Plays in which nothing much happens are nowadays pretty routine. Harold Pinter wrote a shelf-full of them, and got the Nobel Prize for his efforts. (As, by the way, did Beckett, in 1969.) Even in the 1950s such plays were not a new thing; Eugène Ionesco had already launched his "theater of the absurd," and prototypes can be traced further back, to the Dadaists of the 1920s. Godot would not have been such a success in its time, and would not still be remembered and performed, if it did not stand at least level with both its predecessors and its successors (Pinter's plays, for instance). Very briefly speaking — and this is just my own take on the matter — the predecessors were either too nakedly nihilistic, too solipsistic, or too pointedly anti-bourgeois, while the successors were too content-free, too easily satisfied with creating a mood while offering only faint hints, if any, of what referent, what human situation, might lie behind the mood. Beckett's work stands above what came before in that line, and above what came after, for having adapted form so uniquely well to some actual content.
For Beckett's plays and other works, though nothing much happens in them, are not about nothing — are not content-free — and it is not particularly difficult to grasp their point. Beckett himself explained what he was doing very well, his reputation for secretiveness and obfuscation notwithstanding. (The first mini-biography I ever read of him, in some "Modern Dramatists" series, included the arresting sentence: "Some of his friends think he is married.") Here he is doing so in the New York Times, May 6, 1956:
I'm working with impotence, ignorance... My little exploration is the whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable — as something by definition incompatible with art.
Beckett set himself to make what he could from the dross of life, rather like those sculptors who take their raw materials from junkyards. For his later works, in fact, even that analogy is too strong. It would be more accurate to compare late Beckett with a sculptor who had decided to work with dust bunnies, lint from the spin drier, and fluff out of his navel. His raw material is, as he said, the discards, the negatives of life.
...A lot of people — this one, for example — think Beckett is all hokum. Obviously I don't agree.
In the first place, plainly Beckett was not consciously a charlatan. He toiled away, plowing his narrow furrow, until he was well into his forties, living in poverty, with very little to show for all his efforts. That doesn't guarantee quality output, of course. You could say the same of Tiny Tim, or any number of other artists who lived, and frequently died, in well-merited obscurity. It does indicate sincerity, though.
And then there is the clarity and consistency of Beckett's vision. His account of the world is not a very comforting one, and you may think it's not a true one, but it's clearly stated and thought through, it hangs together, and Beckett pulls no punches. You were surely born; you will surely die; in between, not much of consequence will happen, and you'll forget most of it by the end, anyway. "And no, there is nothing elsewhere." Our nature as creatures, however, is to keep buggering on. With any luck you'll make it through, and you may get a few laughs, and transient moments of tenderness, along the way, though likely you'll forget them too, eventually. People who think they can make sense of it all are kidding themselves; but good luck to them anyway, and to you.
Well, it's not the height of life-embracing affirmation. It's not quite nihilism, either, though, and it might very well be true. All of us, I think, have moments, at least, lying awake on a gray early morning perhaps, when we suspect it is true. When those moments arrive, here is Samuel Beckett to describe the scenery.
Complete column here
Perhaps somebody should combine all the plays where nothing much happens into one play where quite a lot happens. Suggested title: "Waiting for Happy Birthday Parties".