Friday, February 11, 2011

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Edition: Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts
Waiting for Godot was originally written in French in 1948, and its first stage production was in Paris in 1953. Beckett himself undertook to translate the play into English, and subsequently the play was produced in London (1955), the United States (1956), and worldwide thereafter.

Act 1: The setting is a country road with a tree in the evening. Estragon is trying to take off his boots as Vladimir is talking to him. Estragon is annoyed that Vladimir won't help him; Vladimir takes off his hat and makes as if to shake something out but nothing comes out. When Estragon succeeds finally in getting his boots off, they launch into a conversation about repetance, the Bible, and how strange it is that only one of the four apostles thought that one of the two thieves on the cross with Christ was saved. Around this point in the conversation we learn that the two of them are waiting for Godot. They can't decide, however, whether or not they came to the same spot yesterday to wait for him, nor can they quite decide what day it is.

The men seem to have no small degree of affection for one another, they have pet names for each other, Gogo and Didi. They decide that they should hang themselves while waiting but the plan is aborted after some discussion of who should go first. Vladimir gives Estragon a carrot to chew on. Soon, Pozzo comes on stage with Lucky. Pozzo has Lucky on a rope and whips and chokes him when Lucky does not do as he bids. At first, Estragon mishears and thinks that it is Godot. Vladimir and Estragon are indignant at the way Pozzo treats Lucky. Pozzo eats from a basket that Lucky has brought and casts aside his chicken bones, which Estragon hungrily goes after. Pozzo tells him the bones belong to Lucky and so Estragon should ask Lucky if he wants them or not. Lucky is silent, so Estragon takes the bones.

Vladimir asks why Lucky doesn't put down his bags. Pozzo gives the strange explanation that Lucky doesn't want to because he wants to keep Pozzo around as a master. During Pozzo's explanation, Lucky starts crying and Estragon approaches Lucky to wipe his eyes, but Lucky kicks him. Pozzo thinks me may soon take his departure but asks if he can do anything for the men. Estragon would like some money, but Vladimir is ashamed of Estragon for asking. They agree instead that Lucky will entertain them by doing a dance. After Lucky dances, they decide to have Lucky to "think" and when Vladimir puts a hat on him, Lucky launches into a long stream of consciousness speech which does not stop until the hat is removed. Pozzo and Lucky depart shortly thereafter, and a boy appears as a messenger to let Vladimir and Estragon know that Godot will not be coming that night but will come tomorrow. At the close of the act, the two men decide to leave but somehow they still remain there.

Act 2: At the opening of the act, the conversation between Estragon and Vladimir suggests that Estragon has been beaten up by ten people the night before. Conversation about the motive is deflected though. Estragon seeks comfort in being together with Vladimir, and for a moment they say they are happy together, but then they wonder what comes next. They discuss conversation as a way to keep off the abyss of death. They talk about how they are unsure if they were in this same place yesterday. Vladimir suggests Estragon show him his leg wound from yesterday (when Lucky struck out at him) and Pozzo's language infects Vladimir's as he calls Estragon a pig. To pass the time further, Estragon tries on the boots that are on the stage (he isn't sure if they are his from before). Again, the men seem happy with each other for a moment, Estragon remarking: "We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?"

Estragon falls asleep, dreams, and is comforted by Vladimir when he wakes up. Vladimir never wants to hear Estragon's dreams though. They find Lucky's hat, and they go through some complicated moves in which they switch and reswitch the hats they have (Lucky's, Vladimir's, and Estragon's). Next, they "play" at Pozzo and Lucky, but as Vladimir pretends he is Lucky, Estragon goes off, suddenly thinking he's being chased. Vladimir proclaims that Godot has come but he's wrong of course. Estragon hides behind the tree, then soon comes out and says he will try not to lose his calm again. They get into an argument about who should speak first when they accidentally speak out at the same time. They shower each other with insults, culminating in Estragon calling Vladimir a "Crritic!" They make up.

