Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is often used as an example of a work astride two movements: modernism and postmodernism. It was written in 1955 when modernism was experiencing something of a revival in the wake of the Second World War, however, there is some distance between this play and earlier modernist works.
Without going into too much detail, modernism can be described as an early twentieth-century movement defined by formal innovation and the quest for meaning and self-realisation in an increasingly fragmented world (T.S.Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, anyone that ever wrote a literary manifesto). Postmodernism is both a reaction against modernist values and a natural progression from them; the quest for an overarching sense of meaning is largely abandoned, and the experimentation with new modes of expression is replaced by a reconfiguring of older modes (Thomas Pynchon, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Ali Smith).
Focussing on the philosophy behind Waiting for Godot and its representations of time, place, and language, it is possible to get deeper into some of the elements of modernism and postmodernism within the play and to place it more firmly within the transition (for anyone interested in other “transitional” works, Jorge Louis Borges Labyrinths and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are other good places to start).
What is Waiting for Godot about?
Waiting for Godot is centred two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting on a country road for the elusive Godot. While they wait, they pass the time with a series of repetitive, habitualised activities. Soon, Pozzo and Lucky appear. The interaction between the four characters provides a brief distraction for Vladimir and Estragon before Pozzo and Lucky continue on their way. A messenger then arrives to let them know that Godot won’t be coming.
The two acts of the play follow exactly the same structure, though the second act is slightly shorter. It is a play in which famously “nothing happens, twice”:
Estragon: Nothing to be done
Vladimir: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion
It is classed as a tragicomedy in two acts. It earns this classification through the intermixing of the tragedy of the characters’ existential crises with the vaudevillian elements of physical humour and the form of the ‘double act’. The tragedy and the comedy are inextricable, each adding to the other.
In answer to the question, what is it about? There are any number of answers; it is about nothing, it is about waiting, it is about a life of meaningless repetition until death, it is about the moments of joy and comedy that break up a life of otherwise meaningless repetition until death, it is an exploration of Beckett’s view of religion, it is about the art of theatre itself…
Beckett and Philosophy
Many of the critical responses to Beckett’s works note the importance of philosophical ideas to their construction. Beckett’s interest in the state of human existence, as evidenced in Waiting for Godot, renders a basic understanding of some key philosophical ideas necessary.
A 17th Century philosopher, who proposed that the mind is separate from the body and that the experience of life is manifested through the mind. This split is often referred to as Cartesian dualism.
…although the things I perceive and imagine are perhaps nothing at all outside me and in themselves, I am nevertheless assured that these modes of thought, certainly reside in and are found in me…
Descartes, Rene (1968) Discourse on Method/ Meditations, Harmondsworth, Penguin, p113
• Waiting for Godot begins by contrasting Estragon’s physicality (boots) with Vladimir’s mentality (hat) and then blurs the boundaries with repetitions and crossovers in their dialogue, and with stichomythic interplay. [Stichomythia (noun): dialogue in which two characters speak alternate lines of verse, used as a stylistic device in ancient Greek drama.]
• The play can be seen as anti- Cartesian in the reductive nature of the narrative. Humanity is reduced to its physical needs; food, sleep, urination while the mind serves only to aid the waiting through word games, play acting and habitualised rhetoric.
Camus explored the absurdity of human life as an existence without any ultimate meaning or cosmic purpose. His writings struggle to find means through which to counter the absurdity.
This discomfort in the face of man’s own humanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as the writer of today puts it, is… the absurd
Camus, Albert (1955) The Myth of Sisyphus, Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp18-19
• Martin Esslin, who coined the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ to describe the works of playwrights such as Beckett, based his notion of the Absurd on Camus’ writings.
• Camus explored the repetitive nature of existence. In his Myth of Sisyphus, Camus presents Sisyphus’ fate–he is doomed to keep pushing a boulder up the hill for it to roll back down again–as ultimately meaningful on the basis that there is a kind of purpose or even heroism in the act of persistence.
Kierkegaard was a 19th Century philosopher, credited with being the father of existentialism.
Existence itself, the act of existing, is a striving, and is both comic and pathetic in the same degree. It is pathetic because the striving is infinite; that is, it is directed toward the infinite, being an actualization of infinitude, a transformation which involves the highest pathos. It is comic, because such a striving involves a self- contradiction. Viewed pathetically, a single second has infinite value; viewed comically, ten thousand years are but a trifle…
Kierkegaard, Soren (1941)Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Princeton, Princeton U.P, pp84-85
• Beckett’s play as a tragicomedy exploring the state of human existence.
• The concept of time as dependent on tragic/ comic perspective.
For Schopenhauer, to live is to suffer, and the only course for the suffering individual is to deny the ‘will to life’ (the striving force that unites the body to the world) and pursue will-less contemplation, eg. art and music.
‘Then, instead of the restless pressure and effort; instead of the constant transition from desire to apprehension and from joy to sorrow; instead of the never satisfied and never- dying hope that constitutes the life- dream of the man who wills, we see that peace that is higher than all reason, that ocean- like calmness of the spirit, that deep tranquillity, that unshakeable confidence and serenity, whose mere reflection in the countenance… is a complete and certain gospel. Only knowledge remains; the will has vanished.
Quoted in: Janaway, Christopher (1994) Schopenhauer, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p92
• Based on a position of Cartesian dualism.
• The word games and play-acting that Vladimir and Estragon indulge in evidence a form of will-less contemplation.
• Vladimir and Estragon are unable to maintain their games-the ‘will to life’ is ultimately unconquerable.
• Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view is often used by critics who wish to enforce the modernist aspects of Beckett’s work.
• Links to Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’- based on the idea that theatre should be cathartic, assaulting the senses of the audience in a way that allows them to feel the unexpressed emotions of the subconscious.
In Waiting for Godot, our sense of linear or progressive time is continually disrupted. Although the play has a distinct chronological structure with events occurring sequentially, the representations of time within the narrative break this continuity. Act Two begins ‘Next day. Same time. Same place,’ yet the main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, cannot be certain that this is the case. Their failures of memory begin to call into question the authority of the playwright’s assertions, and confuse our sense of time and place:
Estragon: And all of this was yesterday, you say?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was yesterday.
Estragon: And here where we are now?
Vladimir: Where else do you think? Do you not recognise the place?
Estragon: (suddenly furious). Recognize! What is there to recognize? All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery! (looking wildly about him.) Look at this muckheap! I’ve never stirred from it!
Estragon’s response to place is that everywhere is the same; the unpleasantness of their surroundings is for him typical and therefore familiar. This uniformity of place is further underpinned by the place names of Macon/Cackon which similarly to Pozzo’s process of naming Godot, ‘Godin…Godet…Godot’ suggest that they may be interchangeable. The uncertainty with which place is represented disturbs our sense of location in a way that could be described as postmodern, but the bleakness of Estragon’s perspective and the minimalism of the setting, ‘A country road. A tree’, reveals a specifically modernist sense of reduction and despair (T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land offering a particular parallel).
• Modernist movement
• Viewed as a bridge to postmodernism in its use of surface description
• Economy with words
• Reduced to fundamental features
Vladimir is certain of his perception of time and place until his own observations lead him to question himself:
They look at the tree
Estragon: I see nothing.
Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!
This revelation confuses our sense of time and our sense of perception. Unable to reconcile these two forms of knowledge; that it is the next day and that such a change can have occurred, the traditional frameworks of existence collapse:
Beckett’s theatre disrupted the habitual structures of perception that had been common to all Western societies since the Renaissance: in his work, neither the characters nor the audience could rely on a stable perceptual system, in which every element was unambiguously fixed in space and time. Rather, Beckett’s characters existed in a profoundly disorientating world that they tried and failed to order according to a stable perceptual system (Pattie, 2000, p164).
This breakdown of the traditional systems of Western thought is typically associated with postmodernism, specifically Lyotard’s definition of it as an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard, 1992, p139).
As well as these disruptions of linear time, Beckett also introduces the idea of circular time through endless repetitions and returns to earlier phrases in the dialogue, and in the identical narrative structure of the two acts.
The effect of this circularity is in creating a sense of ‘the immutable present, which never ends, which is always beginning, and from which one cannot escape…’ (Janvier, 1967, p167). This sense of time as a binding and restrictive force in the play is further elucidated by Richard Schechner’s discussion of centrifugal structure, wherein he identifies time as the central point of the narrative. Vladimir and Estragon are continually compelled to return to the contemplation of time, despite their efforts to pull away from it with their routines and games.
Richard Schechner’s illustration of ‘centrifugal structure’ in Waiting for Godot:
(Schechner, 1967, p185)
This never-ending cycle is tempered by a trajectory of linear descent shown through the narrative in the processes of ageing and degeneration that the characters undergo. There is a sense of degeneration between the first and second act, the second being shorter than the first. Another manifestation of this degeneration is that Pozzo is blind when he returns in the second act. His blindness leads him to ponder this concept of circular time:
“Have you done tormenting me with your accursed time … one day I went blind … one day we were born, one day we shall die … they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” (p58).
This contrast in circular and linear time is most apparent in the round song sung by Vladimir:
Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb-
He stops, broods, resumes:
And dug the dog a tomb…
He remains a moment silent and motionless…
As Lawrence Harvey notes, ‘The surface circularity has been broken in order to expose the terrible linear direction of man’s destiny’ (Harvey, 1967, p149).
Again, despite what can be viewed as a postmodernist approach to representations of time, in that it is shown to be inconsistent and immeasurable, the idea of time as an oppressive force and the cause of great agonising for the characters and the play itself is more in line with the modernist tradition.
In Waiting for Godot, the relationship between language and the object it describes is shown to be unstable. Pozzo’s pipe is referred to within a single exchange as a ‘pipe’, a ‘briar’, a ‘dudeen’ and a ‘kapp and Peterson’; there is no clear relationship between the signifier (word) and the signified (object). This is further underlined through the use of multiple languages/ pronunciations of words, for example, Estragon’s accented pronunciation of the French when he says, ‘tray bong, tray tray bong’, which transforms the words into recognisably English ones with a completely different meaning. Similarly, that ‘The English say cawm’ would suggest that somehow their state of calmness can be differentiated from others through differences in accent.
