comes?, Estragon asks, – we’ll be saved, Vladimir answers back. Then there is a hope of salvation, but it is only apparent because the two tramps, who decide to go away from that place, are not able to leave from it:” Let’s go” they say, but they don’t move.

THE LANGUAGE is simple and correct and quite easy to understand but it is absurd as well because dialogue has lost any logical meaning and has become just the way to spend the time.

About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Samuel Beckett:Waiting for Godot

  1. Pingback: في إنتظار جودو ! « الديكاميرون

  2. Elisa says:

    questo sito e i suoi appunti mi hanno aiutato molto quest’anno! grazie per aver reso pubblico e accessibile tutto questo :)

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