Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.

                                                     Burton Weltman

A country road.  A tree.  Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot.

He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

Setting and action at the beginning of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

A guy trying to take off his boots, and failing.  That is how Waiting for Godot opens, and it is a prime example of the sort of action that takes place during the play.  There is very little dramatic action at the beginning of the play, and none at the end.  In between, two ragged men, Estragon and Vladimir (Gogo and Didi for short), wander back and forth on a bleak stage and talk at each other as they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot, whom they may never have met (it isn’t clear) and know almost nothing about.  They are briefly interrupted by four other characters, a poltroon named Pozzo with his slave Lucky, and two messenger boys sent by Godot.  That’s it.

Godot was completed in 1949 by Samuel Beckett in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.  It was a time when many Europeans were suffering from what we might today call post traumatic stress disorder.  They were still trying to figure out what had hit them and what they could do about it.  Godot was part of a flood of existentialist works produced during the 1940’s and 1950’s by Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and other writers.  Sartre and Camus, the leading figures in the existentialist group, emphasized the helplessness, hopelessness, and pointlessness of human existence.  Godot has been compared with their works.  The setting of Godot is bleak, the main characters wander about to no obvious purpose, and the play has no obvious plot.  I intend to show, however, that Beckett makes a very different point than Sartre and Camus.

Godot has also been compared in recent years with the television comedy show Seinfeld.  Seinfeld has been famously characterized and satirized by its own characters as a show about nothing.  And although Seinfeld is amusing, it really is pretty much about nothing.  Godot has been similarly characterized as being about nothing because the play seems so unfocussed and nothing dramatic happens.  But this comparison is weak.  Godot is amusing, but there is also something to the play that has led critics to describe it as “mesmerizing,” and induced many to rate it as a great work of art.  One may ridicule Godot, it has been said, but one “cannot ignore it.”[1]  Very few people would say that about Seinfeld.  What is it about Godot that accounts for its hold on audiences?  I hope in this essay to show what that is.

A great work of art has been described as one that can be experienced repeatedly with something new gained each time.  A great book is, for example, one that can be read over and over, with the reader getting more and different things each time.  A great play is one that can be seen many times with new insights each time.  The more a work can be profitably reread or re-watched, the more there is to it and the greater it is.[2]

That is something we can do with the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens, and that is why people today frequently read and reread, watch and re-watch works by these authors.  It is not something that most people can do with the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporary and friend Christopher Marlowe or with the books of Dickens’ contemporary and friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton.   Marlow and Bulwer-Lytton were considered innovative and widely popular authors in their day.  But they have not stood well the test of time, and their works are not often performed or read.[3]  Bulwer-Lytton has even had the singular misfortune to have named after him an annual contest for the worst opening sentence for a novel, having opened one of his novels with the oft ridiculed line “It was a dark and stormy night.”[4]

Great literary works like those of Shakespeare and Dickens appeal to us to consider them carefully.  They connect with us in a way that says that there is more to them than meets the eye at our first glance, and that we are missing something important if we don’t try to find it.  Great works are also multidimensional, not merely one-dimensional, sentimental appeals to our emotions or didactic appeals to our intellect.  They appeal to us and challenge us in a variety of ways, intellectually, experientially, imaginatively, and emotionally.

A literary work is said, for example, to have intellectual appeal if it challenges our ideas about things.  It has experiential appeal if it relates to things with which we are familiar but focuses on things we have ignored.  A work has imaginative appeal if it is couched in imagery that opens our eyes to something we are capable of seeing but have not seen before.  It has  emotional appeal if it evokes empathy and emotionally involves us in unexpected ways.  A great work makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange.[5]  Godot does just that.  As I hope to demonstrate in this essay, the play appeals to our intellects, personal experiences, imaginations and emotions, and provokes us to think and feel about things in new ways.  It can also be seen over and over without exhausting its appeal.  In sum, it is well worth waiting for Godot.

Estragon: Nothing to be done.

Vladimir: I am beginning to come around to that opinion.  All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything.  And I resumed the struggle.

