Those hapless tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, are still waiting alongside that desolate road, with its mound of earth and lone barren tree.

Godot has not arrived, as yet – but may tomorrow. So Didi and Gogo (their fond nicknames for one another) fuss and fret, pass the time in various activities and endure the occasional intrusions of arrogant Pozzo and his beleaguered slave, Lucky.

Onlookers to this spectacle still are either perplexed or enthralled. What does it mean?

(Everything. And nothing.)

Yet the reputation of Samuel Beckett's tragicomic masterpiece "Waiting for Godot" – first produced in Paris in 1953 and given its English-language premiere in London in 1955 – has grown and grown, till it has just about outdistanced every other great play of the past century.

More than the ultimate expression of the mid-20th-century movement known as Theatre of the Absurd, "Waiting for Godot" has become a universally acknowledged classic, one of the most exhaustively analyzed and dissected works in literary history. It is produced by theaters around the world, taught in schools and referenced from high art to pop culture – its central situation a metaphor for the human predicament. As noted by Alan Schneider, who directed its U.S. premiere in 1956, "It's no longer a play, it's a condition of life."

When Beckett won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, the Nobel committee's citation proclaimed, "He has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation." As his most famous work, "Waiting for Godot" epitomizes that achievement.

In 1999, an international panel of 800 theater professionals named "Waiting for Godot" the most significant play of the 20th century.

Director Jason Nodler couldn't agree more. He says, "This play represents everything I love about making theater."

Gary Fountain, Freelance

Greg Dean, left, stars as Vladimir and Charlie Scott as Estragon, in Catastrophic Theatre's production of "Waiting for Godot."

Nodler is staging a new "Waiting for Godot" with his Catastrophic Theatre, Houston's leading avant-garde company. Opening Friday, the production reunites most of the team responsible for last year's smashing Catastrophic mounting of Beckett's "Endgame." Nodler directs Catastrophic stalwarts Greg Dean (as Vladimir), Charlie Scott (Estragon), Troy Schulze (Lucky) and Kyle Sturdivant (Pozzo).

Whereas some Theatreer of the Absurd staples, such as Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano," trade in outright nonsense and daft non sequiturs, Nodler finds "Waiting for Godot" every bit as sober (and sobering) as it is funny and sad.

"There is a common misunderstanding," Nodler says, "that Theatre of the Absurd means, literally, absurd, weird theater. Alfred Jarry (whose "King Ubu" was an early precursor of the movement) did that and helped birth 'dada.' But Beckett is up to something else. He's reflecting the feeling that life itself, the experience of it, is absurd.

"Virtually every play that interests me – that interests us, as a company – depicts life as an absurdity. The existential dilemma is never far away in our work. Everyone is going to die, so in that sense, every life is a tragedy. But even as we see the futility, we find diversions along the way, just like the characters in this play. In the play, the local and the universal situation is a tragic one – yet along the way there is a lot of comedy."

Beckett (1906-1989) was born in Ireland but moved in 1927 to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life. During World War II, he worked with the French resistance to the Nazi occupation. When faced with imminent discovery and arrest, he and his wife, Suzanne Beckett, fled by foot through the countryside, taking haven in the village of Roussillon. Some scholars view that arduous journey as an autobiographical underpinning (conscious or not) of the situation in "Waiting for Godot."

Writing the play from October 1948 to January 1949, Beckett surely was influenced by the horrors of the war and the Holocaust, not to mention the dawn of the nuclear age with its threat of annihilation to the entire human race. His response in "Waiting for Godot," and in the plays and novels to follow, would become his trademark: a blend of nihilism and gallows humor, with characters helpless against life's meaninglessness and futility, yet possessed of an inexplicable instinct to keep going.

Gary Fountain, Freelance

(For the Chronicle/Gary Fountain, March 13, 2013) Greg Dean as Vladimir, left, and Charlie Scott as Estragon, in this scene from Catastrophic Theatre's "Waiting for Godot."

"Waiting for Godot" has been controversial from the beginning, with a mixed critical reception in Paris and London. Even Peter Hall, director of the London premiere, is said to have confided to his actors, "I haven't the foggiest idea what some of it means, but if we stop and discuss every line, we'll never go on."

Irish critic Vivian Mercier called the work "a theoretical impossibility-a play in which nothing happens, that keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, (Beckett) has written a play in which nothing happens, twice!"

The 1956 U.S premiere in Miami prompted outrage. Because it starred Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell, veteran comic stars, the show was misleadingly promoted as "the laugh sensation of two continents." With the opening night audience arriving with such wrong-headed expectations, about half walked out during the play.

The Broadway premiere (with Lahr now opposite E.G. Marshall) was more respectfully received. Yet Beckett's rejection of dramatic conventions, not to mention his "vulgar" touches (i.e., characters having to "relieve themselves") still offended many.

In the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson noted "the strange power this drama has to convey the impression of some melancholy truths about the hopeless fate of the human race" – yet also deemed it "puzzling," "a mystery wrapped in an enigma."

"What does it mean?," and "Who, or what, is Godot?" became the central theme of much response, whether from critic or civilian.

The favorite speculation, that Godot must mean "God," seems supported by the similarity of the two words – until you remember that Beckett first wrote the play in French and that language's word for God is "Dieu."

Beckett had, in fact, said he'd chosen the word "Godot" for its similarity to the French "godillot," a certain kind of boot (because feet and uncomfortable boots figure so prominently in the tramps' travails).

Beckett himself said: "If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God." As early as the London production, he had tired of the widespread misunderstanding and speculation: "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can't make out."

Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn considered the meaning crystal clear: "The play tells us plainly who Godot is – the promise that is always awaited and never fulfilled."

"People talk about art as being a representation of life," Nodler says. "But life is in no way clear. We don't understand the mystery of life, or of death. Not one of us gets an answer, a meaning. In answering any questions, Beckett's operative word, his favorite word, was 'perhaps.' If he had known who Godot is, he would have put it in the play. But the characters don't know, and he doesn't know, either."

In "The History of World Theatre," Felicia Hardison Londre encapsulated the play's achievement:

"As a metaphor for the human condition, it unflinchingly depicts the bleakness of existence. (That's) exemplified by its most famous line: 'They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.' Yet that sober vision gives rise to moments of exquisite comedy, as well as the thought that the very ability to wait for something, whether it ever comes or not, is cause for celebration. 'Godot' transcends the absurdist aesthetic that it defined."


'Waiting for Godot'

When: Opens Friday; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through April 13

Where: Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway

Tickets: Pay what you can; 713-522-2723,