Reviewed: Waiting for Godot. A Tragi-Comedy in Two Acts. By Samuel Beckett (Faber & Faber, London, 1956); pp. 94; 9s. 6d.
It is perhaps ironical that Samuel Beckett should have had to establish a reputation in France, writing in a language not his own, before receiving any recognition among the people who speak his native tongue. His play, Waiting for Godot, had made a considerable impression in Paris when it was performed in 1952, and his novels had been highly praised; but until London and Miami staged his play during 1955 the English-speaking public had scarcely heard of him. Belated recognition has come in the form of a special London Evening Standard Drama Award for ‘the most controversial play of the year.’
Samuel Beckett is an Irishman and a one-time member of the James Joyce circle. But at first glance his writing seems more in place among the work of Europeans such as Kafka and Sartre than among that of his Irish contemporaries. Waiting for Godot is probably the easiest of his works to understand, and it is the first in English to receive more than a limited publication.
The plot is simple. Two down-and-outs, Vladimir and Estragon, have come to a desolate spot, marked only by a dead tree; at the end of their endurance, they are waiting for a certain Godot who, they think, may help them and provide them with security. They have never seen Godot; they do not know how he can help them; he never comes. In the first act, and again in the second, they wait, doggedly, desperately, struggling against physical infirmities, bickering, battling against the appalling tediousness of their existence.
Estragon has forgotten what is past; he can sustain only the feeblest of interest in what is to come; his awareness of the present seems almost grudging. Vladimir remains indefatigable in his wan optimism: he is forever spying out the land, discovering small improvements in their condition, devising ways of passing the time. He always finds something to give them the impression of existing. But at the last, it is only by a great act of will that he pulls himself back from despair. Didi and Gogo, as they call one another, cling together pathetically, dreading the thoughts that come to them when they are alone. Perhaps they had better hang themselves: but the tree seems too rotten, and when in the second act it miraculously bears leaves their rope proves too rotten, and they abandon the idea for fear that one should be left behind.
During the first act Pozzo passes through, taking his slave Lucky to be sold. Pozzo is a gentleman, egotistical and well-to-do. Lucky, he explains, was once a most accomplished and useful servant; but he is so no longer; indeed it soon becomes clear that he has become an object of horror to his master. To entertain the tramps Lucky is set to dance and think aloud: but all he can manage is a grotesque jig called the net, and a babble of academic cliches and scraps of unconnected fact. When master and slave return in the second act Lucky has become dumb; but Pozzo is now blind and must lean on him, stumbling as he stumbles.
The tramps are left still waiting. And we know that they will be waiting for Godot again tomorrow.
Waiting for Godot is thought a difficult play; but there is enough to absorb and to move an audience before they begin to reflect on its meaning. The tediousness of the tramps’ existence pervades the play; their boredom is, so to speak, ‘dramatized.’ The sense of hopeless expectancy is established in the play’s very title. The companionship that Didi and Gogo provide for one another is at once poignant and intensely human.
What is Samuel Beckett saying about the human condition? That life is futile — this has been the interpretation of the ‘thumb-nail reviewers.’ His symbolism has been taken by some to be ‘specifically Christian’ and his message said to approach ‘religious consolation.’ Others have labelled the play existentialist. But the author must be taken to mean what he says and not anything else; and Beckett has written a play, not a tract; a tragi-comedy, not a morality. Nevertheless there is an affinity between the expectancy of the tramps and Christian faith; and the dialogue does treat of the nature of action, which is central to existentialist philosophy.
The great antithesis in Waiting for Godot lies between the tramps on the one hand, and on the other Pozzo and Lucky. By the end of the play Vladimir and Estragon are neither better nor worse off; but Pozzo has fallen from off the wall and is broken. The man of power has become impotent; the man of authority has become dependent on his slave, and his philosophy of comfortable pessimism has turned to nihilistic despair. He says: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ And the slave, who has long since ceased to divert his master, at the last falls dumb so that neither by word nor sign can he communicate with Pozzo. Together they know only to go on. They stumble and must be helped up; but will there be someone to help them next time?
Lucky makes no decisions; the intellectual has submitted himself utterly to authority. But his art inevitably reflects his condition, and his thinking is no more than a senseless enumeration. In Pozzo one can see the heedless arrogance of temporal power and the blind march of human society down towards disaster.
The tramp, malodorous and debilitated, a seedy figure in his rusty black coat and pot-hat is a recurrent hero in Beckett’s writing. In the novels Molloy and Malone Meurt he is the hobo who has evaded the clutches of social and intellectual responsibility and is wandering in ‘that inner space one never sees, the brain and heart and other caverns where thought and feeling dance their sabbath’ (Molloy). Didi and Gogo too are concerned with their own salvation; when Pozzo deigns to converse with them they are surprised but not impressed; when he falls and cries for help they are uncertain what to do, and uncertain whether to do anything. Vladimir reflects: ‘The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets.’ But man weighs up the pro and contra. Should one not respond to this rare occasion of being needed? Or have such proceedings passed from the reasonable to the merely habitual? In the end Vladimir justifies his action with no more than this: ‘… we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s get to work!’
Waiting for Godot is the purpose to which the existence of Didi and Gogo is geared: ‘… in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear,’ says Vladimir. ‘We are waiting for Godot to come … we are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?’ Here we are at the very heart of the play. In the teeth of despair the tramps have made their one decision and are desperately clinging to it. But waiting for Godot illuminates their existence not at all; it only throws its meaninglessness into greater relief. The sudden budding of the dead tree is a miracle; but for the tramps a miracle without meaning. Suicide presents another course of action, almost as sanguine a hope as the coming of Godot. Meanwhile there is only the individual personality to fall back on, and through the play runs the forlorn cry, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me before!
For individuality itself is threatened, is thrown into doubt. Didi and Gogo provide the chorus of the play, but they are, in a sense, but one man in an uneasy equilibrium. Vladimir stands for the yesterday and tomorrow, the I and thou, the cogito ergo sum. Estragon reflects those dark unplumbed depths of anonymous and timeless humanity. Yet they share the same hope.
And every now and again, throughout the play, we catch the author peeping out at his audience, teasing them, just as Pirandello does, for their enchantment. There is too that wry humour and acute sense of the absurd — not untinged by personal animosities — that links him to Joyce and the tradition of Irish writing that runs back to Swift himself.