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Waiting for Godot
(En Attendant Godot)

A Play Written in French and English by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
A Study Guide
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Title Background
First Performance
Type of Work
Absurdist Drama
Dialogue and Language
Structure of Absurdist Drama
Setting and Characters
Themes
Humor
Symbolism: What to Consider
Plot Summary
Author Information
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
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Title Background

Waiting for Godot is the English translation of En Attendant Godot, the French title of the play. Beckett, who could write brilliantly in both English and French, completed the French version first, then the English one. In pronouncing Godot, place stress on the first syllable, but not the second.

First Performance

The French version of the play debuted on January 5, 1953, at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. The English version debuted in August 1955 at the Arts Theatre in London. The first U.S. performance of Godot was in January 1956 at the Coconut Grove Theater in Miami. The first New York performance of the play was on April 19, 1956, at the John Golden Theater.

Type of Work

Waiting for Godot is a two-act stage drama classified as a tragicomedy. In 1965, critic Martin Eslin coined the term theater of the absurd to describe Godot and other plays like it. As a result, these plays also became known as absurdist dramas.

Absurdist Drama

A group of dramatists in 1940's Paris believed life is without apparent meaning or purpose; it is, in short, absurd, as French playwright and novelist Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote in a 1942 essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus." Paradoxically, the only certainty in life is uncertainty, the absurdists believed. An absurdist drama is a play that depicts life as meaningless, senseless, uncertain. For example, an absurdist's story generally ends up where it started; nothing has been accomplished and nothing gained. The characters may be uncertain of time and place, and they are virtually the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning. 

Dialogue and Language of Absurdist Drama

The language in an absurdist drama often goes nowhere. Characters misunderstand or misinterpret one another, frequently responding to a statement or a question with a non sequitur or a ludicrous comment. The dialogue sometimes resembles the give-and-take of the classic Abbot and Costello vaudeville routine in which the two comedians are discussing a baseball game. A player named "Who" is on first base. Abbot does not know the name of the player, so he asks Costello, "Who's on first?" Costello says, "That's right, Who is on first."  Beckett opens Waiting for Godot this way. Estragon, who has a sore foot, is attempting to remove his boot. Though he tugs hard, it won't come off. In frustration, he says, "Nothing to be done." Vladimir replies, "I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle." In Act II, the two men agree that they are happy in spite of their problems. Then Estragon asks:

    "What do we do, now that we are happy?"
    "Wait for Godot," Vladimir says. "Things have changed here since yesterday."
    "And if he doesn't come?"
    "We'll see when the time comes. I was saying that things have changed here since yesterday."
    "Everything oozes." 
    "Look at the tree."
    "It's never the same pus from one moment to the next."
The absurdity of the dialogue is the author’s way of calling attention to the seeming absurdity of life. For Samuel Beckett, the world wobbles on its axis, and the people who inhabit it do not always think logically or or talk sensibly.

Plot Structure of Absurdist Drama

The structure of a typical absurdist drama is like a spaceship orbiting earth or a Ferris Wheel revolving on an axle: The spaceship and the Ferris wheel endlessly repeat their paths. If only the passengers on the spaceship and the Ferris wheel could break free and fly off on their own . . . but they cannot. They are tethered to forces beyond their control. The same is true of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. They wait for Godot at the beginning of the play, wait for Godot in the middle of the play, and wait for Godot at the end of the play. Godot never comes. So Vladimir and Estragon continue to revolve—but never evolve. They are caught in the absurdity of continuously moving but never progressing. 

Setting

All the action takes place next to a tree on a road, beginning on the evening of one day and ending on the evening of the next. 

