As our Philosophy in Fiction Not School group has begun to dig into Samuel Beckett's “Waiting For Godot” this month, questions about how to interpret the play have started to crop up. Who or what is Godot, and why are these guys waiting for him? What do we make of the seemingly aimless and repetitive dialogue, the bare stage, and these abstruse characters? Unless you happen to be an inmate at San Quentin, “Waiting for Godot” can be a difficult work to unlock.
One approach often taken to the play is to interpret it as existentialist drama. An association of Beckett's plays with existentialism was popularized Martin Esslin's 1961 book, "The Theatre of the Absurd" and the phrase has stuck ever since. It's not hard to see why: there are a number of reasons why existentialism might seem like the key to interpreting the play. Both Sartre and Camus were Beckett's contemporaries, and their most famous plays were being produced throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. All three joined the French Resistance during the war, and after the war Beckett chose to begin writing in French instead of English. “Waiting for Godot” (1953) has obvious thematic similarities to certain existentialist literary works. Beckett's characters find themselves suffering and alone in a world without God or prescribed meaning for human beings. But are Didi and Gogo really just two tramps in bad faith who have failed to acknowledge their radical freedom and responsibility? Is an existentialist reading the way to "get" Beckett's play?
Many people think that such a reading is at cross purposes with some aspects of the play, and one of them is University of Toronto professor Nick Mount. In this video of a talk on “Waiting for Godot”, Mount takes up the issue at about 38:05. While he agrees that Beckett's characters share an “existential angst," he argues that Sartre's faith in humanity's enduring ability to choose and to create its own meaning is nowhere to be found in the play. I think he's correct, and that this hints at another difference. Both Sartre and Camus (who had his own objections to being labeled an existentialist) wrote drama that dealt with the absurd in content, but remained traditional in form. The identity of their characters remained reliable, their situations understandable, and their knowledge dependable. In "Waiting for Godot," things are never certain; anything can be doubted. Identity has a way of sliding and perception itself is tricky. In his closing remarks, Mount says:
If the play did endorse existentialism...that would mean that one religion, one explanation has survived. And the play is about the loss of all explanations, all answers.
As for Beckett himself, he said that when he did read philosophy, it was Descartes that he went to, not the existentialists. Though he knew Sartre peripherally, he said that both Sartre and Heidegger's language was “too philosophical” for him, and that “One can only speak of what is in front of one, and that is simply a mess.” (Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist p.231-32).
By the way, there's still plenty of time to jump in on our Not School group's reading of this play. (Go sign up!) We'll be reading the play until early December when we'll do a live discussion over Skype, but some interesting discussion is already going on in the forum.