The play opens with the character Estragon struggling to remove his boot from his foot. Estragon eventually gives up, muttering, "Nothing to be done." His friend Vladimir takes up the thought and muses on it, the implication being that nothing is a thing that has to be done and this pair is going to have to spend the rest of the play doing it. When Estragon finally succeeds in removing his boot, he looks and feels inside but finds nothing. Just prior to this, Vladimir peers into his hat. The motif recurs throughout in the play.
The pair discusses repentance, particularly in relation to the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus, and the fact that only one of the four Evangelists mentions that one of them was saved. This is the first of numerous Biblical references in the play, which may be linked to its putative central theme of the search for and reconciliation with God, as well as salvation: "We're saved!" they cry on more than one occasion when they feel that Godot may be near.
Presently, Vladimir expresses his frustration with Estragon's limited conversational skills: "Come on, Gogo, return the ball, can't you, once in a way?". Estragon struggles in this regard throughout the play, and Vladimir generally takes the lead in their dialogue and encounters with others. Vladimir is at times hostile towards his companion, but in general they are close, frequently embracing and supporting one another.
Estragon peers out into the audience and comments on the bleakness of his surroundings. He wants to depart but is told that they cannot because they must wait for Godot. The pair cannot agree, however, on whether or not they are in the right place or that this is the arranged day for their meeting with Godot; indeed, they are not even sure what day it is. Throughout the play, experienced time is attenuated, fractured or eerily non-existent. The only thing that they are fairly sure about is that they are to meet at a tree: there is one nearby.
Estragon dozes off, but Vladimir is not interested in hearing about his dream after rousing him. Estragon wants to hear an old joke about a brothel, which Vladimir starts but cannot finish, as he is suddenly compelled to rush off and urinate. He does not finish the story when he returns, asking Estragon instead what else they might do to pass the time. Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, the idea being that this may give them erections, but they quickly abandon the idea when it seems that they might not both die: this would leave one of them alone, an intolerable notion. They decide to do nothing: "It's safer," explains Estragon, before asking what Godot is going to do for them when he arrives. For once it is Vladimir who struggles to remember: "Oh ... nothing very definite," is the best that he can manage.
When Estragon declares that he is hungry, Vladimir provides a carrot, most of which, and without much relish, the former eats. The diversion ends as it began, Estragon announcing that they still have nothing to do.
Their waiting is interrupted by the passing through of Pozzo and his heavily-laden slave Lucky, who may, according to Beckett, "shatter the space of the play". Pozzo and Lucky have been seen to represent a sort of double of Vladimir and Estragon, with similar roles, anxieties and incertitudes. At one point, Vladimir observes that they are "tied to Godot" as Lucky is tied to Pozzo. Vladimir also refers to Estragon as a "pig" several times later in the play, echoing Pozzo's abuse of Lucky.
"A terrible cry from the wings heralds the initial entrance of Lucky, who has a rope tied around his neck. He crosses half the stage before his master appears holding the other end. Pozzo barks orders at his slave and frequently calls him a "pig", but is civil towards the other two. They mistake him at first for Godot and clearly do not recognise him for the self-proclaimed personage he is. This irks him, but, while maintaining that the land that they are on is his, he acknowledges that "[t]he road is free to all".
Deciding to rest for a while, Pozzo enjoys a pre-packed meal of chicken and wine. Finished, he casts the bones aside, and Estragon jumps at the chance to ask for them, much to Vladimir's embarrassment, but is told that they belong to the carrier. He must, therefore, ask Lucky first. Estragon tries, but Lucky only hangs his head, refusing to answer. Taking this as a "no", Estragon claims the bones.
Vladimir takes Pozzo to task regarding his mistreatment of his slave, but his protestations are ignored. When the original pairing tries to find out why Lucky does not put down his load (at least not unless his master is prevailing on him to do something else), Pozzo explains that Lucky is attempting to mollify him to prevent him from selling him. At this, Lucky begins to cry. Pozzo provides a handkerchief, but, when Estragon tries to wipe his tears away, Lucky kicks him in the shins.
Before he leaves, Pozzo asks if he can do anything for the pair in exchange for the consort that they have accorded him. Estragon tries to ask for some money, but Vladimir cuts him short, explaining that they are not beggars. They nevertheless accept an offer to have Lucky dance and think.
