“Waiting for Godot
” is a play whose constant ridicule of its characters can be applied with equal validity to its audience. At many points Estragon
do things that seem to reflect on all of mankind. This component of allegory
is validated by Vladimir
’s statement that “at this moment in time, all mankind is us”. Indeed as he, Estragon
and the boy are the only inhabitants of the desolate landscape created onstage, they are all mankind in that microcosmic world.
The play revolves around the act of waiting
, or it would, if waiting were an act. Estragon and Vladimir allow themselves to be tied to this system of postulates- i.e. Godot is coming, he will come to this spot, he will come during the day, when he comes we will be saved, and if we leave he will punish us- whose validity cannot even be ascertained. At one point Estragon asks Vladimir if they’re tied to Godot (receiving an affirmative response) and immediately afterward Vladimir admits that he isn’t even sure that “Godot” is Godot’s real name. The instructions they have somehow received are a sort of Bible, a set of vague commands whose dubious interpretation is clung to tenaciously. By the closing of the play, all these two have really done is “kept our appointment.” Vladimir asks, “How many people can boast as much?” to which Estragon replies, “Billions”, and this is true- it is a lowly, typical thing to sit around and wait, and yet somehow it is noble.
The instructions are unclear, and yet they are adhered to, regardless of doubts. “Waiting for Godot” is a new religion
, with Vladimir and Estragon taking on the roles of pastor and flock. Vladimir muses on how poorly off Estragon would be without him, and Estragon repeatedly contemplates leaving Vladimir, but he never does. Meanwhile, the pastor tends to his parishioner’s physical needs- he feeds him, offers to carry him when he thinks Lucky has crippled him, insists that he cannot go barefoot, makes him take cover at night, lays his coat over Estragon and he is sleeping, and comforts him when he wakes up from a nightmare. In the past he has fished him out when Estragon threw himself in the Rhone. On a superficial level he does him a great service, and yet it is consistently Vladimir who keeps the two of them waiting for Godot. As the only one with a reliable memory
(alternately, as the only one with a consistent fantasy
), he reminds Estragon time and again that they cannot leave. He refuses to listen to Estragon’s frightening, unrefined, primordial dreams. He tries to make Estragon care about his analysis of the gospels. Like a parent embarrassed by a child, he acts scandalized when Estragon asks Pozzo for leftover bones to eat, or for money. In this way he keeps Estragon tied, to Godot, to duty, to history/memory, and to propriety. Estragon, being a simple, childlike follower asks, “do you think god sees me”. Obviously, Vladimir has no way of knowing the answer to this, but Estragon relies on him as a connection to higher regions of awareness nonetheless. Meanwhile, the grounded Estragon has to remind Vladimir to button his fly.
Estragon cannot be depended upon for reporting on reality
, he rather has “visions” (as Vladimir calls it, when Estragon see imaginary hordes coming to get them). He is like the simple epileptic pronounced a holy man because of spasms of devotion, or the schizophrenic who hears ‘divine’ voices. In his case, he is a “poet
”, simply because he is in rags. He is Christ
-like simply because he is barefoot. And he is the ultimate unreliable narrator
Pozzo does not fit in this system at all. Almost a heretic
, he even doesn’t know who the all-important Godot is. He pronounces himself as made in the image of god, effectively placing himself in the position of god. He owns land (and lives in a manor) and a slave, controlling a section of the earth and its population, living proof that there is more immediately, godly power in our ruling classes than in the deity we wait for. And Gogo in fact wonders if Pozzo is Godot (upon his appearances in both Acts One and Two).
The play here makes a social comment, which jives with a Gospel of Kindness
mentality, connecting heresy with a lack of morals. The playwright, while ridiculing the religious stagnation of waiting, points out that it does have the benefit of keeping people from worse mischief. Pozzo, haughty and supercilious (“the society of my likes…even when the likeness is an imperfect one”), has none of this. Vladimir, a devoted priest, tries to help Lucky, and he eventually protests his treatment- his social action is weak and sporadic but it is extant…that is until a gentle prod from Pozzo has him vacillate even more strongly in the other direction.
Pozzo spouts adjacent, self-contradictory platitude
s, such as “if chance had not willed otherwise. To each his due.” He must believe in neither one, in effect believing in nothing, as even an atheist believes in atheism
. He is not immoral but amoral
, allowing him to concentrate his energies into a doctrine of selfishness. He is very self-obsessed (“how do you find me?”), putting up a laughably false front of invulnerability, as when he has to be beseeched to sit before he will, so as not “appearing to falter”. As a dramatic device he embodies all that is disgusting and cruel- the very “Pig!” he repeatedly calls Lucky. His priorities are so egregiously inverted that he is disappointed to hear his heart heard ticking, and not his lost watch.
It is Pozzo’s desire for fame, to be known, that introduces a more disturbing aspect into what so far has been an almost comic inability to remember. When Estragon and Vladimir are on the verge of confessing that they do not recognize him, he “advances menacingly” on them, as if to induce memory. This in conjunction with the earlier announcement that “we gave them (our rights) away” and Estragon’s sinister, cloudily referred to beatings, creates an image of a 1984
that can revise memory. Pozzo later, after a lapse in his front of invulnerability, commands, “Forget all I said”.
Pozzo is also the first to call into question the very nature of everyday objects, such as “bags, as you call them”. He refers to nothing by its simplest designation, for example his pipe is “my Kapp and Peterson!” it’s value enhanced by the brand name
. In “Waiting for Godot” the names of people too, are incidental. Estragon introduces himself as “Adam”, Vladimir answers when the boy addresses him as “Mister Albert”, and when Estragon proposes to amuse himself by trying out names for Pozzo (whom he does not remember), Pozzo answers to “Abel”, and to “Cain”. And Lucky’s name, recalling as it does the often-heard proclamation “you’re lucky to have even this much!” is at odds with the very nature of his situation.
