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  • Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot: a play about literature

'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett, first performed in 1953, is arguably a play confronting post-modern thinking about the unbridgeable gap between literature and reality. With this idea, the lack of objective meaning in the play is necessary, and through that, it embraces its own form as a fictional piece of theatre that cannot represent reality. Aspasia Velssariou's theory, that language is Beckett's 'central and crucial concern' in his play, as the work is defined by the awareness of the limits of language, can therefore be used as an answer to criticism of the lack of inherent meaning in the play. Arguably, the meaning of the play is that there is necessarily no meaning, which one could argue is little different from all pieces of literature, even if the writers themselves aren't aware of it.

Beckett questions what counts as 'literature', or even 'art' and arguably confronts the overarching similarity of all works if none can point to reality. As Chris Sandford conveys, Beckett rejected 'all that had previously been accepted as part and parcel of mainstream theatre', and reached a consciously artistic level. Beckett subverts the idea of traditional tragedy, especially the Aristotelian importance of plot, since 'nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes'. Moreover, the dialogue is often meaningless, in which Estragon's quotes such as 'that’s the idea, let's ask each other questions' is a way to fill the duration of the play instead of to display an interesting plotline. Moreover, the intertextuality, with allusions to other theatre works such as Shakespeare's Hamlet, in Vladimir's quotation 'that is not the question. What we are doing here, that is the question', points to traditional and plot-driven pieces of theatre to highlight the opposing form of 'Waiting for Godot'. In one way, this questions what constitutes as 'art', and is linear with post-modern thinking which went against distinctions of 'high' and 'low' art. With this idea, by pointing and subverting to other conventions of theatre or traditions, it questions whether conventions or characteristics of theatre (such as Aristotelian importance of plot) should define its value, and with that, questions whether Beckett's plotless play is any different from these traditional ancient Greek or Shakespearean works, since they all are based on the common ground that art cannot represent reality, whatever that piece of art contains.

The post-modern awareness of the failure of language to represent reality, as it only points to itself, overshadows Beckett's play. As Velssariou is aware, Beckett not only recognizes the complex relationship between language and the real world but he 'preserves' this gap between them, in that Beckett's drama 'does not pretend to convey the essence of things'. This separation between art and reality is conveyed through conforming to the post-modern trope of the consciousness of the fact the play is a piece of art. Since language cannot point towards reality, which Aspasia Velissariou argues is the central message of the play, then art only reflects and points towards itself. This awareness of itself is conveyed through the following stichomythic exchange:

VLADIMIR: Charming evening we’re having.

ESTRAGON: Unforgettable.

VLADIMIR: And it’s not over.

ESTRAGON: Apparently not.

VLADIMIR: It’s only beginning.

ESTRAGON: It’s awful.

VLADIMIR: Worse than the pantomime.

ESTRAGON: The circus.

VLADIMIR: The music-hall.

