Samuel Beckett was born near Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906 into a Protestant, middle class home. His father was a quantity surveyor and his mother worked as a nurse. At the age of 14 he was sent to the same school that Oscar Wilde attended. Beckett is known to have commented, "I had little talent for happiness." This was evidenced by his frequent bouts of depression, even as a young man. Beckett was consistent in his loneliness. The unhappy boy soon grew into an unhappy young man, often so depressed that he stayed in bed until mid afternoon. He was difficult to engage in any lengthy conversation--it took hours and lots of drinks to warm him up--but the women could not resist him. The lonely young poet, however, would not allow anyone to penetrate his solitude. He once remarked, after rejecting advances from James Joyce's daughter, that he was dead and had no feelings that were human. In 1928, Samuel Beckett moved to Paris, and the city quickly won his heart. Shortly after he arrived, a mutual friend introduced him to James Joyce, and Beckett quickly became an apostle of the older writer. At the age of 23, he wrote an essay in defense of Joyce's magnum opus against the public's lazy demand for easy comprehensibility. A year later, he won his first literary prize--10 pounds for a poem entitled Whoroscope which dealt with the philosopher Descartes meditating on the subject of time and the transiency of life. After writing a study of Proust, however, Beckett came to the conclusion that habit and routine were the "cancer of time", so he gave up his post at Trinity College and set out on a nomadic journey across Europe.
Beckett made his way through Ireland, France, England, and Germany, all the while writing poems and stories and doing odd jobs to get by. In the course of his journies, he no doubt came into contact with many tramps and wanderers, and these aquaintances would later translate into some of his finest characters. Whenever he happened to pass through Paris, he would call on Joyce, and they would have long visits, although it was rumored that they mostly sit in silence, both suffused with sadness.
Beckett finally settled down in Paris in 1937. Shortly thereafter, he was stabbed in the street by a man who had approached him asking for money. He would learn later, in the hospital, that he had a perforated lung. After his recovery, he went to visit his assailant in prison. When asked why he had attacked Beckett, the prisoner replied "Je ne sais pas, Monsieur", a phrase hauntingly reminiscent of some of the lost and confused souls that would populate the writer's later works.
During World War II, Beckett stayed in Paris--even after it had become occupied by the Germans. He joined the underground movement and fought for the resistance until 1942 when several members of his group were arrested and he was forced to flee with his French-born wife to the unoccupied zone. In 1945, after it had been liberated from the Germans, he returned to Paris and began his most prolific period as a writer. In the five years that followed, he wrote Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories, and a book of criticism.
Samuel Beckett's first play, Eleutheria, mirrors his own search for freedom, revolving around a young man's efforts to cut himself loose from his family and social obligations. His first real triumph, however, came on January 5, 1953, when Waiting for Godot premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone. In spite of some expectations to the contrary, the strange little play in which "nothing happens" became an instant success, running for four hundred performances at the Théâtre de Babylone and enjoying the critical praise of dramatists as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, Thornton Wilder, and William Saroyan who remarked, "It will make it easier for me and everyone else to write freely in the theatre." Perhaps the most famous production of Waiting for Godot, however, took place in 1957 when a company of actors from the San Francisco Actor's Workshop presented the play at the San Quentin penitentiary for an audience of over fourteen hundred convicts. Surprisingly, the production was a great success. The prisoners understood as well as Vladimir and Estragon that life means waiting, killing time and clinging to the hope that relief may be just around the corner. If not today, then perhaps tomorrow. Beckett secured his position as a master dramatist on April 3, 1957 when his second masterpiece, Endgame, premiered (in French) at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Although English was his native language, all of Beckett's major works were originally written in French--a curious phenomenon since Beckett's mother tongue was the accepted international language of the twentieth century. Apparently, however, he wanted the discipline and economy of expression that an acquired language would force upon on him. Beckett's dramatic works do not rely on the traditional elements of drama. He trades in plot, characterization, and final solution, which had hitherto been the hallmarks of drama, for a series of concrete stage images. Language is useless, for he creates a mythical universe peopled by lonely creatures who struggle vainly to express the unexpressable. His characters exist in a terrible dreamlike vacuum, overcome by an overwhelming sense of bewilderment and grief, grotesquely attempting some form of communication, then crawling on, endlessly. Beckett was the first of the absurdists to win international fame. His works have been translated into over twenty languages. This sense of depression would show up in much of his writing, especially in Waiting for Godot where it is a struggle to get through life. Waiting for Godot qualifies as one of Samuel Beckett's most famous works. Originally written in French in 1948, Beckett personally translated the play into English. The world premiere was held on January 5, 1953, in the Left Bank Theater of Babylon in Paris. The play's reputation spread slowly through word of mouth and it soon became quite famous. Other productions around the world rapidly followed. Waiting for Godot incorporates many of the themes and ideas that Beckett had previously discussed in his other writings. The use of the play format allowed Beckett to dramatize his ideas more forcefully then before, and is one of the reasons that the play is so intense. Beckett often focused on the idea of "the suffering of being." Most of the play deals with the fact that Estragon and Vladimir are waiting for something to alleviate their boredom. Godot can be understood as one of the the many things in life that people wait for.