These examples undermine the value of language as representational and highlight the potential for miscommunication. This questioning of the reliability of language engages with specifically post-structuralist ideas, in that the socially constructed nature of language is not represented as a gateway into analysing the world as text as it was for the structuralists, but rather as an indication that no text can be reliable.
• Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure
• The connection between words and objects is arbitrary
• Language is socially constructed
• The world can be analysed as text
• Text as self-contained
• Confusion in the link between word/object eg. puns
• Jacques Derrida- deconstruction
• Meaning is always changing–language can offer no fixed interpretation
• texts can make no claim to a self-evident truth
• Death of the author (Barthes)—the author has no authority in terms of interpretation, which is itself a never-ending process.
Within the wider framework of the play, the instability of language has greater repercussions. Vladimir and Estragon use word games and play with language as a way of passing the time. This element of playfulness has been identified as another link to postmodernism within the play, however, the inability of language to sustain a concept of reality is what makes their comic interchanges simultaneously tragic:
Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say, I am happy.
Estragon: I am happy.
Vladimir: So am I
Estragon: So am I
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy. (silence) What are we to do now that we are happy?
Estragon’s mimicry reveals the pointlessness of this endeavour and, crucially, his awareness of that pointlessness. That Estragon goes along with the exercise in spite of this awareness is a condensation of the play’s existentialist themes [Existentialism: The philosophy of individual human existence in the world-thoughts/emotions/actions/meaning] and a reminder that alongside the playful aspects, Beckett’s play is suffused with modernist seriousness.
As H. Porter Abbott notes, ‘[A] …view of Beckett which features primarily the Beckett of linguistic and tropological subversion may fail to account for the intense earnestness that distinguishes him from so many of his post-modern contemporaries…’(Abbot, 1996, p50).
Waiting for Godot is very different from early modernist works. Rather than being in search of something new with regards to form, it has begun to incorporate various existing modes of theatrical representation (eg. Vaudeville) in a way that would become a recognisable part of postmodernism, and its response to language as a unit of transitory meaning relates to theoretical models that would come to form the basis of postmodernist criticism. Yet in a basic understanding of the difference between these movements, that ‘[t]he modernist laments fragmentation while the postmodernist celebrates it’ (Barry, 2008, p81), it is more accurate to say that Beckett’s is a modernist play, but that it uses techniques and ways of representing things that are very much associated with postmodernism.
Page references from the play taken from:
Beckett, Samuel (1982) Waiting for Godot, NY, Grove Weidenfeld
Other Works Cited:
Abbott, H. Porter (1996) Beckett writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph, Ithica, Cornell U.P
Barry, Peter (2008) Beginning Theory, Manchester, Manchester U.P
Camus, Albert (1955) The Myth of Sisyphus, Harmondsworth, Penguin
Descartes, Rene (1968) Discourse on Method/ Meditations, Harmondsworth, Penguin
Harvey, Lawrence (1967) ‘Art and the Existential in Waiting for Godot’, in Casebook on waiting for Godot, Ruby Cohn (ed.) New York, Random House
Janaway, Christopher (1994) Schopenhauer, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Janvier, Ludovic (1967) ‘Cyclical Dramaturgy’, in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, Ruby Cohn (ed.) New York, Random House
Kierkegaard, Soren (1941) Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Princeton, Princeton U.P
Lyotard, Jean- Francois (1992) ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’ in Peter Brooker (ed.) Modernism/ Postmodernism, NY, Pearson
Onega, Susan (2006) ‘Structuralism and narrative poetics’ in Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide, Oxford, Oxford U.P, pp 257- 278
Pattie, David (2000) The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett, London, Routledge
Schechner, Richard (1967) ‘There’s lots of time in Godot’, in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, Ruby Cohn (ed.) New York, Random House
Thomson, Alex (2006) ‘Deconstruction’ in Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide, Oxford, Oxford U.P, pp298- 314
4 thoughts on “Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot”
This was so impressive! You dealt with a number of unfamiliar (to me) concepts & theories, yet it was all pretty much accessible. I’m halfway through the play, was a little lost, & felt I needed some kind of structure to approach & make better sense of it. This was just what I needed. So helpful! I’m going to come back & re-read after I finish WFG.
Thank you, I hope you enjoy the rest of the play!
Finished (for now, see many re-readings in my future). Godot is brilliant, & so is this! I hope you’re teaching somewhere — the world needs you. Thanks again as this was so helpful, even if you were focusing more on modernism & post-modernism, which I now understand better also.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the play! And thank you for your kind words. I’m just starting with my PhD, so I hope to do some undergraduate teaching in the near future. If you’re interested in more Beckett, I’d really recommend Krapp’s Last Tape (if you haven’t read it already). In case you are interested, the John Hurt production is available to watch in full on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGDjnnTvWUE