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Samuel Beckett | Biography

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Samuel Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, in Foxrock, in County Dublin, Ireland. As a youth, Beckett experienced severe bouts of depression that kept him bedridden; he reflected, "I had little talent for happiness," an observation that would later provide an undercurrent in much of his writing. From 1923 to 1927, he studied Romance languages at Trinity College in Dublin, and in 1928 he moved to Paris to teach. In Paris, he became a friend of another Irish author for a time, James Joyce. Beckett briefly returned to Ireland to teach in 1930. After traveling in Europe, he settled in Paris, France, in 1937. When World War II broke out, Ireland remained neutral, so Beckett was able to stay in Paris even after the Germans invaded. He became active in the French Resistance and, after members of his resistance group were arrested, he and his then-companion (later wife) Suzanne Déschevaux-Dumesnil fled to rural France for the remainder of the war, surviving on Beckett's farm work.

Returning to Paris after World War II, Beckett produced many of his best-known works. Waiting for Godot was originally written in French (En attendant Godot). Beckett felt his mastery of the conventions of English concealed what he was trying to express, and the French tongue offered him a better medium for his ideas. He later translated Waiting for Godot into English himself.

In Waiting for Godot, Beckett addresses an essential question of existence in two acts that mirror each other: Why do humans exist? Vladimir and Estragon, because they are logical beings, assume there is a point to their lives. With no confirmation, they have made an appointment with Godot, who may or may not be real. The audience is presented with two sets of characters: one pair—Vladimir and Estragon—waits passively, and another pair—Pozzo and Lucky—fills the time with purposeless journeying. Beckett claimed his works begin where the implied happy endings of other literary works leave off. He strips away the false rewards of power, wealth, or marriage to present concentrated sparseness as a means of exploring existential questions. The absurdity and humor in his works are meant to liberate his viewers from the angst of these questions. He intends to free his viewers from the experience of trying to make sense of the senseless.

The original French version of the play, En attendant Godot, was performed in full for the first time in Paris at the Théâtre de Babylone in 1953. Despite Beckett's inexperience in theater, this first play required only superficial revisions during the rehearsals. Early audiences were bored, confused, and even angered by the play. Some critics disliked its rejection of purpose and meaning. Others, however, immediately recognized the play's revolutionary importance. Sylvain Zegel, who wrote the first review of the production, observed that Vladimir and Estragon represent all of humanity, trying to achieve at least the illusion of living.

It didn't take long for the play's popularity to spread. In 1953, an inmate of Lüttringhausen prison in Germany, having gotten a copy of the script, translated it into German and performed it with his fellow inmates. He wrote to Beckett that the harshness of life and the endless waiting depicted in the play resonated strongly with the prisoners. The first English-language performance, directed by Peter Hall at the Arts Theatre in London in 1955, was received with mixed reviews. Despite Hall's opinion that the dialogue was "real dramatic poetry," critic Philip Hope-Wallace called the language flat. Fortunately, the critic for the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson, was hooked, and the public soon caught what Hall later called "Godotmania."

Since then, Waiting for Godot has been performed in many different ways around the world. Beckett famously insisted that productions of the play remain faithful to his original dialogue, setting, and stage directions. Actors and directors, however, continue to put their own spin on performances. In a 1988 production at New York's Lincoln Center, superstar comic Robin Williams, playing Estragon, couldn't resist interrupting Lucky's monologue with antics and verbal outbursts. Also in 1988, the Dutch Haarlem Toneelschuur Theater staged an all-female production, despite Beckett's objections. A Classical Theater of Harlem production in 2006 set the play in flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Beckett, a master of form, strove throughout his life to produce plays, poetry, and prose pared down as much as possible to address essential questions of human existence. Come and Go (1967) contains only 121 words; "Lessness" (1970) comprises only 30 sentences, each appearing two times; and Rockaby (1980) runs for a duration of 15 minutes.

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. He died on December 22, 1989, in Paris.

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