The dance is clumsy and shuffling, and everyone is disappointed. Lucky's "think", induced by Vladimir's putting his hat on his head, is a lengthy and disjointed verbal stream of consciousness. The soliloquy begins relatively coherently but quickly dissolves into logorrhoea — the rubble of a collapsing house of intellect — and only ends when a het-up Vladimir, on the advice of a bored Pozzo, rips off Lucky's hat.
The soliloquy is full of classical references, as well as words that are distorted versions of ordinary words, slang and vulgar speech — "Belcher" as "belch", "Fartov" as "fart", "Testew" as "testes", "Cunard" as "cunt", "possy" as "pussy" and "Feckham" as "fuck him". These words, although crude, describe normal human functions, which in some ways bring the discourse "down to earth". They also, however, represent or indicate a disordered and disintegrating mind, one perhaps disturbed by too much waiting.
Some other unusual words include "apathia", which is synonymous with "apathy"; "aphasia", the loss of ability to understand or to express speech owing to brain damage; and "athambia", the meaning of which has been subject to debate, but which may be broadly interpreted, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as "imperturbability". The implication may be that God is unfeeling, unseeing and inattentive. Also repeated is the word "quaquaqua", which may simply be meaningless sound, but which is similar to "quaquaversal", which means "pointing in every direction", appropriate to Lucky's roundabout discourse.
Broadly speaking, Lucky's speech falls into four gambits: "the first describes an impersonal and callous God, the second asserts that man 'wastes and pines', the third mourns an inhospitable earth and the last attempts to draw the threads of the speech together by claiming that man diminishes in a world that does not nurture him. It may be summarized as follows:
[A]cknowledging the existence of a personal God, one who exists outside time and who loves us dearly and who suffers with those who are plunged into torment, it is established beyond all doubt that man for reasons unknown, has left his labours, abandoned, unfinished.
Once Lucky has been revived, Pozzo has him pack up his things and, together, they leave. At the end of the act (and its successor), a boy arrives, purporting to be a messenger sent from Godot, to advise the pair that he will not be coming that "evening but surely tomorrow. During Vladimir's interrogation of the boy, he asks if he came the day before, making it apparent that the two men have been waiting for an indefinite period and will likely continue to wait ad infinitum. After the boy departs, they decide to leave but make no attempt to do so, an action repeated in Act II, as the curtain is drawn.
Act II opens with Vladimir singing a round about a dog which serves to illustrate the cyclical nature of the play’s universe, and also points toward the play's debt to the carnivalesque, music hall traditions and vaudeville comedy (this is only one of a number of canine references and allusions in the play). There is a bit of realization on Vladimir's part that the world they are trapped in evinces convoluted progression (or lack thereof) of time. He begins to see that although there is notional evidence of linear progression, basically he is living the same day over and over. Eugene Webb writes of Vladimir's song that “Time in the song is not a linear sequence, but an endlessly reiterated moment, the content of which is only one eternal event: death.”
Once again Estragon maintains he spent the night in a ditch and was beaten – by “ten of them” this time – though once again he shows no sign of injury. Vladimir tries to talk to him about what appears to be a seasonal change in the tree and the proceedings of the day before, but he has only a vague recollection. Vladimir tries to get Estragon to remember Pozzo and Lucky but all he can call to mind are the bones and getting kicked. Vladimir realizes here an opportunity to produce tangible evidence of the previous day's events. With some difficulty he gets Estragon to show him his leg. There is a wound which is beginning to fester. It is then Vladimir notices that Estragon is not wearing any boots.
He discovers the pair of boots, which Estragon insists are not his. Nevertheless, when he tries them on they fit. There being no carrots left, Vladimir offers Estragon the choice between a turnip and a radish. He opts for the radish but it is black and he hands it back. He decides to try and sleep again and adopts the same fetal position as the previous day. Vladimir sings him a lullaby.
Vladimir notices Lucky’s hat, and he decides to try it on. This leads to a frenetic hat swapping scene (which was mimicked by Harold Pinter in The Caretaker). They play at imitating Pozzo and Lucky, but Estragon can barely remember having met them and simply does what Vladimir asks. They fire insults at each other and then make up. After that, they attempt some physical jerks which don’t work out well, and even attempt a single yoga position, which fails miserably.
