Waiting for Godot has given rise to a lot of controversy. Critics have not been able to reach any kind of agreement about this play. Beckett himself did not offer much help to critics so far as their efforts to interpret the play were concerned. There have been plenty of both favourable and unfavourable commentaries on this work.
The majority of commentators have been concerned with the religious problems suggested by the play, and many have offered an existential interpretation of it. One critic, for instance, urges a distinction between “nihilistic existentialism” and Christian existentialism, and asserts that the latter offers one of the essential keys to Beckett’s play. Kierkegaard has been pointed out as a shaping influence on Beckett. But most other critics who have acknowledged the existentialist in the play seem to favour the Sartrean interpretation. The vision of man in this play, it has been said, is similar to the Sartrean analysis of the “others”, namely the view that life is a perpetual series of rebounds, in which man is constantly thrown back into his solitude. Another critic, agreeing with this view, speaks of the “existentialist comedy”, in the play. Another critic observes: “Waiting for Godot exactly fulfils Sartre’s definition of an existentialist play as one which sets out to present the contemporary situation in its full horror so that the audience, finding it unendurable, may feel forced to remedy it.”
The supposed existentialism in the play is somewhat qualified by a critic according to whom Beckett’s characters, unlike Sartre’s, are never “en situation.” This critic also introduces the word, “absurdity.” Two other critics, in their essay “To Wait or Not to Wait,” begin their discussion by defining the absurd in convincing detail and relating the notion to this play. This view is indebted to Martin Esslin’s book called Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin accepts the philosophies of Sartre and Camus as being basic to Waiting for Godot, but is careful to indicate that the plays of these two French dramatists are markedly different from Beckett’s play: the difference is in the form. The texture of Waiting for Godot, with all its dramatic irregularities, mirrors its ideological base, whereas the plays of Sartre and Camus remain formally very staid and traditional. Esslin’s position has been further qualified by Ruby Conn who refers to the presence in the play of “the absurdly Absurd”: “In this play form and content, absurdity and Absurdity, are organically interrelated; in this play there is coalescence of the Absurd, being-in-the world, and the human condition.”
The critics who have adopted the existentialist or “absurdist” interpretation have raised some of the questions with which the “New Theologians” have been involved. One ecclesiastic brought to the fore a controversy in the church about God’s divinity, thus emphasising a revolutionary position already maintained by a few others. The secularised waste-land of Beckett’s play, with its theme of futile waiting, offers a convincing metaphor for this revolution in the church. If we read Beckett’s play as a farce about God’s absence from this world, we shall find ourselves in the secularised climate described by the ecclesiastic referred to above.
According to one of the critics, the suggestions of a remote theological being fail to attract the inhabitants of Beckett’s world. This view is carried further by Ruby Cohn who says that Beckett mocks the whole classico-Christian tradition in this play. A yet more aggressive view is that those who profess to see in Beckett signs of a Christian approach or signs of compassion are simply refusing to see what is there. The view of critics of this category may be summed up in the words: “God is dead.”
The critics holding the opposite view are represented by G.S Fraser who took the unpopular position of reading Waiting for Godot as a modern morality play on permanent Christian themes. In Eraser’s opinion, Godot stands for an anthropomorphic image of God. The symbols of the tree and the rags worn by the tramps have a distinctly Christian relevance for Fraser. He mentions Waiting for Godot in the same breath as Everyman and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Another critic, agreeing essentially with Fraser’s position, has suggested that Godot does indeed come in the shape of Pozzo (and Lucky). Yet another critic restates the Christian basis of the play, insisting on its Biblical aspects. He agrees with Fraser that the tree, which puts forth leaves in Act II of the play, represents the Cross. He also goes a little further by saying: “That for which Gogo and Didi wait does arrive. It is they who missed the appointment.” Another critic of this category calls the play “a religious allegory”; another thinks of the play as a parable, calling it “the anti-mystery play of our time, one of the few experimental dramas in which Christ has won out over Oedipus as well as Priapus and Narcissus”. Even Martin Esslin, after stating the Sartrean position, comes around to admit the play’s “basically religious quality”. Several other critics reinforce the critical stand which gives the play a religious or Biblical reading. It has even been said that “to a reader completely ignorant of the Gospels and the Mass a heavy proportion of Beckett would be totally lost”. The two extreme views—one advocating, and the other rejecting, a Christian or religious approach—are typical of the range of interpretation possible in treating this play.
