Samuel Beckett’s writing often seems to have a religious air about it. Take his most famous play, Waiting for Godot (1953). Two Chaplinesque tramps – Vladimir and Estragon – wait at a crossroads by a tree for someone who might provide an answer to their prayers: Mr Godot. This is a man who has a suspiciously divine white beard, who ‘does nothing’, and who remains frustratingly absent, despite repeated promises of his imminent arrival.
Vladimir and Estragon pass the time by singing, eating radishes, play acting, and arguing. One of their first bits of comic back-and-forth concerns a discrepancy between the gospels in the Bible. Why is it, Vladimir wonders, that only one of the evangelists mentions that, of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus, one had repented and was saved while the other mocked him and was damned? The penitent thief is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, but not in Matthew, Mark or John. ‘One out of four,’ mutters Vladimir. ‘Of the other three, two don’t mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.’
Estragon can’t quite see the point of Vladimir’s musings. ‘Well?’ he says. ‘They don’t agree, and that’s all there is to it.’ But Vladimir needs Luke’s version to be true. If one of the thieves was saved, he thinks, that’s a ‘reasonable percentage’. There’s a 50/50 chance of salvation. A 50/50 chance, perhaps, of getting out of the play’s purgatorial cycle of non-action. For Waiting for Godot is, as one critic quipped, a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’.