The 100 best nonfiction books
Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett
Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett
A bleakly hilarious, enigmatic watershed that changed the language of theatre and still sparks debate six decades on
Monday 15 August 2016 05.45 BST
Waiting for Godot was not just a two-act play in which, as one wit put it, “nothing happens, twice”, it was a theatrical revolution, the beginning of the theatre of the absurd. Together with some essential volumes of poetry (see Nos 4, 11 and 17), this extraordinary drama would not only exert a profound influence on the postwar imagination, it would provide a metaphor for existence. Arguably, the great plays and poetry identified by this series transcend their genres to contribute tangibly to our sense of “who we are”, the guiding principle of this list. (I will return to the contentious question of what exactly the non-genre of nonfiction really is. That, of course, is where the trouble starts. Fiction is a genre. Nonfiction is a library convention; its definition is nebulous. Perhaps by the time this list is complete we’ll have a better idea about its constituent elements.)
Thus, from the moment Vladimir and Estragon step on to an empty stage furnished with nothing more than a bare tree and utter the famous opening line: “Nothing to be done”, the audience is pitched into a world in which the idea of boredom becomes a prolonged metaphor about the nature of existence, a strangely entertaining and finally moving “tragicomedy” (the author’s description) sustained by two tramps in vaudeville costume and the ever-absent “Mr Godot.”
The author of En Attendant Godot was certainly a member of the European avant garde, but an unlikely theatrical innovator. Beckett had never written a staged play before. Born in Dublin on Good Friday, 1906, Beckett had moved to Paris as a young man to sit at the feet of James Joyce, whose secretary and amanuensis he briefly became.
Between the wars, Beckett developed his genius as a writer in the shadow of modernism and, closer to home, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. His first novel, Murphy, rejected many times, was finally published in 1938, coincidentally the same year as Scoop (Evelyn Waugh) and The Code of the Woosters (PG Wodehouse). It opened with a brilliantly alienated first line – “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” – puzzled a lot of reviewers, was praised by Dylan Thomas and sold very badly.
Then the war came, and the Nazi panzers rolled into Paris. Beckett fled south and lived for part of the war as a near vagrant and possible resistance fighter, in and around Roussillon. Returning to Paris after the liberation in 1944, he published a brilliant trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) and established a modest reputation as a writer’s writer, an avant gardist with a quirky wit.
He wrote En Attendant Godot in French and it received its premiere in Paris at the Théâtre de Babylone on 5 January 1953 [see chronological note, below]. The common view that it flopped is disputed by the record. James Knowlson’s and Deidre Bair’s biographies (Damned to Fame (1996) and Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978) confirm that, actually, the play, which was produced on a shoestring with a scratch cast, did quite well, with some favourable reviews.
The text of the play, now in Beckett’s translation, crossed the Channel and landed on the desk of young director Peter Hall who, admitting that he hadn’t “the foggiest idea” what it meant, produced it at the Arts Theatre, London in August 1955. Almost immediately, the two most influential London critics, Kenneth Tynan (the Observer) and Harold Hobson (the Sunday Times) hailed it as a masterpiece.
Within the decade, Beckett was established as the most innovative, radical and important English-language playwright of the century, one of the founding fathers of the theatre of the absurd. Eventually, his work would profoundly influence the work of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet and Sam Shepard, among many others.
The circumstances of Waiting for Godot are bleak and existential, but the main characters, “Didi” and “Gogo”, exhibit a manic energy and utter dialogue of such entrancing polyphony, laced with moments of profound and resonant silence, that the experience for the audience can be a mood of optimism and often hilarity. Beckett’s vision might be dark, but his touch is supremely light. Some snatches of the dialogue are more Laurel and Hardy than Kafka:
VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?
Vladimir uses his intelligence.
VLADIMIR: (finally) I remain in the dark.
Tellingly, his characters acknowledge their part in the illusion of action that’s unfolding in front of us:
ESTRAGON: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?VLADIMIR: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.
The tramps also delight in teasing each other, and the audience, with their predicament:
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
Time hangs both light and heavy. Occasionally, the waiting becomes too much. Pozzo, who has gone blind in the course of the action, can stand it no longer:
POZZO: (suddenly furious.) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.
Later, towards the end of act two, Vladimir, the more reflective of the two tramps, will pick up this speech, and play with it in another passage of great beauty characteristic of Beckett’s prose:
Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener.
For Beckett, the examined life is both the beginning, and the end, of the human comedy:
VLADIMIR: What do they say?ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.
Waiting for Godot has been debated about for more than 60 years now. The elusive Godot himself, most notably, has been the object of intense, and occasionally deranged, speculation. Beckett was offhand about his “meaning”. In Deidre Bair’s controversial biography, he is quoted, saying that 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’.” He was, however, insistent that “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.”
For such speculation, Beckett has an answer, in one of Vladimir’s great speeches:
VLADIMIR: Let us not waste time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come –
And of course, at the end of act two, with no sign of Godot, none of this has come to anything.
VLADIMIR: Well ? Shall we go ?ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.They do not move.
A signature sentence
“When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?”
Three to compare
Samuel Beckett: Endgame (1957)
Harold Pinter: The Caretaker (1960)
Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966)
Chronological note: Beckett’s original French text was composed between October 1948 and January 1949. On 17 February 1952, an abridged version of the play was performed in a Paris recording studio and broadcast on French radio. Beckett sent an introductory note in which he confessed: “I don’t know who Godot is”, but did not himself turn up. The French (Editions Minuit) text appeared in print on 17 October 1952 in advance of the play’s first unabridged theatrical performance. This premiere of Beckett’s French version took place on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Beckett’s English translation of his play was published during 1954 by the Grove Press, in the US. The first English language version of Waiting for Godot was premiered in London in 1955 at the Arts Theatre, and was subsequently published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1956.