Who is Beckett's Godot?

Mary Bryden on Samuel Beckett's 'pop culture ghost'
Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photograph: Donn Young
It's been a great year for Beckett fans. Since 2009, Faber and Faber have continued to release beautiful new editions of the writer's prose, poetry and drama. Each text, published in affordable paperback, includes a timeline of Beckett's life and work, a glimpse at original manuscripts, and what is perhaps the definitive English edition of each respective text. It's an ambitious run of titles, covering almost everything Beckett ever wrote, which is not only reliable to academics but thoroughly accessible to newcomers.

What makes Faber's Beckett series distinctive is its attention to detail: everything from the editing of manuscripts to the final choice of typeface. Each title includes an introduction by a leading or upcoming Beckett scholar, sketching the history and impact of the work. For me, these introductions are worth the price of the series alone, each rigorously researched and fun to follow.

In the preface to Faber's new edition of Waiting for Godot, released earlier this year, Mary Bryden unravels the lasting appeal and significance of 'Godot' to Western popular culture:
Over the six decades since its first performance, Godot has been staged on countless occasions and in radically contrasting circumstances, whether by convicts in California's San Quentin Prison in 1957, or in war-torn Sarajevo in 1993, or by survivors of Hurricane Katrina in an open-air production in New Orleans in 2007. It may justifiably be claimed that the play's central figure - albeit absent, and possibly non-existent - has by now assumed his own existence, independent of both play and author. Godot is a 'pop culture ghost' [a phrase of Kim Newman's], materialising in a huge variety of cultural and commercial contexts. There is a rich Godot cartoon tradition, and job advertisements or car insurance dealers routinely enjoin readers not to carry on 'waiting for Godot' but to apply immediately. Despite his non-appearance, Godot has passed into idiom.

Pozzo's stutter of uncertainty - 'I myself in your situation, if I had an appointment with a Godin ... Godet ... Godot ... anyhow, you see who I mean, I'd wait till it was black night before I gave up' - is striking in that it combines a threatened sense of Godot's importance with an airy vagueness about his name, succeeding only on the third attempt. All the names have an identical first syllable, 'God', and some commentators have argued either that the play is a modern morality tale, a dramatisation of mankind's need - however unspoken - for a 'God'; or alternatively a post-theistic play, illustrating His/Her factitiousness, or His/Her aloofness from the travails of the created order.

Waiting is certainly a well-established concept within a number of faiths, including Christianity, but normally involves a good measure of willed anticipation and optimism. The deferred gratification represented by Godot, by contrast, is no more secure, no more imminent, by the end of the play than it is at the beginning. The only surety is the renewability of waiting. Moreover, En attendant Godot was written originally in French, a language in which god-, far from having theological associations, prefixes a range of words denoting material objects, such as godemiché [dildo], or slang usages (godiche [ninny]). The second of Pozzo's tryouts - 'Godet' - means a goblet or pot, and is used colloquially in prendre un godet [to have a jar]. These earthy, homely words are just as consonant with Vladimir and Estragon's physical extension as any spiritual referent intended to endorse their occasional glances towards the metaphysical.

Mary Bryden, 'Preface'
in Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (Faber and Faber, 2010)
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