The play has often been viewed as fundamentally existentialist in its take on life. The fact that none of the characters retain a clear mental history means that they are constantly struggling to prove their existence. Waiting for Godot is part of the Theater of the Absurd. This implies that it is meant to be irrational. Absurd theater does away with the concepts of drama, chronological plot, logical language, themes, and recognizable settings. Although very existentialist in its characterizations, Waiting for Godot is primarily about hope. The play revolves around Vladimir and Estragon and their pitiful wait for hope to arrive. At various times during the play, hope is constructed as a form of salvation, in the personages of Pozzo and Lucky, or even as death. The subject of the play quickly becomes an example of how to pass the time in a situation which offers no hope. Thus the theme of the play is set by the beginning:
Estragon: Nothing to be done.
Vladimir: I'm beginning to come round to that opinion.
Although the phrase is used in connection to Estragon's boots here, it is also later used by Vladimir with respect to his hat. Essentially it describes the hopelessness of their lives.
A direct result of this hopelessness is the daily struggle to pass the time. Thus, most of the play is dedicated to devising games which will help them pass the time. This mutual desire also addresses the question of why they stay together. Both Vladimir and Estragon admit to being happier when apart. One of the main reasons that they continue their relationship is that they need one another to pass the time. After Pozzo and Lucky leave for the first time they comment:
V: That passed the time.
E: It would have passed in any case.
And later when Estragon finds his boots again:
V: What about trying them.
E: I've tried everything.
V: No, I mean the boots.
E: Would that be a good thing?
V: It'd pass the time. I assure you, it'd be an occupation.
Since passing the time is their mutual occupation, Estragon struggles to find games to help them accomplish their goal. Thus they engage in insulting one another and in asking each other questions.
The difficulty for Beckett of keeping a dialogue running for so long is overcome by making his characters forget everything. Estragon cannot remember anything past what was said immediately prior to his lines. Vladimir, although possessing a better memory, distrusts what he remembers. And since Vladimir cannot rely on Estragon to remind him of things, he too exists in a state of forgetfulness.
Another second reason for why they are together arises from the existentialism of their forgetfulness. Since Estragon cannot remember anything, he needs Vladimir to tell him his history. It is as if Vladimir is establishing Estragon's identity by remembering for him. Estragon also serves as a reminder for Vladimir of all the things they have done together. Thus both men serve to remind the other man of his very existence. This is necessary since no one else in the play ever remembers them:
Vladimir: We met yesterday. (Silence) Do you
Pozzo: I don't remember having met anyone yesterday. But to-morrow I won't remember having met anyone to-day. So don't count on me to enlighten you.
Later on the same thing happens with the boy who claims to have never seen them before. This lack of reassurance about their very existence makes it all the more necessary that they remember each other.
Estragon and Vladimir are not only talking to pass the time, but also to avoid the voices that arise out of the silence. Beckett's heroes in other works are also constantly assailed by voices which arise out of the silence, so this is a continuation of a theme the author uses frequently:
E: In the meantime let's try and converse
calmly, since we're incapable of keeping silent.
V: You're right, we're inexhaustible.
E: It's so we won't think.
V: We have that excuse.
E: It's so we won't hear.
V: We have our reasons.
E: All the dead voices.
V: They make a noise like wings.
E: Like leaves.
V: Like sand.
E: Like leaves.
V: They all speak at once.
E: Each one to itself.
V: Rather they whisper.
E: They rustle.
V: They murmur.
E: The rustle.
