Marjorie Perloff

Published by American Conservatory Theory, October 2003

Jan Kott: “We do [Brecht] when we want Fantasy. When we want
Realism, we do ‘Waiting for Godot’.”

What can the great Polish dramaturge have meant by this seemingly perverse statement? One usually thinks of Brecht’s political theatre, with its topical plots, Marxist themes and historical characters like Galileo or Hitler (Arturo Ui) as “realistic,” whereas Beckett’s “circus” play in which, as hostile critics have put it, “nothing happens twice,” is known for its abstraction, its verbal repetition, its fantasy, and refusal to make “sense”? When Waiting for Godot opened at the Théatre Babylone in Paris exactly fifty years ago (5 January 1953), it was primarily viewed as an existentialist, philosophical drama about the incomprehensibility of a universe in which man waits for a sign that never comes. Even today, Beckett’s alternately hilarious and heart-breaking play tends to be read as allegory: the vaudeville “plot,” in which the two “tramps” Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) argue, reconcile, tell tall tales, contemplate hanging themselves from the tree which is the stage’s one prop, and eat carrots, all the while “waiting” for the mysterious Mr. Godot (if that is in fact his name) to come, is construed as everything from medieval morality play to Freudian psychodrama about regression and sublimation.

Beckett himself consistently refused to provide explanations of this or any of his plays, even though, paradoxically, he kept close control over the text, refusing directors and actors much leeway as to interpretation. When the director Alan Schneider asked him, “Who or what does Godot mean?”, he replied, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” He cautioned those who were quick to see Godot as a symbol for God—a Deus Absconditus who never reveals himself to the world–that there were “ No Symbols where non intended,” as he put it succinctly on the last page of his comic novel Watt, written a few years earlier. Indeed, in its first version, Beckett’s play was called simply En attendant so as to deflect attention from the object of the wait to the process of waiting itself.

But waiting in what sense? Half a century after the first production, of Beckett’s extraordinary play—now a classic produced around the world from Korea to Kosovo—what may strike us most forcibly is not its absurdity —although of course the dialogue is full of wonderfully absurd twists and turns—but its realism . The first critic to have understood this was Hugh Kenner, who took a hard, pragmatic look at Beckett’s play within the actual context of its historical moment:

Two men waiting, for another whom they know only by an implausible name which may not be his real name. A ravaged and blasted landscape. A world that was ampler and more open once, but is permeated with pointlessness now. Mysterious dispensers of beatings. A man of property and his servant, in flight. And the anxiety of the two who wait, their anxiety to be as inconspicuous as possible in a strange environment . . . where their mere presence is likely to cause remark. It is curious how readers and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of this play, that it resembles France occupied by the Germans, in which its author spent the war years. How much waiting must have gone on in that bleak world; how many times must Resistance operatives . . . have kept appointments not knowing whom they were to meet. . . . We can easily see why a Pozzo would be unnerving. . . . He may be a Gestapo official clumsily disguised. Here is perhaps the playwright’s most remarkable feat. There existed, throughout a whole country, for five years, a literal situation that corresponded point by point with the situation in this play. . . and no spectator ever thinks of it.

I cite Kenner’s passage at length because it makes what is, I think, the crucial point about Waiting for Godot. The play’s situation is wholly realistic: it takes its subject matter directly from Beckett’s activities in the French Resistance during World War II. But, great artist that he is, Beckett has transmuted this material so fully, has endowed each situation with such profound resonance, that this great war play—so superior to the didactic and ideological “war literature” of the 1940s and 50s– emerges as a parable of the human condition as well.

First the particulars. When war broke out in 1940, Beckett was in Foxcroft, visiting his family. As a neutral alien, he could easily have sat out the war in Ireland; but he immediately rushed back to Paris, where he had lived for the past decade, and was one of the first to join the then fledgling Resistance. He later said he felt he had to help his Jewish friends who were already being persecuted. His particular cell Gloria, sponsored by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive), was an information network, whose main job was to copy and translate documents about Axis troop movements and relay them to Allied headquarters in London. The messages were transmitted on microfilm (often hidden in the bottom of matchboxes) and were coded, using such bland statements as “Uncle Jacques has lost his umbrella” or extracts from popular songs and classical poems.

