(En Attendant Godot)
A Play Written in French and English by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
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.
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.
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.
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:
"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."
"Look at the tree."
"It's never the same pus from one moment to the next."
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.
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.
(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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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:
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.