Pozzo and Lucky then arrive, with Pozzo now blind and insisting that Lucky is dumb. The rope is now much shorter and Lucky – who has acquired a new hat – leads Pozzo, rather than being driven by him. Pozzo has lost all notion of time, and assures them he cannot remember meeting them the day before, and that he does not expect to remember the current day’s events when they are over.
They fall in a heap at one point. Estragon sees an opportunity to extort more food or to exact revenge on Lucky for kicking him. The issue is debated at length. Pozzo offers them money but Vladimir sees more worth in their entertainment value since they are compelled to wait to see if Godot arrives anyway. Eventually though, they all find their way onto their feet.
Whereas the Pozzo in Act I is a windbag, since he has become blind he appears to have gained some insight. His parting words – which Vladimir expands upon later – eloquently encapsulate the brevity of human existence: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Lucky and Pozzo depart. The same boy returns to inform them not to expect Godot today, but he would arrive the next day. The two again consider suicide but their rope, Estragon’s belt, breaks in two when they tug on it. Estragon's trousers fall down, but he doesn’t notice till Vladimir tells him to pull them up. They resolve to bring a more suitable piece and hang themselves the next day, if Godot fails to arrive.
Again, they agree to leave but neither of them makes any move to go.
Beckett refrained from elaborating on the characters beyond what he had written in the play. He once recalled them when Sir Ralph Richardson “wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir … I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.”
When Beckett started writing he did not have a visual image of Vladimir and Estragon. They are never referred to as tramps in the text. Roger Blin advises: “Beckett heard their voices, but he couldn’t describe his characters to me. [He said]: ‘The only thing I’m sure of is that they’re wearing bowlers.’” “The bowler hat was of course de rigueur for male persons in many social contexts when Beckett was growing up in Foxrock (when he first came back with his beret … his mother suggested that he was letting the family down by not wearing a bowler), and [his father] commonly wore one.” There are no physical descriptions of either of the two characters however the text indicates that Vladimir is likely the heavier of the pair. They have been together for fifty years but when asked – by Pozzo – they don’t reveal their actual ages.
Vladimir stands through most of the play whereas Estragon sits down numerous times and even dozes off. “Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless.” Vladimir looks at the sky and muses on religious or philosophical matters. Estragon literally “belongs to the stone”, preoccupied with mundane things, what he can get to eat and how to ease his physical aches and pains; he is direct, intuitive. He finds it hard to remember but can recall certain things when prompted, e.g. when Vladimir asks: “Do you remember the Gospels?” Estragon tells him about the coloured maps of the Holy Land and that he planned to honeymoon by the Dead Sea; it is his short-term memory that is poorest and points to the fact that he may, in fact, be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Al Alvarez writes. “But perhaps Estragon’s forgetfulness is the cement binding their relationship together. He continually forgets, Vladimir continually reminds him; between them they pass the time.”
Vladimir’s life is not without its discomforts too but he is the more resilient of the pair. “Vladimir's pain is primarily mental anguish, which would thus account for his voluntary exchange of his hat for Lucky's, thus signifying Vladimir's symbolic desire for another person's thoughts.”
Throughout the play the couple refer to each other by pet names, “Didi” and “Gogo” although one of the boys addresses Vladimir as “Mister Albert”. Beckett originally intended to call Estragon, Lévy but when Pozzo questions him he gives his name as “Magrégor, André” and also responds to “Catulle” in French or “Catullus” in the first Faber edition. This became “Adam” in the American edition. Beckett’s only explanation was that he was “fed up with Catullus”.
Vivian Mercier – famous for describing Waiting for Godot as a play which “has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." (Irish Times, 18 February, 1956, p. 6.) – once questioned Beckett on the language used by the pair: “It seemed to me … he made Didi and Gogo sound as if they had earned Ph.D.’s. ‘How do you know they hadn’t?’ was his reply.” They clearly have known better times, a visit to the Eiffel Tower and grape-harvesting by the Rhône; it is about all either has to say about their pasts. In the first stage production, which Beckett oversaw, both are “more shabby-genteel than ragged … Vladimir at least is capable of being scandalised … on a matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money.”
