When the Paris curtain opened in 1953 the audience was faced with a minimalist set with a tree and nothing else. The first sight of ‘En Attendant Godot’ suggests its bleakest tones are presented by Beckett through visual sadness and the overall metaphysical state characters are placed in. Already parallels can be drawn between this setting and the inescapably similar picture from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter”
The only resemblance to the audience’s world is the tree and the road the characters stand on. This setting creates brooding despair; roads represents journeys and an option to travel away, or towards something and yet characters don’t move, in fact asserting “We Can’t (leave)”(i). The tree, another prop with apparently monumental importance compared to the rest of the wasteland stage, represents hope and life despite there being no hope and life ebbing away. Beckett demands for the tree to have leaves during Act 2, which symbolises spring to audiences while Vladimir and Estragon realise there’s no hope at all. It isn’t a stretch to claim Beckett had a taste for deeply depressing irony and he plays with elements of comedy and tragedy most aptly through dramatic staging. However, it’s my opinion that Beckett does create some of the most comic, and bleakest, parts of the performance through his unerring ability to manipulate language.
In Act One the words “Nothing to be done”(ii) are spoken by both Estragon and Vladimir and the statement goes on to be a crucial philosophy throughout the play of the same importance as “We’re waiting for Godot”(iii). Audiences initially find the phrase laugh-out-loud funny because it’s paired with the physical sequence of Estragon, who is ‘trying to take off his boot’(iv) whom after an exhausting battle concedes and explains to the audience there’s ‘nothing to be done’. The subtle brilliance of this line is in its most colloquial-sounding ring, which appeals to all audiences as they can relate to finding that a menial task has become so extraordinarily difficult they see no way of solving it. It is laughable that a complex human being cannot actually take off a boot, that in some way the boot has beaten the human and now he’s defeated…by a boot. This struggle is universal and appeals to audiences making the underlying question of: Why does Estragon presume that the boot is wrong? Beckett thus highlights humanity’s arrogance and pompousness. Vladimir is the messenger for this question when he tells Estragon, ‘There’s man all over blaming on his boots the fault of his feet’(v). This sentence holds many debating topics because the bootmaker made the boot perfect, as in the bootmaker thought it had no faults or he wouldn’t have sold it, similarly if we’re all in God’s image surely Estragon can have no faults either so who is wrong…God or man?
After the comic moment Vladimir ushers in undertones of suffering when he explains he too is ‘coming round to that opinion’. Although the line sounds harmless enough, Vladimir performs it away from Estragon as he looks out into space which has the implicit meaning that he’s unaware of Estragon’s physical struggle and that his response is actually more metaphysical. This exchange allows Beckett to introduce the brutal truth of the character’s situation: there’s literally nothing to be done. This corresponds to Esslin’s theory that ‘Waiting for Godot’ contains “a sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition”(vi). The characters are trapped in this barren featureless setting, waiting for someone they cannot define as they ‘wouldn’t know him if I saw him’(vii), unable to have any influence on proceedings which govern their lives.
Through his exploitation of language Beckett also challenges the way humanity operates in the world, and ultimately how the disjointed confusing plot of the play parallels our place in the universe. In ‘Waiting for Godot’ one conversation that exploits the way humanity operates is:
“Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.
Vladimir: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.” (viii)
Audiences find this hilarious due to Estragon’s optimism in their plight and the sudden shift in mood that can be seen onstage is also humorous because it’s so abstract and unjustified. The added element of Vladimir’s dismissal of Estragon’s comment and the dismissal of optimism is a beautiful contrast which gains audience laughter, but also supports the hypothesis they’re a double act and completely reliant on each other. Another nice example of this double act is:
“Vladimir: What do they say?
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To live is not enough for them.
Estragon: They have to talk about it.” (ix)
The double act is vital as a device to exploit language and the claim of “The two most important sets of characters in the play occur in pairs”(x). A 1953 audience would have recognised Laurel and Hardy’s silhouettes in Estragon and Vladimir, making their world closer to the audience’s, but still miles away. In this passage Beckett’s technique of the double act is actualised to make a point about the existentialist nature of humanity and our need to rationalise individual experience by explaining it to others. The characters complete each other’s sentences which gives the impression of pondering so the audience understands Beckett wants them to think about the short conversation. The word ‘magician’ carries the bleakest undertones because it carries ideas of illusion and trickery, therefore Beckett wants to portray to audiences that our attempts to maintain the logic that we exist is actually a form of trickery; a skill which we’ve acquired over the years but is untrue.
This eloquent point has history in the movement after World War Two (which Beckett experienced) in which society believed it was decaying. The comforts that help them move through their lives, such as order, could no longer be depended on. Comedy still remains in the dark outlook on society because characters are living in a world they pretend to understand, but actually don’t. There’s a style of dramatic irony at work as the audience looks into the realm of Estragon, Lucky, Pozzo and Vladimir with arrogance as they understand things characters don’t, such as the fact Godot won’t arrive. Interestingly, the world created by the theatrical stage would look into the audience’s world with similar arrogance as they know things the audience doesn’t, this is what Beckett’s trying to explain to us; the audience doesn’t understand their world’s nature as well as they think. However, it could be argued only the bleak undertones come from the manipulation of language and the comedy comes from the character’s visual display to audiences. One critic argues,
“The stage directions of the play constitute nearly half of the text, suggesting that the actions, expressions, and emotions of the actors are as important as the dialogue”(xi)
This is a strong argument because the audience responds mainly to the presentation of the lines, which could be considered the performance rather than the actual language.
Beckett once said, “If by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot” (xii) but I don’t believe this is the end of the ‘God is Godot’ debate and I also believe this is one of Beckett’s greatest manipulations of language. The play begins with Estragon explaining he spent the night ‘in a ditch’ (xiii) and a group of people ‘beat’ him. These events are very close to ‘The Good Samaritan’ biblical parable except this time there’s no Samaritan. This carries the explicit meaning that Estragon is without God, he receives no help from outside sources and no redemption. Compare this with Vladimir who takes the ‘Book of Job’ approach and claims Estragon must have done something wrong to get beaten. Estragon goes onto challenge Godot’s, or God’s, power when he tells Vladimir they are ‘not tied?’ (xiv). However, he says it ‘feebly’ and then they both get scared that Godot’s coming, the implication being he will punish them for losing their obedience. Beckett plays with audience ideas on Godot’s nature when the boy describes him as having a ‘white beard’ which is drawing links between Godot and God which is laid out so obviously compared to the rest of the play that audiences are surprised, then they laugh. Beckett continues to make us think about God’s nature using Lucky’s speech. It begins with an almost academic presentation on religion but then descends into rambling nonsensical rubbish which ends ‘in spite of the tennis’. I interpreted this as meaning ‘for reasons unknown’ which is a beautiful way to describe God’s relationship with man as humanity can never draw any definite conclusions about him.
In conclusion, Beckett creates the bleakest moments using his manipulation of language because it’s the words that resonate and make us think about the Beckett’s themes. The comedy isn’t brought out by exploitation of language as much as the stage directions and the physical oddities, which are of a more visual element.
i) Pg. 6, Vladimir
ii) Pg.1, Estragon
iii) Pg. 6, Vladimir
iv) Pg. 1 Stage Direction
v) Pg. 3 Vladimir
vi) Esslin, Theatre of the Absurd
vii) Pg. 16, Estragon
viii) Pg. 61
ix) Pg. 54
xii) Samuel Beckett , Wikipedia ‘Waiting for Godot’
xiii) Pg. 1
xiv) Pg. 12