The source of the title of the play has aroused a greater controversy than anything else connected with it. An earlier version of the play was simply called “Waiting”. Martin Esslin holds the view that the subject of the play is not Godot but waiting. There is a general agreement that Godot is of less importance in the play than waiting, but the source of the word Godot has excited much curiosity. Beckett himself was of little help and, when asked about the meaning of Godot, he replied. “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” One of the critics, wishing to pinpoint the foolishness of trying to identify Godot too closely, said: “Godot is that character for whom two tramps are waiting at the edge of a road, and who does not come”. Yet those hunting for the meaning of “Godot” have ignored the advice offered by this critic and by Beckett himself, and have displayed much ingenuity in interpreting the word “Godot”. It has been said, for instance, that the word has been formed from the English “God” and the French “eau” (which means “water”). It has also been said that “Godo” is spoken-Irish for God. Hugh Kenner has connected the name with his famous theory of the “Cartesian centaur” by mentioning the name of a French racing cyclist whose last name was Godeau.
The source for the full title of the play has caused similar anxiety. The most convincing suggestion in this case comes from Eric Bentley who traces the title to Balzac’s play Mercadet. In Balzac’s play, the return of a person named Godeau is anxiously awaited; the frustration of waiting is as much a part of Balzac’s play as it is of Beckett’s. Martin Esslin has heartily endorsed Bentley’s suggestion and so have several other commentators. According to another suggestion, the title of Beckett’s play comes from Simone Weil’s play Waiting for God. It has been pointed out that Beckett and Simone Weil knew each other well and that Beckett’s play appeared a year after the publication of Simone Weil’s. The influence of Weil on Beckett is thus a distinct possibility. If this view be accepted, then Waiting for Godot can be understood as a religious allegory with the catechism provided by Simone Weil. According to yet another view, the source of the title for Beckett’s play was Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. It is believed that the name “Odets” might itself have suggested to Beckett the name “Godot”. There is still another possibility Beckett’s title may have its source in Tom Kromer’s book called Waiting for Nothing. There are some striking similarities between Beckett’s play and Chapter 11 of Kromer’s book. Here are some of Kromer’s remarks: “Where are they going? I do not know. They do not know”. “We are here. We are here because we have no other place to go.” “What is a day to us, or a month or a year? We are not going to any place”. “I can still walk. That is something”. Beckett’s play seems to have caught something of the tone of these remarks.
Robbe-Grillet in his book discards the various critical interpretations that had been current among the critics: the root word “God” concealed in “Godot”; Godot as the “earthly ideal of a better social order”; Pozzo as the dictator or exploiter “who keeps thought enslaved”; Godot as death or as silence; and Godot as “that inaccessible self that Beckett pursues in all his works. After this inventory of rejected views, Robbe-Grillet develops what remains: the “less than nothing”, the “regression beyond nothing”, whose stages are identified. “What little had been given to us from the start—and which seemed to be nothing—is soon corrupted before our eyes, degraded further, like Pozzo who returns deprived of sight, dragged on by Lucky deprived of speech.” In this general disintegration, the climax occurs when the three or four characters, having all fallen to the ground upon each other, create a formless mass from which
’s voice emerges, saying: “We are men !” Vladimir
Nothing, continues Robbe-Grillet, escapes the destructive force of this regression: neither speech—torn to pieces in the rhetoric of Pozzo’s monologue on twilight—nor thought which is undermined and destroyed by a whole series of absurd reasonings as well as by such passages as the “explanation given by Pozzo when Estragon asks why Lucky does not put down his bags, or the great monologue of Lucky “thinking.” (In this speech by Lucky not only does logic mock itself but it proves that the only honest logic that can be applied nowadays to serious problems merely succeeds in causing a still further regression of that feeble support of contemporary man, his thinking intelligence).
