The Futility of Human Existence in the Cold War Era: Synthesizing Waiting for Godot, Dr Strangelove, Ariel, and Revolutionary Road
The devastating events of WWII and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb in 1945 ruptured the foundations of both the physical and psychological position of mankind, provoking an Existential crisis of faith that called into question the possibility of human freedom, challenging ontological notions of truth, the authenticity of human endeavour and the value of life itself. Demonstrating the fundamental nexus between political spheres and private lives, texts from the era examined this loss of faith in spiritual, political and social institutions, and the resonance of these ruptures on the individual psyche. Pivotal to these textual representations were the composer’s utilisation of radical, newfound forms in order to convey the futility of existence in a reality a morally expedient landscape governed by spiritual scepticism. Samuel Beckett’s 1953 Absurdist play Waiting for Godot, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film Dr. Strangelove, Sylvia Plath’s 1965 confessional poetic anthology Ariel, Richard Yates’ 1962 postmodern novel Revolutionary Road all re-invented their respective forms to accurately espouse this collective displacement of mankind.
Responding to humanity’s sentiments of religious abandonment and psychological devastation at their capability to replace God as a force of destruction, Samuel Beckett engages with the epistemological scepticism of religion and faith in his 1956 Absurdist play Waiting for Godot, exposing humankind’s increasingly futile existence in a reality governed by spiritual uncertainty. Giving expression to the growing disillusionment and nihilism voiced by Existential theorists, Beckett strove to illustrate the anxiety and disaffection in the Cold War climate through the experimental convention of Absurdity, which, according to Ionesco, “is that which is devoid of purpose”. Beckett demonstrates this futility of human existence in the nuclear age by constructing a purgatorial, dystopic setting devoid of meaning; “A country road. A tree. Evening,” in which the post-apocalyptic location is allegorical for both the physical destruction and demise of the human condition in the Cold War climate. In dramatizing Sartre’s philosophy of ‘Bad Faith’ and the absurdity of man relying on external salvation, Beckett forces his audience to reflect upon the shallow illusions of certitude that offer the characters comfort throughout the play. This is demonstrated in the play’s paradoxical sense of change and stasis through the antithetical stage directions and repetitive passages concluding each act, “‘Yes, let’s go.’ (They do not move)” We can’t/ Why not? / We’re waiting for Godot.” In this way, Beckett reasserts his protagonists’ own confinement within the play’s cyclical structure, and American artist Tony Price’s view of mankind as “nuclear hostages” in a post-war existence devoid of purpose and progress. Humanity’s overwhelming loss of faith and direction is epitomized in Vladimir’s reflection in Act 2, in which the dynamic of confusion and doubt works as further dramatic expression for philosophical scepticism; “…what are we doing here. Yet, in this immense confusion one thing is clear. We are waiting.” Through the ironic inversion of “confusion” and “clear,” the verbatim develops the pathos of Vladimir’s futile hope, criticizing the role of grand narratives in perpetuating hope for salvation and suggesting that irrationality and absurdism are the clearest representations of truth. Ultimately, the play’s unconventional form of Absurdity responds to the rupture in sanctity of faith and confronts audiences with a radical challenge to the Christian ethical system underlying all Western socio-political structures.
In the same way that Beckett challenges religious faith and salvation through Absurdist expression, Stanley Kubrick’s Black Comedic film Dr Strangelove utilises a comic-apocalyptic genre to satirize the perceived infallibility of the American government and the impending threat of nuclear annihilation. Drawn from the obsessively fearful context of McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film deeply criticizes the contradictory Cold War policies which guaranteed mutual destruction whilst forcing audiences to question their blind faith in technological progress. While Beckett’s characters represent a purely philosophical examination of the devolution of mankind, Kubrick’s demoralised characters have lost their civilised instincts due to these politically-driven, ingrained paranoias. This is conveyed in the characterization of the sociopathic, right-wing General Ripper; who screams “ATTACK!” and grabs a ridiculously-oversized machine-gun, which he must operate at crotch level, at the sound of a distant alarm. The combination of Vaudeville “prop comedy” in this key scene, an allusion to the male genitalia, and his ridiculous, juvenile response – reminiscent of McCarthyist hysteria – acts as an extended metaphor for the primal, base motivations that replaced intellectual reasoning in Cold War political action. Following the absence of “Godot”, the key dramatic device in Beckett’s play, Kubrick mocks the notion of “nuclear brinkmanship” with the Soviet Union through the ominous “Doomsday Machine”- a device frequently mentioned throughout the film but never shown. Establishing an illogical and farcical narrative that appropriately evokes the chaos and absurdity of Godot, Kubrick’s iconic “War Room” sequence hyperbolically ironizes Dr Strangelove’s explanation of the importance of the Doomsday Machine, which “is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world?”, trivialising the expedient motives of US policies of deterrence and scare tactics. By undermining nuclear politics and the demise of morality in government leadership, Kubrick’s radical satire of the infallible US government is reminiscent of Beckett’s ridiculing of the grand narratives that underpin society, evident in their deeply existential portrayal of mankind’s fatal flaws in a world where destruction was easy and imminent.
