Samuel Beckett Study Guide by 8UEwFy


									         Waiting for Godot and the Existential Theme of Absurdity, January 5, 1953
Samuel Beckett's controversial play Waiting for Godot broke with traditional dramatic forms by introducing the
theme of nothingness and by innovating the techniques of the Theater of the Absurd

     Waiting for Godot, an avant-garde tragicomic play, was written by Samuel
Beckett between 1947 and 1949, and published as En attendant Godot in 1952.
First performed on January 5, 1953, in Paris, the play soon gained worldwide
attention, as did Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd. The play's immediate
reception ranged from boredom and disgust to wild enthusiasm. The Paris
production was championed by many critics as a revolutionary breakthrough in
modern drama.
     The first review of the Paris production, by Sylvain Zegel, was representative.
He predicted that the play would be discussed for a long time. Zegel described the
play as "an inexplicable miracle" and heralded Beckett as "one of today's best
playwrights." Zegel sensed that the two tramps in the play represented all of
humanity and that audience members had been confronted with a deep image of
their own emptiness. Many reviewers after Zegel amplified on the manner in which
Waiting for Godot contains universal existential dilemmas, surreal communications, and a consciousness-raising
confrontation of the audience's own self-deception.
     Many critics and audience members found the play too unconventional and walked away in boredom or
disgust. Beckett's break with traditional theater forms appalled some critics and viewers. Beckett's experimental
theater, which combined elements of vaudeville, existentialism, and what was later to be called
deconstructionism, was too radical for some. The first American reviewer, Marya Mannes, seeing a London
performance, doubted whether she ever had seen a worse play. She characterized the play as "typical of the self-
delusion of which certain intellectuals are capable, embracing obscurity, pretense, ugliness, and negation as
protective coloring for their own confusions." The dialogue was characterized as "gibberish" between two
"symbolic maniacs." Her review ended by quoting this line from the play: "Let us hang ourselves." She quipped
that the line was unhappily not acted upon.
     In 1956, a large portion of the viewers at a performance in Miami, Florida, left in disgust during the
intermission, enacting an early line in the play itself: "I have had better entertainment elsewhere." The audience
had been misled by the play's billing as the "laugh sensation of two continents." Critics and audience alike
complained that nothing happens in the play. In this assessment, the play's critics came closer to sensing the
actual meaning of the play than they realized….Defenders of Waiting for Godot would argue that nothing
happens in the lives of the audience. Proponents of what was to become the Theater of the Absurd contended
that the more popular plays following a formula, such as boy meets girl, problem-climax-resolution, or heroic
action, were actually superficial. They suggested that traditional theater provides mere escapist fantasies that
serve to anesthetize the individual and help avoid the pain of truth. Beckett's formula--or, better yet, his cyclical
equation--of born-troubled-died denuded the bourgeois drama formulas. The lack of scenery, plot, action, and
character development in Waiting for Godot actually draws the audience member into an existential encounter
with his or her own truth. The ensuing vacuum created between the audience and the stage forces an encounter
between the audience members with the absurdity of their own lives.
     Beckett's Waiting for Godot, although nominally about a pair of Rabelaisian existential tramps waiting for a
mysterious Mr. Godot, actually encapsulates post-World War II Europe, seen as godless “and lost in the void.”
Through the dialogue of two clownish tramps, Beckett enacts the essential concerns and futility of the
midcentury human condition. The breakdown in the very foundation of culture is allegorized: Midcentury
humanity stood in a crisis in the areas of epistemology, religion, family, sex, government, and economics. The
fact that Waiting for Godot touches on each of these ultimate human concerns has prompted thousands of
productions and translations into more than twenty languages. A brief description of the play and its inaction
will help make several points clear.
    The setting is a place where there is nothing but one scrawny tree, where two tramps engage in fruitless
conversations while waiting for rescue from their misery. …By this monotonous repetition, Beckett turns
theater into life and shows life to be the illusion. Estragon and Vladimir consider hanging themselves in each of
the two acts but decide that it is safer to not do anything. They obviously are filling time, fighting boredom
while waiting for Godot.

