Waiting for Godot as an “absurd” play

When Waiting for Godot was first staged in Paris in 1953, the audience’s reaction was that of utter bafflement. Nobody could discern the meaning of the play because it did not follow the conventions of drama at all. There was no Aristotelian notion of a proper beginning, middle and end. The only crisis with which the play began was Estragon (Gogo) unable to take off his boot! There was no well-defined plot in the play in which “nothing happens”, yet the characters were enacting arbitrary actions and delivering haphazard dialogues. Thus, the dramatic suspense of the play was not constituted so much by the obvious question, “What will happen next?” as it was by the question “What is happening?” It was in 1961 that Martin Esslin categorized Waiting for Godot under a new dramatic genre, which he termed as the Theatre of the Absurd, and made drama lovers see how the play was a fine example of predicament of modern human beings.

True to its association with the Theatre of the Absurd, Waiting for Godot depicts the meaningless existence of a fruitless civilization. Beckett does so artistically by showing a barren landscape with just a mound and a leafless tree. The modern civilization had witnessed both the horrors and the absurdity of the two world wars that wreaked havoc on innocent lives and negated the very essence of living.

The play is also a manifestation of Camus’ philosophy as expounded in his landmark essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942). In the essay, Camus shows that life is inherently absurd and this is a universal situation. Beckett strips his characters of the accidental circumstances of social position or historical context and characterizes them in their basic situation of existence, such as waiting between birth and death.

For Vladimir (Didi) and Gogo, waiting is a “lingering” act, as Didi propounds in his soliloquy in Act II of the play. “We have time to grow old,” he says. Waiting for them is full of suffering and anguish as they continually oscillate between hope and despair. This suffering is exacerbated by the fact that there is no divine intervention to help them out of their misery. Religion, as a matter of fact, has become an obsolete meta-narrative, with no power to provide any metaphysical answers to give relief to humankind. It is an incomplete and obscure grand narrative which is open to discussion, which the two tramps engage in in order to while away time.

Instead of God, Didi and Gogo keep “waiting for Godot”, who is purportedly an agent of their salvation, but this wait is absurd. They have vague ideas about the identity of Godot and they are not even sure if they are waiting at the right place and on the right day. Godot, too, procrastinates his visit and remains absent throughout the play. Thus, tramps’ waiting remains meaningless and this experience is shared equally by the audience as well, who wait till the end of the play trying to find its meaning.

Meaninglessness is one of the central features of an absurd play such as Waiting for Godot. Human beings have been thrust into a meaningless universe, especially after the Second World War. The universe seems to have lost its centre and it has become disjointed and purposeless. Human beings strive to impose an order on this absurd universe, but in vain. They try to find a living purpose, but all their endeavours are futile. This situation recalls Kierkegaard’s statement: ‘we are thrown into existence here and there.’ The tramps are also placed in a situation of ‘nowhere-nowhen’ (Hugh Kenner), which is out of their control. This renders them passive and impotent and they surrender themselves to the ‘absurd waiting’ for Godot.

As the tramps helplessly leap into bad faith, they are forced to while away time with trifle acts so that they do not have to confront reality. These tramps engage in motiveless and clownish activities. Beckett portrays their pathetic condition through the use of theatricality. He employs various non-verbal techniques in the form of music-hall movements, gestures and pantomime. He also borrows from vaudeville the idea of clowning that the tramps carry out to pass away time. Their actions vary from cringing, crouching and cuddling to staggering, tumbling and falling limply. In fact, at the end of the play, Gogo’s trousers fall about his ankles. This is both significantly comic and tragic, which is in the vein of the Theatre of the Absurd where laughter is combined with tragedy. Beckett himself commented about this act: ‘The spirit of the play, to the extent to which it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than tragic.’ The tramps’ tragic situation, while amusing to the spectator, makes them so impotent that at the end of each act, “they do not move”. This immobility emphasizes the idea of being in an existentialist trap where there is “nothing to be done”. Their life is full of boredom as it is monotonous. Their only recourse is to habit, “the great deadener”.

It is owing to habit that these tramps delve on various actions – exchanging courtesies, abusing each other and philosophizing. They do not have anything substantial to say to each other, yet they must keep talking to avoid the prick of passing time. This is best captured in Lucky’s thinking act in Act I. There is complete meltdown of language in his speech. This is another tenet of an “absurd” play. Language is no longer the predominant medium of proper communication. It can be appropriated as meaning is usually lost in verbal communication. Therefore, language in an absurd play such as Waiting for Godot is used in terms of concrete poetic images rather than discursive speech. The play makes better use of non-verbal gestures to highlight the tragi-comic situation in which the characters are trapped.

The tragi-comic situation of the characters is accentuated by uncertainty. The play evinces the precariousness of human life in this vast universe. Life is but a moment between birth and death and it passes in a flash. One can lose one’s sight, while another may lose one’s ability to speak. As Pozzo exclaims in his furious outburst in Act II, the ravages of “accursed time” on human beings are such that it is uncertain what may suddenly happen to the human beings in a moment. Any human effort is useless against the onslaught of time, which is seen here as a devitalizing agent of human life. Thus, we see modern human beings cut off from their exterior comfort in Waiting for Godot, which makes it an absurd play.

Beckett’s theatrical genius lies in showing haphazardness and arbitrariness of life through both the form and content of the play. He effortlessly creates the effect of void which encompasses the boundaries of the theatre. It is for this reason that Ruby Cohn praised the play in these terms: ‘Waiting for Godot brought the curtain down on King Ibsen.’ The influence of Waiting for Godot has been so immense on the contemporary liberal theatre that we are rightly called the children of Godot.


Copyright of Riya Payal, 2017


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