Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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. It went on the become one of the most famous and most widely performed existentialist dramas in the world.

Summary of Event

En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), an avant-garde tragicomic play, was written by Samuel Beckett between 1947 and 1949. First performed on January 5, 1953, in Paris, the play soon gained worldwide attention, as did Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd movement of which he was a part. 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. Waiting for Godot (Beckett) Existentialism;drama Theater;existentialism Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd [kw]Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity (Jan. 5, 1953) [kw]Existential Theme of Absurdity, Waiting for Godot Expresses the (Jan. 5, 1953) [kw]Absurdity, Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of (Jan. 5, 1953) Waiting for Godot (Beckett) Existentialism;drama Theater;existentialism Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd [g]Europe;Jan. 5, 1953: Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity[04060] [g]France;Jan. 5, 1953: Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity[04060] [c]Theater;Jan. 5, 1953: Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity[04060] Beckett, Samuel Sartre, Jean-Paul Camus, Albert Ionesco, Eugène Joyce, James Nietzsche, Friedrich

The first review of the Paris production, by Sylvain Zegel Zegel, Sylvain , 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 Mannes, Marya , 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. The fact that nothing happens was the main point in the play; moreover, 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. These proponents 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 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. The rescue is to come from a mysterious Godot, who never arrives. It is worth noting that the word “God” is part of Godot’s name. In the very opening line of the play, Estragon, while unsuccessfully trying to pull his boot off, states “nothing to be done” and then gives up trying. Later, Estragon decides that it is time to go. This prompts Vladimir to remind him that they cannot go, since they are “waiting for Godot.”

The expectation that Godot will come and that things will improve may be a thinly veiled Christian allegory. The cycle of vain discussions, philosophical musings, arguments, and antics followed by the upshot that they must wait for Godot is repeated, over and over again, throughout the remainder of the two-act play. 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.

Two strangers appear on the scene, a cruel master, Pozzo, and a placating intellectual slave, Lucky. Pozzo is a powerful tyrant who is proven to be as dependent on his slave as he is in control of him. The master-slave relationship of Pozzo and Lucky puts Vladimir and Estragon’s democratic relationship into amiable relief. Although Vladimir and Estragon disparage each other, they do it as equals, lending an affectionate quality to their bantering. At the end of act 1, Lucky and Pozzo leave, and a messenger from Godot arrives. The messenger is a youthful goatherd who reports that Godot will come the next evening. Act 2 is essentially the same, except that Lucky has been struck dumb while Pozzo is blind. This might be seen as a positive development, with an unhealthy relationship proven self-destructive while the two existential tramps are proven to be survivors. The otherwise monotonous repetition in act 2 enhances the effect that nothing happens.


The impact of Waiting for Godot in the areas of experimental theater, philosophy, theology, and cultural criticism was revolutionary. The Theater of the Absurd was practically defined by the play. Traditionally, theater attempted to provide a standard intellectual and emotional catharsis for the audience. It acted as an agent that helped 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. The absurdity of the play brought audience members face to face with their own spiritual schizophrenia. Viewers were 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 caught 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. Even thirty-five years after the Paris production, Geoffrey Strickland, a critic who argued that the play was a disappointment, conceded that art as original as this runs the risk of total failure. The play continued to receive mixed reactions.

Waiting for Godot reflects an era in which traditional frames of reference were no longer viable. Friedrich 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.

By confronting the audience with an image of its own unrepressed disintegration, Waiting for Godot facilitates the individual in integrating the forces that would dissociate him or her. Viewing the play resembles a cultural therapeutic session in which the patient’s denial of dysfunction is exposed. Through the differing worldviews represented by the four characters, Beckett has rendered an analysis of several different approaches to human fulfillment. Jungian analyst Eva Metman has suggested that the approaches taken by Estragon and Vladimir will fail, because the act of waiting for Godot functions to keep them unconscious.

Although the brutal materialism displayed by Pozzo and Lucky rejects any myth of salvation, they fail stupendously in their sadomasochistic dance, which leads to their deterioration and collapse in act 2. The possibility of a third approach, searching for fulfillment in himself, is implied by Vladimir, but the implication is not followed through. Many contemporary thinkers of the existential, new age, humanistic psychology, and Eastern religious movements might concur with this third approach. It is a mistake, however, to look for a single correct interpretation of Waiting for Godot, since the play captures the inherent ambiguity of life itself.

Waiting for Godot is remembered as Beckett’s most significant play and a major contribution to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Samuel Beckett[Beckett] 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 midcentury 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. Waiting for Godot (Beckett) Existentialism;drama Theater;existentialism Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater of the Absurd

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, Ruby, ed. Casebook on “Waiting for Godot.” New York: Grove Press, 1967. The impact of Beckett’s modern classic play is reviewed, analyzed, and interpreted. This collection of thirty classic reviews and essays provides the reader with an excellent grasp of the diversity of opinion on the play. A humbled Norman Mailer’s recanting second review, written seven years after his first scathing one, graphically depicts the ability of the play to hold a viewer until either the viewer or the play changes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cousineau, Thomas.“Waiting for Godot”: Form in Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Superb graduate-level work for the serious student of Beckett and theater. This book includes an annotated, up-to-date bibliography covering twenty-one secondary book-length works and seventeen articles on the subject. The author provides a very insightful handling of the dramaturgical, philosophical, and broad historical implications of the play.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Croall, Jonathan. The Coming of Godot: A Short History of a Masterpiece. London: Oberon, 2005. An examination of the first English-language production of Waiting for Godot (directed by Peter Hall), of Hall’s 2004 revival of the play, and of its production history during the fifty intervening years. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esslin, Martin, ed. Samuel Beckett. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. A collection of critical essays including Esslin’s own, which places the play in historical context. A rare recorded interview of Beckett being questioned about his views on art is included. Thirteen authors contributed to provide a fairly diverse coverage of issues and views on topics ranging from the Beckett hero to the implicit philosophy of Beckett’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Lois. Reading Godot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Comprehensive introduction to the play, written for students and scholars alike. Examines the play scene by scene, providing close readings, biographic details, and philosophical and cultural interpretations. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, James, and Bonnie Nelson. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. Although somewhat dated, this work provides an excellent introductory exposition of Beckett’s structure, style, symbolism, and impact on future theater. The authors include a detailed treatment of the philosophical and psychological significance of Waiting for Godot. Especially recommended for the person who has time to read only one work on the subject.

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Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd

Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage

The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism

Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced

Categories: History