Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1952 – En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), by Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, which he wrote first in French, looks squarely at ‘humanity in ruins’ after the second World War – but still finds ways to be funny, touching and oddly beautiful

Waiting for Godot: Lucien Raimbourg, Jean Martin, Pierre Latour and Roger Blin in Blin’s production of En Attendant Godot at Théâtre de Babylone, in Paris, in 1953. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty

Waiting for Godot: Lucien Raimbourg, Jean Martin, Pierre Latour and Roger Blin in Blin’s production of En Attendant Godot at Théâtre de Babylone, in Paris, in 1953. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty

 

In August 1945 Samuel Beckett left Dublin for the Normandy town of St Lô to work as a “quartermaster/interpreter” at an Irish Red Cross hospital. As a member of the circle around James Joyce in Paris in the 1930s Beckett was already part of French life. He had done important and highly dangerous work for the Resistance and had fled to a remote rural village when his cell was betrayed to the Gestapo.

St Lô, to which Beckett travelled after a visit to his mother in Ireland, was a postapocalyptic landscape, the vast majority of its buildings destroyed in bombing by the Allies after the D-Day invasion the previous year. There Beckett came face to face with what he called, in a script he wrote for Radio Éireann, “humanity in ruins”.

Briefly back in his mother’s house in Dublin in 1946, Beckett experienced a moment of clarity that changed not just his own work but also the artistic texture of the postwar world. He saw it as a ruined humanity to which he must give voice.

Beckett’s great revolution was his embrace of all the things that artists had always regarded as useless: failure, inarticulacy, the inability to express. As he put it in a New York Times interview in 1956, Joyce was “tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance.”

Joyce’s method was to try to include in his work every possible aspect of life, but Beckett realised that his must take the opposite course – to take away as much as possible. “I realised,” he later told his biographer James Knowlson, “that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding.”

The result of this liberation was a torrent of work that overturned two art forms – fiction and theatre – in a “frenzy of writing” that lasted from 1946 to 1953. To further liberate himself Beckett began to write in French. Among the fruits of this extraordinary burst of creativity were the astounding novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable.

As “relief” from this exploration of humanity surviving on the very edge of extinction Beckett turned to theatre. He wrote a play, Eleutheria, but withdrew it. Then, between October 1948 and January 1949, he wrote En Attendant Godot.

The situation was simple: two tramps wait by a rather pitiful tree for a saviour figure who does not arrive; two other men come and go; the same basic action (or inaction) repeated. But the play was like nothing anyone had written before, an entirely original mixture of music-hall clowning and existential philosophy, of low farce and poetic yearning, of cruelty and compassion.

After it was published, in October 1952, and first staged in Paris, in January 1953, early audiences and critics struggled to understand what the tramps Vladimir and Estragon symbolised. The truth was that the play was not a symbol of anything. It was about itself: the experience of being in a darkened room waiting for something to happen, and hanging on long after the hopes of meaning have evaporated.

Yet the absurdity of Godot can be overstated. It is not “about” nothing; oppression, violence, the “charnel house” of Europe’s recent history are stamped all over it. Over time what would come to seem most remarkable about the play is not its alleged nihilism but the degree to which it looks squarely at “humanity in ruins” and still finds ways to be funny, touching and oddly beautiful.

You can read more about Samuel Beckett in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.