Although Beckett refused to be drawn on the backgrounds of the characters this has not stopped actors looking for their own motivation. Jean Martin had a doctor friend called Marthe Gautier, who was working at the Salpêtrièe Hospital, and he said to her: “‘Listen, Marthe, what could I find that would provide some kind of physiological explanation for a voice like the one written in the text?’ [She] said: ‘Well, it might be a good idea if you went to see the people who have Parkinson's disease.’ So I asked her about the disease … She explained how it begins with a trembling, which gets more and more noticeable, until later the patient can no longer speak without the voice shaking. So I said, ‘That sounds exactly what I need.’” “Sam and Roger were not entirely convinced by my interpretation but had no objections.” When he explained to Beckett that he was playing Lucky as if he were suffering from Parkinson’s, Beckett said, “‘Yes, of course.’ He mentioned briefly that his mother had had Parkinson’s, but quickly moved on to another subject.”
“When Beckett was asked why Lucky was so named, he replied, “I suppose he is lucky to have no more expectations…”
Although it has been contended that "Pozzo and Lucky are simply Didi and Gogo writ large there is a different kind of dynamic at work here. Pozzo may be mistaken for Godot by the two men but, as far as Lucky goes, Pozzo is his Godot, another way in which he is lucky. Their association is not as clear cut as it first seems however for “upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that Lucky always possessed more influence in the relationship, for he danced, and more importantly, thought – not as a service, but in order to fill a vacant need of Pozzo: he committed all of these acts for Pozzo. As such, since the first appearance of the duo, the true slave had always been Pozzo.” Pozzo credits Lucky with having given him all the culture, refinement, and ability to reason that he possesses. His rhetoric has been learned by rote. Pozzo’s ‘party piece’ on the sky is a case in point, as his memory crumbles he finds himself unable to continue under his own steam.
We learn very little about Pozzo besides the fact that he is on his way to the fair to sell his slave, Lucky. He presents himself very much as the Ascendancy landlord, bullying and conceited. His pipe is made by Kapp and Peterson, Dublin’s best-known tobacconists (their slogan was ‘The thinking man’s pipe’) which he refers to as a “briar” but which Estragon calls a “dudeen” emphasising the differences in their social standing. He confesses to a poor memory but it is more a result of an abiding self-absorption. “Pozzo is a character who has to overcompensate. That’s why he overdoes things … and his overcompensation has to do with a deep insecurity in him. These were things Beckett said, psychological terms he used.”
Pozzo controls Lucky by means of an extremely long rope which he jerks and tugs if Lucky is the least bit slow. Lucky is the absolutely subservient slave of Pozzo and he unquestioningly does his every bidding with “dog-like devotion”. ‘Lucky’ is a dog’s name. He struggles with a heavy suitcase without ever thinking of dropping it. Lucky speaks only once in the play and it is a result of Pozzo's order to “think” for Estragon and Vladimir. Pozzo and Lucky had been together for sixty years and, in that time, their relationship has deteriorated. Lucky has always been the intellectually superior but now, with age, he has become an object of contempt: his “think” is a caricature of intellectual thought and his “dance” is a sorry sight. Despite his horrid treatment at Pozzo's hand however, Lucky remains completely faithful to him. Even in the second act when Pozzo has inexplicably gone blind, and needs to be led by Lucky rather than driving him as he had done before, Lucky remains faithful and has not tried to run away; they are clearly bound together by more than a piece of rope in the same way that Didi and Gogo are “[t]ied to Godot”. Beckett’s advice to the American director Alan Schneider was: “[Pozzo] is a hypomaniac and the only way to play him is to play him mad.”
“In his [English] translation … Beckett struggled to retain the French atmosphere as much as possible, so that he delegated all the English names and places to Lucky, whose own name, he thought, suggested such a correlation.”
The cast list specifies only one boy.
The boy in Act I, a local lad, assures Vladimir that this is the first time he has seen him. He says he was not there the previous day. He confirms he works for Mr Godot as a goat herder. His brother, who coincidentally Godot beats, is a shepherd. Godot feeds both of them and allows them to sleep in his hayloft.
