Waiting for Godot: Samuel Beckett’s Most Notable Play
Samuel Beckett’s most notable play, Waiting for Godot, is as critic Vivian Mercier once commented a play in which “nothing happens, twice” (Pattie, 74). Godot takes place on the side of a nameless road beneath a tree, where vagabonds Estragon and Vladimir sit endlessly waiting for a visit from an elusive and mysterious man named Godot. Beckett’s use of terse empty language, imagery and repetition throughout the play serve not only to parallel the monotony and meaninglessness of life, but to parallel the anxiety we all feel in waiting to find an unidentifiable, unknown meaning in life—one that may not even exist.
On a large scale, Beckett firstly conveys the monotony of existence with the recurrence of a single phrase seen initially at the very start of Act One, then repeated periodically throughout the play. In the opening scene as Estragon struggles painfully to remove his boot, he ultimately gives up, announcing: “Nothing to be done.” As this motif repeats throughout the play, it’s universal presence begins to expose the idea that all actions are inconsequential; one action holds no more meaning or significance than the other. This idea is similarly conveyed through the repetition of other key exchanges between Vladimir (or “Didi”) and Estragon (“Gogo”) throughout Godot. For example, throughout both acts of the play Estragon and Vladimir seem preoccupied with the concept that because they are unable to decide what they ought to do next, they might as well just hang themselves. Here, Beckett is using absurdism to convey the idea that all decisions in life are equally meaningless. Beckett manipulates tone to create this absurdism—Vladimir and Estragon’s tone is no different throughout the entire play, whether they are discussing suicide or carrots. This creates the absurd allusion that the prospect of killing one’s self is an ordinary action, just as ordinary as any other everyday decision. In other words: Go for a walk or kill yourself, the decision doesn’t matter because all actions and decisions are equally meaningless.
VLADIMIR. Yes, but while waiting.
ESTRAGON. What about hanging ourselves?
VLADIMIR. Hmm. It’d give us an erection.
ESTRAGON. (highly excited). An erection!
VLADIMIR. With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
ESTRAGON. Let’s hang ourselves immediately!
Beckett also uses recurring imagery throughout the play in order to subtly emphasize these themes of emptiness and absence of meaning. For instance both Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly comment on the emptiness of their boots and hats. Found primarily in the stage directions, Beckett repeatedly instructs Vladimir and Estragon to talk of their hats, look in side them, note their emptiness. Similarly, there’s a notable absence of movement among the characters of Godot. Vladimir and Estragon are primarily standing or sitting still throughout the entire play. In this sense, too, Beckett emphasizes the concept of emptiness in Godot.
As Estragon and Vladimir argue over the supposed date of Godot’s arrival, Beckett’s uses repetition to subtly manipulate the passage of time. As Estragon and Vladimir repeat the names of the days of the week, they consequently begin to lose their value and become meaningless. Essentially: It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, because every day is the same. In fact, just the notion that Vladimir and Estragon are apparently existing without any knowledge of what day it is only contributes to the absurdity of the play. Why should they bother to keep track of time if all days of the week hold the same empty value? Beckett’s use of repetition to devalue time can be seen clearly here:
ESTRAGON. That we were to wait.
VLADIMIR. He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.
ESTRAGON. You think.
VLADIMIR. I must have made a note of it. (He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.)
ESTRAGON. (very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?
VLADIMIR. (looking wildly about him, as though the date was inscribed in the landscape). It’s not possible!
ESTRAGON. Or Thursday?
However what is more crucial about Godot than simply an established lack of meaning behind all action is the idea that we exist only to wait for this nonexistent meaning to arrive. Critic Harold Clurman writes that “We pass the time….waiting for a meaning that will save us—save us from pain, ugliness, emptiness of existence.” (Culotta, 93) Beckett’s language has precisely this effect: it forces the reader or audience to come face to face with the discomfort of the unknown. Here, Vladimir and Estragon nervously repeat themselves and mimic each other as they wait:
ESTRAGON. What am I to say?
VLADIMIR. Say, I am happy.
ESTRAGON. I am happy.
VLADIMIR. So am I.
ESTRAGON. So am I.
VLADIMIR. We are happy.
ESTRAGON. We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy? (66)
Another notable aspect of Vladimir and Estragon’s wait for Godot is that we are never informed of why they must wait for him.Vladimir and Estragon don’t talk about anything, they babble endlessly of no real subject matter seemingly just to pass the time while waiting. Beckett’s use of stark and essentially empty dialogue between Vladimir of Estragon brews a growing sense of uneasiness in the reader, as we are suspended in perpetual waiting for something unknown— just as they are. The largely vague context around which the play is built contributes to an almost unsettling sense of emptiness and lostness. We don’t know who Godot is or why is visiting, we know nothing of who Vladimir and Estragon are, we don’t know even where they are or how they got there. Beckett incorporates this vague uncertainty into the dialogue between Estragon and Vladimir. Waiting for Godot is composed of almost entirely two to five word exchanges between Vladimir and Estragon, seen here at the beginning of Act 1:
ESTRAGON. (violently). I’m hungry!
VLADIMIR. Do you want a carrot?
ESTRAGON. Is that all there is?
VLADIMIR. I might have some turnips.
ESTRAGON. Give me a carrot. (Vladimir rummages in his pockets, takes out a turnip and gives it to Estragon who takes a bite out of it. Angrily.) It’s a turnip
Beckett’s consistent use of brief, rapid language has an almost maddening effect. More and more time passes yet nothing is really being said, no progress made. Beckett’s manipulation of language creates an eerily stagnant sense of the passage of time referred to by critic Lawrence Graver as “universal present time”. Beckett seems to transition from day to night with little warning, and the passage of hours or minutes is largely unclear. Graver writes “It would be advantageous to begin talking about the play not as a structure of ideas, but as the dramatization of what it is like and what it means to exist in a state of radical unknowingness.” (Graver, 23)
Just as Beckett distorts the logic of time to intensify this wait for the unknown, he also uses language to disrupt the logic of grammar for the same purpose. For example in Act 1 as Vladimir, Estragon and Pozzo infinitely bicker and engage each other, Lucky remains entirely unresponsive. When Lucky does finally speak, what ensues is nonsense. Lucky spews pages of illogical, uninterpretable words and phrases. Beckett uses imaginary words like “quaquaqua” and Lucky seems to wander in and out of various mismatched tones. Here Beckett disrupts the logic of language, devaluing it just as he previously devalued time. Beckett forces us to see a meaninglessness in language through stripping it of it’s coherence. Beckett’s use of language again guides the reader to feel that uneasiness associated with the a life spent waiting for meaning.
LUCKY. 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 with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames… (45)
While critics agree that Beckett’s Waiting For Godot certainly focuses on the agony of a lifelong wait for meaning, what seemingly goes unnoticed is the inherently hopeful implications of a play in which two men suffer endlessly to find meaning, yet also endlessly choose to endure. Vladimir and Estragon do contemplate suicide repeatedly but continually decide to keep living, to endure hour after hour. In the final lines of the play, Vladimir and Estragon again discuss suicide and in fact claim it is their final decision. However it is Beckett’s final stage direction that proves otherwise:
VLADIMIR. Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON. Yes, let’s go.
They do not move. (109)
Here, in a single line, Beckett brilliantly exposes the endless cycle of man—while Vladimir and Estragon will forever continue to discuss suicide, as human beings they will always choose to endure, to go on. Rather than simply ending the misery, they do not move.
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