Opening lines of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

“What is to be done?” asked Vladimir Lenin in the title of his famous book of 1901.  The book was written at a low point in working class struggles in Europe, at a time when apathetic workers seemed to be adapting to their oppression under the capitalist system.  Lenin’s answer was to build a revolutionary movement led by a vanguard cadre of radicals who would energize workers and show them the way.  Estragon parodies and critiques Lenin with his “Nothing to be done” as the opening salvo of the debate between him and his comrade Vladimir, which largely constitutes Godot.  Vladimir responds in Leninist fashion that whenever he feels at a low point, he thinks of all the things he has not yet tried, and then he resumes the struggle.

But there are limits to Vladimir’s stamina.  He is beginning to despair.  His despair recalls that of his namesake Lenin, wasting away in exile in Switzerland during January, 1917.  Lenin told a group of visiting comrades that they must reconcile themselves to the fact that there would probably be no revolution in Russia during their lifetimes.  But, he adjured, they must keep the faith and wait things out.  Quite unexpectedly, revolution broke out the next month in Russia and Lenin returned to lead it.  One never knows what can be done if one has not tried everything.

What is to be done, Estragon and Vladimir are continually asking?  How should they spend their time while they wait for God knows what?   So, they play with words and play verbal games, just as Beckett wrote plays and played with words.  They goad each other with what are seemingly intentional misunderstandings of the other, a way of making something of a conversation out of nothing.  “Let’s contradict each other,” Estragon suggests and later insists “Let’s ask each other questions.”  After one such episode, Estragon rejoices that “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.”  “Yes, yes, we’re magicians,” Vladimir responds.

They sprinkle their conversation with allusions to books, events and ideas that they have difficulty recalling and construing, just as Beckett sprinkles Godot with allusions to things for us, the audience, to try to decipher and ponder.  Vladimir, for example, referring to the story that one of the two thieves who were to be crucified with Jesus was spared, notes that only one of the four Gospels mentions the story.  Estragon’s reply is “Well?  They don’t agree and that’s all there is to it.”  Vladimir’s response is “But all four were there and only one speaks of a thief being saved.  Why believe him rather than the other four?”  This is not only a question about the New Testament, it is a question about evidence and testimony of all sorts, and about ethical choices.

“It is a game, everything is a game,” Beckett once supposedly said about Godot.[6]  There is an almost endless number of things in the play for Estragon and Vladimir to think about, and us too.  The play has enormous intellectual appeal and appeal for intellectuals.  Philosophy, religion, politics, and ethics are just a few of the themes with which it deals, and which the characters discuss.  It is not clear that Estragon and Vladimir make any progress in their speculations, but they greet each day and each other with an embrace and a celebration.

Vladimir: It’s a scandal!

Pozzo: Are you alluding to anything in particular?                                                            

Vladimir: To treat a man…like that…I think that…no…a human being…no…it’s a         scandal.

Estragon: A disgrace.

Vladimir and Estragon reacting to Pozzo’s treatment of his slave Lucky in Act I.

“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?,” asked the Lollard priest John Ball, one of the leaders of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381.  In fighting against the oppression of the peasants by their overlords, Ball exhorted his followers to return to the simplicity and social equality of the Garden of Eden, where there was no private property or social hierarchy.  Ball’s appeal tapped into a traditional Christian utopian dream of the sort that in modern times was voiced by John Lennon in his song Imagine.  “Imagine there’s no heaven…Imagine there’s no countries…Imagine there’s no possession,” John Lennon asks us.  And then, he says, imagine the wonderful consequences, with everyone living in peace, sharing the world, and living for today.

Lennon’s words are a surprisingly plausible way of describing the situation of Estragon and Vladimir in Godot.  They own virtually no property, and share what they have.  They do not demonstrate any tribal loyalties or prejudices.  They bicker a lot, but they do not actually fight.  They sometimes envy the seemingly wealthy Pozzo and hope for riches for themselves, but they don’t do anything about it.  They live totally for the day.  So, is Godot intended as a description of utopia?  Or a portrait of dystopia?  Is it a parody of the Garden of Eden?