ESTRAGON: The circus

With this consciousness of the piece of art, the play itself conveys the lack of autonomy the characters have against the fact it is a play. In this reading, the characters are not only powerless against the characteristics of a play being for entertainment, but their role in the plot is dependent on failing to meet with Godot. Primarily, the fact they are powerless against one of the purposes of a play being for entertainment is conveyed through Estragon's claim 'we are incapable of keeping silent'. This conveys that due to this being a piece of artwork, the characters have to create an artificial representation of reality for the purpose of entertainment. More interestingly, however, is the fact the characters are powerless against the title of the piece of art: 'waiting'. This entrapment of the characters that it causes is shown from the end of the play's 'yes, let's go' followed by the stage direction ['they do not move. Curtain.'] This lack of movement conveys not only that since they are fictional characters, they can only exist on stage, but in this specific play they can only be 'waiting'. If they went off stage, they would no longer be fitting the present-tense nature of the title. Their position on stage: waiting for Godot, becomes eternal. Moreover, the present tense title 'Waiting for Godot' also means that their roles in the play as 'waiting' (Estragon and Vladimir) and 'waited for' (Godot) are necessarily static. Velissariou expresses this in a Sausserian sense, in that Vladimir and Estragon are the binary opposition of Godot, as their existence and definitions are based on the existence of each other, just as the definitions of the words 'absence' and 'presence' are. They are referential to each other, therefore Godot must never be 'found' as this would break the definitions of each of the characters in the play. With this theory, the characters are not only powerless against the present tense title ('waiting'), but also the definitions of their characters. Overall, not only is Beckett aware of the unbridgeable gap between language and reality, but also points to the gap between pieces of art as a whole and reality, since it necessarily cannot express daily experience since art is bound to a different purpose altogether: broadly speaking: to entertain, along with the more prominent specific purposes of that certain play, in this case, arguably to show eternal waiting (to fulfil the title), and plot functions are selected on that basis. It confronts that a piece of artwork not only can never represent reality but that its purpose is never to represent reality. Art is selective, as Paul Cobley urges, and one could argue this is due to the fact the specific piece of art's purpose drives the plot conventions as well as the characters actions and speech, meaning that the play is an expression of that purpose instead of a drive to represent pure reality itself.

This quality of art being not defined by an intention to represent reality also points to a larger definition of art that Beckett confronts: the lack of objective meaning. The lack of clear or single meaning in the play conveys in itself that a piece of art cannot point towards one objective reality. This conveys a post-structuralist awareness of the arbitrariness, ambiguity and depth of meaning that characterises language: in that it can necessarily never point to one objective meaning. Therefore, even if the plot and characters are driven by a 'purpose', namely the writers, the language itself cannot point towards a single purpose and instead has a multitude of meanings. The play itself is aware of this fact, and arguably wanted to convey it through its ambiguous pot, as Sir Tom Stoppard observes 'the play is a universal metaphor precisely because it wasn't designed as being a metaphor for anything in particular.' The fact the play highlights the ambiguity of meaning is further conveyed through Sir Peter Hall's observation, who directed and worked with Beckett, that "if you said 'what does that line mean?' he'd take the book and say 'what does it say?'". This points to the fact the play highlights this inherent characteristic of meaning being dependent on the language rather than a writers intention. Since language cannot express objective meaning about reality, meaning, which is created from language, ('what does it say?'), is also arbitrary and dependent upon a personal interpretation of the language. This is not to say that any interpretation is valid, as arguably productions such as Tamiya Kuriyama's in 1980 in which there were multiple pairs of Vladimir and Estragon is an adaption rather than interpretation: in that there is little evidence in the text for it, but instead it merely conveys that the meaning of both individual lines and the play as a whole is necessarily not objective since it is made up of language. Therefore, even if the intention of a piece of art drives the plot devices, that intention of the author is never the single interpretation of the piece of art, as language itself has a multitude of meanings and one can only reach an interpretation of a text through the language on the page.

Overall, Beckett's play emphasizes the separation of literature and reality. Beckett conveys the characteristics of plays to confirm this thesis. The fact the characters and plot are tied to the title conveys the selectivity of a piece of literature, and this selectivity itself conveys that art cannot represent pure reality. Moreover, the lack of meaning that the play provides is a comment on the fact that literature is made up of language. If one agrees with the fact language has a multitude of meanings, then literature necessarily cannot be bound to one interpretation. These characteristics of art shape the fact that it is distinct from reality. This is not a negative feature of literature, as it can be eternally used to express points about reality without trying to represent the essence of it. Moreover, the importance of interpretation gives autonomy to the reader and creates art not to be bound by a time or place. In a Lacanian sense, language is its own existence with its own unconscious, and therefore art, including Beckett's play, will eternally be open to a mass of interpretations, just as Estragon and Vladimir will eternally be waiting for Godot.

All articles on the site are written by Daisy L-Paterson


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