Samuel Beckett’s Impression On Sayeed Ahmad’s Plays: The Analogy Between Waiting For Godot And Ahmad’s Absurd Writing Style
This paper studies the influence of Samuel Beckett on Ahmad’s works and analyzes their dissimilitude as well as their similitudes. They are two extraordinary playwright of Absurd Theatre – one from the west and another from the east, so a meticulous survey on their works seems essential. Despite the fact that Ahmad often takes his model in writing from Beckett, one can easily detect the various differences in their plays. Regardless of the same messages about human condition in the world, their techniques and their way of expression differs in some manners. Also, this research intends to explore how the Absurd Plays of Beckett and Ahmad manage to both entertain us and make us laugh as well as make us see the world differently and reflect upon the reality of our lives. And the similarity as well as the dissimilarity among their plays, show how closely connected and different Beckett and Ahmad are.
Absurd Theatre was developed by a group of expatriates who lived in France during the Second World War like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Arthur Adamov. These playwrights as well as Jean Genet, Harold Pinter and Sayeed Ahmad are the major practitioners and leaders of the Theatre of the Absurd. Plays within this group are absurd in that they focus not on logical acts, realistic occurrences, or traditional character development; they, instead, focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical. In spite of being influenced by other writers, each of these Absurd playwrights has his specific approach to render his vision. The content and structure of their writing are a witness to their beliefs. However, this kind of play portrays man as an alien in the complicated universe. He lives in solitude and prefers to be a hermit in the modern society. On the surface level, Absurd drama appears comic, since the dialogues between the characters seem purposeless. They are expressed in a thoughtless manner. The nonsensical and repetitive language draws the audience’s attention and makes them laugh. But as soon as they connect to the main theme of the play, the nonsensical words become meaningful, “though Theatre of the Absurd may seen (sic) as nonsense, they have something to say and can be understood”.
Beckett is considered as a father of Theatre of the Absurd who wins international fame by making free the contemporary playwrights from the restriction of conventional drama. He wrote his works in both French and English and he said that writing in French made him to select the words more carefully and brought more discipline to his writing. His works present a bleak and gloomy outlook on man and define his situation with gallows humor and tragicomedy. His way of writing is known as Beckettian technique. He also is the most influential absurdist dramatist who inspired other playwrights through his magical word power. His impression on Ahmad is indisputable as Ahmad directly admitted himself, “the impact Samuel Beckett had on my mind was deep and stimulating”. I agree with Rehana Raha and believe that “Ahmad’s encounter with western theatre during his study at London School of Economics in the 1950s paved a way and created a passion for theatre in him. The most important event in the London period is his encounter with a play – Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – which opened in London in 1955. The play and Ahmad’s subsequent friendship with Beckett shaped a substantial part of Sayeed Ahmad’s oeuvre”. Having been excited and seized by the idea, it is inevitable that Ahmad would be turned ‘the Asian absurdist’ and it is he who has fused western compactness of form with eastern sensibility for the first time in Bengali Literature. Beckett’s impression on Ahmad is undeniable. In his essay on “Beckett’s Signed Book”, Ahmad brings it to our attention that when he was studying at the London School of Economics in 1955 he used to frequent The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) because of his interest in theatre.
My friends told me about Samuel Beckett and I was enthused with interest to find out this playwright whose first play Waiting for Godot was in town. This new form of a stage play which was shown on the bills as an ‘absurd’ play was quite unique. I had read Jean Paul Sartre’s and Camus’s plays on existentialism but this play of Beckett went right over my head. I left the theatre with a sense of confusion. None of us could explain or fathom the meaning of the play. I decided to collect and read more of Beckett. It was a new world of intellectual discovery. The ‘Absurd’ theory is based on meaninglessness and nothingness. The Second World War had ended with a note of emptiness after the loss of millions of lives, and resultant black marketing and profiteering. The meaning of ‘words’ had changed now. Nothingness, emptiness and loneliness became the watchword of the Absurdist writer. As I read and saw Waiting for Godot I realized the void in which Estragon and Vladimir were groping in search of Godot. Normal speech was being replaced by incomprehensible words and actions. The ‘absurd’ style touched me so much that I wrote my first play in this form entitled Not I. I showed it to my friends in Karachi and Lahore and their reaction was that it was not understandable. I tore and threw it away. It was not till the autumn of 1961 that I buried myself away from friends and wrote my first absurd play called, The Thing on the theme of cyclone.
