Waiting for Godot is a play composed by Samuel Beckett in French between 1948 and 1949. It first premiered in 1953 in Paris and later, in 1955, in London. The theatre of that time consisted of plays, which mirrored everyday life. They were, above all else, grounded in reality. Beckett’s play, compared to its contemporary theatrical counterparts, was quite detached from any “traditional realism” rules.
Realism in the sphere of theatre was a movement which began in the 19th century. Its goal is to portray everything in the play as realistically and accurately to normal life as possible. This includes believable, detailed stage settings and décor, authentic costumes, characters which are ordinary people, normal dialogue consisting of everyday language, etc. This way the audience is able to identify with and relate to the characters and the world of the play. There is also a chronological, linear sequence of events that transpires during the play. The antithesis of this “realistic” theatre is what is sometimes called the “theatre of the absurd”.
Absurdity is any type of discord or lack of logic. Such a situation is devoid of meaning or a goal for the person involved in it. A good example of an absurd situation is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The name itself hints at the goal of the play: two people, Vladimir and Estragon, await the arrival of a man called Godot. The absurdity comes from the fact that Godot does not appear at all throughout the entire story, leaving the two protagonists in an endless loop of meeting each other, waiting in vain for somebody to come, and eventually leaving, only to do the exact same thing the next day. This scenario is akin to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), where the titular character is cursed to endlessly push an enormous boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll down, forcing him to begin from scratch. Vladimir and Estragon spend each day waiting for Godot, only to be told at the end that their endeavors had been pointless and that they should begin anew the following day.
Waiting for Godot’s stage is quite simplistic: it consists of a single tree near a road and a low mound or a stone, on which Estragon would sit. This barren scenery provides a sense of emptiness and unfamiliarity, which is very different from the traditional, “realistic” theatre, where the décor tried to be as welcoming and recognizable to the audience as possible. The play is comprised of two Acts, spanning over two days. The repetition of the characters’ “actions” as well as some of their lines of dialogue throughout the two acts can be viewed as a sign that this this is neither the protagonists’ first, nor last time that they’ll be meeting each other near the solitary tree.
Vladimir and Estragon’s clothes are another marker for the presence of absurdity. When performing the play, the actors are often times dressed as tramps who wear shabby clothes, but at the same time have bowler hats which are associated with businessmen and middle-upper class members of society. Such a contrast in attire is seen as unrealistic and even comedic by the audience, which can further distance them from the story.
The major feature of Beckett’s play is the lack of knowledge and certainty it offers. At the start of Waiting for Godot we are not properly introduced to Vladimir and Estragon, who they are, what they have been through, how they have come to know each other. All we know is that they are waiting for another person, Godot. Unfortunately, we never learn who he is, or why the two protagonists are waiting for him. The lack of any distinguishing features in the scenery also does not give us a proper understanding of where and in what time period the story takes place.
The mysterious, almost mythical, character’s name, “Godot”, has been interpreted in an interesting way – some English speakers have related it with “God”. The two main characters of the play are waiting for a “God” who never appears before them. It is believed by some that this is similar to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s popular statement that “God is dead… and we have killed him” (Nietzsche 120). After the Age of Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of science, more and more people became skeptical of religion, which in turn “killed” God. Without the existence of God in their lives, many people no longer find any meaning in the world. On the other hand, the theory that Godot is God, as intriguing as it may be to some, can be refuted by the fact that the play was originally written in French, where “God” is actually “Dieu”, meaning that Beckett most likely did not intend for this to be the character’s identity.