There has perhaps never been a play so resistant to symbolic interpretations—so insistent on its simple, concrete, theatrical reality—and yet more inviting of them, than Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “Haven’t really the foggiest idea what some of it means,” said Peter Hall, the play’s first English director, during rehearsals in 1955, “but if we stop and discuss every line we’ll never open.” When the American director Alan Schneider asked Beckett, “Who or what does Godot mean?”, in reference to the mysterious unnamed character at the center (or perhaps the central absence) of the play, the infamously reticent playwright demurred. “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” Speaking to the London Critic Harold Hobson, Beckett was similarly cryptic:

“I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” That sentence has a wonderful shape.It is the shape that matters.”[1] The reference is to the parable of the two thieves crucified alongside Christ, but Beckett seems to tease the association only to disavow it.

[1] The sentence cited by Beckett is actually not in Augustine but in The Repentance of Robert Greene, printed in 1592 along with Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, which included the already-dead author’s famous attack on Shakespeare as an “upstart crow, beautified with out feathers.”

The play has proven similarly mystifying to performers. Peter Bull, the first English-language Pozzo, described rehearsals as “gloomy affairs” and the process as the most grueling of his career. Beckett didn’t show up until late in rehearsals, and he was of no use to the actors whatsoever. Moreover, his text was filled with so many repetitions and identical cues that it proved extremely difficult to memorize. On opening night, the cast made the mistake of skipping four pages in the script—and then the even greater mistake of going back and starting the scene over again. To add indignity to insult, Beckett had burdened Bull’s character, Pozzo, with bulky props and ticky-tack costume elements: an enormous overcoat, a giant watch, a pipe that must be stuffed and smoked, opera glasses, and most importantly a gigantic rope that rubbed his hands raw. Worst of all was a skintight rubber wig (“one of my major miseries”) that Ball was forced to wear beneath his bald hat, even though his bald, babylike head was only glimpsed for a few seconds. There seemed to be a method to this madness, but it was one the playwright could not explain.

Beckett attended the London production in 1955 with Alan Schneider, who was readying the American tryout. In fact, the pair went five nights in a row. According to Schneider, Beckett found it not to his taste, “interesting, though scenically over-cluttered.” Similarly, the director of the original Parisian premiere at the Théâtre de Babylone, Roger Blin, recalled that Beckett insisted that the space for Godot be absolutely empty, not “over-cluttered” with extraneous details. Beckett had approached Blin after seeing his 1949 production of August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata, and, admiring his fidelity to Strindberg’s bizarre stage directions, becoming convinced that he was the right director for his play.[2]

[2] In 1949, Beckett was in the midst of writing Godot while suffering from writer’s block for what would later become his novel, 1951’s Malone Dies. He wrote it, Beckett later recalled, “as a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing.” Interestingly, all of Beckett’s novels up to this point had been written in the first-person “I,” a form never used in his theater.

In other words, Beckett admired Blin’s literalism, even if it was in service of dramatic texts that appeared abstruse. He wanted to ensure that the space for his play would be absolutely empty, not “over-cluttered” with extraneous details. Directors and actors ever since have been flummoxed by the symbolic inscrutability and literal specificity of Beckett’s plays. Again and again, instead of explaining what his work “means,” Beckett focuses instead on specifying its concrete theatrical means, such as Pozzo’s pipe and rope. Rather than spell out his ideas, he sought instead to define their shape. And it is the shape of Waiting for Godot that constitutes its most startling and long-lasting innovation. The play has been called a summing up of all dramatic art; it is also a revolution in dramatic form. The work cannot be understood by invoking existentialism or other mid-century philosophies, its meaning is inextricably tied up in its deceptive minimalism, in its concrete theatrical materials, such as Pozzo’s pipe and rope.

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So let’s look at those materials. Two tramps stand on “A country road.” The stage is bare save for a lone tree and paper moon at the end of each act. And yet, after noticing the tree, these two tramps (named Vladimir and Estragon, but addressing each other as Didi and Gogo, like two clowns in a circus) can’t seem to agree on whether it is a tree at all (a weeping willow?), or just a bush. Maybe a shrub.

Something about the landscape of Godot, despite or perhaps because of this bareness, seems to be strangely dualistic, halfway between reality and fiction, theatrical. The closer one looks at the play, the more unreal everything seems. The same goes for the characters. In act 1, Didi (the rational one, always in search of clues for meaning), looks “wildly about him, as though the date was inscribed in the landscape,” before giving up, hopeless. In act 2, Didi asks Gogo (the irrational one, driven largely by the physical drives of hunger and pain) whether he recognizes the place. “Recognize!” Gogo replies, “What is there to recognize! All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery!”

Once you look for it, this doubleness, in the form of theatrical cues, riddles the text, transforming places into non-places, things into scenery, characters into clowns.[3] Didi describes Gogo as “a poet” in act 1, and after an Act 2 slanging match, Gogo tags Didi with the ultimate insult: “Crritic!” Halfway through each at, the bizarre Pozzo and Lucky enter (are they doubles of Didi and Gogo? doubles of doubles?), in order to perform a kind of play-within-the-play that grotesquely mirrors the love-hate plight of our main two tramps. Cued by Pozzo (“Think!”), Lucky delivers a show-stopping monologue, a stream of consciousness that renders clear Beckett’s debt to James Joyce and seems to offer a skeleton key the play’s meaning. If Lucky suggests thought turned into fragments, Pozzo proffers a clown as pompous actor and vice versa, affect curdling into self-display. He delivers the play’s only lyrical passage (a florid apostophe of the mysterious landscape, of course), stopping to ask Didi and Gogo for a review: “How did you find me? Good? Fair? Middling? Poor? Positively bad?” “Charming evening we’re having,” Didi says elsewhere, in a typically critical remark. “Worse than the pantomime.” “The circus,” Gogo corrects him.

[3] Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Didi and Gogo) are foiled by both Pozzo and Lucky  and the two Boys who appear at the end of each act (each half of a pair themselves, with offstage doppelgängers). Pozzo and Lucky appear twice, each time in reversed form (in Act 1 Pozzo is the master and Lucky the servant, in Act 2 both figures have undergone a change in fortune). There is even the “pairs” of the moon and tree, taking similar but distinctly altered form in both acts. The two acts themselves, enacting the same action (or absence of action) form a duality. Richard Schechner has identified these “duets” as forming the “musical” structure of the play, and pointed to its influence on many plays by Beckett’s contemporaries: the Professor and Pupil in Ionesco’s The Lesson, Claire and Solange in Genet’s The Maids, Peter and Jerry in Albee’s The Zoo Story. One could also add the twosomes in Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter, The Lover, and The Collection, or Lula and Clay in LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman.

The only mode of performance that seems stable in Waiting for Godot is the endlessly self-reflexive one of the popular theater. Pozzo wears the bowler hat of Charlie Chaplin. Gogo, wrestling with his boot or attempting to hang himself on a tree, continuously falls into the lazzi of the commedia dell’arte. The two main tramps’ who’s-on-first tag-team acts recall the duets of vaudeville, circus, and the music hall. Beckett would write 1965’s Film for Buster Keaton, the master of silent slapstick, after he turned down the role of Lucky, and the original American Gogo was Bert Lahr, better known to millions as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Robin Williams and Steve Martin have played Didi and Gogo, and the virtuoso Bill Irwin’s Lucky makes clear the figure’s connection to centuries of mime and clown performance. Among other things, Waiting for Godot is a profound love letter to laughter, to the sublime pleasures of theatrical escapism.

