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October 17, 2006

What is Waiting for Godot about? David Womersley explains that Godot is not about religion, Beckett's own experiences or politics, but instead offers a conservative vision of life: Peter Hall's production of Waiting for Godot

Posted by David Womersley

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot
directed by Peter Hall
Theatre Royal Bath/The Peter Hall Company
Oxford Playhouse, Oxford
18th - 23rd September 2006

New Ambassadors Theatre, London
10th October - 18th November 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - argues that many productions of Waiting for Godot have got the play wrong. Peter Hall's production has got it right.

When Waiting for Godot was first performed in English, in 1955 under the direction of the young Peter Hall, it was greeted with incomprehension and contempt.

Flat and feeble,
said The Guardian.
A really remarkable piece of twaddle,
said Bernard Levin. Robert Morley got it right, but unwittingly and unintentionally, when he said:
I have been brooding in my bath for the last hour and have come to the conclusion that the success of Waiting for Godot means the end of theatre as we know it.
What was intended as blame, time has turned to praise. Waiting for Godot was indeed the end of theatre as Morley knew it - a fact which, amongst the play's first reviewers, only Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times was acute enough to see. So impressed was Hobson by the play that he wrote about it for seven successive weeks.

It is now both easy and hard to understand why Godot provoked such a response. This is not just a question of the edge of its newness and strangeness being taken off by the fact of its being prescribed as a set text in schools and universities, and of its thus becoming a text that launched a thousand more or less perfunctory essays. It is also that Godot now seems so direct and even so straightforward in its technique.

Like all genuinely difficult works of literature (as opposed to works of mere obscurantism), Godot's challenge to the received ideas and expectations of its first audience arose because Beckett saw human life in a new way, and allowed that new vision to dictate, with disarming directness, a new literary style. New literary styles are of course hard to assimilate, but even so some of the first reactions to the play make discouraging reading. It's said that, in the first performance, the line

Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful
provoked a cry of "Hear, hear" from a member of the audience. It is dispiriting to think that an English audience could be so smug, and also so stupid as to think that their application of the line to Godot itself had not been foreseen - indeed, deliberately planted in the play - by Beckett himself. The joke was on them.

One of the ways in which readers and audiences have tried to tame Godot is through interpretation, and the uncovering of hidden meanings. Most notoriously, a whole group of directors and critics have tried to discover a religious allegory in the play. After all, there are moments when the play addresses the question of the existence of god (for instance, in Lucky's long speech, to which I will turn in a moment), and the word "Godot" sounds a bit like God. But not in French, of course, in which language the play was originally composed - for the audience of the first French production in 1953, "Godot" would have resonated, if at all, as the name of a Belgian cyclist.

If the play can't be made to bear a religious meaning, does it perhaps reflect the circumstances of the playwright's life? Aspects of Vladimir and Estragon's predicament - the sleeping rough, the hanging around for a rendez-vous that does not occur, the reference to the "Macon country" where they are said to have been employed as grape-pickers, the unfocused sense of threat - perhaps recall Beckett's own experience in wartime France, some of which he spent as a member of the Resistance evading capture by the Nazis. But to tether the play to a particular time and place (the French countryside in the early 1940s) would be perverse, since Beckett seems to have gone out of his way to suppress any such specificity.

Does the play then have a political meaning? Pozzo's unflinching exploitation of Lucky seems to be a comment on the relations between rich and poor, but Beckett's concern seems to be less to condemn those relations, than to expose them in all their comic absurdity - a perspective in which Pozzo is hardly less well-off than Lucky.

It is to Lucky that Beckett gives the central speech of the play, several hundred words shouted out in response to Pozzo's command "Think!" It is too long to quote in full, but the opening provides a representative sample:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattman of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell . . .
What is this speech about? The key to it is not so much what Lucky says, as the fact that he never manages fully and finally to say anything. The speech dramatises the attempt to grasp a tremendous meaning or final illumination which is always just on the far side of our powers of thought and expression. And this is the central speech of the play because it is uttered from what Beckett sees as the heart of the human condition: a tragi-comic state of having intimations and expectations (the idea of expectation is of course present in the French title, En attendant Godot, but is masked in its English form) which are never fully-realised, never finally cashed out. We make a huge fuss over the trifling signs of hope which are vouchsafed to us; Vladimir is wildly encouraged by the fact that the tree on stage has sprouted a leaf (possibly an ironic recollection of the end of Tannhäuser, where the redemption of the entire world is inferred from the sprouting of the priest's staff). In the interim - and for Beckett it is all an interim - we create together moments of beauty, cruelty and humour as we pass the time. Beckett's innovations of technique have distracted people from the severe conservatism of his vision.

This is a really fine production, with excellent performances from all four actors in the main parts (a special commendation, perhaps, for Richard Dormer as Lucky). Now that it has transferred to London, theatre-goers have another chance to enjoy it, and to understand why modern English drama took the course it did in the second half of the twentieth century.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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I am researching a paper on the social perception of autism and wondered which Belgian cyclist Professor Wormesley thinks Beckett might have referred to as being known to the French Public in 1953. I have two candidates for this role both of whom were French. First, one Roger Godeau, a well known cyclist who died in 12000 aged 79 and rode before during and after WW2. Then there is the curiou Jaques Godett who was the sports journalist and Tour de France director, responsible for the failed organisation of the Tour iin 1940 Vichy France. He is alleged to have disappeared with all the paperwork before the race which then never took place.

Posted by: Dr Ron Smith at October 25, 2008 03:38 PM

'for Beckett it is all an interim - we create together moments of beauty, cruelty and humour as we pass the time.'

What a perfect description of Waiting For Godot. The only interpretation that makes any sense is to see it as a work of existentialism; life means nothing beyond what we ourselves create. Vladimir and Estragon's waiting depicts this beautifully.

Posted by: Willow at January 5, 2013 09:48 PM
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