In fact, the association between Beckett, absurd drama and Sayeed Ahmed is very close and many people fail to assign Sayeed Ahmed his right place in the history of Bengali drama. Sayeed Ahmed is not only the unique absurdist but also an avant-garde dramatist of Bangladesh. Abdus Selim, in his article “Sayeed Ahmad: The Lone Absurdist” mentions Ahmad as “a man who experimented new ideas connecting our tradition and culture with the dramatic philosophies of the western world, and he did it with incredible skill and success. This was possible because he could involve himself perfectly into the latest developments of the world theatre. Sayeed Ahmed experimented — that too with remarkable success — writing absurd plays back in 1965, only six or seven years after Beckett had written his plays”. It should be highlighted, however, that it is not easy, for apprehending a western interpretation of life’s absurdity and meaninglessness and interpreting it in our language and lifestyle with refinement is no doubt a unique achievement on the part of Ahmad. Notably, Shamsur Rahman, a renowned poet and critic of Bengali literature, believes that his plays do not go against the tradition, in general, he says: “the brevity of his language is stunning. He is the pioneer of modern theatre in Bangladeshi stage. His Three Plays (1989) can be termed as gems of our literary heritage. He has very successfully, for the first time, caused a fusion of western compactness of form with eastern sensibilities”. According to Asia Week, Ahmad is “Bangladesh’s pre-eminent modern dramatist. Like his legendary forebear (Tagore) Ahmad also seeks to meld ancient and modern literary forms.
Ahmad is inspired both by Beckett and Ionesco but he does not imitate like one under a spell, rather he uses his judgment and preference and blends the new form with the subject familiar to the audience. To judge the form of his play, one has to realize the blending of the modern with the traditional. Bazlul Karim, director and actor of Drama Circle, the first group theatre in the former East Pakistan, says that “the heir to James Joyce, Samuel Beckett has influenced The Thing in respect of structure and dialogue, making it an absurd play. Here the comments of a character follow the thoughts of another and replies come not in sequence but after intervals”. Analyzing Ahmad’s absurd plays we see the presence of a plot and an ending and he himself announces that “I took the character types in Waiting for Godot but developed my theme on the problem of ‘waiting’ by localizing the experience to my own situation”. His plays are very much realistic and he blends the absurd form with the real incidents familiar to the audience. The subjects of his plays are the relentless cruelty of cyclone, famine and of contemporary social and political crisis. Martin Esslin says that Theatre of the Absurd is concerned with the ultimate realities of the human condition and problems and that it is “intent on making its audience aware of man’s precarious and mysterious position in the universe”. This preoccupation with making the audience aware of man’s condition is a dominant characteristic in Ahmad’s plays.
One of the most innovative disciples of Beckett, Ahmad owes his fame to the fusion of absurdity and realism. He fashions his dramatic writing based on the reality, and perpetually employs real characters in his works as it has been illustrated in this paper. Ahamad’s plays, like Beckett’s, take the audience into the anxious world and abruptly they find themselves in an uncanny, and bizarre atmosphere that elicits they sink in bewilderment. The theme of The Thing was interwoven with folk rituals, traditional customs and natural disaster. Though the dialogue followed the absurd style, the actions of actors, events on the stage and the dramatic ending echoed with the audience.
Both Beckett and Ahmad’s plays like other absurdist plays foreground the pathetic figure of human in this vast universe and express his absurdity in various ways. Unlike Ahmad, who always depicted his imagination through a real setting and characters, Beckett mostly dehumanized his personas and pictured his idea via the surreal world. The language of Ahmad and Beckett also differs in some ways. Ahmad uses language to display the fracture in communication to highlight the failure in communication. His characters mainly apply language for domination on each other or use it as a prophecy rather than as a means of communication as Ahmad understands the ways in which people can use language obliquely as a camouflage. For instance The Girl, in The Thing uses words as a revelation. She endeavors to conceal her isolation.
U. Peng: U. Nen is gone. U. Nen
The Girl: The Thing is coming. The Thing is coming. I will tell you the future. True to every detail. The future of humanity.