The boy in Act II also assures Vladimir that it was not he who called upon them the day before. He insists that this too is his first visit. When Vladimir asks what Godot does the boy tells him; “He does nothing, sir.” We also learn he has a white beard – possibly, the boy is not certain. This boy also has a brother who it seems is sick but there is no clear evidence to suggest that his brother is the boy that came in Act I or the one who came the day before that.
The identity of Godot has been the subject of much debate. “When Colin Duckworth asked Beckett point-blank whether Pozzo was Godot, the author replied: ‘No. It is just implied in the text, but it's not true.’”
“When Roger Blin asked him who or what Godot stood for, Beckett replied that it suggested itself to him by the slang word for boot in French, godillot, godasse because feet play such a prominent role in the play. This is the explanation he has given most often.”
“Beckett said to Peter Woodthorpe that he regretted calling the absent character ‘Godot’, because of all the theories involving God to which this had given rise. “I also told [Ralph] Richardson that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly.” That said, Beckett did once concede, “It would be fatuous of me to pretend that I am not aware of the meanings attached to the word ‘Godot’, and the opinion of many that it means ‘God’. But you must remember – I wrote the play in French, and if I did have that meaning in my mind, it was somewhere in my unconscious and I was not overtly aware of it.” “Beckett has often stressed the strong unconscious impulses that partly control his writing; he has even spoken of being ‘in a trance’ when he writes.”
What if Godot were to arrive? The play suggests that were this to happen only one of the two tramps would benefit. Of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus only one was saved, of the two boys who work for Godot only one appears safe from beatings, “Beckett [even] said, only half-jokingly, that [only] one of Estragon’s feet was saved”; it is perhaps better for the pair of them that he does not come.
The name "Godot" is pronounced in Britain and Ireland with the emphasis on the first syllable (i.e. /'gɒ.dəʊ/); in North America it is usually pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable (i.e. /gə'doʊ/). Beckett himself said the emphasis should be on the first syllable, and that the North American pronunciation is a mistake.
There is only one scene throughout both acts. Two men are waiting on a country road by a tree. The script calls for Estragon to sit on a low mound but in practice – as in Beckett’s own 1975 German production – this is usually a stone. In the first act the tree is bare. In the second, a few leaves have appeared despite the script specifying that it is the next day. The minimal description calls to mind “the idea of the ‘lieu vague’, a location which should not be particularised”.
Alan Schneider once suggested putting the play on in a round – Pozzo has often been commented on as a ringmaster – but Beckett dissuaded him: “I don’t in my ignorance agree with the round and feel Godot needs a very closed box.” He once even contemplated at one point have “faint shadow of bars on stage floor” but, in the end, decided against this level of what he called “explicitation”. (See Beckett in Berlin) In his 1975 Schiller-Theatre production there are times when Didi and Gogo appear to bounce off something “like birds trapped in the strands of [an invisible] net”, to use James Knowlson’s description. Didi and Gogo are only trapped because they still cling to the concept that freedom is possible; freedom is a state of mind, so is imprisonment.
I cannot explain my plays. Each must find out for himself what is meant.|||Samuel Beckett|
Throughout the work one can find religious, philosophical, classical, psychoanalytical and biographical – especially wartime – references, there are ritualistic aspects and elements literally lifted from vaudeville and there is a danger in making more of these than what they are, merely structural conveniences, avatars into which the writer places his fictional characters. The play “exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos.” Beckett makes this point emphatically clear in the opening notes to Film: “No truth value attaches to the above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience.” He made another important remark to Lawrence Harvey, saying that his “work does not depend on experience – [it is] not a record of experience. Of course you use it.”
Waiting for Godot also illustrates an attitude toward man's experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in mind and art of the absurdist. If Godot is God, then Didi and Gogo's (mankind's) faith in God is not only subject to doubt, but may also have almost entirely disappeared. Yet the illusion of faith--that deeply embedded hope that Godot might come--still flickers in the minds of Vladimir and Estragon. It is almost as if the faith of these two men has been tested to such extremes that they can perfectly well see the logic of renouncing it--but they cannot completely.
Beckett tired quickly of “the endless misunderstanding.” As far back as 1955 he said “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.” However, he has not been forthcoming with anything more than cryptic clues. “Peter Woodthrope [who played Estragon] remembered asking him one day in a taxi what the play was really about: ‘It’s all symbiosis, Peter; it’s symbiosis,’ answered Beckett.”
