February 23, 2018

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett was an active member of the French Resistance during WWII, and afterwards twice-decorated for it. In the Fall of 1942 an informer infiltrated Beckett's group, and many of his friends were caught and killed by the Gestapo. Realizing that their cover was blown, Beckett and his companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil put on their coats and left their Paris apartment as if going for a walk. This pretense eventually became a reality: after two months in various Paris hideouts, they fled on foot to a remote mountain village in southeast France, walking by night and sleeping by day. There they waited out the rest of the war.

This experience is often offered as a source for the two main characters in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the foot-weary, hopeless but ever-expectant, Vladimir and Estragon.

Another story is that one day while walking through the streets of Paris Beckett stopped to ask members of a large crowd what they were doing. They replied, "We are waiting for Godot," explaining that he was the oldest cyclist in the Tour de France, and had not yet passed by.

Waiting for Godot is the most written-about play of the twentieth century, and these are but two of many attempts by the critically- or biographically-minded to explain the title, or the play, or the man. Beckett scoffed at them all. He was intensely private; he was skeptical of language, let alone interpretation; he experienced writing and living as a psychological and philosophical agony. Although otherwise reported as a man of charm, charity and old-world politeness, he did not want to hear what other people thought his words or his life meant.

He said he wrote Godot as "a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time." He wanted something entertaining and easy to produce -- something that might pay the bills. He had been in Paris since 1937, surviving for a decade mostly on translation work. Some poems had been published, and some essays; his novel Murphy had finally found a publisher, but had not sold. Waiting for Godot was not only a change of pace and genre but of language: he hoped writing the play in French would help trigger something new.

If "new" was what a middle-aged Samuel Beckett was waiting for, Godot proved to be that and more. The language, said one critic, made it seem as if previous French plays "had been written with quills, not pens." Instead of plot, there was a flurry of inactivity, a two-act play in which, said another critic, "nothing happens twice." The characters seemed to have escaped some existential vaudeville: part Marx Brothers, part Charlie Chaplin, part clown, locked into an absurd horror beyond anyone's grasp or antidote, but pretty funny.

Image: photograph of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (first edition cover)
Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil was Beckett's buffer from and agent to the world; for three years she shopped Godot around Paris, to over forty puzzled or timorous producers. When the play finally got to rehearsal, the first three sets of actors quit in confusion and despair. They would keep asking Beckett who the characters were and what they meant, and Beckett would keep shrugging his shoulders.

But word had spread among the Left Bank avant-garde that something was happening at the Theatre de Babylone, and on opening night, January 5, 1953, there was a scramble to get folding chairs from the cafe next door. Some thought the play a hoax, or an outrage, and many were confused by it, but most agreed with the first-night reviewer who wrote, "we were waiting for this play of our time."

Afterwards, the well-wishers, the curious, the press, even the director waited, and waited, to see Beckett. He had been at every rehearsal, but he did not attend the opening, and stayed in hiding outside Paris for two weeks. As the play, and the controversy, swept across Europe in the fifties, Beckett tried to keep in touch with the productions but avoid the fame. This proved difficult: "I am tired of the whole thing and the endless misunderstandings," he wrote. "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out."

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