Vladimir and Estragon, two “friends” are waiting for Godot, who never shows up. The domineering Pozzo shows up with his slave, Lucky. After much confusion and mistaken identity, it becomes somewhat clear that Pozzo owns the land on which Vladimir and Estragon are waiting. Estragon is invited to kick Lucky, but Lucky suddenly kicks him. Pozzo and Lucky (who has long monologue that is pretty much senseless) leave, and then a boy comes along who claims to have been sent by Godot with a message that he will come tomorrow.
Starts off much the same as Act 1, but it appears that Estragon remembers nothing that happened the day before despite Vladimir’s attempts to reconstruct the day for him. They come up with various ways to pass the time, such as hurling insults at one another or engaging in an S-M fantasy. Pozzo and Lucky come along again, but Pozzo is now blind and in great pain. He remembers nothing of the day before. Vladimir and Estragon first try to help him and then beat him with little remorse. Eventually they all get up. Then Vladimir kicks Lucky and hurts his foot. Pozzo and Lucky eventually leave. Estragon falls asleep and the same boy comes, remembering nothing of the day before, and bearing the same message from Godot. Estragon wakes up and they decide to go, but before they move, the curtain drops.
Beckett claimed that ‘the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, that critics and public alike insisted on interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition’. This gets at the crucial difference between symbol and device which runs throughout twentieth-century literature, from Howard’s End to Godot. Godot is not a symbol with a meaning (he can mean many things of course), but is rather a device with a function. Similarly, the tree on stage, while symbolizing just about everything…also manages through this very polyemy to mean very little. Rather, its function is to dramatizes the resources of signification from which we draw meaning.
Godot was written right after Watt:
‘When I was working on Watt, I felt the need to create for a smaller space, one in which I had some control of where people stood or moved, above all, of a certain light. I wrote Waiting for Godot.’ (Beckett)
Ironically, this smaller space manages to become textually voluminous in its many reference: its sparseness of form, it textual silence, is the occasion for a quasi-Lacanian appearance of the Signified—that is, its absence is registered. So, while metonymy functions in the various repetitions, the occasional broken reference, silence, syntactical “tatter,” etc. become points de capitan—i.e. the emergence of metaphor. This play, between repetitive habit and the break in that habit, is central to Beckett’s dramatic “ontology”:
Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. (Beckett)
In other words, Beckett fully accepts Freud’s notion of the death drive, but reverses its affective force by granting it creative power. The idea of an identity that constantly changes is potentially liberating, if chaotic. Elsewhere, Beckett writes, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.”