Waiting for Godot
Review of Samuel Beckett’s Play, Waiting for Godot
The Theater of the Absurd
The play, Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, tells the story of two tramps (Estragon and Vladimir) who wait for a mysterious man named Godot. Waiting for Godot is an unconventional story, not only are its event are random and sporadic, but the two acts of the play are also almost completely identical to one another. Beckett’s work portrays the philosophical ideal of absurdism, or the belief that human beings exist in a purposeless universe. It is through the work’s language, ambiguity of time throughout the play, and overall anticlimactic wait for Godot that Beckett introduces the theater of the absurd and the idea that human struggles are futile in the senseless and chaotic world which they live in.
The theater of the absurd is most obviously seen in Beckett’s language, particularly in the work’s dialogue. Language, a way to show communication, is traditionally provokes understanding and comprehension in the audience. In Waiting for Godot, however, language is meant to confuse readers and viewers. This is because absurdists believe that language is a flawed as communication. Beckett uses the cyclical nature of the novel and the character’s conversations to shows this belief. This is exemplified through the two protagonists’ conversations. Often, Vladimir and Estragon will participate in broad, open conversations that have little meaning and to which no conclusion is reached. While they talk for the majority of the work, their conversations are shallow. Though they have the potential to be meaningful, the characters, never reach a level of deep understanding. This is best exemplified in Act One, when Vladimir and Estragon discuss the story of Jesus saving a thief who was crucified next to him. They discuss the absurdity that people believe this version of the story, despite “…all four [disciples] were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved.” (Act 1, Beckett). They then conclude that “…people are bloody ignorant apes…” (Act, 1 Beckett). Though this is a deep and philosophical thought, Vladimir and Estragon barely scratch the surface of the topic quickly settle on a conclusion that people are ignorant. Their lack of understanding coincides with absurdist beliefs that everything is meaningless. Even though the two discuss the crucifixion and come to a rather wise conclusion, ultimately it does not matter because everything is meaningless, not matter what level of understanding one has of the topic. Beckett also breaks conventional language rules to convey absurdism. In the play, pauses, or the lack thereof, are just as important as the words spoken by characters. Many of the characters ramble without any pauses of punctuation to end sentences. This is most obvious in Lucky’s rant in Act One, when he proclaims, “…it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labors of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished…” (Act 1, Beckett). This is a stream of consciousness that lasts almost two pages without any form of sentence ending punctuation. Ramblings such as this further the idea in absurdist works that language is not used as a tool to provoke understanding, but rather prohibits comprehension.
The ambiguity of time in Waiting for Godot is a contradiction to traditional theater and represents the meaningless of structure in life. In traditional playwriting, events are shown throughout a definite period of time and the amount of time passed from beginning to end of the play is very clear. This is not the case in Waiting for Godot. In this work, the exact date which the events of the novel take place are never known and the only evidence that time is passing is though the characters’ eccentric, “filler” actions that have little impact on the play’s plot. Time is cyclical; in fact, the two acts are almost identical to each other. This ambiguity induces feelings of monotony and dullness and invokes a feeling of hopelessness. The meaninglessness of time correlates to Beckett’s belief that one’s efforts in life are futile. This is best exemplified in act two when almost every character wakes to find they do not remember any events from the previous act, as Estragon states, “…It’s possible. I didn’t [remember] anything. ..” (Act 2, Beckett). This shows how unimportant time is to the characters in the play. They forget what they do in the past and this recursive nature, emphasized by the duplicity in the two acts, shows how meaningless their efforts and lives are. The lack of remembrance signifies that memory is flawed and that previous actions do not affect the future and are hence, worthless.
The theater of the absurd is best recognized in the anticlimatic events throughout Waiting for Godot. There is no climax and Godot never arrives. Even in terms of movement, Vladimir and Estragon are virtually static and refuse to move from their spot under the tree as they wait for Godot. The characters fill their time with petty, meaningless actions, which are repeated in both acts. However, Beckett gives a little hope to his audience saying that one can change this hopelessness by breaking the cyclical routine of time. Like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, humans continuously wait for things that never come (this could be religion or a purpose in life), while living mechanical, dull lives. Vladimir and Estragon often suggest they leave saying, “Well, shall we go?/Yes, let’s go.” (Act 1 and 2, Beckett), but “They do not move.” (Act 1 and 2, Beckett). After suggesting and agreeing to move, none of the characters actually move. This lack of action occurs at the end of both acts, emphasizing its meaning. This is symbolism directed toward the majority of humans. It points out the idiocracy of the majority of people who announce their plans of change, but don’t actually go through with their plans. Beckett is trying to convey that there is no purpose in life if one continues to wait; waiting is what makes life worthless.
In his play, Beckett defies the laws of traditional theater and introduces the theater of the absurd. The theater of the absurd emphasizes the senselessness of the world and the absurdity and meaningless of human existence. In Waiting for Godot, this meaninglessness shown in the play by language, ambiguity of time, and the anticlimactic lack of action.
After the Bomb – a study into the mindset of the Cold War Era
After the chaos of the atomic bomb and the carnage of World War II, precedence was placed on government constructs to supply order to a tense climate, particularly in finding direction in a new ‘East versus West’ conflict. In John Le Carre’s mid-twentieth century novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the propagated glamorisation of the political-spy role acts as a foil to the bureaucratic, utilitarian characterisation of the Circus setting, wherein it’s façade projects an air of legitimacy to an ideologically confused populace. Thus political agency becomes an answer to the era’s stasis, as dialogue illuminates Leamas’ profession as an escape from the ennui and anxiety of a nuke-threatened existence. Similarly in Francis Coppola’s 1970s film Apocalypse Now, paranoia in the threat of Communism and the Bamboo Curtain incites the American soldiers’ sense of duty, as the military construct symbolically relies on violence to create a sense of power and security in an apathetic modern society. Contrastingly, whilst attempts to find purpose meet disillusioned success, the ephemeral questioning of America’s Democracy, particularly in the hypocritical Vietnam crusade, dissuades the legitimacy of the central government’s political direction and responsibility, as symbolised by Willard’s loss of innocence and journey towards immorality. Samuel Becket’s mid-Twentieth Century play Waiting for Godot supports this conception as well, as the titular religious question subverts the presence of salvation, from which the political paradigm loses sway in the face of spiritual and ideological emptiness. Thus, government polity cannot overturn a sense of powerlessness and anxiety in the post-bomb era.
As the nuclear-weapons race places universal desolation within threatening proximity, finding purpose and meaning is found in political agency. In Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, federal propaganda plays into this social vulnerability, wherein the glamorisation of the political-spy role is explored through the archetypically masculine depiction of Leamas as both emotionally and physically resilient, as illustrated in “remorseless” and “hard”. In an anxious climate still reeling from the morally questionable actions of WWII, a return to this traditional, conservative structure allows for the confronting truths of the modern era to be masked by “the same banality”, from which a sense of stability and order returns. Thus, delusion presents itself as a basis for which order can be found. This is expressed through the characterisation of the Circus setting as a foil to the glamorised federal construct, wherein the bureaucratic, utilitarian and often dehumanising nature of the institution, particularly in the portrayal of Leamas as an “ends and means” in the court scene, contrasts to the public’s sense of Western individualism as a moral basis. This represents the sense of loss experienced by the Cold-War populace, for which the repetition of “not knowing” underlines the social paradigms desperate search for legitimacy, order and meaning in an ideologically-confused setting, and its subsequent misplacement in the government polity. This is further expressed through dialogue, wherein Leamas’ profession acts as an escape from the ennui of a nuclear-threatened society as, ironically, the position gives him a sense of purpose and power despite the threat’s continued prevalence. This is illustrated in “…playing cowboys and Indians to brighten [his] rotten little life”.