An adequate “cut-out” system, as it was called, meant that most individual members of the line knew at most only two telephone numbers or places of rendezvous so that, if they were caught by the enemy, they couldn’t implicate more than one or two people. Members were referred to only by their pseudonyms, Beckett’s being “Sam” or l’Irlandais.” Thus the “cut-out,” seated, say, on a particular park bench, would wait for his contact and then make a brief statement in code. But, from the first, the Resistance cells were threatened by double agents, and in August 1942, Gloria was exposed and Beckett and his companion Suzanne had to flee to the Unoccupied Zone. After a hair-raising trip South, during which they slept in ditches, rather like Vladimir and Estragon, they settled in the little village of Roussillon in the Vaucluse, where they were to live out the two-and-a half years until the Armistice. In Roussillon, Beckett continued his Resistance activities, and to cover his tracks and make a little money, worked during the day for various farmers, harvesting wine grapes and potatoes. One such farmer named Bonnelli appears in the French version of Godot, where Vladimir insists to a skeptical Estragon, “Pourtant nous avons été ensemble dans le Vaucluse . . . . Nous avons fait les vendages, tiens, chez un nommé Bonnelly, à Roussillon.” [“And yet we were together in the Vaucluse. Yes, we were picking grapes for a man called Bonnelly at Roussillon.”] This passage is changed in the English version, where Vladimir merely refers to “the Maçon country” and tells a skeptical Estragon, “But we were there together, I could swear to it! Picking grapes for a man called . . . (he snaps his fingers) . . . can’t think of the name of the man, at a place called . . . snaps his fingers) . . . can’t think of the name of the place, do you not remember?”

The Roussillon years were characterized by the curious mix of danger and boredom known only in wartime. Communication with strangers (and everyone but Suzanne was a stranger to Beckett here) was always coded or at least guarded: one could trust no one even as one worked with “cut-outs” referred by friends in other places. Mostly, the time was spent waiting—waiting for the war to be over. When it ended in 1945, Beckett briefly returned to Ireland to see his family but then returned, not to Paris, which was still out of bounds to aliens at the time, but to Saint-Lô in Normandy, where he worked in a Red Cross hospital and witnessed at first hand the terrible devastation of the French countryside. Only in 1946, did he return to Paris and began what has been called the “siege in the room”—the astonishingly fruitful period when Beckett shut himself up in his old apartment on the Rue de Favorites, and produced, in a few short years what he was never able to do as a young man—the great body of work that includes the trilogy of novels–Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable— as well as Waiting for Godot. In the earliest version of the play, the character now called Estragon was called Levi and was obviously a Jew.

In revising Godot, Beckett kept the basic motive, derived from his daily conversations in Roussillon with Suzanne and various townspeople, but removed the specificity of reference that would limit the drama’s range. We have, then, two “tramps,” who, despite their vaudeville antics, aren’t really tramps at all, their speech being studded with references to Shelley and Yeats, the Gospels and St. Augustine, and who, when they want to really insult one another, use scientific nomenclature like Estragon’s “Gonococcus! Spirochete!”, or again, when they get tired of holding up the sick and blind Pozzo, declare, “We are not caryatids!” Have Didi and Gogo been together for years, or have they only met recently? Are they close friends or mere working colleagues? We never know for sure any more than we later know whether they’ve ever met Pozzo before or whether the country road and tree of Act II is the same as that of Act I. We only know that the two have been told to wait at a particular spot (but is this the right spot?) for a man called Godot, although they’re not even sure of his name. When Pozzo enters, the tramps first take him for Godot and even when the illusion is dispelled, identities continue to be confused, especially in their second meeting, when Pozzo is revealed to be blind and Lucky mute. Or was the latter always mute except for his totally preposterous scholastic disquisition on “divine aphasia” and the “Anthropopometry of Essy-in-Possy.”

Waiting becomes, in Beckett’s hands, both the cross the “tramps” have to bear and their greatest opportunity for amusement and entertainment. When Pozzo and Lucky finally quit the scene in Act I, Vladimir says, “That passed the time.” Estragon responds, “It would have passed in any case.” To which Vladimir replies drily, “Yes, but not so rapidly.” This, one might say, is the audience’s condition as well. What keeps us at the edge of our seats is that nothing ever turns out as we thought it would be and so we constantly have to revise our impressions. At the beginning of Act I, Didi seems to be the more aggressive of the two, Gogo more passive and emotional. But later Gogo gets lines that should by all accounts have been Didi’s. Indeed, in keeping with the play’s realism, the two characters have no fixed traits that they exhibit consistently; as in life, their actions and words repeatedly surprise us. Even Pozzo, the slave-master, Capitalist landlord, strongman, or bully, sometimes sounds just like Didi or Gogo.

Waiting for Godot provides no answers to the riddle of human existence. It merely asks the hard questions. And yet paradoxically, this inscrutable drama is anything but formless or chaotic; it is as tightly structured as a Beethoven sonata. “I take no sides,” Beckett once remarked, “I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. . . ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.”

It is a shape that requires total humility on the part of the artist. Over the past half century, Beckett has had countless imitators, but Waiting for Godot has remained wholly unique.