Beckett directed the play for the Schiller-Theatre in 1975. Although he had overseen many productions this was the first time he took complete control; Walter Asmus was his conscientious, young assistant director. “The production was not naturalistic. Beckett explained:
Over the years, Beckett clearly realised that the greater part of Godot’s success was down to the fact that it was open to a variety of readings and that this was not necessarily a bad thing. Beckett himself sanctioned “one of the most famous mixed-race productions of Godot to be performed at the Baxter Theatre in the University of Cape Town, directed by Donald Howarth, with … two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, playing Didi and Gogo; Pozzo, dressed in checked shirt and gumboots reminiscent of an Afrikaaner landlord, and Lucky (‘a shanty town piece of white trash’) were played by two white actors, Bill Flynn and Peter Piccolo … The Baxter production has often been portrayed as if it were an explicitly political production, when in fact it received very little emphasis. What such a reaction showed, however, was that, although the play can in no way be taken as a political allegory, there are elements that are relevant to any local situation in which one man is being exploited or oppressed by another.”
Other interpretations abound.
Beckett was not open to every new approach to his work and he famously objected when, in the 1980s several women’s acting companies began staging the play. “Women don’t have prostates,” said Beckett, a reference to the fact that Vladimir frequently has to leave the stage to urinate on account of his enlarged prostate. In 1988 he took a Dutch theatre company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur to court over this issue. “Beckett … lost his case. But the issue of gender seemed to him to be so vital a distinction for a playwright to make that he reacted angrily, instituting a ban on all productions of his plays in The Netherlands.” In 1991 “Judge Huguette Le Foyer de Costil ruled that the production would not cause excessive damage to Beckett's legacy” and the play was performed by the all-female cast of the Brut de Beton Theater Company at the prestigious Avignon Festival. The Italian Pontedera Theatre Foundation won a similar claim in 2006 when they replaced Vladimir and Estragon with two female actors albeit playing the roles as males. A 2001 production at Indiana University staged the play with women playing Pozzo and the Boy.
“[I]t was Beckett’s escape from the increasingly despotic interiority of the fictional trilogy; in Beckett’s own phrasing, ‘I began to write Godot as a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time.’” It was inspired, according to Beckett himself, by a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Ruby Cohn recalls seeing the painting, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon of 1824, along with Beckett who “announced unequivocally, ‘This was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.’” “He may well have confused two paintings since, at other times, he drew the attention of friends to Two Men Contemplating the Moon from 1819, in which two men dressed in cloaks and viewed from the rear are looking at a full moon framed by the black branches of a large, leafless tree.” In either case both paintings are similar enough that what he attested to could apply equally to either. However, some sources point to conversations between Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and Beckett in Roussillon as the inspiration for the work. Beckett admitted such in a New York Post interview by Jerry Tallmer
“[O]n 17th February 1952 … an abridged version of the play was performed in the studio of the Club d’Essai de la Radio and was broadcast on [French] radio … [A]lthough he sent a polite note that Roger Blin read out, Beckett himself did not turn up.” Part of his introduction reads:
The Minuit edition appeared in print on 17th October 1952 in advance of the play’s first full theatrical performance. On January 4th 1953, “[t]hirty reviewers came to the générale of En attendant Godot before the public opening … Contrary to later legend, the reviewers were kind … Some dozen reviews in daily newspapers range[d] from tolerant to enthusiastic ... Reviews in the weeklies [were] longer and more fervent; moreover, they appeared in time to lure spectators to that first thirty-day run” which began on 5th January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Early public performances were not, however, without incident: during one performance “the curtain had to be brought down after Lucky’s monologue as twenty, well-dressed, but disgruntled spectators whistled and hooted derisively … One of the protesters [even] wrote a vituperative letter dated 2nd February 1953 to Le Monde.”
The cast comprised Pierre Latour (Estragon), Lucien Raimbourg (Vladimir), Jean Martin (Lucky) and Roger Blin (Pozzo). The actor due to play Pozzo found a more remunerative role and so the director – a shy, lean man in real life – had to step in and play the stout bombaster himself with a pillow amplifying his stomach. Both boys were played by Serge Lecointe. The entire production was done on the thinnest of shoestring budgets; the large battered valise that Martin carried “was found among the city’s refuse by the husband of the theatre dresser on his rounds as he worked clearing the dustbins,” for example.
