According to the blurb, in Waiting For Godot “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful”. That’s a strange way to sell a story, don’t you think? But what else would we expect from Samuel Beckett? After reading and reviewing his novel Murphy a while back (that was a bonkers reading experience if I’ve ever had one), I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to his work – but Waiting For Godot, the “tragicomedy in two acts”, piqued my interest. So, here we are!
Fun fact: Waiting For Godot was originally a French-language play (En attendant Godot), and Beckett did his own translation to bring us the English version. How often does that happen?
I swore out loud when I opened my copy, to discover that it was annotated all to hell. Some previous owner (clearly a drama student, or arty-farty equivalent) had underlined and scribbled and highlighted all up on every page. So, consider this a timely reminder to flip all the way through your secondhand books before you purchase them, people! I thought I could look past it to read Waiting For Godot, but despite my best efforts, it was really distracting.
But let’s get to it: just about everyone is already familiar with the premise of Waiting For Godot, right? Two blokes (Vladimir and Estragon) stand around in front of a tree, waiting for a bloke named – you guessed it! – Godot, who – spoiler alert! – never shows up. To be honest, I could probably end the review right here, you know everything you need to know now.
But if you insist, I’ll go on.
Vladimir and Estragon are a couple of clowns, really. They shoot the shit, they repeat themselves, they trip over stuff, they eat turnips. It’s all very Laurel and Hardy. While they’re waiting, they’re joined briefly by another bloke – Pozzo – and his slave – Lucky. Oh, and a kid comes around a couple of times, to tell them that Godot may or may not show up eventually, which is a big help.
The thing about writing such a stripped-down bare-bones play is that everyone wants to project their own meanings onto it (which seems to have shit Beckett up the wall). “Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation”, wrote Normand Berlin in a tribute to the play in Autumn 1999. “Less” forces us to look for “more”.
The identity of Godot, in particular, has been the topic of hot debate ever since the play was first performed. Beckett insisted – time and time again – that he literally just meant for the character to be a regular old bloke named Godot, but everyone kept hounding him about whether it was a metaphor for God or war or whatever the fuck. He told Ralph Richardson that “if by Godot I had meant God, I would [have] said God, and not Godot,” which he noted “seemed to disappoint [Richardson] greatly”.
To be honest, I’m not that interested in detailing all of the possible meanings and interpretations of Waiting For Godot – you could write a thesis on it (in fact, people have, and you can read them all elsewhere). I was happy to simply read the play on the surface level, and on the surface level it was okay. A good gimmick. Waiting for a bloke that never shows up! Classic! Well done, Beckett. Now, we can all move on.
One aspect of the play’s history I did find particularly interesting, however, was its popularity in prisons. In 1953, a prisoner in Germany’s Lüttringhausen prison found a copy of the French edition, translated it himself into German, and sought permission to stage it himself behind bars. He later wrote to Beckett: “You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps.” Beckett was intensely moved by the story, and he took “tremendous interest” in prison productions of Waiting For Godot from then on. He was generally reluctant to grant permission or rights for film and television adaptations, but for prisons and prisoners he made an exception.
I don’t read a lot of plays, so I’m not sure if this is a universal feeling for the format or specific to Waiting For Godot, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be better to see it played out on stage than to read it. Beckett writes in a lot of visual gags and slapstick humour as stage directions, and rhythmically it just seems like it would be better read aloud. I’m sure I could find a filmed version online somewhere, you might be better off looking for one as opposed to reading the paper-and-ink version.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Waiting For Godot:
- “I must admit that I find myself lucky to not have been assigned this incredible waste of time and human intellect as a student. Even now,many years later, I find it one of the most godawful wastes of time I have encountered, on a level with a group of pseudointellectuals who stand, glasses of dry French Chardonney in hand, discussing the inner meanings of an “artist” who makes his works by throwing buckets of paint at a canvas, or a Matisse which certainly had to have been made as a great cosmic joke.” – David L. Schoon
- “I would rather have open heart surgery with no anesthtic than to ensure this play in any form again.” – AlphaKid42
- “If you thought reading books was fun,then you’ve never seen this dull book.This is a real tragedy,alright-the tragedy is the book was written and plublished.You wade through pages of meaningless drudgery,trying desperately to find ANYTHING exciting.You keep reading,hoping and praying it will get better.But no.It just keeps getting worse with every sentence.I finally gave an utter scream from frustration and set fire to this dud,mentally kicking myself for wasting money on it.If you want an actaul BOOK,read Charles Dickens or Mark Twain instead.” – M L Smith