V: What do they say?
E: They talk about their lives.
V: To have lived is not enough for them.
E: They have to talk about it.
V: To be dead is not enough for them.
E: It is not sufficient.
V: They make a noise like feathers.
E: Like leaves.
V: Like ashes.
E: Like leaves.
V: Say something!
One of the questions which must be answered is why the bums are suffering in the first place. This can only be answered through the concept of original sin. To be born is to be a sinner, and thus man is condemned to suffer. The only way to escape the suffering is to repent or to die. Thus Vladimir recalls the thieves crucified with Christ in the first act:
V: One of the thieves was saved. It's a
reasonable percentage. (Pause.) Gogo.
V: Suppose we repented.
E: Repented what?
V: Oh . . . (He reflects.) We wouldn't have to go into the details.
E: Our being born?
Failing to repent, they sit and wait for Godot to come and save them. In the meantime they contemplate suicide as another way of escaping their hopelessness. Estragon wants them to hang themselves from the tree, but both he and Vladimir find it would be too risky. This apathy, which is a result of their age, leads them to remember a time when Estragon almost succeeded in killing himself:
E: Do you remember the day I threw myself
into the Rhone?
V: We were grape harvesting.
E: You fished me out.
V: That's all dead and buried.
E: My clothes dried in the sun.
V: There's no good harking back on that. Come on.
Beckett is believed to have said that the name Godot comes from the French "godillot" meaning a military boot. Beckett fought in the war and so spending long periods of time waiting for messages to arrive would have been commonplace for him. The more common interpretation that it might mean "God" is almost certainly wrong. Beckett apparently stated that if he had meant "God," he would have written "God". The concept of the passage of time leads to a general irony. Each minute spent waiting brings death one step closer to the characters and makes the arrival of Godot less likely. The passage of time is evidenced by the tree which has grown leaves, possibly indicating a change of seasons. Pozzo and Lucky are also transformed by time since Pozzo goes blind and Lucky mute. There are numerous interpretation of Waiting for Godot and a few are described here:
religious interpretations posit Vladimir and Estragon as humanity waiting for the elusive return of a savior. This Marxist interpretation is understandable given that in the second act Pozzo is blind to what is happening around him and Lucky is mute to protest his treatment. The play has also been understood as an allegory for Franco-German relations.
All of Beckett's major works were written in French. He believed that French forced him to be more disciplined and to use the language more wisely. However, Waiting for Godot was eventually translated into the English by Beckett himself.
Samuel Beckett also became one of the first absurdist playwrites to win international fame. His works have been translated into over twenty languages. In 1969 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the few times this century that almost everyone agreed the recipient deserved it. He continued to write until his death in 1989, but towards the end he remarked that each word seemed to him "an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness."
There is also a split between the intellect and the body within the work. Thus Vladimir represents the intellect and Estragon the body, both of whom cannot exist without the other. The setting is in the evening on a country road with a single tree present. Estragon is trying to pull off his boot, but without success. Vladimir enters and greets Estragon, who informs him that he has spent the night in a ditch where he was beaten. With supreme effort Estragon succeeds in pulling off his boot. He then looks inside it to see if there is anything there while Vladimir does the same with his hat.
Vladimir mentions the two thieves who were crucified next to Christ. He asks Estragon if he knows the Gospels. Estragon gives a short description of the maps of the Holy Land at which point Vladimir tells him he should have been a poet. Estragon points to his tattered clothes and says he was. Vladimir continues with his narrative about the two thieves in order to pass the time.
Estragon wants to leave but Vladimir forces him to stay because they are both waiting for Godot to arrive. Neither of the two bums knows when Godot will appear, or even if they are at the right place. Later it is revealed that they do not even know what they originally asked Godot for.
Estragon gets bored of waiting and suggests that they pass the time by hanging themselves from the tree. They both like the idea but cannot decide who should go first. They are afraid that if one of them dies the other might be left alone. In the end they decide it is safer to wait until Godot arrives.
Estragon asks Vladimir whether they still have rights. Vladimir indicates that they got rid of them. He then fears that he hears something, but it turns out to be imaginary noises. Vladimir soon gives Estragon a carrot to eat.
Pozzo and Lucky arrive. Lucky has a rope tied around his neck and is carrying a stool, a basket, a bag and a greatcoat. Pozzo carries a whip which he uses to control Lucky. Estragon immediately confuses Pozzo with Godot which gets Pozzo upset.
