WAITING FOR GODOT - Synopsis
THE plot of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is simple to relate. Two tramps are waiting by a sickly looking tree for the arrival of M. Godot. They quarrel, make up, contemplate suicide, try to sleep, eat a carrot and gnaw on some chicken bones. Two other characters appear, a master and a slave, who perform a grotesque scene in the middle of the play. A young boy arrives to say that M. Godot will not come today, but that he will come tomorrow. The play is a development of the title, Waiting for Godot. He does not come and the two tramps resume their vigil by the tree, which between the first and second day has sprouted a few leaves, the only symbol of a possible order in a thoroughly alienated world.
The two tramps of Beckett, in their total disposition and in their antics with hats and tight shoes, are reminiscent of Chaplin and the American burlesque comedy team. Pozzo and Lucky, the master and slave, are half vaudeville characters and half marionettes. The purely comic aspect of the play involves traditional routines that come from the entire history of farce, from the Romans and the Italians, and the red-nosed clown of the modern circus. The language of the play has gravity, intensity, and conciseness. The long speech of Lucky, a bravura passage that is seemingly meaningless, is strongly reminiscent of Joyce and certain effects in Finnegans Wake. But the play is far from being a pastiche. It has its own beauty and suggestiveness, and it makes its own comment on man's absurd hope and on the absurd insignificance of man.
The utter simplicity of the play, in the histrionic sense, places it in the classical tradition of French playwriting. It's close adherence to the three unities is a clue to the play's dramaturgy. The unity of place is a muddy plateau with one tree, a kind of gallows which invites the tramps to consider hanging themselves. This place is any place. It is perhaps best characterized as being the place where Godot is not. As the play unfolds we come to realize that M. Godot is not in any place comparable to the setting of the play. He will not come out of one place into another. The unity of time is two days, but it might be any sequence of days in anyone's life. Time is equivalent to what is announced in the title: the act of waiting. Tame is really immobility, although a few minor changes do take place during the play: the tree grows leaves and one of the characters, Pozzo, becomes blind. The act of waiting is never over, and yet it mysteriously starts up again each day. The action, in the same way, describes a circle. Each day is the return to the beginning. Nothing is completed because nothing can be completed. The despair in the play, which is never defined as such but which pervades all the lack of action and gives the play its metaphysical color, is the fact that the two tramps cannot not wait for Godot, and the corollary fact that he cannot come.
The rigorous use of the unities is demanded by the implacable interpretation of human life. The denouement of the play is another beginning. Vladimir asks his friend: Alors? On y va? ("Well? Shall we go?") And Estragon answers: Allons-y ("Yes, let's go.") But neither moves. And the curtain descends over their immobility. In scene after scene the permanent absurdity of the world is stressed. In the scene, for example, between the master and the slave, Lucky is held on a leash by Pozzo. He carries a heavy suitcase without ever thinking of dropping it. He is able to utter his long incoherent speech only when he has his hat on and when Pozzo commands him to think.
The unity of place, the particular site on the edge of a forest which the two tramps cannot leave, recalls Sartre's striking use of the unity of place in his first play, No Exit. There it is hell in the appearance of a Second Empire living-room that the three characters cannot leave. The curtain line of each play underscores the unity of place, the setting of which is prison. The Allons-y! of Godot corresponds to the Eh bien, continuons! ("Well, well, let's get on with it....") of No Exit. Sartre's hell is projected by use of some of the quid pro quos of a typical bedroom farce, whereas Beckett's unnamed plateau resembles the empty vaudeville stage. The two tramps in a seemingly improvised dialogue arouse laughter in their public, despite their alienation from the social norm and despite the total pessimism of their philosophy.
Many ingenious theories have been advanced to provide satisfactory interpretations for the characters of Beckett's play. Religious or mythical interpretations prevail. The two tramps Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi) may be Everyman and his conscience. Gogo is less confident and at one moment is ready to hang himself. Vladimir is more hopeful, more even in temperament. One thinks of the medieval debate between the body and the soul, between the intellectual and the nonrational in man. Certain of their speeches about Christ might substantiate the theory that they are the two crucified thieves. Pozzo would seem to be the evil master, the exploiter. But perhaps he is Godot, or an evil incarnation of Godot. The most obvious interpretation of Godot is that he is God. As the name Pierrot comes from Pierre, so Godot may come from God. (One thinks also of the combination of God and Charlot, the name used by the French for Charlie Chaplin.)
Mr. Beckett himself has repudiated all theories of a symbolic nature. But this does not necessarily mean that it is useless to search for such clues. The fundamental imagery of the play is Christian. Even the tree recalls the Tree of Knowledge and the Cross. The life of the tramps at many points in the text seems synonymous with the fallen state of man. Their strange relationship is a kind of marriage. The play is a series of actions that are aborted and that give a despairing uniformity to its duration.