’s name immediately recalls “God
”. And even though Godot does not show up, there is effectively an all-seeing God present all along- this being the moon, which rises suddenly, “just when you least expect it”, and from its raised position is omniscient. Estragon personifies the moon as weary from “looking down at the likes of us”. It is pale white, recalling the white beard that the boy claims Godot has. This God-figure Godot whom Estragon and Vladimir are waiting for is a quintessence of unknowability. Estragon admits that he “wouldn’t know him if I saw him”. And after Pozzo’s exit in Act Two, even the resolute Vladimir is unsure if Pozzo wasn’t Godot. Godot’s ways are inscrutable- beating one servant boy and not the other, when the only difference between the two is that one minds the goats and the other minds the sheep for “Mr. Godot”. According to the boy he “does nothing”. The anti-surety in a play named for a character that is endlessly anticipated but never appears is manifest.
And however long they wait, Vladimir and Estragon can never remember the time they have spent waiting. On the first day (Act One), Estragon says that he and Vladimir were there yesterday, and Vladimir says they weren’t. On the second day (Act Two), the ironically opposite exchange occurs. The only things these two can remember without fail are the immediately physical. For instance, Estragon says he’ll never forget the carrot Vladimir gives him- and there’s nothing to indicate he ever does. He can also remember that he was beaten. And he recalls the time that Vladimir fished him out of the Rhome, faithful to the detail of “my clothes dried in the sun”.
This is in contrast with the periodic forgetting of the time spent so far waiting for Godot. Waiting isn’t any sensation, it is nothing, the lack of sensation
, and so it is not remembered. The time, with nothing to fill it, passes unmarked and unrecalled. In selfish existentialism
, the characters only remember themselves and their sensations. Vladimir says “every man bears a cross til he dies and is forgotten”, making each human a Jesus figure, brave in his suffering, pathetic in his brevity, and forgotten when he dies. And not only do Estragon and, to a lesser extent, Vladimir, exhibit a limited capacity to remember but also an unwillingness to. They talk, they say, so they wont hear the dead voices, so they wont remember the past.
On the occasion that memories do manage to persist, they are dismissed. Each time Vladimir tells Estragon a tale of recent history, tells him what they have been doing in the recent past, Estragon dismisses it as “another one of your nightmares”. In Act Two, Gogo remembers nothing that has happened in Act One- not nearly hanging himself, not Pozzo and Lucky (although notably he does remember the physical pain of being kicked and the satiation of being given a bone), only Vladimir does. And he (Estragon) knows this about himself, “either I forget immediately or I never forget.” It is almost always Vladimir perceiving- “did you not hear what the child said?”- and Estraogn who cannot observe- “No”. This can all be infuriating- Vladimir speaks for the audience as well when he calls Estragon “a hard man to get on with”.
The ever esoteric, contemplative Vladimir ruminates,
Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?… At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.
So, Act Two begins with an extended exchange where Estragon does not recall a single occurrence from the day before. Vladimir’s triumphant proof that his memories are correct is that Estragon’s boots are still there, but this same proof is deconstructed when Estragon insists that the boots there are not the same color that his were, and later that they are big on him, having previously been too small. Now, the audience presumably cannot see the boots, and the director is given no stage direction is for what color they really are (that is, he or she is not instructed as to which character is correct). The uncertainty
ante is thus upped- if Vladimir’s observation is flawed, perhaps the whole incident really didn’t happen, and the audience has been imagining things as well.
In infuriating, practically slapstick
comedy, the vacuous tone of parts of the play is such that at no point does any character seem able to continue a line of speech or questioning without stopping to detour, often at length, into a “what was I saying?” And every time one person encounters Estragon or Vladimir (who due to their close bond do recognize each other) there is introduced a speculation on whether they have seen each other before- Pozzo/Lucky and Estagon/Vladimir, the and Vladimir. For instance, after Pozzo and Lucky’s first exit, Estagon and Vladimir cannot agree on whether they had seen them before. Vladimir says, “We know them, I tell you. You forget everything.” Typically, Didi ends this argument with, “Forget it.” And later as he dismisses the boy, Vladimir confirms, “You did see us, didn’t you?” To his dismay, the next day the boy (who claims he is not the same boy that visited the day before, while the play does call for him to be played by the same actor) doesn’t remember him anyway.
“Waiting for Godot” has been referred to as the play where nothing
happens, twice. When nothing happens, time is empty. And when time is empty, it cannot be felt to pass. In this way Pozzo validates all of his measurements of time by his watch, using this tool not so much to measure as to define time. Later he denies Vladimir’s assertion that “Time
has stopped” by confirming that his watch is ticking. Seemingly, blind people have no sense of time (as he vehemently insists) because they cannot watch any timepieces, mechanical or astronomical. In Act Two, when Pozzo is blind, he asks Gogo and Didi what time it is. The way he sees it, time is an illusion to “make us feel we exist”. His cynical view is that
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.
In this way, the seemingly endless, periodically monotonous play takes on epic brevity, representing a length of human experience and its true emptiness and insignificance. The only constant is the very emptiness, the ban on movement and change. The vague command to wait for Godot is one such thing that serves, according to Estragon, “to give us the impression we exist”. For the audience as well as the protagonists, it the sun around which time orbits, unable to go anywhere but around and around and around.