Pozzo spends several minutes ordering Lucky around. Lucky is completely silent and obeys like a machine. Pozzo has Lucky put down the stool and open the basket of food which contains chicken. Pozzo then eats the chicken and throws away the bones. Lucky stands in a stooped posture holding the bags after each command has been completed and appears to be falling asleep.
Estragon and Vladimir go to inspect Lucky who intrigues them. They ask why he never puts his bags down. Pozzo will not tell them, so Estragon proceeds to ask if he can have the chicken bones that Pozzo has been throwing away. Pozzo tells him that they technically belong to Lucky. When they ask Lucky if he wants them, he does not reply, so Estragon is given the bones.
Pozzo eventually tells them why Lucky hold the bags the entire time. He thinks it is because Lucky is afraid of being given away. While Pozzo tells them why Lucky continues to carry his bags, Lucky starts to weep. Estragon goes to wipe away the tears but receives a terrible kick in the shin.
Pozzo then tells them that he and Lucky have been together nearly sixty years. Vladimir is appalled at the treatment of Lucky who appears to be such a faithful servant. Pozzo explains that he cannot bear it any longer because Lucky is such a burden. Later Vladimir yells at Lucky that it is appalling the way he treats such a good master.
Pozzo then gives an oratory about the night sky. He asks them how it was and they tell him it was quite a good speech. Pozzo is ecstatic at the encouragement and offers to do something for them. Estragon immediately asks for ten francs but Vladimir tells him to be silent. Pozzo offers to have Lucky dance and then think for them.
Lucky dances for them and when asked for an encore repeats the entire dance step for step. Estragon is unimpressed but almost falls trying to imitate it. They then make Lucky think. What follows is an outpouring of religious and political doctrine which always starts ideas but never brings them to completion. The three men finally wrestle Lucky to the ground and yank off his hat at which point he stops speaking. His last word is, "unfinished."
The men then spend some effort trying to get Lucky to wake up again. He finally reawakens when the bags are placed in his hand. Pozzo gets up to leave and he and Lucky depart the scene. Vladimir and Estragon return to their seats and continue waiting for Godot.
A young boy arrives having been sent by Mr. Godot. Estragon is outraged that it took him so long to arrive and scares him. Vladimir cut him off and asks the boy if he remembers him. The boy says this is his first time coming to meet them and that Mr. Godot will not be able to come today but perhaps tomorrow. The boy is sent away with the instructions to tell Mr. Godot that he has seen them. Both Estragon and Vladimir discuss past events and then decide to depart for the night. Neither of them moves from his seat.
Summary of Act II
The setting is the next day at the same time. Estragon's boots and Lucky's hat are still on the stage. Vladimir enters and starts to sing until Estragon shows up barefoot. Estragon is upset that Vladimir was singing and happy even though he was not there. Both admit that they feel better when alone but convince themselves they are happy when together. They are still waiting for Godot.
Estragon and Vladimir poetically talk about "all the dead voices" they hear. They are haunted by voices in the sounds of nature, especially of the leaves rustling. Vladimir shouts at Estragon to help him not hear the voices anymore. Estragon tries and finally decides that they should ask each other questions. They manage to talk for a short while.
Estragon has forgotten everything that took place the day before. He has forgotten all about Pozzo and Lucky as well as the fact that he wanted to hang himself from the tree. He cannot remember his boots and thinks they must be someone else's. For some reason they fit him now when he tries them on. The tree has sprouted leaves since the night before and Estragon comments that it must be spring. But when Vladimir looks at Estragon's shin, it is still pussy and bleeding from where Lucky kicked him.
Soon they are done talking and try to find another topic for discussion. Vladimir finds Lucky's hat and tries it on. He and Estragon spend a while trading hats until Vladimir throws his own had on the ground and asks how he looks. They then decide to play at being Pozzo and Lucky, but to no avail. Estragon leaves only to immediately return panting. He says that they are coming. Vladimir thinks that it must be Godot who is coming to save them. He then becomes afraid and tries to hide Estragon behind the tree, which is too small to hide him.
The conversation then degenerates into abusive phrases. Estragon says, "That's the idea, let's abuse each other." They continue to hurl insults at one another until Estragon calls Vladimir a critic. They embrace and continue waiting.