Beckett, on the other hand employs language to express man’s isolation and alienation in the world as well as his inability to communicate; as he thinks the language is the great barrier to communication.
Being passive is one of the traits of the Absurd characters;both Beckett and Ahmad use the passive characters in their works with slight differences. Accordingly, in The Thing, Ahmad presents this characteristic through the character called Man, as he does nothing important within the play, but at the very end of the play he declares the philosophic message and real position of human beings in the world.
Headman: Let us start. It is getting late
Man: No we got it a bit too early. You could not tell the fairy tale, I could not play a full note. Others will get it tomorrow may be the day after tomorrow, like us, suddenly, unaware, someday … someday somewhere, another island, another Whistlemanfluteman, somewhere else … . That is certain. My salutation to everyone. Three cheers – Hip-hip-hurray. Hip-hip-hurray. [All of them together].
It should be highlighted here that reading Ionesco’s plays, Ahmad realized that he played with words using them as an amalgam of quasi-meaningless sounds to puzzle audience; yet there was a positive aspect in his plays as it would create a living space of reality broad enough to accommodate the rational and the irrational at the same time. In Ahmad plays both the intellectual mood of Beckett and the creative, dream-like freedom of Ionesco are revealed, though in varying measure. However there is a remarkable difference between these two playwrights that distinguishes Ahmad from Beckett. Characters in Endgame are not real and no one can find a similar person like them in the real world: Hamm, an abnormal son and cruel man with odd features, who condemns parents to live in the dustbin or a servant who is not able to sit, are not the real individuals of this world. Though, Ahmad is highly impressed by Beckett, he merely takes his models from Beckett’s characters and recreates them in the real society as real personalities.
In comparison with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and The Endgame, The Thing’s characters are not images of particular human attitudes; in contrast, they are real and portray the individuals in the world. Esslin believes that the personages in Waiting for Godot and The Endgame “are not characters, but the embodiments of basic human attitudes, rather like the personified virtues and vices in medieval mysterious play”. In the The Thing, the Man’s striving to satisfy the Convict resembles Clov in The Endgame. The Thing has nine characters with the real traits of a human being. They are not non-human like in some plays of Ionesco or Beckett. Beckett’s Not I is a short play where its character is a mouth that is dangling in the mid-stage while the darkness encompasses the whole stage. The mouth’s voice belongs to an old woman, but her total face is not shown on the stage. Another character of this play is an enigmatic figure that wears a long Arabic cloak and silently listens to this voice. Obviously, both characters have no existence in the real world.
Mingling of tragedy and comedy is another significant characteristic in Absurd drama. Absurd characters make audience laugh, but in fact, the story behind their life is totally tragic and stimulates one’s sympathy. Here, these two Absurd play playwrights fuse tragedy and comedy in their dramatic works to render a better picture of the human situation in this mundane world. In this case, Endgame by Beckett, is one of the notable Absurd Plays despite the pathetic situation of characters make the audience laugh. The characters’ action and dialogue is extremely comic, but at the deeper level, one can feel the latent pain in the character’s mind and life. Waiting for Godot also depicts the picture of individuals who cause laughter in the theatre, but actually their everyday expectation of Godot’s coming makes their condition so pathetic that they prefer suicide to waiting for Godot: “We should have thought of it when the world was young, in the nineties … hand in hand from the top of Eiffel Tower, among the first. We were respectable in those days. Now it’s too late. They wouldn’t even let us up”. Because of insufficient tools they choose waiting over suicide. In this respect Esslin mentions that:
Suicide remains their favorite solution unattainable owing to their own incompetence and their lack of practical tools to achieve it. It is precisely their disappointment at their failure to succeed in their attempts at suicide that Vladimir and Estragon rationalize by waiting or pretending to wait for Godot.