If Beckett turns again and again to lowbrow delights, however, it is mainly in order to escape from highbrow despair, the terrible waiting that constitutes the main action. The play is titled Waiting for Godot and that is precisely, literally, what Didi and Gogo do. The action, to paraphrase Aristotle, is a simple one, lacking in reversal and recognition, despite the play’s seemingly endless stream of incident.[4] Killing the time with their seemingly endless supply of theatrical games and comic business, the two tramps provide a sublime chronicle of boredom, their language streaked with ominous silences, pauses, and those maddening, impossible to memorize repetitions of non-instrumental snatches of dialogue. As each microcosmic play subsides, a sense of the yawning microcosm, a universe of existential dread, creeps back into the frame. The pervading quality of Beckett’s dramatic world, stipulated by the playwright with exacting care, is stasis, lack of change.

[4] Many actors, directors, and critics have noticed how much happens in this play where nothing seems to happen at all, in two successive acts. As Armand Salacrou observed, after seeing the performance at the Théâtre de Babylone, one well-known playwright turned to his director and remarked, “And to think that I torture my brain to invent plot. But this fellow hasn’t even scratched the surface.” Indeed, one could synopsize this play with either a short, four-word sentence–“the two tramps wait”–or by retyping the entire play itself from beginning to end.

And herein lies the sweeping, simple insight of Beckett’s genius, as well as his deep affinities with the classical tradition. In excising the traditional linear plot of the well-made play, what Aristotle termed the “soul of tragedy,” Beckett opened up the dramaturgy to new territory. By radically paring away most of the elements that had formerly constituted a play, Beckett shifted the gaze away from such stand-bys as plot, character, and thought, and onto new aesthetic virtues: the empty space, the presence of the actor, the immersive relationship between actor and audience. Excising dramatic, literary deadweight that had barnacled onto the classical tradition, Beckett revealed the underlying, naked power of the theatrical experience itself.

Ironically, Beckett relies on those very same dramatic elements for much of Godot‘s immensely powerful effect. The two tramps wait for a change on the horizon that never comes, and we wait eagerly with them, in thrall to the suspense provided by the Aristotelian unities of place, time, and action. Similarly, we wait alongside the tramps for the reversal of situation and scene of recognition that all suspect will never come, thereby proving the power of such staples through their absence. All that we are left with, classically speaking, is the tragic scene of suffering.[5]

[5] To continue the Aristotelian formulae, Gogo conforms to Aristotle’s definition of comic character, as the uglier (but not altogether vicious) man trapped in everyday struggles, whereas Didi wears the tragic mask, scouring the landscape in an Oedipal search for meaning. One could play similar Judeo-Christian meaning-hunting. Is the tree Edenic, alluding to the Fall of Man, or a Mosaic allusion to the burning bush? Is the why Beckett cited Augustine’s parable of the two thieves? Are Didi and Gogo the two thieves in the parable, one of whom was pardoned alongside Christ? Is the play enacting a latter-day Passion of the Christ for those to the right and the left? In Ibsenian terms, are they Peer Gynt and Brand? To paraphrase Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, is one the literate, theatrical Apollonian and the other an irrational channeler of Dionysian sensations? Herbert Blau has claimed that the play constitutes the culmination and summing up of the entire Western dramatic tradition, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that it stages that tradition as a bunch of red herrings. Again and again, Beckett returns us to the true undiscovered country, the vacuum of the stage.

It is possible that an innovation such as Beckett’s was made possible by the atomic age. As Darko Suvin notes, the formal characteristics of Beckett’s world (a closed system, with a persistent degradation or withering away of energy) conform to the two laws of thermodynamics as defined in Newtonian physics. The third law of thermodynamics helps to explain the play’s relationship to dramatic form: absolute zero can be approached only asymptotically. That is to say, we get ever closer to it without ever reaching it. In Waiting for Godot, Beckett radically empties the drama of all the so-called ingredients of drama, creating a kind of theatrical black hole, but the drama keeps on creeping in at the edges. We can never get to absolute zero.

Ultimately, asking such questions is beside the point. After Godot, one could still write plays in the style of Sophocles or Shakespeare. But Beckett showed how to write a play in circular time and unfixed space, one in which the creation of the world takes place every time it is performed, a play that brings the vast range of human performance into view. As Beckett put it, referring to the play’s ultimate meaning, it is the shape that matters.