A particularly significant production – from Beckett’s perspective – took place in Lüttringhausen Prison near Wuppertal in Germany. An inmate obtained a copy of the French first edition, translated it himself into German and obtained permission to stage the play. The first night had been on 29th November 1953. He wrote to Beckett in October 1954: “You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps.” Beckett was intensely moved and intended to visit the prison to see a last performance of the play but it never happened. This marked “the beginning of Beckett’s enduring links with prisons and prisoners … He took a tremendous interest in productions of his plays performed in prisons … He [even] gave [Rick Cluchey] a former prisoner from San Quentin financial and moral support over a period of many years.” Cluchey played Vladimir in two productions in the former Gallows room of the San Quentin California State Prison, which had been converted into a 65-seat theatre and, like the German prisoner before him, went on to work on a variety of Beckett’s plays after his release.
The English-language premiere was on 3rd August 1955 at the Arts Theatre, London, directed by the 24-year-old Peter Hall Again, the printed version preceded it (New York: Grove Press, 1954) but Faber’s “mutilated” edition did not materialise until 1956. A “corrected” edition was subsequently produced in 1965. “The most accurate text is in Theatrical Notebooks I, (Ed.) Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson (Faber and Grove, 1993). It is based on Beckett’s revisions for his Schiller-Theatre production (1975) and the London San Quentin Drama Workshop, based on the Schiller production but revised further at the Riverside Studios (March 1984).”
Like all of Beckett’s translations, Waiting for Godot is not simply a literal translation of En attendant Godot. “Small but significant differences separate the French and English text. Some, like Vladimir’s inability to remember the farmer’s name (Bonnelly), show how the translation became more indefinite, attrition and loss of memory more pronounced.” A number of biographical details were removed, all adding to a general “vaguening” of the text which he continued to trim for the rest of his life.
In the nineteen-fifties, theatre was strictly censored in the UK, to Beckett's amazement since he thought it a bastion of free speech. The Lord Chamberlain insisted that the word "erection" be removed, “‘Fartov’ became ‘Popov’ and Mrs Gozzo had ‘warts’ instead of ‘clap’”. Indeed, there were attempts to ban the play completely. For example, Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, saying: "One of the many themes running through the play is the desire of two old tramps continually to relieve themselves. Such a dramatisation of lavatory necessities is offensive and against all sense of British decency. “The first unexpurgated version of Godot in England … opened at the Royal Court on 30th December 1964.”
The London run was not without incident. The actor Peter Bull, who played Pozzo, recalls the reaction of that first night audience:
The critics were less than unkind but “[e]verything changed on Sunday 7th August 1955 with Kenneth Tynan’s and Harold Hobson’s reviews in The Observer and The Sunday Times. Beckett was always grateful to the two reviewers for their support … which more or less transformed the play overnight into the rage of London.” “At the end of the year, the Evening Standard Drama Awards were held for the first time ... Feelings ran high and the opposition, led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, threatened to resign if Godot won [The Best New Play category]. An English compromise was worked out by changing the title of the award. Godot became The Most Controversial Play of the Year. It is a prize that has never been given since.”
Beckett resisted offers to film the play, although it was televised in his lifetime. When Keep Films made Beckett an offer to film an adaptation in which Peter O’Toole would feature, Beckett tersely told his French publisher to advise them: “I do not want a film of Godot.” The BBC broadcast a production of Waiting for Godot on 26th June 1961, a version for radio having already been transmitted on 25th April 1960. Beckett watched the programme with a few close friends in Peter Woodthorpe’s Chelsea flat. He was unhappy with what he saw. “My play,” he said, “wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you’re all too big for the place.”
Although not his favourite amongst his plays – perhaps because of the way it came to overshadow everything else he wrote – it was the work which brought Beckett fame and financial stability and as such it always held a special place in his affections. “When the manuscript and rare books dealer, Henry Wenning, asked him if he could sell the original French manuscript for him, Beckett replied: ‘Rightly or wrongly have decided not to let Godot go yet. Neither sentimental nor financial, probably peak of market now and never such an offer. Can’t explain.’”