Beckett’s Happy Days is another explicit example of this trait. Winnie, a chubby woman is captured in the soil up to her waist. But, little by little she is sinking into the earth and even her husband doesn’t pay attention to her. Her cheerfulness is completely in contrast with her woeful situation, “in one sense her cheerfulness is sheer folly and the author seems to make a deeply pessimistic comment on human life; in another sense however Winnie’s cheerfulness in the face of death and nothingness is an expression of man’s courage and nobility”. Ahmad’s characters in The Thing in the face of horrific death are also a representation of man’s courage and valiant attitude towards life. As Gautam Dasgupta, editor of Performing of Arts Journal, New York, mention, “Sayeed Ahmad’s plays always have a dominant ringing note of all-powerful Nature and man’s ability to take on the challenge”. They are aware of their nemesis, but because they cannot control it, they would rather not think about it and simply go on with their lives occupying their attention with outrageous conversation. Martin Esslin also believes that the dignity of man depends on his ability to face the pointlessness and meaninglessness of their existence, “to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions – and to laugh at it”, which reminds me of Nell words, in Beckett’s Endgame, that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness … it’s the most comical thing in the world. I believe, the laughter Beckett and Esslin talk about has to do with acceptance. The fusion of comedy and tragedy demonstrate how individuals cope with various situations in life.
However, Ahmad, more like Pinter mingles tragedy and comedy to create a dreadful atmosphere which cannot be escaped in real life and the terror and menace leading to pain and distraction. Since Menace is another fundamental characteristic of Absurd Theatre, it is conveyed through different means. In case of Ahmad, the astounding natural forces like cyclone, famine etc. which demolish the existence of island dwellers, in a matter of hours is a recurrent theme of their perception. In this kind of play, characters are mostly controlled or menaced by an absent or present force, which is beyond their control. The Thing is an absurd play where menace continuously hovers in the atmosphere of the play. A sense of comedy and menace are conveyed in a parallel manner. In The Thing and The Milepost, the characters are menaced by outside and natural forces. In spite of Ahmad’s affiliation to Beckett, threat in his plays is moreperceptible than in Beckett’s works. There is metaphysical anguish or nothingness all around Beckett’s characters but the feeling of Ahmad’s characters is quite different – there is an existent force which is a source of threat that may materialize at any moment. Ahmad strives to create a real menace around his characters who face death boldly:
Ahmad: It seems we are all going to see The Thing for the first time.
Munir: Maybe the last time.
U. Nen: Once in a life time.
Headman: You kept us waiting, U. Peng.
Mad: My dream is a reality.
U. Nen: Reverend one, shall we proceed with the rite?
U. Peng: A bud blooms in time; a leaf flutters in the breeze. Don’t be impatient, U. nen. We have only one life. Let us hold it tight, not run wild and lose it.
Headman: Very true. We will be patient and maintain the dignity of our race.
Absurd play’s milieu is another challenging issue in Absurd Theatre. The theme of Ahmad’s second play Milepost is famine, a subject familiar to the people in the sub-continent. Through the dialogue of the gravedigger and the guard, the relentless cruelty of famine has been brought into sharp focus. The appearance of a mother with her two sons adds a twist to the familiar tragedy of famine because she has to make a difficult choice – according to the dream she had, one of the sons has to be sacrificed but there was no indication in the dream about which one to offer. The dilemma in making a correct decision has been presented as the essence of the human predicament. As Ahmad has himself pointed out in the preface: “Famine is not only the helplessness of the hungry, it is also a crisis of the human soul”. Milepost is a modern psycho-analytical play with unconventional dialogue and sequences that create the absurd ambience. In the Survival, using the folktale, Ahmad has sought to portray contemporary social and political crisis that he perceived as the outcome of greed and lust for power. It is essentially the age-old story of exploitation by those who have power and the seemingly helpless suffering of the weak. While condemning the guile and power of those who rule and decide the fate of the ‘weak’, Ahmad finds hope in their number, which one day will act to the disadvantage of the big and powerful. Beckett in contrast to Ahmad usually uses surreal atmosphere in his works. Ahmad’s employing ‘waiting’ theme is another sign of his binding to Beckett. The Thing’s characters’ waiting is similar to Waiting for Godot’s characters’ waiting. However, a noticeable difference between them must be considered as well. Beckett’s characters’ waiting is seemingly vain and fruitless because the appearance of Godot is apparently beyond the bounds of possibility and they just spend their time recklessly for their belief; such waiting is somewhat opposed to reality as their waiting has no end and even by the end of the play they fail to see Godot; who probably won’t never come to visit them.