Impact of Event
         The impact of Waiting for Godot in the areas of experimental theater, philosophy, theology, and cultural
criticism has been revolutionary. The Theater of the Absurd was practically defined by the play. Traditionally,
theater has attempted to provide a standard intellectual and emotional catharsis for the audience and has acted
as an agent that helps maintain social control by defusing untoward human emotions that might cause
disruption of the status quo. In Waiting for Godot, rather than providing an emotional safety valve for the
audience, Beckett deemed it more authentic and artistic to build up those pressures and help make them
unbearable for the audience. In the absurdity of the play, the audience is brought face to face with its own
spiritual schizophrenia. The viewer is confronted with the madness of the human condition. In observing two
seedy tramps waste their lives waiting in vain for a Mr. Godot who never comes, viewers catch a reflection of
the dull routine and self-deception of their own lives.
         Prior to Waiting for Godot, the essence of a play was believed to be in its text. In Beckett's play,
concrete language, repetition, inaction, and confusion create a surreal mode of communication that transcends
rational dialogue and dramatic movement. The textual content of the play becomes a prop that serves no central
significance in the total impression. This use, or nonuse, of text represented a revolution in theatrical form.
         The play's impact on the history of modern theater is equally striking. Beckett's use of non sequiturs
rather than coherent dialogue, his mixture of vaudeville and existentialism, and his unorthodox use of plot and
props stimulated some of the most important dramaturgical experiments of the next thirty years. The repetitious
movements and unique blend of structure and theme account for the startling impact of the play, which rightly
earned Beckett a place as one of the great theatrical pioneers of the modern period….
         Waiting for Godot reflects an era in which traditional frames of reference were no longer viable.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche introduced the concept of the death of God, and people have had to struggle with
new theologies. The existential themes of alienation and emptiness are mirrored in the play. Beckett's play fits
into the post-World War II French existential movement also represented by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul
Sartre. Beckett's play is a signpost proclaiming the end of humanity's spiritual heteronomy….
         Waiting for Godot will be remembered as Beckett's most significant play and a major contribution to his
winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. The play continues to be regarded as one of the most
controversial works of Twentieth Century theater, and it certainly is seen as seminal. Its minimalist approach to
dramatic form and imagery, tangential dialogue, and theme of insignificance helped shape and define the
Theater of the Absurd and modern theater. Whether critics denounced the play or acclaimed it, it was a
landmark event in twentieth century Western culture and an expression of the crisis of the mid-century human
condition. If, as is often believed, artists are the antennae of the race, Beckett proved prophetic in indicating the
need for a new alternative. The old myths are obsolete; the new ones have not yet arrived, so we wait.
         Although the play has elicited diverse interpretations ranging from orthodox Christian to nihilistic
atheist, most critics identify the play with post-World War II existentialism. In spite of the fact that Beckett did
not identify himself as an existentialist, his plays express existentialism clearly and consistently, better, in fact,
than proponents of existentialism who recommend it while not following their own recommendation.
Theatergoers will continue to wait in line to see Waiting for Godot not because it diagnoses some cultural crisis
or implies a solution but rather because it mirrors--with all of its concreteness, ambiguity, and mystery--the
process and integrity of life itself. Relentless seeking, questioning, and reaching for a better future is perhaps the
irreducible kernel of the human condition.

Source Citation: "Waiting for Godot and the Existential Theme of Absurdity, January 5, 1953." DISCovering World History. Online
Edition. Gale, 2003. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2004. <>
Samuel Beckett Study Guide

Fill out this guide as you read the document “Waiting for Godot and the Existential Theme of Absurdity,
January 5, 1953” and parts of other documents noted in the questions. Links are on my web page:

1. Composition, Publication, and Response
  a.    In what years was Waiting for Godot
  b.    When was it published?
  d.    In what language?
  f.    What did Sylvain Zegel say the two
tramps represent?
 g.    What did Zegel say the audience had
been confronted with?
  h.    What did Marya Mannes regret that
the characters had not done by the end of the
  i.    What was the response of the Miami
2. Meanings
  a.    What formula might the play replace with
the traditional “problem-climax-resolution”
  b.    What historical catastrophe might the play
be influenced by?
  c.    What is one possible purpose of traditional
theater that the play disrupts which joins it to the
“Theater of the Absurd” movement?
  d.    What does the play “relentlessly” do?

  e.     According to Martin Esslin’s article “The
Search for the Self” (found in Harold Bloom’s
collection of essays, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for
Godot, at, what was the initial
reaction of convicts at San Quentin Penitentiary
when the play was performed there in 1957?
  f.     Read the epigraphs, the quote from the
play, and the first 4 and last 4 complete paragraphs
of Marjorie Perloff’s essay, “ ‘In Love with Hiding’:
Samuel Beckett’s War.” What is her theory about
the meaning of the play?
  g.     Perloff quotes a passage from Beckett’s
“Saint-Lô” at the beginning of her essay. Review
the pictures (more at the link below them) of
“Saint-Lô” after the battle between Allied and
German forces in 1946. What is the “feeling” these
pictures elicit?
                              Beckett vocabulary (definitions from

      caryatid      Etymology: L caryatides, pl., fr. Gk karyat-ides priestesses of Artemis at Caryae, caryatids, fr. Karyai
       (n. pl.)     Caryae in Laconia. Date: 1563 : a draped female figure supporting an entablature
                    Etymology: L, of the same kind, fr. com- + gener-, genus kind –– more at kin. Date: ca. 1736
     congener       1 : a member of the same taxonomic genus as another plant or animal. 2 : a person or
       (n. pl.)     thing resembling another in nature or action <~the New England private schools and
                    their congeners west of the Alleghenies> —Oliver La Farge
                    Etymology: F crétin, fr. F dial. cretin, lit., wretch, innocent victim, fr. L christianus Christian.
                    Date: 1779
                    1 : one afflicted with cretinism. 2 : a stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person : clod, lout
deconstructionism a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a text*
                    Etymology: L elicitus, pp. of elicere, fr. e- + lacere to allure. Date: 1605 1 : to draw forth or bring
        elicit      out (something latent or potential) <~hypnotism elicited his hidden fears> 2 : to call
         (vt)       forth or draw out (as information or a response) <~her performance elicited wild
                    Etymology: Latin explicatus, past participle of explicare, literally, to unfold, from ex- + plicare to fold
 explicate (tr. v.) Date: 1531. 1 : to give a detailed explanation of 2 : to develop the implications of
                    : analyze logically
   heteronomy       Etymology: heter- + -nomy (as in autonomy). Date: 1798
         (n)        subjection to something else esp : a lack of moral freedom or self-determination
                    Etymology: ME, fr. MF, fr. LL impertinent-, impertinens, fr. L in- + pertinent-, pertinens, prp. of
   impertinent      pertinEre to pertain. Date: 14c 1 : not pertinent : irrelevant. 2 a : not restrained within due
        (adj.)      or proper bounds esp. of propriety or good taste <~impertinent curiosity> b : given to
                    or characterized by insolent rudeness <~an impertinent answer>
    jaded (adj)     1 a : worn out by overwork or abuse 2 obsolete : made ridiculous
                    Etymology: G Nihilismus, fr. L nihil nothing –– more at nil. Date: ca. 1817
     nihilistic     1 a : viewpoint that traditional values & beliefs are unfounded & that existence is
         (n)        senseless & useless b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and esp. of
                    moral truths
                    Date: circa 1864 1 : a practical approach to problems and affairs <tried to strike a balance
                    between principles and pragmatism> 2 : an American movement in philosophy founded
                    by C. South Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of
                    conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to
                    guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of
                    Etymology: ME, fr. MF & L; MF, fr. L prae-rogativa, Roman century voting first in the comitia,
   prerogative      privilege, fr. fem. of praerogativus voting first, fr. praerogatus, pp. of praerogare to ask for an opinion
         (n.)       before another, fr. prae- + rogare to ask –– more at right. Date: 15c : an exclusive or special
                    right, power, or privilege
                    Etymology: Latin pugil boxer; akin to Latin pugnus fist — more at pungent
                    Date: 1791: Boxing
                    Etymology: ME, fr. MF, fr. L seminalis, fr. semin-, semen seed. Date: 14c
                    1 : of, relating to, or consisting of seed or semen. 2 : contributing the seeds of later
                    development : creative, original
                    Etymology: Middle English, from Latin supplicatus, past participle of supplicare, from supplic-,
    supplicate      suppliant :
          (v)       intransitive senses : to make a humble entreaty; especially : to pray to God. transitive senses 1 :
                    to ask humbly and earnestly of. 2 : to ask for earnestly and humbly
A term tied very closely to postmodernism, deconstructionism is a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or
secure meaning in a text. Basing itself in language analysis, it seeks to "deconstruct" the ideological biases (gender, racial,
economic, political, cultural) and traditional assumptions that infect all histories, as well as philosophical and religious
"truths." Deconstructionism is based on the premise that much of human history, in trying to understand, and then
define, reality has led to various forms of domination - of nature, of people of color, of the poor, of homosexuals, etc.
Like postmodernism, deconstructionism finds concrete experience more valid than abstract ideas and, therefore, refutes
any attempts to produce a history, or a truth.

Postmodernism: A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and
cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or
objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human
understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For
this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions,
or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is
everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually.
Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own
experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Postmodernism is "post" because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there
being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody - a characterisitic of the so-
called "modern" mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its
skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philospher Richard Tarnas
states, postmodernism "cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical
overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself."

                                         Aristotle on Tragedy: The Nature of Tragedy
          In the century after Sophocles, the philosopher Aristotle analyzed tragedy. His definition: “Tragedy then, is an
imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of
artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative;
through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”
          Aristotle identified six basic elements: (1) plot; (2) character; (3) diction (the choice of style, imagery, etc.); (4)
thought (the character's thoughts and the author's meaning); (5) spectacle (all the visual effects; Aristotle considered this to
be the least important element); (6) song.
          According to Aristotle, the central character of a tragedy must not be so virtuous that instead of feeling pity or
fear at his or her downfall, we are simply outraged. Also the character cannot be so evil that for the sake of justice we
desire his or her misfortune. Instead, best is someone "who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness; nor is it
through badness or villainy of his own that he falls into misfortune, but rather through some flaw [hamartia]". The
character should be famous or prosperous, like Oedipus or Medea.
          What Aristotle meant by hamartia cannot be established. In each play we read you should particularly consider the
following possibilities. (1) A hamartia may be simply an intellectual mistake or an error in judgement. For example when a
character has the facts wrong or doesn't know when to stop trying to get dangerous information. (2) Hamartia may be a
moral weakness, especially hubris, as when a character is moral in every way except for being prideful enough to insult a
god. (Of course you are free to decide that the tragic hero of any play, ancient or modern, does not have a hamartia at all).
The terms hamartia and hubris should become basic tools of your critical apparatus.

                                        Aristotle's Poetics: Basic Concepts
1) Tragedies should not be episodic. That is, the episodes in the plot must have a clearly probable or inevitable
   connection with each other. This connection is best when it is believable but unexpected.
2) Complex plots are better than simple plots. Complex plots have recognitions and reversals. A recognition is a change
   from ignorance to knowledge, especially when the new knowledge identifies some unknown relative or dear one
   whom the hero should cherish but was about to harm or has just harmed. 'Recognition' (anagnorisis) is now
   commonly applied to any self-knowledge the hero gains as well as to insight to the whole nature or condition of
   mankind, provided that that knowledge is associated, as Aristotle said it should be, with the hero's 'reversal of fortune'
   (Greek: peripeteia). A reversal is a change of a situation to its opposite. Consider Oedipus at the beginning and end of
   Oedipus the King. Also consider in that play how a man comes to free Oedipus of his fear about his mother, but
   actually does the opposite. Recognitions are also supposed to be clearly connected with all the rest of the action of the
3) Suffering (some fatal or painful action) is also to be included in a tragic plot which, preferably, should end unhappily.
4) The pity and fear which a tragedy evokes, should come from the events, the action, not from the mere sight of
   something on stage.
5) Catharsis ('purification' or 'purgation') of pity and fear was a part of Aristotle's definition of tragedy. The meaning of
   this phrase is extremely debatable. Among the many interpretations possible, consider how well the following apply to
   our plays:
   a) Purification of the audience's feelings of pity and fear so that in real life we understand better whether we should
        feel them.
   b) Purgation of our pity and fear so that we can face life with less of these emotions or more control over them.
   c) Purification of the events of the plot, so that the central character's errors or transgressions become 'cleansed' by
        his or her recognitions and suffering.

