Saturday, January 30, 2010

Is Samuel Beckett’s Work "Waiting for Godot" Existential?

Samuel Beckett never gave much information about his Waiting for Godot, which premiered on January 5th, 1953 in Paris. This left many people wondering what the play meant, exactly. It has been labeled as “communist”, “avant-garde”, “existential” or just “boring.” Beckett himself said “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them.” I will argue that the play is existential above anything else.

Some say that Beckett’s play cannot be existential because Beckett never identified himself as such. They may also point to the fact that Beckett did not even associate himself with philosophy at all: “I never read the philosophers; I don’t understand what they write.”This is a good point. How can you give a work a label that the author himself has dismissed? Isn’t that a little egotistic?

But by focusing on what Beckett has said, rather than on the work itself, they overlook the overall tone and message that is conveyed in Waiting for Godot. They also ignore the nature of existentialism. Existentialism emphasizes freedom of choice. If Beckett was in fact an existentialist, he may have said the opposite so that readers could choose for themselves what the play meant, instead of being told what to think.

The overall feeling of isolation in Waiting for Godot is existential. The fact that Vladimir and Estragon do nothing except be and exist, highlight existential themes. The two wait for Godot, instead of searching him out, and, though they want to leave, they never do. By the end of the play, one gets the feeling that the two will remain in that strange place forever, waiting for a man who will never come: “Vladimir: ‘Well? Shall we go?’ Estragon: ‘Yes, let’s go.’ They do not move.”

Another major theme in the play is that of loss of identity. Estragon and Vladimir are called only by their nicknames, Gogo and Didi, and Vladimir is also called “Mister Albert” by the boy messenger. Estragon and Vladimir do not seem to know who they are, and their pasts are distant memories that are somehow disconnected from them.

According to existential thought, it is the loss of identity that causes mankind’s helplessness. This is why existentialists emphasized giving one’s life a purpose. They would argue that God has not given your life a purpose, and therefore it can mean nothing, unless you give it meaning yourself. Beckett’s play serves as a warning to its readers: do not do as Vladimir and Estragon do. Beckett warns against wasting one’s life by “waiting” instead of “doing.”

Pozzo also demonstrates this warning. Imagine the audience’s reaction when, watching Waiting for Godot for the first time, sees Pozzo come on stage with Lucky on a leash, treating him like an animal or a slave. This must have had a big impact, and I would imagine that Beckett wanted it this way.

Lucky is all of us, he allows himself to be tied up and controlled and only “thinks” when he is told to: “Pozzo: ‘Stop!’ (Lucky stops.) ‘Back!’ (Lucky moves back.) ‘Stop!’ (Lucky stops.) ‘Turn!’ (Lucky turns towards auditorium.) ‘Think!’…Lucky: ‘Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua…’ ”

Lucky’s “thinking” goes on for another three pages and consists of nothing but jumbled thoughts that seem to be recycled from other places and are not Lucky’s own thoughts or opinions.

Everyone is in danger of becoming Lucky. Many of us allow ourselves to be controlled by other people, social institutions, religion, etc and many seem content in only recycling others’ ideas and thoughts instead of creating their own. Waiting for Godot still has much significance today, in that Beckett wanted to wake up his audience, to show how one can live one’s life without meaning or purpose, and to make people contemplate and think about this, and maybe realize how they too are Estragon and Vladimir or Lucky, living one’s existence waiting or allowing one’s life to be controlled by another.


  1. I love this book and I completely agree with you. In high school I read this along with "Rosencrants and Guildenstern are Dead" preceding "Hamlet." The three books together really complimented each other by showing the characters inability to control the world around them while having so many options to do so.

    You said that Beckett might have not claimed to be an existentialist because he wanted to give readers the opportunity to form their own opinion. I would say you're probably right, and add that Beckett wanted the piece to speak for itself. The point of a writer is to create something with the option of reflecting upon his/her selves life and I think that critics should allow Beckett that same privilege.

  2. Waiting for Godot is the kind of book that is designed to make you depressed. And confused. And that is why Beckett was a beast. How better to force people to act in an existentialist manner than to confront them with a situation in which it is the only option: You feel depressed and confused by the apparent lack of warmth and meaning, tortured by the absurdity and interminable uncertainty of the work. Human beings naturally reject this state of being and so attempt to insert their own meaning into the story.
    This is the life existentialist.

  3. Thank you for your clear, incisive clarification of a range of issues which also link into the existential issue of hegemonic pathology; a process which seeks to control and through the subtle manipulation of a politicised media the process of thought and feeling, and declaring it a state of mental disorder....