Characters

Vladimir (Nicknamed Didi) and Estragon (Nicknamed Gogo): Homeless down-and-outers who wait under a tree for a mysterious person named Godot. Estragon is an alternative name for tarragon, an herb used to season stew, fish, chicken, vegetables, and other foods. Estragon's nickname, Gogo, is the French word for a person who is easy to deceive. Vladimir is a common Russian name. A prince of Kiev, Vladimir I (956-1015), converted to Christianity from Paganism and introduced Christianity in Russia.
Pozzo: A traveler with a slave on a rope leash. The name Pozzo is similar in spelling and pronunciation to the Italian word, pazzo. As an adjective, it means insane, crazy, mad, or irrational. As a noun, it means wild man or mad dog.  
Lucky: Pozzo's slave. Lucky is an ironic, paradoxical name—unless one believes that he has worked out the means of his salvation. Like Christ, he is scourged. And, though he bears no wounds from a crown of thorns, he does have an open sore around his neck. Like Christ, who carried a cross to Calvary, he is made to bear a burden (the bag and other paraphernalia that he carries for Pozzo).
Boy: Messenger who says he represents Godot. He appears briefly in Act I and Act II to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot has postponed his scheduled meeting with them. In Act II, he says he is not the same boy who delivered the message the first time. However, in his list of characters (dramatis personae) at the beginning of the play, Becket mentions only one boy.    
Godot: Someone for whom Vladimir and Estragon are waiting. Supposedly, he has important information for them. Godot does not appear on the stage. 
Bullies: People who beat Estragon when he is trying to sleep—or so Estragon says. The bullies do not appear on the stage; they could be a figment of Estragon's imagination. 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006

Act I

In the evening, two tramps meet next to a tree along a country road. One of them, Estragon, is struggling to remove a boot to soothe a sort foot. Tugging at it, he says in frustration, “Nothing to be done.”

Vladimir, interpreting the statement as an opinion about life in general, says he is beginning to accept that viewpoint but has decided to keep struggling anyway. Then he says he is glad to see Estragon again even though they had been together the day before. 

“I thought you were gone for ever.” 


“Me too.”


Estragon says he spent the previous night in a nearby ditch and endured a beating from bullies who regularly harass him. 


While Estragon pulls at the boot, Vladimir removes his hat and shakes it out, puts it back on, then removes it again and taps at it as if to dislodge something. He puts his hat back on just as Estragon finally gets the boot off. Estragon turns the boot upside down but nothing falls out. He feels inside it, but there’s nothing. Vladimir accuses him of blaming the boot for “the faults of his feet.” Vladimir removes his hat again, finds nothing, and says, “This is getting alarming.” He also says: 


“One of the thieves was saved. It’s a reasonable percentage.” 


He is referring to the two thieves crucified with Christ. When he asks Estragon whether he has ever read the Bible, Estragon says he remembers looking at the color maps in it. The Dead Sea made him thirsty. Vladimir tells him the story of the two thieves (which bores Estragon) and wonders why only one of the four writers of the Gospels mentions that one of the thieves was saved. 


Vladimir puts his boot back on and walks around to test his foot. 


“You’re sure it was here?” he asks.


He is referring to someone named Godot. He was supposed to show up to answer a question they posed. 


“He didn’t say for sure he would come,” Vladimir says. 


It turns out they don’t remember what day he was supposed to come. Nor do they even recall what day it is now.  Although they don’t recollect what question they asked Godot, they think it had to do with a prayer, a supplication. While waiting for Godot, they have nothing to do to pass the time, so Estragon suggests that they hang themselves from the tree. Neither wants to go first, however, and in the end they decide stay alive because "it's safer," Estragon says. Besides, if Vladimir hangs himself, Estragon will be alone. 


Estragon is hungry, so Vladimir offers him a turnip—all that he has—but Estragon finds a carrot in his pocket and eats that instead. When they hear a loud cry, they huddle together in fear. The “menace” is harmless, though—a man with the loop of a long rope around his neck. At the other end of the rope is another man, who uses a whip to drive the first man. The latter is carrying a bag, a folding stool, a picnic basket, and a coat. When they ask the man with the whip whether he is Godot, the man says, “I present myself: Pozzo.” The other man is his slave, Lucky. When Pozzo asks who Godot is, Vladimir says he is a "kind of acquaintance," but Estragon says, "Personally I wouldn't even know him if I saw him."


Pozzo barks commands at Lucky—first for the coat, then the stool, then the basket of food. He drinks wine and eats chicken while Vladimir and Estragon talk. Lucky falls asleep on his feet even though he is standing and never puts down the bag. Vladimir and Estragon notice that he has a sore on his neck from the chafing of the rope. When Estragon asks whether he may have the chicken bones that Pozzo has tossed away after eating the meat, Pozzo says, .“They’re yours.” Pozzo smokes a pipe.