Another matter of concern for the critics has been the structure of Waiting for Godot. Eric Bentley has spoken of its being “undramatic but highly theatrical”. Bentley somewhat modifies this view when he says subsequently that he would speak of it “not as undramatic, but as a parody of the dramatic”. (“Parody” is an apt word in a discussion of Beckett because most of his work represents an -elaborate mixture of every variety of intellectual exercise—from philosophical systems to music-hall comedy).
Another critic, Ruby Cohn, is particularly interested in Beckett’s notion of “symmetry to suggest a static design”. This critic skilfully shows how Beckett’s dramatic method eventually ends “in the destruction of the very symmetries he has created”. Ruby Cohn dismisses the possibility of dividing this play into Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. Another critic feels that it is the “asymmetrical structure” of this play which accounts for all its power.
The Unities specified by Aristotle have engaged the attention of a number of critics who have commented on Waiting for Godot. One critic points out that the close adherence of this play to the three Unities is a clue to the play’s dramaturgy. According to another critic, Greek drama is one of the forerunners of this play. Yet another critic says: “The form of the play is rigorous and classical, observing all Unities”. However, the voice of dissent is not wanting in this respect. According to one such voice, the Unities in this play are more apparent than real.
The nature of this play also calls for comment. Beckett himself described the play as a tragi-comedy. Several critics have accepted this label for the play and have pointed out the “constant simultaneity of tragedy and comedy” in this play. One critic speaks of it as being “part tragedy, part comedy. Its barrenness situates the tragedy. The construct makes possible the comedy”. Ruby Cohn connects Beckett’s use of the label with Sir Philip Sidney’s “mongrel tragi-comedy” mentioned in his famous defence of poetry.
Very little has been said by critics about the modest play-within-a-play in Waiting for Godot. When Estragon and Vladimir decide, in the midst of an oppressive time of boredom to play at being Pozzo and Lucky, we are not far from Act II of Henry IV (Part I), when Prince Hal and Falstaff decide to have a mock conversation in the royal manner of King Henry addressing the wayward Hal, who is heir to the throne.
Much attention has been given to the difference between
and Estragon. The most common solution is to regard Vladimir as the soul and Estragon as the body (in good Cartesian fashion). Ruby Cohn partly rejects this too-simple interpretation and shows that the mental Vladimir (with his hat and bad breath) and the physical Estragon (with his boots and stinking feet) keep their identities fairly separate in Act I but tend to merge in Act II. This critic points to the increasing “disintegration of the dichotomy” as the play develops. Vladimir
Critics differ widely on Pozzo and Lucky. According to one interpretation, these two men represent master and slave. According to other interpretations, Pozzo and Lucky symbolise the relationship between capital and labour, or between wealth and the artist. Another view, stated by Lionel Abel, is that Pozzo represents James Joyce while Lucky represents Samuel Beckett. One of the critics says that Pozzo is no other than Godot himself. According to this view, “Godot is God, Pozzo is Godot, Pozzo is therefore God, and since Pozzo is nothing but a tyrant and a slave-driver so too is God”. Another critic convincingly characterises Pozzo as the God of the Old Testament, the tyrant-divinity in Act I, and the New Testament God, injured, crucified, helpless, in Act II. On the other extreme from this view is the opinion that Pozzo is a kind of anti-Godot. One critic is convinced that Pozzo cannot possibly be Godot; this critic speaks of “this Pozzo who is precisely nor Godot”.
One commentator has expressed the curious view that Waiting for Godot is all about impotence, and he feels that Lucky holds the key to this play, especially in his long monologue. This critic is convinced that
and Estragon have destroyed their chances of finding Godot because “they have abused the link which is Lucky”. He even suggests the possibility that Lucky himself may be Godot. Another critic comes close to this view by saying: “Pozzo’s menial, Lucky, in some ways suggests the Biblical figure of the Christ.” Vladimir