Comments by Bob Corbett
I first encountered this play in a performance at the university where I was teaching in the mid-1960s. I was deeply intrigued by it and the next day headed to the library to get a copy to read. Soon I adopted it into a course which I taught off and on for more than 30 years: Existentialist Literature. I didn’t use it all the time, but must have included it in the syllabus of that course some 6-8 times over the years.
Samuel Beckett himself, and many critics would disapprove. Beckett claims it is not an Existentialist play and critics tend to lump it into the rather non-descript category of theater of the absurd. My own attitude toward literature has been one of a textual analyst. I don’t trust what author’s say about their work, and I’m not much keen or looking to lives of authors and such background to understand literature. I prefer the text itself.
I last TAUGHT Waiting For Godot about 20 or more years ago and I hadn’t read it since. However, in these senior years and these times of a radically changing U.S.A., I decided to return to Beckett and again think along with Vladimir and Estragon, or at least Vladimir who does most of the thinking.
Despite the fact that I don’t give much power to what authors “say” about their works, believing rather that the works can stand on their own, I do agree with Beckett who says Godot is not God. Rather, in what I have come to call the first generation Existentialists (the likes of Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, DeBeauvoir and such, those of the 1920s to 1960s) many of them did not believe in God. Some did. There were believing Christians, Jews and agnostics in that first generations as well – Maritain, Buber, Jaspers and others. Theologians as well.
However, what seems common to them all was the loss in the belief that there were values that could be know with certainty. For religion that is often the role of God. But for those not having a god, they, of that first generation, were a bit lost. I take it that Godot is not at all god, but the notion of knowledge of true and reliable values. What distinguishes the first generation Existentialists from the second (my generation) is that many of them were quite troubled with the burden placed on them in not having knowable and reliable values. Thus, in this play, on my view, Godot is not God, but some source, person or knowledge, whatever, that can lead to the knowledge of true and reliable values.
That is Vladimir’s hunt. Not so Estragon. He is along for the ride, so to speak, and willing to defer to his friend Vladimir, but every mention of “waiting for Godot” in the play is Vladimir’s insight. Estragon has often even forgotten why they are “there.”
Early on Estragon first forgets why they are there: Vladimir says: “You gave me a fright, I thought it was he.” “Who?” replies Estragon. It was Godot, of course, to whom Vladimir was referring. In another place Estragon calls him “your man.” He often even can’t remember his name! In several places some version of the lines come up: “What shall we do.” And Vladimir consistently says: We are waiting for Godot.
At the same time, Vladimir, while utterly obsessed with that waiting doesn’t quite know what Godot would be like and isn’t even sure that Pozzo isn’t Godot.
One exchange which I have always found enlightening is that Estragon tells Vladimir: “Nothing is to be done.” But this is not so for Vladimir. He thought so too, but hadn’t tried it all, so he’s “resumed the struggle.”
I understand this to be Estragon mouthing the common view that if we do not have absolutely reliable knowledge of values and meanings, then life is not worth living, we would not know what to do. Vladimir’s reply seems the heart of the matter for the first generation Existentilists: they resume the struggle.
Since Beckett’s time, since the power of the insight of the first generation Existentialist, the second generation were in a much better place to move the dialogue on a bit more positively. I think our generation came to terms with not knowing absolute truths, accepted the fact that we must bear the PERSONAL responsibility for our choices of value, but that we can never be sure, never know for certain. Life is a risk of choosing and living with the results of the choice. Not only living with the physical outcomes of choice, but that for sure, but also living with the inner feelings and moral nature of one’s choices. It is, for the Existentialists, not some outside sources, God, religion, holy books, nor was it even reason itself that revealed these “true” values. Rather, it was the individual who chose the meaning of life and value for him or herself and took the responsibility to live with those choices. Value is created by us, in our actions more than our words.
That sort of slow transition from the darkness and gloom of the first generation Existentialists to the more bold and accepting second generation has been, I think, an important transition. Beckett’s play was certainly an important moment in that movement.
There are still three other characters to consider -- Pozzo and Lucky and the boy(s).
I’ve never felt quite comfortable understanding their roles in the play. However, one version of understanding Pozzo and Lucky has generally appealed to me. Pozzo seems to represent something like value rooted in power, tradition and capitalism. Pozzo is Pozzo because he has the power to be and believes that power and tradition give him the right to be who he is. Lucky is who he is for the same reason, but reversed. He has no power, no rights because he doesn’t have power, wealth and tradition behind him, and that is the way it is supposed to be. On this view Pozzo and Lucky are sort of characters out of traditional society that embrace the absolute truth theory of those values.
But the little boy(s) is a bit more confusing for me. He can’t, consistent with my view of the play, be a messenger. There is no Godot to bring messages from. Is he rather just nature, again and again, leading us to want and think we are on the verge of knowing truth absolute, and then discovering it won’t be today, maybe tomorrow. That is, that inner voice that seems so necessary to so many who just cannot embrace a world without values absolute.
Were this view of the play I put forward to make any sense, then I can account for the joy and delight in my life as opposed to the heaviness, strain and anxiety within the first generation Existentialists, my greatest intellectual heroes. Our generation has come be accept and embrace objective meaninglessness and finds that no big deal. We are. In any objective sense we mean nothing. We live we die, we return to the earth and our bodies decompose into other things. There is no objective meaning while on earth and absolute disintegration and nothingness after death. Big deal. Life is the living of it, and the awesome, marvelous and even wondrous meaning of life is the giving it the meaning we choose to give it and then living that life with conviction and courage. Not conviction that it is somehow “right” or “true” but that it is ME whom I am living and not something or someone else. Vladimir just couldn’t get there. In my adult life I never waited for Godot, nor cared about Godot. Rather, I embraced my existence, chose the meanings I thought made the best sense for me, changed those views when evidence and existence suggested to me I was mistaken, and went on, and continue to go on choosing my existence each day of my life, even now into old age, retirement and near hermitage! What a joy it has all been and continues to be.
I much enjoyed my return to Beckett’s play and highly recommend it to any who have not experienced it.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com