Estragon takes up the bones and chews on them. Pozzo then says he, too, would like to meet Godot, noting that the more people he meets the happier and wiser he becomes. Lucky, meanwhile, is still holding a bag and Estragon asks why he does not put it down. Pozzo says Lucky wants to impress him with his hard work so that Pozzo won’t sell him at a fair which they are going to attend. Lucky is a burden, Pozzo explains. When Lucky begins crying, Estragon tries to comfort him, but Lucky kicks him in the shins, drawing blood. Estragon and Vladimir now begin sympathizing with Pozzo, who says:

“I can’t bear it . . . any longer . . . the way he goes on . . . you’ve no idea . . . it’s terrible . . . he must go . . . (he waves his arms) . . . I’m going mad . . . . . . .”


“Will night never come?” Vladimir says.


Pozzo then launches into a short lecture about the characteristics of the evening sky in that region of the country, and Vladimir and Estragon commend him for it. In return for their praise, Pozzo has Lucky dance for them and perform an encore, the same dance. Lucky next entertains them with a discourse on politics and religion but keeps talking and talking until Vladimir snatches his hat and Lucky goes silent. Pozzo and Lucky leave. Shortly thereafter, a boy who says he herds goats for Godot arrives to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot won’t arrive until the next day. 

Act II

The following day, Vladimir arrives first, then Estragon, and they resume waiting. The tree, bare before, now has a few leaves.  Vladimir discovers that Estragon has forgotten what happened the day before until Vladimir reminds him. When they talk about hearing voices—“dead voices”—Vladimir says they sound like sand and Estragon, like leaves rustling. Estragon tells Vladimir what the voices are saying: 

“To have lived is not enough for them,” Estragon says. “To be dead is not enough for them.”


To kill time, Vladimir asks Estragon to sing. Estragon won’t, but he suggests they ask each other questions. Their discussion then shifts to the tree when Vladimir points out that it has leaves now. Yesterday it did not. 


“It must be spring,” Estragon says. 


When Vladimir talks again about Pozzo and Lucky, Estragon again forgets who they are. So Vladimir tells him to pull up a trouser leg to see the wound Lucky inflicted. After Estragon sees the evidence, which is festering, he says he wants to leave. But Vladimir says they must stay to wait for Godot. 


Pozzo and Lucky approach, Lucky tethered to Pozzo as before except that the rope is shorter. Lucky is wearing a different hat, and Pozzo is blind. When Pozzo bumps into Lucky, they fall and become entangled in Lucky’s baggage and rope. Pozzo calls for help. Estragon thinks Pozzo is Godot, but Vladimir informs him who it is. Vladimir and Estragon keep conversing while Pozzo keeps calling for help. Eventually, Pozzo says he’ll pay 100 francs for help. Estragon and Vladimir keep talking and Pozzo raises the reward to 200 francs. When Vladimir tries to pull Pozzo up, Vladimir falls. He tries to get up, but he too becomes entangled. Vladimir calls for Estragon to help, promising that he’ll agree to Estragon’s plan to leave. Estragon suggests that they go to the Pyrenees Mountains and Vladimir consents. Estragon tries to help but smells something.


“Who farted?”


“Pozzo,” Vladimir says.


“I’m going.”


Vladimir tries to get up again but fails. Finally, Estragon, after several attempts, succeeds in helping him up. Pozzo then frees himself, crawls off, and collapses. Estragon and Vladimir decide to help him. After a struggle, they get him to his feet. Because he is blind, Pozzo does not know who helped him. He thinks they could be robbers. Then he asks the time of day. No one is sure. Estragon isn’t even sure whether it is evening or dawn. However, Vladimir decides that it is evening and informs Pozzo. Pozzo asks for Lucky, and Estragon goes to fetch him. Lucky is still on the ground. Estragon kicks him several times but hurts his foot.


Meanwhile, Vladimir says he and Estragon are the same men Pozzo met the day before. Pozzo doesn’t remember. He calls for Lucky, who gets up and gathers his burdens. As Pozzo and Lucky are about to leave, Vladimir asks Pozzo to have Lucky sing. But Pozzo says Lucky is mute.