Paranoia creates the same effect in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, wherein the social paradigm’s search for power in a vulnerable landscape incites America’s political involvement in Vietnam, specifically to curb the Bamboo Curtain and the threat of Communism in Asia. In order to supplant this ideological threat, the central government promotes the effort as an American responsibility; a military “mission”. This is illustrated through the overt enthusiasm of the soldiers, as in the helicopter scene, the link to Norse mythology’s death gods in the score’s title, Ride of the Valkyries, implies their “god-like” responsibility, as in this brutality they assume power and superiority over fear; thus the “love… of napalm” and “victory”, as inaction would mean the “nightmare” of “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor”. Subsequently, as like in the characterisation of the Circus, dehumanisation in the political “termination” of opposition expresses a level of universal distrust and anxiety, in which paranoia allows for disassociation to thrive. Symbolically, this presents nihilism and apathy as a new vital piece of modern order, as despite the subsequent anti-war protest, it is solder’s like Kurtz who embrace the “horror” as a bi-product of existential crises within modern warfare; brutality is needed to find purpose within vulnerability. This is further embodied by his desolate characterisation, “just wanting to go out like a soldier, standing up”, and “trying” to mean something in a disparate, Post-bomb world; thus promoting political agency as an escape from social anxiety.
Nevertheless, government systems fail in securing a sense of power within futility. Despite a deluded placement of legitimacy within government agency, innate suspicion and distrust breaks the bond between the politic body and the head, particularly as America’s involvement in Vietnam contrasts to its basis in Democracy. In Apocalypse Now, this idea is illuminated by Willard’s metaphoric journey down the river, which parallels Leamas’ road with the children in the car, and Waiting for Godot’s road-side, the mission symbolises life and direction. In particular, it represents the direction of the political agency; a journey into immorality and disassociation. This becomes evident in the merging of Kurtz’ and Willard’s voice in the reading of the letters, as their retreat into the “jungle” becomes a strong motif for their shared sense of innocence lost; their immorality leaves them dehumanised and creatures of political apathy. This is further apparent in the characterisation of the soldiers as wilfully brutal and disassociated from their actions, as they symbolically become an embodiment of the political perspective. This is expressed in “…had a hill bombed, for 12 hours… victory”. Thus a lack of constitute is signified, as the American political body’s ignorance of its own moral basis of freedom of expression, specifically in order to combat its own personal war against Communism, implies hypocrisy. Hence, this illegitimacy incurs the social paradigms protest and disillusionment. This inner conflict inspires futility; so long as collective bodies differ in a lost setting, order and purpose inevitably fail and anxiety persists in confusion.
This theme is further expressed in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, wherein political struggles are illuminated as inconsequential in the face of religious questioning. Its footing in Absurdism implies the era’s lack of meaning, and subsequently its political vendettas as absurd, as in the wake of the atomic bomb and the “hope deferred”, its actions are perceived as a response to the “something sick”; reactionary but lacking in meaning besides fear, likewise to America’s Vietnam efforts. As anxiety breeds its likeness, particularly in the motivations of the government polity, the process becomes a paradox. This is broached via the circular structure of the play, as the closing question, “well, shall we go?”, equates to a lack of social mobility and static, from which ideological questioning cannot salvage them. This is further explored by the characterisation of Pozzo as a side act, as whilst the power relationship between the two parties, in parallel to the ‘East versus West’ ideological struggle, offers a distraction from their desperate “wait”, their shared “loss of rights” implicates universal futility. Thus, anxiety stems from “nothingness” and the need to be the “thief… saved”, particularly as the Cold War populace “compares (themselves to Christ)”; their misdeeds are misinterpreted as sacrifice, for otherwise they would have no purpose in a disparate climate. Hence, to exist in the Post-bomb era is to “waste and pine”, as to accept a spiritual and ideological emptiness within the social consciousness is to fester in meaninglessness and cease to exist. Thus, whilst the government structure both succeeds and fails in feeding a sense of vitality to a vulnerable society through political agency, it is the deep-seated nature of the anxiety within the social consciousness that defeats the attempt.
While faith is often placed in government constructs to attain order and purpose within a lost environment, it is the wide-spread permeation of fear that cheapens the legitimacy of the agency. Whilst it succeeds in attributing purpose, both in the glamorisation of the spy-role in Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the sense of power inspired by duty in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it is delusion and social fear that founds it. Leamas symbolically escapes the ennui of vulnerability, as his profession allows a disassociation from ever-present powerlessness. Similarly, it is the military constructs own basis in fear and paranoia that allows for a god-like responsibility. Thus any order or purpose attained in government agency is illegitimate, as the soldiers symbolically embody the brutality of the politics, and in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, the Absurdist nature of the play parallels the absurdist nature of the society, particularly as the religious question erodes any baseless meaning within the political struggle. Thus, it is the root of the social anxiety, the atomic bomb itself, that recreates its own futility in paradox, as the social paradigm continues to search for meaning and direction in a lost, conflicted setting.
Beckett’s Presentation of Memory in Waiting for Godot
Throughout Waiting for Godot, Beckett uses memory as a means to anchor the isolated setting in the context of some kind of surrounding world, frequently undermining this ‘anchor’ by presenting the past, and the protagonists’ recollections of it, as being fragmented and unclear, much like Vladimir and Estragon’s existence in the present. The subversion of such a key element of human existence – memory – questions the significance of actions in a world where seemingly endless cycles of indecision render time itself almost entirely meaningless. This lack of meaning and continuity is reflected in the circularity of the play’s two-act structure, perhaps recalling the repetition of a second world war despite the vast human costs of the first – much like the memories’ of the two main characters, the lessons of the past had seemingly had no influence on the present. The play’s nihilistic setting further increases its relevance to post-war Europe. In this way, Beckett presents memory as being almost entirely irrelevant to the present moment, adding exponentially to his depiction of humanity as being lost in repeating cycles of events beyond their own control.
Furthermore, throughout the play, Beckett links the deterioration of memory to the total deconstruction of the values that underpin traditional society, this time subverting the commonly accepted notion of a linear timeline:
‘ESTRAGON What did we do yesterday?
VLADIMIR What did we do yesterday?
Here, the repetition of the question ‘what did we do yesterday?’ underscores the hopeless position of humanity in the face of a chaotic, incomprehensible universe. This point is laboured further by the incoherent ‘yes’ in response, once more highlighting the lack of intelligible answers to questions posed by our surroundings. Furthermore, the deterioration of the two characters’ memories poses significant existential questions to the audience, challenging notions of time and progress that were so crucial to 20th century understanding of the world – as neither character remembers the events of the previous day, there is no way to confirm that it actually happened, let alone derive something useful from it. The inextricable link between physical deterioration and universal meaninglessness once more lays emphasis on the inherently futile situation of humankind, with the repeated stage direction (‘they do not move’) at the end of each act helping to reinforce this sense of circularity and inevitable repetition and, in doing so, leaving human progress devoid of any real currency or value. These ideas undoubtedly have their roots in the second world war, where, even despite the vast human cost of world war one, the world still descended into conflict. Furthermore, the second world war also witnessed the destruction of staple contemporary values, degrading ideas of integrity and moral virtue in the same way that Beckett deconstructs time and human purpose.
