Print this page

A Week to Remember: Waiting for Godot

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of Waiting for Godot performance by Bert Lahr and E. G. Marshall

On January 5, 1953, the first full production of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot took place in Paris. The play has become a theatrical landmark, despite—or perhaps because of—its cryptic nature.

Waiting for Godot (e-book | e-audio | print) doesn't have much plot. Two somewhat tattered men, Vladimir and Estragon, talk, banter, and argue as they wait for Godot. They have been waiting for some time—it's unclear exactly how long—and they aren't even sure they're waiting in the right place. Their conversation is briefly interrupted by the arrival of Pozzo and his much-abused servant, Lucky, who delivers a long, rambling, increasingly confused monologue. Vladimir and Estragon are left alone again; they continue to talk until a boy arrives to tell them that Godot will not be coming today, "but surely tomorrow." The second act is set on the following day, and is largely a repetition of the first; some large portions of dialogue are repeated, with minor variations. And at the end, once again, Godot is not coming.

A short version of the play had been performed on radio in February 1952, and Beckett's script had been published in October 1952. The critical response to the first staged production was generally positive, though audiences seemed to be more baffled by the play.

The play's ambiguities and refusal to explain the situation—who are these characters, why are they waiting, who are they waiting for—has led to a wide range of interpretations. Waiting for Godot has been read as an allegory about the French Resistance during World War II; a Freudian drama in which Vladimir, Estragon, and Godot represent the id, the ego, and the superego; an existential statement of futility in an uncaring world; and a Christian tale about the importance of patience and acceptance.

English-speaking audiences may have been more likely to read the play as a religious statement because of the resemblance between the words "Godot" and "God." But Beckett originally wrote the play in French, where the word for "God" is "Dieu," and En attendant Godot doesn't have the same religious resonance for French speakers.

The English-language premiere, in Beckett's own translation, took place in London in 1955. The play reached the United States later that year, in a touring production that was intended to reach Broadway. The early part of the tour was a disaster; Miami audiences walked out of the play in such numbers that cab drivers began waiting in front of the theater at intermission, rather than at the end of the play. The tour was canceled midway through, and Waiting for Godot didn't get to New York until the spring of 1956.

When it did arrive, though, the critics were kind, with particular praise for the performances of Bert Lahr and E. G. Marshall as Estragon and Vladimir. Audiences remained perplexed, but the play was a large enough cultural phenomenon that a cast recording was released, a rarity for a non-musical play.

Beckett was reluctant to allow film or television productions of Waiting for Godot, particularly after seeing a 1961 BBC television production. He found the small screen too confining for the play, saying, "my play was written for small men locked in a big space."

The play continues to be performed around the world and tends to attract fine actors. The banter between Vladimir and Estragon is frequently reminiscent of vaudeville routines, and comedians are often drawn to the roles. Broadway revivals, for example, have featured Steve Martin and Robin Williams (in 1988), and Nathan Lane and John Goodman (in 2009). The most recent Broadway production in 2013 starred Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart; the documentary TV series Theatreland followed McKellen and Stewart as they prepared for a London production of the play a few years earlier.

Also This Week

January 3, 1853

Solomon Northup regained his freedom after twelve years in slavery. Northup was a free-born African American from northern New York. He was a talented musician; in 1841, he traveled to Washington, DC for a performance. While there, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. After he was freed, the men who kidnapped and sold him were located, but in Washington, black men were not legally allowed to testify against white men, so the kidnappers were never punished. Northup's memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was adapted for television in 1984, and for an Oscar-winning movie in 2013.

January 2, 1909

Barry Goldwater was born. Goldwater was a conservative senator from Arizona and the Republican presidential nominee in 1964. He lost that election to Lyndon B. Johnson, winning only six states, but his campaign was a major factor in the revitalization of American conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s. After Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, political writer George Will said that it had taken 16 years to count the votes from 1964, and Goldwater had finally won. Rick Perlstein looks at Goldwater's career and influence on American politics in Before the Storm (e-book | e-audio | print).

January 5, 1941

Hayao Miyazaki was born. Miyazaki is a Japanese filmmaker, widely considered one of the world's great animators. His protagonists are often self-sufficient young women, and their conflicts are morally complex, rarely reduced to simple battles between good and evil. Three of Miyazaki's films—Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and The Wind Rises—have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and Spirited Away won the award. He announced his retirement in 2013 but has since revealed that he is working on a new film, to be released in 2019 or 2020.

January 3, 1973

Dan Harmon was born. Harmon is a television writer, best known as the creator of Community and (with Justin Roiland) Rick and Morty. The documentary Harmontown follows Harmon and his colleagues as they tour the country, recording new episodes of Harmon's improvisational comedy podcast (also called Harmontown) with live audiences.