Godot been called “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” [7]  It has also been declared so ambiguous as to be “Whatever you want it to be,” let your mind make of it what you will.[8]  Although I think that is an overstatement, the play does make a strong appeal to the imagination.  A big part of this appeal stems from its minimalism.  Godot has a minimalist script calling for a minimalist setting and a minimalist performance.  It strips life down to a bare minimum of things, and focuses on the moment-to-moment and day-to-day survival of its two main characters.  This minimalism makes for a maximum of interpretations.  Godot has been produced as a comedy, tragedy, tragic-comedy, farce, and melodrama.  It has been interpreted as a psychological, political, sociological, metaphysical, and/or religious drama.

The setting is stark, and the play has been described as “about nowhere and therefore about everywhere.”[9]  The stage set consists essentially of a dying tree and a rock.  If it is Eden, it is a devastated garden.  Beckett sets his characters in a barren physical and psychological environment in which they are starving for stimulation.  They seem to suffer from sensory and intellectual deprivation and, as a result, they often imagine things.  Upon first meeting Pozzo, for example, they mistake him for Godot.  Estragon explains: “That is to say…you understand…the dusk…the strain…waiting…I confess…I imagined…for a second.”  We, the audience, too thought that our waiting might be over, that Godot had arrived.  But no, we must wait further.

The imagery is haunting.  It is a post-apocalyptic setting that is befitting a Europe devastated by economic depression and war.  But the setting also befits a post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima world that has been stripped of its moral veneer.  It is a world that needs an imaginative revival.   Beckett provides a structure for our imaginations, and forces us to think about the possibilities.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?

Vladimir:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

End of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

 “To be or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet proclaims, as he contemplates suicide and ponders what he should be and how to be it.  Hamlet’s answer is essentially a cop-out.  He claims that killing oneself may not end one’s problems because there may be an afterlife in which one’s tribulations may continue and even increase.  But Hamlet then goes on to pontificate in terms that seem to negate taking action of any sort, and do not apply merely to committing suicide:

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

This is an elaborate excuse for inaction.  Hamlet is a play about someone who does not want to choose, and does not want to act.  Godot is a play about people who are making choices and taking action.  This is the case even when the result looks like indecision and inaction.

In a seeming parody and rebuke of Hamlet, Vladimir claims that “What are we doing here? That is the question (emphasis in original).”  Suicide is not the question.  Action versus inaction is not the question.  The question is what should we do and why should we do it, since we are always doing something whether we like it or not.  This is the core question of the play and one that almost all of us ask ourselves at least sometimes, some of us a lot.  With this question, the play appeals to the personal experience of the audience, all of us wanderers in a time and place not of our choosing, searching for some meaning and for something meaningful to do with our lives.

Vladimir’s question is also arguably a response to Albert Camus’ influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was written in 1942, while France was under Nazi occupation and Camus was involved in the seemingly hopeless struggle of the French underground against the Nazi occupiers.  The opening words of Sisyphus are “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  As with Hamlet, suicide is the question.  For Camus, living without hope is the answer.[10]

Sisyphus was a character from Greek mythology who was condemned for eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down, so that he would have to push it back up again.  Camus claims that Sisyphus embraces this “futile and hopeless labor” because “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” and Sisyphus’ scorn for the gods sets him free.  “Sisyphus,” Camus claims, “teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.”  He concludes that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[11]  Heroic endurance, an acceptance of hopelessness, and happiness through scorn for one’s oppressors is Camus’ answer to the question of suicide.

Although Beckett’s main characters in Godot repeatedly consider killing themselves, boredom seems to be the main philosophic question for them, not suicide.  In contrast with Sisyphus, Godot was written at a time when economic depression and war were giving way to economic and political recovery, and the conformity of mass society had become a main worry among intellectuals.  Cultural critics such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were warning about the coming loss of individuality in what was becoming a homogenized Western society.[12]

Adorno and Horkheimer were the advanced guard of a legion of critics concerned that an age of coerced uniformity by fascist dictators was being succeeded by an era of voluntary conformity, and by the boredom that comes from a paucity of imagination, genuine choices and meaning in people’s lives.  Beckett was writing at the dawn of the age of David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd[13] succeeded by Vance Packard’s The Organization Man,[14] which eventually became Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.[15]  Self-suppression and willful conformity were their main concerns.  Western culture, they complained, was becoming a domain of intellectual, experiential, imaginative, and emotional vacuity.