Beckett places his depiction of a malfunctioning human memory in a direct parallel to the protagonists’ physical deterioration, suggesting that the circularity of human existence is as inevitable as the process of aging: ‘Estragon: [giving up again] Nothing to be done.’ Here, Beckett’s use of the word ‘again’, particularly in the first line of the play, immediately begins to suggest a wider context to the events depicted in the play. However, at no point does Beckett specify what this context might be, giving Estragon’s struggle with his boot an almost timeless resonance with humanity as a whole. The finality in the phrase ‘giving up’ seems entirely at odds with ‘again’, introducing the idea of humankind being trapped in a perennial struggle, unable to progress even with the most pointless tasks whilst simultaneously being unable to ‘give up’. This ties in heavily with the overall theme of the limitations of a malfunctioning memory, rendering ‘events’ meaningless as they blend together into a cycle of repetition. Furthermore, the vague, general connotations of ‘Nothing to be done’ could easily be applied to a wider setting, highlighting the suitability of Gogo’s hopeless struggle as a metaphor for his life in general. However, the fact that such an apt symbol of human helplessness comes in the form of Estragon’s absurd, comedic behaviour adds another element to the opening line, deconstructing the popular notion of mankind’s superiority and, in doing so, pointing out the base absurdity that often lies at the heart of human thought. This form of physical comedy can be seen frequently in the work of Laurel and Hardy, popular comedians of Beckett’s era. In referencing seemingly trivial aspects of contemporary popular culture, Beckett again places the absurd on the same plane as wider, more ‘serious’ thematic elements and, by extension, reduces human attempts to understand the universe to mere farce. In this way, even from the very first line, Beckett places futility at the heart of his presentation of humanity. In a play comprised largely of inactivity, Beckett’s decision to place the active verb ‘done’ in the opening line serves to further this effect, creating a strong sense of stagnation and futility that remains strong throughout the duration of the play.
However, towards the beginning of the play, Beckett’s only direct reference to a genuine location demonstrates the extent to which memory, however misled, is integral to the construction of the characters’ identities: ‘Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first. We were respectable in those days’. Here, the connotations of nostalgia in the phrase ‘in those days’ gives the strong impression of a positive memory, whilst its lack of specificity suggests once again that time has lost a great deal of its meaning. However, ideas of companionship in ‘hand in hand’ depict Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship as being cemented largely by the past as opposed to the present – it is their memory which ties them together as much as anything. In this way, even the vague semblance of memory is shown as being vital to humanity’s ability to give itself the impression of meaning and purpose, with the connotations of social class in ‘respectable’ suggesting that an identity cemented in the past is the only way in which the characters are able to validate their existence in the present. Therefore, it becomes clear that the fact of memory is more important than its specific elements, in that it provides the only vaguely stable foundation from which humanity is able to interpret the world. That said, however, it is not true at all that Beckett presents memory as a genuinely ‘stable foundation’ – his subversion of this stability is crucial to his depiction of human futility in an incomprehensible universe – rather he attempts to demonstrate the inability of humankind to exist without a basic idea of the past.
It is clear, therefore, that through Beckett’s presentation of memory in waiting for Godot, he depicts the inevitability of recurring actions as old generations, and their memories of the past, give way to new ones. This repetition is reflected in the post-war environment of the time, as well as in the comic futility of Beckett’s own setting within the play, giving his presentation of memory a firm grounding in reality. In this way, he simultaneously laughs at and sympathises with the idea that Vladimir and Estragon’s perpetual struggle to make sense of their situation through memory is, ultimately, as futile and incoherent as memory itself.
Imagery in Waiting for Godot and Mother Courage and Her Children
Although Waiting for Godot and Mother Courage and Her Children are quite different in terms of plot structure and setting, there are similarities present in the use of bleak imagery as symbols of religious, social, and political criticism. The symbolism extends beyond the imagery and encompasses the characters themselves. The props, especially in Godot, have an abstract significance more easily apparent in the ways in which they are utilized than their inherent characteristics.
Boots play a symbolic role in both of these plays, although serving different purposes. In Godot, the constant struggle of removing and replacing the boots, as well as the incessant question of which boot belongs to which character, is representative of a deeper fundamental identity crisis channeled toward external signifiers of identity. Mother Courage offers the red high-heeled boots to Kattrin to comfort her after she receives her facial scar. Kattrin refuses to accept them- they symbolize, to her, the abuse that she has suffered at the hands of men. Male attention has stolen her voice and her facial beauty, and the boots represent the incongruity of love and war.
When the drum rolls signify that Swiss Cheese is set to be executed, the stage briefly becomes dark. This is a symbol of death much akin to darkness that occurred before the crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, Mother Courage denies knowledge of Swiss Cheese’s identity, reminiscent of Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus. Interestingly, the chaplain’s song after Swiss Cheese’s arrest tells of the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Waiting for Godot utilizes darkness as a similar allegory of death, as night falls and the men are reprieved of their “duty”, no longer bound to wait for Godot.
One striking moment in Waiting for Godot occurs when Pozzo instructs Vladimir to place the bowler on Lucky’s head so he can think. This inanimate object, by virtue of the status it affords, allows Lucky to think for himself and he begins to soliloquize. When the hat is knocked off, his monologue abruptly ends. We get the sense that it is not Lucky who is doing the thinking, rather it is the hat and the identity that it embodies. The symbolism of the hats is not restricted to Lucky, and Vladimir and Estragon exchange hats with each other multiple times, highlighting the fluidity and flux of their identities. The rope around Lucky’s neck symbolizes the power dynamic between him and Pozzo, and the abuse makes it clear that Lucky is his subordinate. Yet in the second act, the rope is much shorter, and it is Lucky who directs the now-blind Pozzo, blurring the lines between servant and master.
Kattrin, like Lucky, lacks a voice, although hers has been stolen from her through rape rather than slavery. Her drum, another inanimate object, can be said to give her the voice she lacks. It is interested to note that the drum is among the things that Kattrin brings back after she is attacked while purchasing things for her mother. We see that the drum, to Kattrin, symbolizes defiance against oppression. These inanimate objects, although not infused with any special powers, empower the characters to accomplish what they cannot. Both Kattrin and Lucky surprise us with their significance by the end of the plays. It becomes apparent that Lucky’s name, although seemingly ironic, actually suits his position relative to the other characters. Lucky possesses two luxuries that the others lack: certitude and awareness. Lucky does not struggle with the “agony of choice” as Vladimir and Estragon both do; Pozzo gives him the certainty and authority that Godot will never provide for them. Lucky is also fully conscious of his status as a slave, whereas the other characters maintain an illusion of false freedom. There is an interesting duality here, of the seemingly least fortunate character possessing a fortune of consciousness, that is mirrored by Kattrin’s character. She too, is mistreated and seems to lose more in the war than any other character: she loses her voice, her beauty, her dreams, and ultimately her life.
Yet Kattrin displays immense courage, awareness, and self sacrifice- more so than any other character. Mother Courage seemingly touches upon this when she attempts to comfort Kattrin, saying she is “lucky” that she is no longer pretty, and that this would save her. These two characters at first seem inconsequential, but eventually come to symbolize the tremendous potential and fortune of the seemingly unfortunate. Both of these plays are ultimately attempting to portray the devastation and destruction of identity and self that occur through religious, social and political processes.
Bleakness and Language in Waiting for Godot
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
Samuel Beckett and the Folly of Language
Following the near apocalyptic end of the Second World War, an overwhelming state of fear and confusion would go on to cause a major shift in the artistic expression of the day. Nothing remained sacred as doubt replaced any virtue of knowledge, hope, or stability. Artistic conventions were also replaced in favor of the new, radical unorthodoxy and basic realities of human thought were either questioned or abandoned completely. In particular, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot illuminates the “tragicomic” folly of language and communication on the center stage with profound implications against the need to communicate in the first place. Shameless yet dignified, Beckett mocks the inefficacy of language and human communication.
Primarily, Beckett’s dialogue bathes in repetition and irrationality, acting as a vehicle for both comedy and critique. Waiting for Godot is characterized by verbal exchanges that achieve very little in terms of traditional development and leave behind more confusion than there was before anyone had decided to bother opening their mouth. The most compelling example of this is Estragon’s fascination with Lucky’s bags throughout Act I.
Estragon: Why doesn’t he put down his bags?
Pozzo: But that would surprise me.
Vladimir: You’re being asked a question.
Pozzo: (delighted) A question! Who? What! (28)
Here, Beckett presents the primary distraction of Act I, Estragon and Vladimir’s inquisitive interest in Pozzo and Lucky. However, a seemingly fundamental question regarding the servant’s cargo takes ages to get across to Pozzo amid endless chatter of nonsense and confusion. Ironically enough, Pozzo immediately goes on to predict that “no good will come” from ominous activities such as asking questions. In a sense, Pozzo is correct. The question is repeated several times, tempers flare slightly, and a significant amount of time is wasted with no answer or explanation to show for it. The cause of this string of mishaps is unexpected– Estragon’s mere proposition of a simple question is the impetus for this miniature disaster.
This grand failure of communication is just one example of Beckett’s keen deconstruction of language. In fact, Pozzo & Lucky eventually leave with Estragon and Vladimir not an ounce wiser than they were before. They know less now than they did when the first act began. Finally, to compound this frustration, the major source of any resemblance to “driving action” or “narrative” has exited the stage, as well as Estragon and Vladimir’s lives. The language which one would assume to be the source of any fundamental drama is actually nothing more than a catalyst of the absurd. Language is the biggest barrier between absurdity and reality. Indeed, Beckett’s perception of language asserts that language works to reinforce this barrier rather than find ways around it. This is evident as Gogo & Didi continue to parrot each other and draw circles in their speech, reflecting the delicate cycle of their apparently pointless lives.
Furthermore, Beckett’s most blatant critique of language can be seen during the play’s most nonsensical and verbose point: Lucky’s speech. Previously regarded by cast and audience to be nothing beyond a mute slave, Lucky is received like an oracle or prophet. He begins, “Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly…” (45).
Here, Lucky’s regurgitations are met with fixed attention. However, this enthrallment soon decays to derision and finally to frenzied terror and a frantic tackle to end it all. This all occurs as the result of one seemingly harmless command: “Think!” Interestingly enough, despite “saying” so much, Lucky actually conveyed very little tangible information throughout his prolonged session of thought. Even worse, this information is nearly indiscernible, lost upon verbal manifestations of Lucky’s passion and confusion. Certainly, a topic of “divine” profoundness is at hand with a white-bearded “God” receiving several mentions. This topic is also tethered to Earthly affairs as well. Lucky goes on to mention various schools of thought, a handful of philosophers, and even tennis and other Earthly ventures. However, despite all this content which would give Lucky’s speech the appearance of intellect and profundity, the slave spends all his time thinking aloud about nothing at all. Although interrupted, Lucky even inadvertently punctuates his speech with the word “unfinished.” Ultimately, nothing was said. Language, once again, fails to serve its sole purpose. In fact, language is even seen here to be a threat to stability and well-being – Beckett displays language’s ability to stir fear and even aggression in others. Lucky’s speech had such a negative impact on the three men listening that they appeared to go mad. This is especially frightening due to the fact that all they were hearing was essentially the articulation of “nothing.” Lucky’s ramblings on “quaquaquaqua” could be easily replaced with a high frequency dog whistle and cause the same effect. Lucky’s speech is merely a showcase of language’s flaws and inefficacy. The words amount to nothing more than noise and hot air.
Finally, when compared to other works which recognize similar faults in communication, Beckett’s reflections on language are far more monumental in their futility and absurdity. William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, dictates that human communication is impaired because perceptions of truth vary from person to person, and that language is incapable of portraying any universal truth. Waiting for Godot, on the other hand, dictates that there is no universal truth to convey, and that any attempts to communicate absurdity will only result in frustration, confusion, and more absurdness. In fact, the action of communication through spoken or written language is absurd within itself. This point in particular is the reason behind Waiting for Godot’s quirky, nonsensical attitude. This void is exemplified by the play’s ending.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move, (109).
The communication of nonsense elicits only nonsense in return. Here, Gogo and Didi once again surrender to this dogma of absurdity. They say they will go and fail to move. At this point, it’s as if Beckett’s characters completely fail to recognize the intention behind the words they speak. Attempts of verbal communication through language fall flat, almost signifying an abandonment of language altogether. Now, they accept absurdity, a world absent of communication that’s meaningful or worthwhile.
Ultimately, Beckett’s critique, fully veiled in irrationality, does well to illuminate the absurdity of language and communication. In this light, the artistic medium which once depended on language abandons it outright, and the conventions of drama are twisted and distorted. This upheaval is an understandable outcome; Waiting for Godot is an expression of the confusion of the post-World War II world. Certainly, Beckett acknowledges that this new world is one devoid of language, where communication is just as absurd as the situations which beget its necessity.
The Use of Absurdity in Waiting for Godot
“…man cannot endure for long the absence of meaning. And meaning, in it most basic sense, is pattern. If man cannot find pattern in his world, he will try by any means at his disposal to create it, or at least imagine it” (Webb 55). Aristotle originally expressed this idea, which manifests throughout all of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, as the protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, impose on themselves a fruitless and piteous pattern: waiting for Godot. Though Godot is a vague figure and would never live up to the protagonists’ expectations if he made an appearance, he offers Vladimir and Estragon the illusion of meaning within their lives. Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo, respectively) exhaust every extent possible to maintain this pattern of waiting, which, as Aristotle stated, gives them the impression that their lives do not have an “absence of meaning”—that despite being poor and homeless (deplorable traits in society) they are existential successes (Webb 55). All Didi and Gogo have is waiting; they essentially lost everything else, or never had any of it to begin with, such as money, prestige, memory, protection, happiness, etc. Through this pattern of absurdity and futility the two satirize the universal person’s yearning for meaning within his/her life and furthermore reveal the illusory patterns that seem to indicate meaning. The play’s inception resonates the bleakness and futility of Godot. The stage contains only a tree and two men, while the first words spoken express the futility of action: Estragon states, after failing to put his boot on, “Nothing to be done” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.7). This concise statement summates the entire play; it expresses their actions, their thoughts, and essentially, their lives by beginning the play with sentiments of futility—a feeling that never dwindles but rather reoccurs intermittently throughout the work. Shortly following Estragon’s futility of thought is his futility of action: he states in indignation, “I’m going. (He does not move)” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.9). This threat, however, is not plausible; Estragon and Vladimir live in a very fragile world, carefully crafted to create the illusion that they, two slovenly bums, have meaningful lives and that they do not exist merely to exist. They base this illusion is around waiting for Godot—not leaving their bleak surroundings under any circumstances, which is why their multitudes of threats of leaving are not credible. Shortly after, Vladimir explains their purpose of waiting to Estragon, who seems to suffer from amnesia—the first representation of fleeting abilities in the play. In an often repeated dialogue to the forgetful Estragon, Vladimir explains, “We’re waiting for Godot” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.10). He continues, stating:Vladimir: He didn’t say for sure he’d come.Estragon: And if he doesn’t come?Vladimir: We’ll come back to-morrow.Estragon: And then the day after to-morrow.Vladimir: Possibly.Estragon: And so on. (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.10)Godot, however, shows no signs of appearing; it is doubtful as to whether or not Godot even exists, which, ironically is the meaning of the entire play: defining one’s existence by someone who might not exist. Even Vladimir himself shows uncertainty about both Godot’s existence and his importance, or relevance, to himself and Estragon. The two discuss: Estragon: What exactly did we ask him for? Vladimir: Were you not there? Estragon: I can’t have been listening. Vladimir: Oh. . . Nothing very definite. (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.13)To Vladimir, though, Godot’s purpose is of little importance; Godot, even if a figment of his imagination, offers Estragon and him a reason to awake in the morning—a pattern. Literary critic June Schlueter notes that “…waiting has been their entire existence, and they cannot acknowledge that it is worthless” (Schlueter 51). Therefore, Vladimir is cognizant to the futility of his waiting, but, as aforementioned, he neglects the veracity of Godot’s existence to engender an illusion of meaning for him and Estragon. In Waiting for Godot the entire play consists of Didi and Gogo waiting, but a good majority of their waiting includes simple minded games the protagonists play to make each day pass more quickly. Literary critic Schlueter explains that “each of their games, however, is short lived: there are a few lines of dialogue, the game is complete, and then there is silence” (Schlueter 49-50). They tell stories, reminisce, curse at each other, and discuss suicide— practically anything to, as Vladimir states, “pass the time” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.31). Though literary critic Andrew Kennedy states that “the expectations of Estragon and Vladimir seem to be both limitless and irrational; and the various climaxes and pseudo-climaxes, or non-arrivals, do not change their condition…,” it is actually the stagnancy of the play—the lack of a climax or common plot progression—that resonates Beckett’s message on passive waiting and satirizes the universal man. And these ploys work in a play that Schlueter describes as lacking “plot progression… [having] no casual relationship between events, no linear sequence” (Schlueter 50). Furthermore, Vladimir understands his disposition; he does not have “limitless and irrational” expectations—he simply convinces himself that Godot is real and that his arrival is imminent in order to establish an illusion of meaning within his life. Moreover, Vladimir is by no means a foolish character; he understands the power he bestowed upon Gidit, and knows that he is, in fact, waiting in vain—though spending time with Estragon and convincing him that they are waiting for Godot helps alleviate the futility and gives him the feeling of importance. Despite literary critic Kennedy’s statement that, “the risk of waiting in vain is emphasized early in the play,” it is evident that Vladimir understands his circumstances. He corroborates this claim in his epiphany of sort, where, upon asking numerous questions to a servant boy that delivers a message to Godot, he realizes the power of Godot:Vladimir: (softly). Has he a beard, Mr. Godot?Boy: Yes sir.Vladimir: Fair or. . . (he hesitates) . . . or black?Boy: I think it’s white, Sir.Silence.Vladimir: Christ have mercy on us! (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 2.1.13)Critic Eugene Webb notes that Vladimir’s passionate exclamation concluding their dialogue is explained by, “…[Vladimir realizing] the painful truth that the Godot he has made with his imagination into a kind of God, into a figure, that is, representing absolute power and ultimate meaning, is as empty a God as the traditional one ‘with a white beard…’” (Webb 64). However, though Vladimir somewhat fears the power Godot exudes, he does not allow himself to fully see the truth that Godot, like a God with a “white beard,” may not be real—for the illusion is far too important to his life to be shattered by reality. Though the comparison between Estragon and Vladimir to the common, or universal, person may seem absurd because of the ridiculous settings and characters in Godot, the characters do successfully embody a human being’s obsession with finding meaning in his/her life. In Act Two, Vladimir and Estragon encounter a servant and his master, Lucky and Pozzo, who provide insight into the destructiveness and dwindling of the master and servant relationship. Lucky, the ironically named servant, is at first conceived to be a babbling, incoherent fool, described by Pozzo as a man that “used to think very prettily once” but provides insight to the games humans play that are absurd and meaningless as the perpetual waiting of the protagonists (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.26). He recites: “…man…wastes and pines…in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding combating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports…of all kinds” (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 1.1.28-29). While the enumeration of activities is inconsequential, the meaning behind his words is imperative to the satire of the play. Critic Webb writes:…what is important is the recognition that man spends his life playing games, games of all kinds, not merely of organized sport, but of life: games of language and activity, the same kinds of games Didi and Gogo play… Games can pass the time, they can constitute existence, but they can give life only the illusion of meaning, for, like Beckett’s play, they don not constitute (an) action. (Webb 52)This comparison, ingeniously told by a piteous servant, reverberates the bitter satire present in the play—creating the questioning of what is trivial and what is significant in one’s life. The previous comparison best summates the message behind, and the satire within Beckett’s play, as it illuminates the absurdity of the things viewed important or meaningful within society. Society places importance (and therefore meaning) behind things such as “games of language and activity,” which are as piteous, futile, and meaningless as Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting for Godot (Webb 52). Therefore, Vladimir and Estragon embody the universal person’s mindset—they create an illusion of meaning and withhold it adamantly. They are not role models; the two characters are deplorable in every standard met by society and should be the impetus to the changed mindset of the reader: from Godot, the reader should realize what is truly important in his/her life and understand what constitutes actual meaning in the world. Works CitedBeckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1954.Kennedy, Andrew. Samuel Beckett. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Rpt. in “Active Waiting.” Readings on Waiting for Godot. Ed. Laura Marvel. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001. 96-107.Schlueter, June. Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama. Columbia University Press, 1979. Rpt. in “The Dual Roles of Didi and Gogo.” Readings on Waiting for Godot. Ed. Laura Marvel. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001. 44- 53.Webb, Eugene. The Plays of Samuel Beckett. University of Washington Press, 1972. Rpt. in “The Plot Reveals the Illusory Nature of Man’s Attempts to Create Meaning.” Readings on Waiting for Godot. Ed. Laura Marvel. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001. 54-64.
Why Live Today When You May Die Tomorrow?
To existentialist writers, the universe is a foreign and indifferent place. Every aspect of creation, including the universe itself, is pitted against the individual. Existence is meaningless and oblivion both before birth and after death-save for the fact that great suffering and anguish mark the plight in between these ends. Samuel Beckett, an individual born in an era of such beliefs explores the ever-excoriating question: In a world such as this, what is the point in living?History of the Play and the School of ThoughtEn Attendant Godot, translated to Waiting for Godot, is widely considered a critical work of Absurdist literature and one of Beckett’s more famous pieces. Originally penned in French during the late 1940s, Beckett himself later translated the play into English. Met with widespread controversy because of its seemingly illogical and irrational themes, it later gained popularity by word of mouth. The Absurd is a term applied to the theory that human beings live in meaningless isolation in an indifferent universe. Many of its characteristics stem from the philosophical base known as existentialism, which views humans as moving from the nothingness from whence they came to the nothingness in which they will end through an existence marked by anguish and absurdity. Furthermore, literature considered to be a part of the Theater of the Absurd implies that its theatrical content is meant to be irrational. The purpose of this irrationality and the movement on the whole is to forcibly abolish the concepts of “dramatic progression, direction and resolution” while the “characters undergo little or no change, dialogue contradicts actions, and events follow no logical order” (Fiero 74). Additionally, it strives to drive a wedge between the intellect and the body, though in turn recognizing that one could not survive without the other.ThesisBeckett wrote this play with the glaring intent of creating a world in which metaphorical, theological, and practical matters of existence come crashing into a small two-act foray that examines the purpose of living in a universe where nothing is done and nothing can be done. Because Waiting for Godot is a widely acclaimed existentialist play, it is important to extract the aspects that make it such in order to argue that Beckett does in fact contradict this supposed “meaninglessness of life.” First, Beckett creates a world that seems to be markedly indifferent, as best exemplified in the stasis of events and the prevailing sense of futility that envelopes the characters. Additionally, the human condition is notably laborious and troublesome, best delineated through the characters’ daily trials and tribulations. Intriguingly, Beckett also adds a slight twist to this depressing atmosphere that yields Vladimir and Estragon’s raison d’etre. Although Beckett generates a world that is so indifferent and a struggle to be so insurmountable, Vladimir and Estragon-the blatant poster children of the human race-somehow find hope that enables them to “keep on keeping on.”Indifferent UniverseThroughout the course of the play, Beckett develops a mentality that seems to transcend the stage and represent the world at large. He creates this perception of the universe both directly and indirectly-ranging from the subtleties of the setting, to the direct commentaries in the dialogue, to the pervasive lack of recognition and identity. The first aspect that is blatantly apparent is the sparsely adorned stage and seldom use of props. In the stage directions, there is no mention of these features except for the barren tree. The tree has no leaves, exemplifying the overbearing theme of indifference and starkness. This tree serves as a symbol for the “lack of hope and beauty in Beckett’s nightmarish design” (Kermode 170). Moreover, as mentioned by the characters themselves throughout their dialogue, ” nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes” (Beckett 27). They remain, these “shiftless tramps,” still awaiting the coming of their great savior Godot (Mauriac 75). Until he arrives and gives their lives meaning, they are destined to linger in a sort of purgatory-neither saved nor damned. “Nothing can be done” to rectify the situation because their very purpose on stage and in life is to await the arrival of the famed Godot-a character over whom they have no control (Beckett 14). Unbeknownst to the characters, but quite evident to the audience, Godot has never and will never arrive. Therefore, life has never and will never change. There is an overwhelming air of stasis and “life becomes monotonous and life itself a habit” (Wellwarth 39). Their actions and interactions have become so routine that they dwell in the same meaningless banter they have carried on for the last half a century, proclaiming that “habit is a great deadener” (Beckett 42, 58). Because Godot shows no intention of ever coming, “the ultimate is meaningless, then the intermediate is meaningless as well” (Wellwarth 50). More symbolic than both the setting and dialogue is Beckett’s use of the absence of recognition and identity. Without having a defined identity and being associated with that identity through recognition, people cease to have an effect on the world. Once they have an identity, the universe ceases to be so indifferent-after all, when an individual is able to impact the cosmos, the world is “no longer so foreign and apathetic” because it possesses a part of that person (Gordon 43). In Beckett’s world, there is a constant search for self: Estragon calls himself Adam, Pozzo is mistaken for Godot, and neither the small boy nor Pozzo remember Vladimir and Estragon from the previous day (Beckett 25, 15, 32, 56). Because the characters’ existences do not develop from day to day, they seem to subsist in a world that begins and ends in nothingness. Essentially, the world and all of its creation is indifferent to the plight of these “playthings of eternity” (Abel 83).Cruel UniverseBeyond living in a world that is unconcerned with them, Vladimir and Estragon serve as allegorical beings that muddle through the anguish of the human condition. They are no longer characters but “they transcend the stage to become mirrors of our own meandering experiences” (Mauriac 81). From the most seemingly simplistic daily routine to an overwhelming sense of struggle, Vladimir and Estragon attest to the difficulty of enduring in an existential world. Both mornings in the play are met with Estragon gathering himself together after having been beaten the previous night. Neither the assailants nor the reason for the attack are revealed, simply that he is left in a ditch to die (Beckett 7). This signifies that destiny dictates that Estragon will be “beaten the next night, as well as the night after that, in an endless cycle”-his fate is cruel and inescapable (Kermode 169). Similarly, Estragon’s toil to remove his boots implies that even the most inane challenges wear on the mortal soul (Beckett 7). He becomes fatigued with the effort and cries that this “is too much for one man to bear” (Beckett 7). Vladimir makes a poignant comment that this scenario is quite indicative of human nature, “blaming on his boots the faults of his feet” (Beckett 8). Humanity is inherently flawed and destined to suffer the pangs of daily life. Furthermore, Pozzo’s enslavement of Lucky exhibits humanity’s proclivity towards cruelty against one another. Lucky is dragged about throughout all of eternity by a leash that chafes his neck, held by a man who will keep him so long as he is found useful (Beckett 18). Slavery in literature is by far one of the “most symbolic instances of human suffering,” not only because the loss of freedom is tragic but also because its history is based in fact (Gordon 103). To be subjected to such treatment is dehumanizing, torturous and real. Although the leash that binds Lucky is literal, there is often some sort of metaphorical shackle that restricts people from attaining their full potential, be it socially, financially, or racially inflicted. These chains are the foundation of human struggle because often times they appear to be breakable, when in the harshness of reality they are not. While Waiting for Godot places great focus on the act of suffering, its major philosophical underpinnings rely upon the nature and mentality of suffering. The characters are all too aware of their predicament and subsequent anguish, as revealed in their speech. Estragon, for example, feels as though “all [his] lousy life [he’s] crawled about in the mud,” having little more consequence or benefit than a base creature (Beckett 39). Such images as “crawling” and filth indicate that Estragon labors to extract himself from this vile existence but that effort is found futile-he will forever remain in the muck. As if the repetitiveness of the daily life is not torturous alone, the events themselves are grounded in turmoil and strife.And Then There is HopeAmidst a world so embroiled in apathy and hatred, what is the purpose of existence? How can a body stand to live day in and day out when all that he or she knows is suffering? Beckett, an atheistic existentialist, examines these burning questions and attempts to address them through small hints throughout the play. At first glance, yes, Vladimir, Estragon and the others seem to live in a world of inconsequence and human suffering-but, with a careful look closer, their lives seem to have meaning and their actions tend not to be so irrational. There seems to be a prevailing theme of hope, represented by the once-barren tree, the desire for companionship, the faith in salvation, the desire to serve a purpose and to exist beyond self and mortality. The tree that served as a barren gallows in the first act springs forth and “is covered with leaves” (Beckett 42). This birth of nature breeds a sign of new hope. Depicting an image rooted in Christian doctrine, “that which was thought to be dead has arisen” to new life (Hughes 26). Moreover, Vladimir and Estragon become closer friends and confidantes because of all the time and trust they have invested in one another. During the scene in which they discuss committing suicide, Estragon claims that Vladimir should go first because he is heavier, reasoning that should Estragon go first and kill himself and Vladimir attempt to go second and break the bough, Vladimir would be left to wander about all of eternity alone (Beckett 12). Although there is often talk of leaving one another to pursue a better life alone, neither can bring himself to leave because they serve as each other’s strength and support. When all is silent, “it’s the heart” that remains (Beckett 30). Companionship is a highly recognizable form of hope.Although the audience senses that Godot will never arrive, Vladimir and Estragon cling to their faith in salvation. In their discussions of the Bible, one particularly critical passage is mentioned-the fact that Luke is the only Gospel writer to include an excerpt about the thief being saved during the crucifixion (Beckett 8). Vladimir clings to this belief, recognizing that despite the fact that a mere “fourth of the writers mention this sinner and of this, only half of the sinners are actually saved,” it still serves as a “reasonable percentage” (Gordon 19, Beckett 8). Nevertheless, Vladimir and Estragon are faced with a daunting task of living day to day. They often come close to losing all of their hope:Estragon: I can’t go on like this.Vladimir: That’s what you think…We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow.Unless Godot comes.Estragon: And if he comes?Vladimir: We’ll be saved (Beckett 60).After all of their doubts and temptations, these characters are resolute to wait for Godot “until he comes” (Beckett 10). Although they cannot be certain that salvation exists, they choose to focus on the fact that they cannot be certain that it does not exist. Some may call it naivetÃ©; others call it faith. A fourth reason that Vladimir and Estragon find reasons to live is that they desire to serve purpose. Psychological analysis reveals that “the human creature…is continuously compelled toward purposeful activity,” regardless if that activity is expected to yield a beneficial result (Gordon 66). Throughout the play, Vladimir seems to have a heightened awareness of his call to duty as well as the potential futility of his vocation: “All mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us” (Beckett 51). These two vagabonds may seem to banter back and forth over meaningless matters, but their conversations truly have meaning because “questioning and expectation do give life dignity” (Barrett 84). Their determination to question and evaluate their condition, however hopeless it appears, is a key to their reason for existing.Fifth and finally, the fear of mortality and the desire to exist beyond oneself is another compelling force that inspires Vladimir and Estragon live until the following day. They crave to “step beyond their temporal phase and attain an ever-lastingness” (Gordon 142). Although they encounter many setbacks in their discourses with the other characters through lack of recognition, they “always find something…to give [them] the impression [they] exist,” which happens to be Estragon’s boots left onstage from the previous night (Beckett 44). Perhaps most importantly, the action (or rather inaction) that proves to be most indicative of their undying hope is that after each day’s trials, Vladimir closes the scene by saying, “Let’s go,” paired with the stage direction that states “They do not move” (Beckett 35, 60). They struggle through doubt, violence, and monotony, but each day they remain resolute to believe that the following day will prove to be different.ConclusionVladimir and Estragon seem to be stuck in the same general sequence of events. Each morning Estragon struggles to gather himself from the beatings, they encounter the same three people, and witness similar sequences of events (Godot’s absence). Regardless of the design of the indifferent cosmos and the cruelty of the human condition, Vladimir and Estragon manage to discover a reason to survive in each other’s companionship, hope for salvation, and the desire to serve a purpose and exist beyond mortality.Many people struggle with the question of why they exist. Without an answer, facing the possibility that existence is in fact meaningless, and knowing that the body is mortal, we long to affirm our existence by impacting the world in some meaningful way. We want to live on in memory because we cannot live on in body. This desire for legacy may be the main reason that atheistic existentialists continue living from day to day-the reason that they write and create, the reason that Vladimir, Estragon, Beckett himself, and many of us keep going in an unknowable world.Works CitedAbel, Lionel. “Beckett and Metatheatre.” Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (1963): 83-5. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Riley, Carolyn and Barbara Harte. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1974.Barrett, William. “They Also Serve.” The Times Literary Supplement No. 2815 (10 February 1956): 84. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Matuz, Roger. Vol. 57. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1990.Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press, 1954.Fiero, Gloria K. “Theater of the Absurd.” The Humanistic Tradition. 4th ed. Vol. 6. Boston: McGraw Hill Companies, 2002. 74.Gordon, Lois. Reading Godot. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.Hughes, Catherine. “The Paradox of Samuel Beckett.” Catholic World (1963): 26-8. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Riley, Carolyn and Barbara Harte. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1974.Kermode, Frank. “Beckett Country.” Continuities (1968): 169-75. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Riley, Carolyn and Barbara Harte. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1974.Mauriac, Claude. “Samuel Beckett.” The New Literature. (1959): p. 75-90. Online. Muse. Available: http://muse.jhu.edu. 28 September 2003Wellwarth, George. “Samuel Beckett: Life in the Void”: Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama. New York: New York University Press, 1964. 37-51.
Beckett’s Novel Achievement: Absurdist Comedy in Waiting for Godot
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the playwright bestows upon his work the veneer of comedy, but invests the heart of it with the “absurd”, the tragic. He employs the gags and the routines, the circus comedy and the songs of the “lowbrow” arts, to underline and to sometimes undercut the many themes and ideas which are so apparent throughout. The two mains characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are of course clearly derived from the pairs of cross-talk comedians of music halls, in effect more resembling clowns than tramps. Their dialogue has the peculiarly repetitive quality of the cross-talk comedian’s patter, masking the profound ideas throughout within “idle discourse”. Beckett uses this comedic format in order to better explore the bleak world of Waiting for Godot.To begin with, the world of Christianity is something that Beckett explores throughout the play. The Christian tradition indeed is one of the tragedies of the characters. Their imaginations and thoughts abound with half remembered images, stories and models of behaviour from the Bible: the Dead Sea, pale blue (“I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon”), the two thieves, John the Baptist, Christ’s precursor (“I’m leaving my boots there. Another will come, just as…as…as me, but with smaller feet, and they’ll make him happy”), Christ himself (“All my life I’ve compared myself to him”). Beckett expounds upon this theme of God and Christianity at the beginning of the first Act. Vladimir offers Estragon the story of the two thieves at Christ’s crucifixion, one supposedly saved and the other damned. This is a “reasonable percentage”, he thinks, and he suggests they divert themselves for a time with repenting. Estragon responds to this suggestion however with pointing out that they have nothing to repent for, other than possible “Our Being born”. Beckett is suggesting here through Estragon that it is living that produces pain and suffering, not sin. This fairly sophisticated, philosophical exchange is ended with a typically crude comedic outburst from Estragon: “People are bloody ignorant apes.” This conversation comes just prior to the first mention of Godot. Beckett is implying at this early stage that there is a connection in Vladimir’s mind between what Christianity offers and what his ‘God-fantasy’ involves, that which he desperately wants from Godot: an authority that will take over his moral responsibilities.’Time – a condition of resurrection become an instrument of death’. While this notion was put forward by Beckett in his writings on Proust, the same fundamental idea about time applies to Waiting for Godot. In the absurdist universe of the play, time does not exist: it is only one more human, subjective method of attempting to impose meaning on the meaningless. In the first Act, there occurs a series of grotesque entertainments, “all worse than pantomime”, including amusement for Estragon in watching Pozzo’s panic as he finds his pipe is missing, and the fascination of Estragon and Pozzo at the sight of Vladimir peeing painfully offstage. Each of the characters has his own particular way of relating to time, and intermingled in this “lowbrow” comedy, is Beckett’s exploration of this idea. Pozzo in this scene, the professional man, clings to his watch. If he wants to conduct his business efficiently, he must ‘affirm that he controls and regulates time’ – other people’s, as well as his own. When Vladimir proclaims that “Time has stopped”, Pozzo cuddles his watch to his ear, replying with “Don’t you believe it, sir, don’t you believe it. Whatever you like, but not that.” In the second Act, the great tragedy of Pozzo’s blindness is that it leaves him completely dependant on others for the time of day.Vladimir’s equivalent of Pozzo’s watch, the instrument which symbolises his relation to time, are his own memories. He tries throughout to convince both himself and Estragon of their veracity. Estragon in both acts must accept Vladimir’s version of ‘yesterday’ for Vladimir to be able to set ‘today’ in his ‘habitual patterns’ . Beckett wrote in his essay on Proust: ‘There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us…Yesterday is irremediably a part of us.’ Therefore, is Beckett merely saying that the past shapes the future? In Waiting for Godot, Beckett struggles to break free from this notion Vladimir throughout attempts to find purpose and reality in the present through striving to recollect the past. Estragon however has no interest in remembering: “I’m no a historian”2E It is Vladimir who forces Estragon to remember the past Estragon begins his day relatively content. By the time Vladimir has finished ‘spinning his precise recollections’ however, Estragon may protest that he has had enough and wants to leave, but it is too late. The pair are now determined and ruled by a vague recollection of what mattered in the past: “We’re waiting for Godot”.Beckett’s exploration into the theme of death in Waiting for Godot comes in two main parts, one in each Act. The first is through Lucky’s speech, and connects the theme of death with that of time. Lucky in his tirade evokes the ‘dying and decomposition of matter’ and the inability of the human mind to keep control of it. Places that named by humans, both cities and the country (“Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham”) give way to undefined plains, mountains, seas and rivers, which in turn break down into the basic elements (water, fire, air, earth). At his conclusion, “stories”, “cold”, “skull”, “grave” death are the ‘obsessive images’. Dying and death, Beckett argues, is a fundamental and unavoidable part of living. Lucky’s speech also explores the death of language and logic. Words and phrases in the speech like “given”, “considering”, “as a result of”, “it is established”, “beyond all doubt” all imply the ability to order and discuss. However, they are shown through the rambling and chaotic nature of the speech to be empty and powerless.The second key moment in the play in which Beckett explores death is once again masked in a comedic element. At the beginning of Act 2, Vladimir sings a song that could be straight out of a music hall production. Significantly for the play, the pivot of this song is death. It does not however say simply, as Lucky did, that dying is a part of living. Rather, it describes death as something humans are responsible for. In the song, the masters of the world and its resources (the cook), and all their underdogs, “all the dogs” who “came running”, join forces to eliminate anyone who upsets the way things are, however great their need stealing a “crust of bread”. The cook kills the thief and the other dogs ‘bury him deep and use him as a cautionary tale to bind future generations’. What is striking is that Vladimir sings the tale to himself, warning himself against any kind of rebellion. He is ‘closing more tightly the doors of his own prison-house’. Thus far, Vladimir and Estragon have evaded death, the “tomb”, just as in the song. Vladimir comes to the conclusion that keeping to the same routine day in day out is what has saved them from the darkness. Beckett here is expounding upon the folly of this philosophy, that forever succumbing to the trap of habitual routine in order to stave off the inevitable is a cause without hope or point.The entrance of the boy in the first Act introduces a sequence which re-enacts the relationship between the self and the outside world Beckett’s exploration of selfhood. Beckett illustrates here the notion that all people ever see in the world outside is merely another version of their own perceptions. If the Boy then is the unknown future for which the pair is longing, it is a future constructed in their own image. Vladimir and Estragon question the boy, eliciting information that seems new but is in fact not, being simply a variation on themes the pair have already discussed. The Boy has a brother, not unlike him, and they both work for Godot. One is beaten and the other is not echoing the different overnight fates of Estragon and Vladimir, and also the fate of the two crucified thieves, one saved and one damned.Throughout the play there is a constant discussion of the nature of humanity all other key themes are connected to it, but in particular Beckett’s discussion on the vanity of human wishes. Humanity is shown through the characters in Waiting for Godot as forever searching for an assurance and comfort that is simply not there. Vladimir strives throughout to give his existence meaning by trying to recollect the past, and in turn by holding onto a vain hope that Godot will come. This is no different from the eagerness of the faithful to believe the one Gospel-writer who says one thief was saved. Both spring from the same basic need to dispel the apparent futility of one’s own existence, to believe in a future that will be better than the present, and to recognise some kind of purpose to life.Beckett thus does what on the surface seems impossible: expounds upon the bleak philosophy of the theatre of the absurd, while constructing a farcical comedy routine at the same time. His black, obscene, pantomime humour is an attempt to bring detachment to a situation that is irredeemably depressing. An absurd world is a frightening one. It has in itself ‘no norms, no absolutes, no consoling certainties, no direction’. It is indeed Beckett’s novel achievement to succeed in using comedy in order to better describe this world, and to explore the key elements of existence within it: God, time, death, selfhood, and underlying all, human nature.BibliographyBirkett, Jennifer. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. London, Macmillan Press, 1987.Graver, Lawrence. Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge, University Press, 1989.Esslin, Martin. ‘The Search for the Self’, in Harold Bloom (ed.), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. New York, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.Iser, Wolfgang. ‘Counter-sensical Comedy and Audience Response in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot’, in Steven Conner (ed.), Waiting for Godot and Endgame. London, Macmillan Press, 1992.
Making the Connection: Symbolist Poetry and the Theatre of the Absurd
GUILDENSTERN: All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. ~ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard,(Pg. 39) Paul Valery’s Asides is a poem about the loss of faith, desire, knowledge, communication, and the ability to comprehend the world and one’s place in it. The narrator displays a haunting acceptance of his uncertain fate as he freefalls into unknown places. Thematically, Asides bares a striking resemblance to the Theatre of the Absurd, a theatrical movement that emerged primarily in the fifties and sixties. The futility of contemporary life, death, the breakdown of language, and the protagonists’ failure to understand their place in the universe are principal themes in Absurdist drama. Perhaps Paul Valery’s poetry was a prelude to the Absurdist movement. The idea of man perceiving life as an incomprehensible game and being struck by the realization of his inability to forge a meaningful existence is the dominant theme in both Asides and Absurdist drama. Throughout Asides, the narrator conveys a sense of dreary hopelessness. He has abandoned faith in himself, the universe, and God. The narrator is suspended in a state of uncertainty, which is highlighted by incessant questioning. The third stanza emphasizes the narrator’s desolation: “What must you do? Learn. Learn and master and foresee, All, of course, to no good……… Who are you? Nothing, nothing at all.” (pg. 1487) The narrator is expressing his frustration with the futility of life by saying knowledge and mastery will do him no good in the end. Even if he aquires the tools, he still won’t be able to utilize them. The narrator is trapped by his own limitations. The following exchange between the two protagonists in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the most celebrated Absurdist play, demonstrates a similar abandonment of hope. “VLADIMIR: I get used to the muck as I go along. ESTRAGON: (after prolonged reflection). Is that the opposite? VLADIMIR: Question of temperament. ESTRAGON: Of character. VLADIMIR: Nothing you can do about it. ESTRAGON: No use struggling. VLADIMIR: One is what one is. ESTRAGON: No use wriggling. VLADIMIR: The essential doesn’t change. ESTRAGON: Nothing to be done.” (pg. 17) In an excerpt from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a later Absurdist play partially inspired by Waiting for Godot, one of the central characters laments their bleak existence and the uncertainty of the universe. “GUILDENSTERN (broken): We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without the possibility of reprieve or the hope of explanation.” (pg.121) It should be noted that another prevalent theme in Absurdist drama is the distrust of language as an effective means of communication. The seemingly pointless exchanges and word games commonly found in Absurdist plays are not arbitrary at all. The meaning is buried in the language and it’s up to the reader to unearth the writer’s intended message. Valery takes a similar approach in Asides. The poem is, in some capacity, a linguistic jigsaw puzzle. Valery dispenses questions and answers, all hazy and ambiguous. The answers are in the text but the reader must hunt for them. Another theme shared by Absurdist drama and Asides is the relentless presence of mortality and the idea of death as an escape. Towards the end of Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir become overwhelmed by desperation and contemplate suicide in a startlingly casual manner. “VLADIMIR: We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes. ESTRAGON: And if he comes? VLADIMIR: Then we’ll be saved.” (pg. 109) In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Guildenstern address the idea of death being a welcome relief. “GUILDENSTERN: As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice. Certainly it is a release from the burden of life….” (pg. 110) The final stanza of Asides illustrates the narrator’s perception of death. “Where are you going? To death. What will you do there? Die. Nor ever return to this rotten game, For ever and ever and ever the same.” (pg. 1487) For the narrator, life is a game with unintelligible rules, a game he won’t ever win. In step with the protagonists of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the narrator of Asides doesn’t appear frightened by the idea of death but rather considers it to be a reprieve from his unbearable existence on earth. The themes present in Paul Valery’s Asides are themes found at the heart of Absurdist drama. Valery already holds a place in literary history as a notable Symbolist poet, making him somewhat of a revolutionary. Perhaps Valery’s ideas and concepts were not only innovative in his time but also inspired another groundbreaking literary movement: The Theatre of the Absurd. PLAYER: Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special. ~ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard. (Pg. 66)