“He can’t even groan.”


Pozzo and Lucky leave. A boy approaches and addresses Vladimir. The boy says he is not the same boy who talked with the men the day before, but he does have a message from Godot—namely, that Godot will not be coming that evening but will be coming the next day. 


Estragon, who has been sleeping, awakens and is ready to go away. But Vladimir tells them they can’t go far, because they must return to the tree the next day to wait for Godot.


“And if he comes?”


“We’ll be saved,” Vladimir says.
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Themes

Hope

Vladimir and Estragon are lowly bums. Their only material possessions—besides their tattered clothes—are a turnip and a carrot. Nevertheless, they have not given up on life; they do not descend into depression, pessimism, and cynicism. Even though they frequently  exchange insults, they enjoy each other’s company and help each other. Above all, though, they wait. They wait for Godot. They do not know who he is or where he comes from. But they wait just the same, apparently because he represents hope.  

Search for Meaning

Vladimir and Estragon are homeless rovers attempting to find an answer to a question all human beings face: What is the meaning of life? Godot may have the answer for them. So they wait. After Godot fails to appear on the first day, they return to the tree the next day to continue waiting. He does not come. Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave the area. However, the stage direction at the end of the play says, "They do not move." Apparently, they plan to continue their search for meaning by continuing to wait for Godot.

Dependency

Vladimir and Estragon depend on each other to survive. Although they exchange insults from time to time, it is clear that they value each other's company. One could imagine Pozzo without Lucky—until the second act, when the audience learns he has gone blind. Unable to find his way, Pozzo is totally dependent on Lucky. Lucky, of course, is tied to Pozzo—by a rope and by fear of being abandoned.

Monotony

Life is tedious and repetitive for Vladimir and Estragon. In the first act of the play, they meet at a tree to wait for Godot. In the second act, they meet at the same tree to wait for Godot. Irish critic Vivian Mercer once wrote in a review of the play, "Nothing happens, twice."

Humor

Waiting for Godot contains the deadpan humor of the down and out, the destitute, who cope by making sport of their circumstances—and themselves. They are like Sisyphus and Tantalus, each doomed forever to seeking a goal that he cannot reach. But while trying to reach their goal, Vladimir and Estragon remain cheerful and jocular. Their hapless drollery calls to mind the buffoonery of film comedians Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. A full appreciation of the humor requires a close reading of the play and/or attendance at a performance of it.

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Symbolism: Questions to Consider

Author Beckett reportedly denied that he intended any person, thing, or idea in the play as a specific symbol. However, the reader is free to interpret the play—and the mind of Beckett. At the very least, the reader or playgoer may wish to consider the following questions:

  • Do Vladimir and Estragon represent humankind as fallen children of Adam and Eve and their original sin? The motif of redemption occurs several times in the play—notably, when Vladimir speaks of Christ as the "Saviour." On the last page of the play (in most texts), Estragon asks what will happen if Godot comes. Vladimir answers, "We'll be saved." 
  • Is the tree intended to be a symbol of the cross on which Christ was crucified? Keep in mind that Vladimir and Estragon discuss the thieves crucified with Christ. 
  • The tree is bare when Vladimir and Estragon meet near it on the first day. However, on the second day, author Becket says in his stage directions, it has "four or five leaves." Do the leaves symbolize hope? New life? 
  • Does Godot represent God, as some essayists maintain? Bear in mind that at least a dozen French words (not counting suffixes, prefixes, and inflectional forms) begin with the first three letters of this name, including godasse, godelureau, goder, godailler, godet, godiche, godichon, godichonne, godille, godiller, godillot, godron, godronnage, and godronner. 
  • When Pozzo asks who Godot is, Estragon answers, "Personally I wouldn't even know him if I saw him." Estragon appears to be answering truthfully. Nevertheless, is his answer intended to mimic the apostle Peter's answer when he was asked whether he knew Christ? 

Author Information

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature, was born in Foxrock, Ireland.  After earning a degree in foreign languages at Trinity College in Dublin, he spent two years in France (1928-1930) and taught French at Trinity College in 1931. He returned to France in 1937, became a French citizen, and joined the French Resistance during World War II. He completed his first novel in 1945, then began writing novels and plays in French.


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