Pozzo and Lucky arrive again, but this time Pozzo is blind. Pozzo falls (and can't get up), and Vladimir and Estragon talk about helping him up. Then Vladimir makes a speech about doing something "while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed." Suddenly, it seems that even their "waiting for Godot" seems purposive. Vladimir helps the fallen Pozzo, and Vladimir also falls and can't get up. He asks Estragon for help but Estragon says that he's going. Estragon stretches out his hand finally but also falls. While down, Vladimir and Estragon get annoyed with Pozzo, and Vladimir kicks Pozzo in the crotch. This seems a bit harsh and so after Pozzo crawls away, they call him back, and to pass the time, try some other names on him (specifically, Abel and Cain). Eventualyl, Vladimir and Estragon discover that they can actually get up on their own. They then help Pozzo up, and Pozzo wonders where "his menial" is so Estragon goes to fetch Lucky. Pozzo tells him to kick Lucky, and Estragon does. Pozzo doesn't remember their meeting yesterday, and he and Lucky exit.

Vladimir and Estragon are left unsure whether that was Pozzo or not. Vladimir starts to expect a sort of cycle, and when he sees the boy arrive again, he expects that the message is that Godot won't come but will come the next day. Vladimir tells the boy to tell Godot that he saw him (though this might be impossible since the boy doesn't remember him from before). Estragon is asleep during this exchange. Night falls, and Estragon wonders what would happen if they "dropped" Godot. Vladimir says that he would punish them. Again, they consider hanging themselves, but they have no rope and Estragon's belt is not strong enough. They agree to hang themselves the next day unless Godot comes and saves them. The play closes with Vladimir telling Estragon to pull his pants on, Estragon mishears him saying that he wants his pants off, but then discovers his pants are already off. They decide to go but as before, they do not move.

As many have noted, Waiting for Godot evades conventions of narrative through the lack of what would traditionally be considered "incident" in stories. There are no cause-effect links, and such questions as why they are waiting for Godot are conspicuously absent. The setting has no historical, cultural, or geographical specificity. It cannot even be said that things happen, since the characters repeatedly express their uncertainty about "yesterday." Waiting for Godot rejects plot, causality, setting, happenings, as well as any sense of the past or the future.

James H. Reid points out that Frederic Jameson's exegesis on postmodernism, though more focused on the historical effects of late stage capitalism, bears many connections to the effects explored in Beckett's Waiting for Godot: 

  • Embedded in Godot are major elements of Jameson's postmodernist discourse: negation of linear historical time and action and imprisonment within an ahistorical, saturated, and commodified discursive space. But whereas Jameson calls this spatialization a real historical totality and attributes it to a necessary ruse of  capitalist history, Godot attributes it to a purely discursive strategy that its characters construct and deconstruct" ("Allegorizing Jameson's Postmodernist Space," Romantic Review).

In other words, in Waiting for Godot the characters, through what they say (and what they don't say), create the conditions of ahistoricality which Jameson says that late capitalism produces.    

I am not sure whether or not Waiting for Godot is a kind of allegory for the postmodern condition; it seems that any such critical position on Godot is resisted by Estragon's strident denunciation of "crritics!" I guess I'll just end with something I felt about the text as I was reading: the withholding of narrative conventions didn't just seem to "annoy" me but rather I think it made the moments where narrative potentiality surfaces to be more poignant in a tragic sort of way (maybe this is where the "tragicomedy" comes in). The audience desires the "relief" of narrative, or perhaps even to give narrative to these deeply unhappy characters who keep returning to wanting to hang themselves. But of course, just as Godot, narrative just never actually comes. One such moment of narrative potentiality is at the very end, when Estragon asks what will happen if they "drop" Godot. Vladimir provides this "cause" with an "effect"--that Godot will punish them. They then decide that they will hang themselves unless Godot saves them, setting up a conditional cause-effect chain. The audience has been trained though, by the rest of the play, that Godot won't come, and that here it seems that Vladimir and Estragon, in talking about punishing and saving have confused Godot with God. The moment feels tragic, I think, because of the sudden narrative potentiality amidst a landscape where nothing can happen.

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