Physical suicide was not the problem for these intellectuals.  Psychological suicide was.  Both Act I and Act II of Godot end with Estragon and Vladimir saying they will kill themselves tomorrow.  But we know they won’t.  They are merely bored, and are entertaining themselves with speculations about committing suicide.  It is just one of the many things they think of doing, but don’t do.  Estragon and Vladimir are continually thinking about how to be, even when they are speculating about how not to be.  They seem to be Beckett’s response to the complaints of mass society theorists.  Beckett’s everymen are as shabby as they can be, but they are anything but conformists.  There is no “Keeping up with the Joneses” with them.  Beckett seems to be saying that a tawdry tedium should not be confused with a vacuous conformity.        

In a contrast with Hamlet, who does not really answer his own question about being, Vladimir answers his.  He says “And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear.  We are waiting for Godot to come.”  Unlike Hamlet, Estragon and Vladimir are not dithering around in a quandary about whether or not to do something.  They are doing something, according to Vladimir, even if, like Lenin biding his time in Switzerland, it is only keeping the faith and keeping themselves together while they wait for things to unfold.

“We are not saints,” Vladimir concludes, “but we have kept our appointment” with Godot, and that is something to be proud of.  It is also something with which we in the audience can empathize.  “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” Woody Allen once said.  “I can’t go on,” Estragon complains at one point.  “That’s what you think,” Vladimir responds, and they go on.  Vladimir and Estragon show up every day to wait for Godot.  Most of us would do well to do the same in our own lives.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?                                                                                                        

Vladimir:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

End of Act II of Waiting for Godot.

 “It’s all symbiosis,” Beckett is supposed to have once said about Godot.[16]  Beckett was extremely reluctant to comment on the meaning of his plays, but he seems hereby to have acknowledged that Godot is above all a play about human relationships.  Strip life down to its bare bones and what you have left is relationships.  Godot is frequently paired with Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit as a play about people who are trapped physically and psychologically, and who cannot get out of the vicious cycles in which their lives, or their afterlives in the case of No Exit, unhappily revolve.  No Exit portrays what Sartre saw as the contradiction between being metaphysically free but psychologically imprisoned, which is a frequent theme in existentialist writing.

Similar to Camus’ writing of Sisyphus, Sartre wrote No Exit in Paris during 1944,while France was still under Nazi occupation.  It is a story about three dead people, a man and two women, who are locked in a room. The room is ostensibly Hell.  In the beginning, they marvel at the idea that where they are is Hell, and they anticipate that they will be okay if being in a locked room is the worst they will suffer for their misdeeds in life.  But then their personalities start to come into play.

The man is chronically depressed and despondent.  One of the women increasingly lusts after him.  The other woman increasingly lusts after the first woman and scorns the man.  He, in turn, seeks the scornful woman’s approval.  The net result is a vicious circle in which each of them preys on the others.  Toward the end of the play, the door to the room opens so that they apparently could exit the room.  None of them, however, chooses to leave.  They seemingly want or need to be tortured.  Psychologically, there is no way out for them.

The man sums up what the play says about the human condition with the phrase: “L’enfer, ces les autres” or “Hell is other people.”  He also voices the moral of the story in the last words of the play: “Eh bien, continuons,” that is, “Let’s continue” or “Let’s get on with it.”  Written in circumstances similar to those in which Camus wrote Sisyphus, Sartre’s moral in No Exit is similar to Camus’ in Sisyphus.  We must resign ourselves to a living hell.  The moral of Godot is different.

There are three sets of symbiotic relationships in Godot: Estragon and Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky, and the two messenger boys and Godot.  As Pozzo appears in the first act of the play, he is a pompous braggart and a wealthy bully.  He drags his slave Lucky around with a rope and routinely denigrates him.  Although Pozzo looks down upon Estragon and Vladimir for their poverty and for hanging about waiting for Godot, he goes hither and yon without seeming to get anywhere.  In the second act, Pozzo shows up having been accidentally blinded.  Now the slave is pulling him around by the rope.  Pozzo has gone from bumptious to pathetic, but Lucky remains his slave and neither knows how to get away from the other.  Theirs is a symbiotic master-slave relationship that has enslaved and degraded them both, but with no way out.

The two boys have an ambiguous relationship with Godot.  One is a shepherd, the other a goatherd.  Godot apparently mistreats and beats one of them, but it is not clear which.  This is like the Cain and Able story in the Bible in which God favors the shepherd Able over the farmer Cain for no apparent reason.  From passages such as this, many interpreters of the play claim that “It seem fairly certain that Godot stands for God.”[17]  In this view, waiting for Godot would seem like an act of religious faith.  This view is reinforced by Vladimir’s response to Estragon’s question about Godot.  “And if he comes?” asks Estragon.  “We’ll be saved,” answers Vladimir, with salvation generally regarded as a religious goal.  But Godot and salvation could stand for any number of things for which people hope, from God to Lenin’s revolution.  I do not think it matters to the moral of the play.

The moral of the play, I think, resides in the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir.  Most interpretations of the play focus on the dourness of the characters’ situation and the hopelessness of their enterprise.[18]  It has been said that the play has “a unique resonance during times of social and political crisis,” and that its appeal is as a catharsis for people’s despair.[19]  I do not see the play as a catharsis for despair.  I propose, instead, that the play is a success story with a happy ending, thus making for the strong emotional connection that we feel for the characters.

Waiting for the arrival of Godot is primarily an excuse for Estragon and Vladimir to stay together.  The real reason they sit and wait is that they complement each other, care about each other, and take care of each other.  They bicker constantly and repeatedly consider going their separate ways, but they don’t go and they don’t separate.  “It’d be better if we parted,” Estragon suggests for the nth time.  “You always say that,” Vladimir responds, “and you always come crawling back.”

Beckett has been quoted as saying that “Estragon and Vladimir are like a married couple who’ve been together too long.”[20]  They go nowhere, but they have each other.  They seem pathetic at first, but not later.  In the repetition of their daily tedium, Estragon and Vladimir encourage each other to assume a dignified posture, and they appeal to us in their striving for integrity and meaning in their lives.  As they struggle at one point with Estragon’s boots, he observes that “We don’t manage too badly, eh Didi, between the two of us.”  “Yes, yes,” Vladimir agrees, and the conclusion seems to apply to more than just the boots.

Pozzo looks down on Estragon and Vladimir in the first act when he is flying high, but envies them in the second act when he has fallen and they have stayed the same.  Vladimir asks Estragon at one point whether he thinks Pozzo and Lucky have changed.  “Very likely,” Estragon responds, “They all change.  Only we can’t.”  It has been said that the play mocks us, the audience.  We sit in the theater doing nothing while watching actors who do nothing.  We fill our meaningless time watching characters who fill their meaningless time waiting for a phantasm.[21]  I do not agree.

I think the play is in the end a love story, a story of endless love that abides through boredom and makes the tedium of daily life worthwhile.  “How long have we been together all time now?,” Estragon asks.  “I don’t know, fifty years maybe,” Vladimir answers.  Out of almost nothing, out of merely their meager selves, Estragon and Vladimir make meaningful lives through caring about each other and taking care of each other.  The hopefulness in their relationship belies the sparseness of their situation.  It does not matter whether Godot ever shows up.  And that, I believe, best explains the hold that the play has on audiences, and why people continue to sit time and again with Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for Godot.

[1] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[2] Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] Bulwer-Lytton is even reportedly responsible for convincing Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations to leave open the possibility that Pip and Estelle will get together, a change that clearly weakened the ending.

[4] The contest has been held annually since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University.

[5] Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

[6] Quoted in www//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot

[7]  Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[8] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[9] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[10] Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.3.

[11]  Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.90-91.

[12] Adorno, Theodor & Max Horkheimer.

[13] Reisman, David, et al.  The Lonely Crowd.

[14] Packard, Vance. The Organization Man.

[15] Marcuse, Herbert. The One Dimensional Man.

[16] Quoted in www//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot

[17] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[18] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[19] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[20] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[21] Gardner, Lyn. “Waiting for Godot review – a dystopian Laurel and Hardy after an apocalypse.” 6/7/15.  Theatre. at http://www.theguardian.com