Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot first premiered on 5th January, 1953. The play has since earned a reputation as one of those things students and intellectuals should read, watch, and comprehend as a work of art.
You’re smart, right? Cultured? Then you should have read, and WATCHED, a bit of Waiting for Godot! But the reality is it’s an often baffling play—many people find it pretentious. Others just dull.
But exploring its intricacies has become a literary and theatrical pastime, so let’s have a gander at what Beckett was aiming for.
Waiting for Godot is the Artsy Existential Epic About Nothing and Everything
Beckett (1906-1989) spent most of his adult life living in Paris and wrote in English and French. This play was actually written in the latter first (En attendant Godot), before he translated it into English.
The genre? Well, it’s a tragicomedy.
The play premiered in Paris at the Théâtre de Babylone. The English language run was in 1955, starting off in London.
It stars Estragon and Vladimir, two bedraggled older gentleman a bit down on their luck.
In stage productions, they’re often portrayed as tramps. Although Beckett never expressly indicated this should be the case.
As the play opens, Estragon and Vladimir meet under a tree that has no leaves. They then proceed to idle and debate whilst they wait for an enigmatic person called Godot. However, Godot never turns up.
Frustrated with the waiting, the duo has an ever-escalating existential crisis whilst contemplating life, death, and suicide. It’s kind of like Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) as a stage play.
And depending on the stage production, the tone of the show can vary. Waiting for Godot can be played as a:
- Funny romp along played for laughs.
- Staggering tragedy contemplating the impossibility of being.
- Artsy-fartsy showcase of one’s vastly superior intelligence.
As there’s no denying Beckett’s play often succumbs to pretentiousness. Its opening is quite baffling and many people find it hard going.
But if you stick with it (depending on the production you’re watching), there’s a tremendous story about the absurdity of existence here. It’s a contemplation on life and the passage of time.
Plus, its vagaries mean it’s a literary pedant’s dream.
You could spend a lifetime dissecting its intricacies, most notably regarding the AWOL Godot. Some argue Godot isn’t even a person—the two tramps are simply awaiting death as they relentlessly pontificate.
“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance … at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say?”
It’s entered into theatrical lore and is just one of those plays you feel the need to see. Often to prove your cultural knowhow as a rites of passage kind of thing.
Plus, it’s a chance for a beard stroking sense of superiority if you want to wax lyrical abouts its themes, purpose, and those many vagaries.
But it is a stage play. It’s not really something you read. And there have been many notable productions since the original premiere in 1953.
Hark! Look at this one! There was a major run back in 2013 with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart. Now that’s one we’d love to have seen!
There have also been productions with female characters as Estragon and Vladimir.
Beckett was thoroughly against the idea, objecting in 1988 about Dutch theatre company De Haarlemse Toneelschuur’s all-female production.
He actually brought an unsuccessful lawsuit forward to try and stop the company’s show. As he lost, he put a ban on all productions involving women in Holland. This was eventually overruled in 1991 by a judge, on the basis that Beckett’s objection was read out verbatim before the beginning of each show.
Just how goddamn ridiculous do you need to be?
From what we’ve researched, that doesn’t seem to be down to sexism from Beckett. More that he was so passionate in his creative vision, as it were, that he couldn’t stand for interpretations that didn’t meet his original concept.
Yet Godot is so wildly open to different interpretations and functions off its lack of clarity. And theatre is all about innovation and creativity, so we don’t get why he was being such a fusspot there.
And that nonsense kind of sums up Waiting for Godot; enigmatic, baffling, and steeped in an ever-growing sense of meandering wisdom.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but its influence is undeniable.
You can see it far and wide in films such as Withnail & I (1987), TV shows like Red Dwarf (see episodes such as Marooned), and The Simpsons. But one comedy duo liked the concept so much they took things a step further…
Bottom: Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s Waiting for Godot Inspiration
One of the most famous productions of Waiting for Godot starred English comedy legends Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson.
The West End show was directed by Les Blair and opened on 30th September 1991.
As you’d expect with these two, the focus was very much on the humour within the play. As opposed to the pontificating on the nature of life and all that.
Despite a lot of press coverage about the production with The Young Ones’ stars, no one thought to record a performance for posterity (this perhaps wasn’t helped by the sniffy reviews from the British media, from the tabloids to the broadsheets).
As far as we’re aware, the above (and below) clips are all that remains of the show’s run. And that’s bloody annoying.
Much has been made of this production, as at exactly the same time the comedy duo’s sitcom Bottom began on TV. And you can see a lot of inspirations from Beckett’s play.
But despite a lot of media indicating Godot was directly responsible for inspiring Bottom, the sitcom was recorded earlier in the year.
Series one of Bottom hit the BBC on 17th September 1991.
But Mayall and Edmondson, who studied drama at Manchester University in the 1970s, would have been well aware of Beckett’s work. And Godot is clearly a big inspiration—it’s just not entirely responsible for the hit BBC show.
Bottom is about Richie and Eddie, two hopeless losers at the bottom of society meandering their way through existence.
However, the show cut out a lot of Godot’s obfuscations in favour of slapstick, cartoonish humour and violence. Thanks to its intelligently vulgar approach, it was accessible for a wider market.
And you can see it in full effect across episodes such as Culture, where the pair battle through their staggering boredom and pointlessness.
The purpose of the series was to explore the crass underbelly of working-class, dreary pointlessness and the absurdity of it all.
After the BBC series was a hit, Mayall and Edmondson took the idea to its logical extreme and channelled their inner Becketts even further.
They turned Bottom into a very successful stage play, which peaked with Bottom Live 2: The Big Number 2 Tour in 1995.
Silly scatological humour aside, it’s a biting satire on the monarchy system as portrayed by hapless subservients Richie and Eddie; living in squalor whilst worshipping the elite.
For us, it was the creative peak for the pair. It remains an anarchic, energetic, and razor sharp satire that digs deep into Richie and Eddie’s manic psyches.
It’s also the culmination of the comedy duo’s creative flirting with Waiting for Godot, delivering something far more accessible and enjoyable through its charming absurdities.