Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot can seem an intimidating megalith. In this collection of frequently asked questions, we break it down into manageable chunks.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
At its simplest, Waiting for Godot is about two old friends, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for someone called Godot. Their wait is broken up by the appearance of two other characters, Pozzo and Lucky.
Peter Hall, the director of the first London production of Waiting for Godot, said at the start of rehearsals, "I don't understand this play and we are not going to waste time trying to understand it". When actress Vivian Leigh saw the production in 1955, she felt it was about relationships and philosophies and essential needs and how people behaved. But Lady Dorothy Howitt complained, "One of the many themes running through the play is the desire of two old tramps continually to relieve themselves." The critic Vivian Mercier famously wrote it was "a play in which nothing happens, twice".
IF NOTHING HAPPENS, WHY ALL THE FUSS?
Waiting for Godot has caused a lot of fuss.
It was censored by the English government when it was first staged there, with words like 'arse', 'farted', 'piss', 'privates' and 'fly' all changed to even more innocuous terms.
It was booed when it opened in London, with one memorable heckle being, "This is why we lost the colonies!" but it soon found an audience attuned to its style and the season was extended and considered a great success.
It is seen as a defining work of theatre that changed the way drama was written. Theatre of the Absurd, the designation with which Samuel Beckett's plays are often associated, challenged the predominant style of naturalism (e.g. the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov). Theatre of the Absurd can trace its roots to Shakespeare, vaudeville and the likes of Charlie Chaplin. And its legacy is apparent in the work of playwrights like Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, as well as in the comedies of Woody Allen and Monty Python.
As Richard Roxburgh puts it, "Perhaps more than any other modern play, it changed things. It re-imagined the very architecture of storytelling in theatre, and challenged all prior expectations of narrative, plot and dialogue."
By creating a play that defies our expectations, Beckett invites us to draw our own conclusions, find our own meanings and wait for our own Godot.
Samuel Beckett was a Nobel Prize-winning playwright, novelist and poet born in Ireland. Waiting for Godot was the first play of his to be staged, premiering in Paris in 1953. It went on to become Beckett's most famous play and a worldwide classic. Discover more about Beckett.
Samuel Beckett, Boulevard St Jacques, Paris, 1985 (Photo by John Minihan)
Estragon (Richard Roxburgh). Means 'tarragon' in Spanish but Estragon's name is actually never mentioned in the play. Vladimir calls him Gogo, a name which, in French, refers to someone who is naïve or easily fooled. It also evokes the go-go girls, nightclubs and bordellos of Paris.
Vladimir (Hugo Weaving). A Slavic name with numerous variations, the original of which meant 'lord of the world'. We only hear the name once in the show at the very beginning. Estragon calls him Didi and the boy calls him Mister Albert. Didi means 'titty' in Irish slang, in French slang it means 'baby', 'finger', 'toe'.
Pozzo (Philip Quast). Means 'well', 'spring', 'shaft' in Italian. Beckett took the name from a German acquaintance's husband who lived in France.
Lucky (Luke Mullins). The English meaning is clear but another possible reference to the name is lackey. Beckett's inspiration was a strange-looking hunchback porter at a train station.
From left to right: Philip Quast as Pozzo, Luke Mullins as Lucky, Hugo Weaving as Vladimir and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon (Photos by Lisa Tomasetti)
Playwright Samuel Beckett is reported to have deeply regretted calling the character Godot, because English speakers assumed it pertained to God. He says the name came from the French godassesor godillots, both slang for boots, but he also mentions a bicycle race, at which the spectators were waiting for a cyclist Godeau to reach the finish line.
To find out more, purchase a program at the theatre for $10.
With a feature on Samuel Beckett, historical information on the play, a glossary of references, charcoal sketches by Archibald-winner Nicholas Harding, photography by Richard Avedon and lots more, the Waiting for Godotprogram is a magnificent way to extend and deepen your night at the theatre.