Two men waiting, for another whom they know only by an implausible name which may not be his real name. A ravaged and blasted landscape. A world that was ampler and more open once, but is permeated with pointlessness now. Mysterious dispensers of beatings. A man of property and his servant, in flight. And the anxiety of the two who wait, their anxiety to be as inconspicuous as possible in a strange environment (“We’re not from these parts, Sir.”) where their mere presence is likely to cause remark.
It is curious how readers and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of the play, that it resembles France occupied by the Germans, in which its author spent the war years. How much waiting must have gone on in that bleak world; how many times must Resistance operatives—displaced persons when everyone was displaced, anonymous ordinary people for whom every day renewed the dispersal of meaning—have kept appointments not knowing whom they were to meet, with men who did not show up and may have had good reasons for not showing up, or bad, or may even have been taken; how often must life itself not have turned on the skill with which overconspicuous strangers did nothing as inconspicuously as possible, awaiting a rendezvous, put off by perhaps unreliable messengers, and making do with quotidian ignorance in the principal working convention of the Resistance, which was to let no one know any more than he had to.
We can easily see why a Pozzo would be unnerving. His every gesture is Prussian. He may be a Gestapo official clumsily disguised.
Here is perhaps the playwright’s most remarkable feat. There existed, throughout a whole country for five years, a literal situation that corresponded point by point with the situation in this play, so far from special that millions of lives were saturated in its desperate reagents, and yet no spectator ever thinks of it. Instead the play is ascribed to one man’s gloomy view of life, which is like crediting him with having invented a good deal of modern history.
Hugh Kenner, from A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett