Waiting for Godot, published by Samuel Beckett in 1949, is a play in which two characters are waiting for someone who never comes. If you wanted to impress someone, you would say Waiting for Godot is an absurdist play that explores themes of existentialist philosophy. The sheer emptiness and randomness of the plot causes the audience (or reader) to wonder if anything is going to happen, and whether there is any meaning in anything in the play – or in life.
Samuel Beckett originally wrote the play in French, with the title En attendant Godot. (Two guesses what that means in French.) The work was revolutionary for what it lacked: real plot, discernible character development, and any sort of adherence to dramatic traditions. It was a hit – everyone loves a rebel – and the play became a cornerstone of "Le Théâtre de l'Absurde," or Theatre of the Absurd, a dramatic body of work largely defined by the characteristic traits of Godot.
Beckett himself translated the play into English – his first language – shortly after, and the play’s success continued. The amount of criticism spawned by Godot is staggering and revolves both around the play’s literary merits and its value as a philosophical work. In 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his revolutionary contribution to drama and literature.
Let’s say it’s a rainy, Saturday afternoon, and you’re sitting inside on your living room floor with your friend – let’s say his name is Bob. There’s nothing to do. You have one of those excellent, "What do you want to do?" "I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?" conversations for about an hour and find that, sadly, it’s still raining and, even sadder, there’s still nothing to do.
Then your friend suggests that you watch Zoolander.
Great! Unfortunately, in our scenario, you’ve watched Zoolander every day for the last ten years. OK, fine, so Bill suggests playing jacks (apparently your friend’s name has changed to Bill and our scenario is now in the 1950s). Unfortunately, you’ve also played jacks every day for the last ten years. You can see where this is going.
Next your friend, now named Brad, suggests stealing a car. No, you tell him, you’re not allowed to steal a car. Neither of you manage to conclude that, actually, you COULD steal a car if you wanted to, it’s just that you don’t want to face the consequences. So you go back to doing nothing.
Are you still here? Good. OK, so we’ve hit on three big Existentialist tenets in our little scenario: 1) the world is absurd (that’s why your friend’s name keeps changing). 2) In the words of our favorite highway tramp, "Habit is a great deadener," and 3) everyone has radical personal freedom, but with that comes radical personal responsibility.
So now you’ve got three big ideas to ponder. Is that it? Hardly. There’s more. WAY more. But it’s not like you can expect us to encapsulate the entire human condition in a simplistic exchange between a couple of guys sitting around with nothing to do…