Samuel Beckett’s experimentalist play premiered almost exactly 60 years ago, on January 5 1953, in the Theatre de Babylone in Montparnasse, Paris, to an audience of thirty critics. The author was 46 at the time, had been publishing for close to 20 years, had fought against Nazi occupation in the French resistance and had earned relative recognition with his second novel, Malone, published in 1951. This, however, was to be his debut on the stage. And what a debut it turned out to be.
Perhaps the most widely recognized of all Absurdist plays, Waiting for Godot’s plot is so simple it defies summing up. Because the kernel of this story, if indeed it has one, is already given away in its title: all the protagonists ever do is wait. Which, of course, is very different to what is often claimed in relation to the play, namely that it is piece in which nothing ever happens.
And yet, it would be simplistic to say that Waiting for Godot is about the act of waiting, or even about the two protagonists’ specific wait. Much in the same fashion as Beckett’s play progressively raises question after question about basic and usually undisputed precepts of our daily lives, any attempts to characterize the piece are met with the same stages of scrutiny: so, the plot—what happens—boils down to a wait; but often what happens is not what a piece is about (a film in which two people get married might be about marriage, but it can also be about love, infidelity, divorce, and so on). And if Waiting for Godot is not about the waiting, then what is it about? That, of course, is the million-dollar question.
Interpretations revolving around this issue range widely with people saying the play is about anything from God to hope to fear to life. And, of course, there is an element of each of those things in the script, although arguably not enough, and certainly not explicitly enough, to assert with any conviction that any one of these things is definitely what Beckett had in mind when he wrote the play. Which is only lucky, because the prospects of watching a play about fear, or life, where the only thing that ever happens is two guys wait for something to happen strikes as a positively dubious pleasure.
And yet, Waiting for Godot has been the source of tremendous amounts of interest, and acclaim, but also of sincere joy for over 60 years, now. One of the main reasons for that is precisely Beckett’s ability to strike exactly the perfect balance between specific concerns and vague statements. The line he treads in the process in impossibly fine, but somehow that is the greatest expression of his genius: carving a path that is just sufficiently deep to capture the audience and yet ambiguous enough to avoid political, religious and any other sort of idiosyncratic brandishing.
Beckett’s masterwork was neither the first piece of its kind, nor was it considered to be a major landmark at the time. These days Waiting for Godot is heralded as the greatest expression of what is termed the Theatre of Absurd, a term that would not be coined until some years after Beckett’s play first came to light. But the roots, the origins, and indeed some of the most important Absurdist plays had already been written when Waiting for Godot was first performed. And yet, with the possible exception of a handful of productions, Beckett’s piece stands out as the most accomplished example of the style. But wherein lies the infatuation with a play about which so little can be ascertained—not its plot, not its subject, not even its meaning?
While the term Theater of the Absurd is intrinsically connected to the intellectual environment found in Paris immediately after World War II (though an Irishman, Beckett lived in Paris for a long time, and originally wrote a substantial amount of his work, including Waiting for Godot, in French), experimentalist drama akin to that of Beckett’s, of Ionescu’s, of Genet’s had been going on for a long before. From Alfred Jarry’s explorations of the dramatic space to Wyndham Lewis’ impossibly complicated and dynamic The Enemy of the Stars, there are dozens of candidates prior to Waiting for Godot that could claim a similarly iconic place in the history of western drama, and which simply do not transcend in the same way. But why?
A very simple answer to this question is just because they’re not as good. Which begs the very complicated question, what makes Waiting for Godot so much better? The answer is as ambiguous as it is complex, because no one individual element makes it great. But part of the answer we have touched upon already in the fact that the play is simultaneously open-ended and specific enough for it to identify particular issues and at the same time not to align itself too closely to any given ideology.
Another part of the answer certainly must be the humorous tone of what Beckett himself described as a tragicomedy. The importance of the smile that is drawn on the audience throughout the agony of the protagonists cannot be overemphasized, because it is precisely the comedic portion of the piece which generates the distance necessary for the viewer to recognize the representational value of the production. In this process empathy becomes the pivotal concept, as spectators come to share the feelings expressed by the protagonists without necessarily understanding the circumstances that have led to the surfacing of such feelings.
But perhaps the most successful dramatic element of Waiting for Godot is the inventiveness with which Beckett makes use of the stage, combining aspects of mimicry, minimalist design and traditional acting to exploit in full the visual connection with the audience. Challenging as it is, Waiting for Godot constantly engages and often entertains an audience that equally often is left in the dark as to what is actually going on.
This would be remarkable in itself, but it becomes even more extraordinary when you consider the sort of questions Beckett raises, sometimes very explicitly, in his text—from the relation between action, intention and non-action, to outright challenges of the notions of knowledge and belief, intimations into the nature of fears and expectations, and—perhaps crucially, who knows—the recurrent question of what to do next.
Precisely that is the concern that has served as unifying principle to cast a wide lot of different works and playwrights together under the tag of Theater of the Absurd, which in turn makes reference to Albert Camus’ use of the term “Absurd” in his edifying and epoch defining philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. In a nutshell, the argument renders human effort futile, because our destiny has already been defined by external factors. The problem is that because we don’t know what the outcome of it all will be, we are forced to continue striving for the best possible result. Didi and Gogo, the protagonists in Waiting for Godot, strive through inaction, because they think the best they can do is suspend all judgment until the arrival of Godot. Except they can’t be sure whether he will come or not. Hence, all their impulses are stifled by a sense of expectation that takes the audience through the whole spectrum of emotions, from hope to exasperation, disappointment and, ultimately, also joy. All of that through the course of a little over an hour and with a script of roughly 10,000 words. Anyone who can communicate so much so easily deserves to be celebrated for a lot longer than sixty years—and there is little doubt Samuel Beckett will.