But for Ahmad’s men this waiting is not apparently stupid, as the ‘thing’ they are waiting for shows up ultimately. In addition, Ahmad illustrates how the coming of the thing into one’s world transforms their situation into an absurd world; however Beckett shows this absurd status even without anything or anyone’s arrival. In this regard Esslin mentions that “waiting is to experience the action of time, which is constant change. And yet, as nothing real ever happens, that change is in itself an illusion the act of waiting for Godot is shown as essentially absurd”. On the other hand waiting has become a habit for Vladimir and Estragon, since it explicitly prevents them “from reaching the painful but fruitful awareness of the full reality of being”.
Since a circular plot or having no story is extremely important in the Absurd theatre, most of the well-known absurd plays are formed with the A-B-A structure. It means that nothing really happens in the course of the play. One motif is repeated frequently in different ways with some specific words and sentences. Waiting for Godot is an explicit example of circular plot; “nothing happens nobody comes nobody goes and it’s awful”. Regarding this, Esslin mentions that “Waiting for Godot does not tell a story; it explores a static situation”. Beckett’s Endgame and Pinter’s The Birthday Party are other examples that have circular plots, as they end at where they started. This matter also is totally true about The Caretaker, as when The Caretaker ends, the audiences return back to the initial state of the play as if nothing has happened – Davies returns to his former status of tramp and the two brothers get back to their mood of isolation; Aston is back to his seclusion and Mick remains in his non-communicative mood with his older brother. But, Ahmad is totally different from them. According to Hasnat Abdul Hye, editor of the Complete Works of Sayeed Ahmad Vol. II, mentions in the introduction of the book, “what differentiates The Thing from absurd plays is the presence of plot and an ending, two features absent in Beckett’s plays. ” I agree with Hye and believe that one has to realize that Ahmad imitated Beckett only half the way and came up with a form of play that retained elements of traditional plays while combining some aspects of absurd plays.
In contrast to Beckett, who just focused on absurdity traits and surreal aspect in his works, reality plays an important role in Ahmad’s plays as they fraught with the harsh realities of life of real characters. Hence, there are prominent differences that distinguish Ahmad’s works from the other absurdist writers especially like Beckett. Unlike Beckett, Ahmad has always felt strongly drawn to naturalism. Ahmad focuses on the local and familiar. His characters for the most part, bear ordinary names, wear ordinary outfits and walk around the real settings. They are not surreal but real, as thespian Ataur Rahman, a longtime friend-follower of Ahmad mentions“the absurd we talk about is as real as anything else”. Because, the characters, in a way, asking the audience to reflect on their own lives and ask themselves what they can do to either accept the absurdity of life or fight against it. In Ahmad, we find the characters are always threatened by real hazard and the source of threat is totally obvious. So, we can saythat Ahmad’s terror and threat are more poignant since they exist in our known world and, Ahmad owes his fame to the fusion of absurdist and realism. The plays of Beckett and Ahmad manage to both entertain us and make us laugh as well as make us see the world differently and reflect upon our lives, and the similarity as well as the dissimilarity among their plays, show how closely connected Beckett and Ahmad are.
- Ahmad, Sayeed. Complete Works of Sayeed Ahmad Vol. II. Ed. Hasnat Abdul Hye. Dhaka: Bangla Academy 2012.
- Ahmad, Sayeed. Three Plays. Dhaka: Bangla Academy 1989.
- Ahmad, Sayeed. ”Samuel Beckett and His Waiting”. The New Age Extra, 05 September,2008.
- Beckett, S. Waiting for Godot. Ed. Javed Malick. Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Esslin, M. The Theater of the Absurd. New York: Vintage, 2004.
- Rajeshwar, T. Modernism and Postmodernism in English Literature. Jaipur: Ritu Publications.
- Selim, A. ”Sayeed Ahmad: The Lone Absurdist”. Pipilika, 10 Feb 2012. [Accessed on 2017-02-13 10:59:25, from http://www. pipilika. com/site_ajax_calls/show_details/1538712/en/new_window. ]
- “Sayeed Ahmad as Playwright Analysed. ” The New Age 17 Jan. 2015. Accessed on 2017-02-13 10:49:27, from http://archive. newagebd. net/89606/sayeed-ahmad-as-playwright-analysed/
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Abstract This paper studies the influence of Samuel Beckett on Ahmad’s works and analyzes their dissimilitude as well as their similitudes. They are two extraordinary playwright of Absurd Theatre – […]