While the former texts present the nihilistic breakdown of belief in public institutions, the latter reflect the psychological fragmentation of individual identity that reflects the ruptured society. With its newfound consumerist culture, the 1950’s saw American present itself as a model for Western democracy; idealising a conservative landscape of domesticity, cultural containment and suburban conformity as perceived security from wider fears. Providing a counter discourse to the corrosive hypocrisies and private pressures of the “American Dream”, Plath’s anthology Ariel and Yates’ Revolutionary Road give expression to the tormented mentality of navigating these social constraints, which, according to feminist, Existentialist de Beauvoir; “are institutionally designed to set people up for failure.
Plath’s Ariel sees her radically depart from her previous poetic expression of narrative sequence to a more colloquially-free, surrealist mode in order to critically explore the plight of the suburban housewife suffocated by contradictory notions of femininity, thus presenting an emotional protest against a world dominated by personal fragmentation. Within her poems The Applicant and Lady Lazarus, she uses a collision of discourse types to reflect the conflict between one’s authentic self and the institutional blanket of conformity. Within The Applicant, Plath’s personification of authoritative detachment in the opening rhetorical, “First, are you our sort of person”, establishes the unrelenting grasp of capitalist and consumerist forces. Furthermore, Plath’s metaphors of females as “living dolls” and men as “suits” criticises the pressures to conform to the institutionalised notion of marriage. Her aggressive infomercial description of a suit, “waterproof, shatterproof, proof / against fire and bombs through the roof” paradoxically reflects the 1950’s infantile phenomenon of retreating to suburban life as perceived protection in an uncertain world. Implicating the reader with moral responsibility for the annulment of her existence, Plath’s analogy of circus-like performance in Lazarus gives expression to her feelings of helpless suffering, lack of control and vulnerability. Condemning this collective complicity in morbid voyeurism of females as objectified spectacles, she refers to society as a “peanut-crunching crowd” watching “the big striptease” – her artificial existence. Furthering this motif, Plath speaks of herself in hyperboles, sardonically boasting that “dying is an art” that she does “exceptionally well”. These nonchalant suggestions of her own death are sardonically conflated with the trivial act of performance to disturb moral judgements and evoke a context of female pain and psychic disintegration. Plath’s poetry mocks the sanctity given to domestic values as an emotional solution to wider social fears, arguing that forces of materialism, consumerism, capitalism and militarism have suppressed individualism and fuelled the ultimate self-destruction.
Reflecting the rebirth of American’s consumerist culture and the subsequent oppressive social ideals in the Cold War era, Richard Yates’ post-modern novel Revolutionary Road, described as “the original anti-suburban narrative”, amplifies Plath’s scepticism of the values idealised by the unrealistic American dream. While Beckett and Kubrick locate society’s destructive influence in the hostile and absurd practice of war, Yates characters, the Wheelers, are hyper-aware of their existential insubstantiality, desperately striving for authenticity and freedom in the “blind, desperate clinging to safety and security” (Henry and Clark) of modern urban civilization. Establishing the false nature of suburbia, the institutional rhetoric of Frank Wheeler’s first-person narration invokes a deliberate sense of artifice and two-dimensionality in his description of houses “weightless and impermanent, as foolishly misplaced as bright new toys.” Frank’s condemnation of the inverted, superficial values as a “disease” in which “nobody thinks or feels or cares”, develops the metaphor of illness, combined with accumulative listing of human emotions, to evoke Heidegger’s philosophy of “moral ambiguity”, linking the infiltration of consumerism with the imposition of blank conformity and complacency. This erosion of individualism evokes Plath’s commentary in The Applicant, where “rubber” moulds dictate the human form, and the hand must be “empty” to receive from society. Like Plath, April Wheeler is unable to identify with the maternal figure that she is dictated to undertake, and early in the novel, during an argument about abortion, she pleads; “I’ve had two children, doesn’t that count?” Using her children as a justification for her own bodily decisions, April’s insistent tone highlights the burden of motherhood, and her alienation in an environment that saw this rejection as both a psychological disorder and a moral failure.
April’s final act – the fatal abortion – works as an extended metaphor for female freedoms, which were “voiceless” and metaphorically aborted through a culture of social and mental confinement. Like Plath’s, Yates’ ironic portrayal of hypocritical social conventions of domesticity conclude suicide as the only emancipation for the tragic suburban citizen, thus, reflecting the psychological demise of mankind in the Cold War. Nonetheless, each composer embraces a breakdown of form to highlight the breakdown in meaning, within both public institutions and psychological selfhood, in the atomic age.
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