Source: Evans, Walter, Ed. The Humanities Handbook. Augusta State University, Augusta, Georgia, 1995.

                                                Northrup Frye on Tragedy
"In ancient Greek, catharsis was originally a medical term that meant 'cleansing.' .. . Aristotle suggests that tragedy is good
for us because it cleanses us of violent and mean emotions in a controlled environment. The debate still rages between
censors who believe drama is dangerous, and the advocates of free expression who believe the emotional adventures of
drama are healthy. . .”
" . . the hero of Greek tragedy is an extraordinary man or woman who separates himself or herself from others. This
separation is central to all tragedies. . .
"The tragic hero is typically on top of the wheel of fortune, half-way between human society on the ground and the
something greater in the sky . . . Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscapes that they seem
the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass
.. . .tragic heroes are wrapped in the mystery of their communion with that something beyond which we can see only
through them, and which is the source of their strength and their fate alike. That 'something beyond' may be called God,
or nature, or society, but in all cases it reveals some sort of eternal law, of the way things are or must be. Tragedy gives us
an image of the hero struggling against that law, alone. Further struggle leads the hero into further isolation."

                                                                     Anatomy of Criticism, New York: Atheneum, 1966. qtd in
                                                      <$163 >

….Comedy may be considered to deal with man in his human state, restrained and often made ridiculous by his
limitations, his faults, his bodily functions, and his animal nature. In contrast, tragedy may be considered to deal with man
in his ideal or god-like state. Comedy has always viewed man more realistically than tragedy, and drawn its laughter or its
satire from the spectacle of human weakness or failure. Hence its tendency to juxtapose appearance and reality, to deflate
pretense, and to mock excess. The judgment made by comedy is almost always critical.

Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. p. 108
Waiting for Godot: Individual (Research) Questions

1. Comment on the setting as indicated by the first stage direction

2. What does “Estragon” mean?

3. What does “Vladimir” mean?

4. Describe the character of Estragon with a few adjectives

5. Describe the character of Vladimir with a few adjectives

6. What is the source of the proverb, “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” and what is the full

7. What is the source of the aphorism, “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults
   of his feet”?

8. Who are the two thieves in the New Testament referred to by Vladimir?

9. What is the “holy rood”?

10. Define “pugilist”

11. What does “Pozzo” mean?

12. Describe the character of Pozzo with a few adjectives

13. Describe the character of Lucky with a few adjectives

14. Define “grampus”

15. Define “mollify”
16. Define “cod” (in the slang sense of something one person does to another)

17. What product did “Kapp and Peterson”manufacture?

18. What mythological figure is Pan?

19. What does the Latin word “qua” mean

20. What is “Essy-in-Possy”?

21. Who are “Puncher and Wattman”?

22. Define “succedaneum”

23. What famous character in Shakespeare stated “Words, words, words,” which were said to mock an
    old, meddlesome man, and at the same time express despair about the evanescent nature of truth?

24. Who are Cain and Abel?

25. Where do the lines, “Art thou pale for weariness/ Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth”
    come from? What is the full stanza?

26. What is the meaning of the Latin phrase, “Memoria praeteritorum bonorum”?

27. If “Godot” doesn’t refer to God, what might it refer to?

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