Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
Written in 1948-1949 and staged in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot can be taken as a summation of the terrible experience humanity had had in the first part of the 20th century. Surviving horrors of two World Wars and atrocities of Nazism, people felt devastated and lost. While some might have find consolation in religion, others claimed that God had left them. References to God are the first that come to mind at the sight of the title. Even for the French audience, ‘Godot’ must remind ‘God.’ The reference is intensified by the end of the play as Godot never turns up. Basically, Beckett ditches the obligatory climax and the two acts occur without much action. Thus, the play’s structure emphasizes the nihilistic stance of the world as much as its content does. Although Beckett does not pronounce any particular ideas, the formal elements he uses underline the absurdity of the characters and their dialogues, and together it reflects the nihilistic model of the world.
One of the major themes of Beckett’s play is absurdity and meaninglessness. If human life has no meaning and people can endlessly and senselessly die, then what is the point in making sensible and meaningful artworks? First of all, Beckett eliminates the structure of a traditional play making it climax-free. The plot is devoid of any action. Two men of unidentified age, Vladimir and Estragon, talk to each other while waiting for enigmatic Godot who promised to come on Saturday. The men do not know what the day of the week is and keep forgetting details of their life as well as the exact historical and culturological events. They meet two other men, Pozzo and Lucky, and after their departure a boy comes to say that Godot will come tomorrow. Act 2 repeats Act 1, but Pozzo arrives blind and Lucky becomes dumb; the boy again arrives to announce a raincheck for Godot, and Vladimir and Estragon decide to go but stay put.
The cyclical nature of the play’s structure and the protagonists’ dialogues emphasizes the absurdity of the play. In Act 2, dialogues become even more concise as the characters have already discussed all topics in Act 1, but they still need to spend time together and occupy themselves somehow. From the first lines of the play, Beckett plunges the audience into the shadowy world of lowlife: “Boots won’t come off, people can’t be known, shadowy figures beat one at night, one doesn’t know why, and there is nothing to be done” (Graver 24). The track of reasoning is wavy for Vladimir and Estragon. They hop from topic to topic often mirroring each other and not giving away much information about themselves. In the beginning of Act 1, when Estragon is trying to take off his boots, Vladimir patronizes him: “Boots must be taken off every day, I’m tired telling you that. Why don’t you listen to me?” (Beckett). Then they echo each other:
VLADIMIR: It hurts?
ESTRAGON: (angrily). Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
VLADIMIR: (angrily). No one ever suffers but you. I don’t count. I’d like to hear what you’d say if you had what I have.
ESTRAGON: It hurts?
VLADIMIR: (angrily). Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
Apart from a comic effect, this verbal exchange creates a certain rhyme of repeating ‘hurts’ (Beckett).
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Absurdity of Waiting for Godot involves clashing of opposites and mixing of high and low. Talks about boots, pain, and an unzipped fly eventually result in Biblical references. For no particular reason Vladimir remembers, “Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?” which refers the audience to Biblical Proverb “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but when the desire cometh it is a tree of life” (Graver 27). However, the allusion stops here and does not have any continuation. This ragged manner of supplying allusions and references contributes to the sense of absurd of the play. The audience realizes that the protagonists are aware of some fragments of cultural and historical inheritance but they do not know what to do with it, so they just juggle it for the sake of conversation without any particular meaning.
Later on, Vladimir proceeds remembering the Bible and insists on retelling Estragon the story of the thieves crucified together with Jesus Christ, one of whom, according to Luke, was saved. However, again his lofty musings are interrupted by bodily functions: “Vladimir breaks into a hearty laugh which he immediately stifles, his hand pressed to his pubis, his face contorted” (Beckett). Critics explain that Vladimir might have some urinal problems, which is the reason why he finds it hard to laugh and says that he can smile but “It’s not the same thing” (Beckett). As the protagonists need to pass the time, Estragon agrees to “return the ball” and keeps the dialogue going (Beckett). As a result, the viewer and the reader observe a rapid speed and captivating exchange of phrases. As in “stichomythic verse of Greek drama,” Vladimir and Estragon repeat and echo the words of each other (Graver 30). However, the end of the dialogue again brings it nowhere: “People are bloody ignorant apes” (Beckett).
In the beginning of Act 2, Beckett introduces a cyclical verse when the last line returns to the beginning and repeats the story again. The verse about a dog uses the themes and words already used in Act 1 such as beating, violence, death, and resuming. The dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon repeats itself from Act 1 but now they do not even wait for the answers of each other because they already know them and talk just for the sake of talking. Estragon has again been beat and Vladimir says that he would not have let them beat his friend saying: “I would have stopped you from doing whatever it was you were doing” (Beckett). Estragon explains that he did not do anything to be beat for and hears: “Perhaps you weren’t. But it’s the way of doing it that counts, the way of doing it, if you want to go on living” (Beckett). Here, the play again highlights the meaningless of any kind of existence. Not the content but the form matters.
When Vladimir and Estragon continue their dialogue, their short laconic sentences resemble free verses: “To be dead is not enough for them. / It is not sufficient. Silence. / They make a noise like feathers. / Like leaves. / Like ashes. / Like leaves. Long silence. / Say something! I’m trying. Long silence. / Say anything at all! / What do we do now? / Wait for Godot. / Ah! Silence” (Becket). The rhythm and melody of the dialogue are supported by alliteration and the final ‘Ah!’ as an exclamation mark at the end of the statement.
Before Vladimir and Estragon slip into their poetic dialogue, they again talk about death. In Act 1, Estragon already offered to hang themselves on the tree and they seriously meditated the thought but rejected it because they thought that the tree bough can break and they would fall. In Act 2, Estragon again refers to death saying: “The best thing would be to kill me, like the other… Like billions of others” (Beckett). Vladimir’s words reveal why their life is meaningless: “To every man his little cross. (He sighs.) Till he dies. (Afterthought.) And is forgotten.”
As for the metaphors, Estragon’s carrot, as any other object, serves as a reminder that Beckett gives nothing to the reader to help them understand his characters better or make sense of the play. Estragon’s carrot can say nothing about either Estragon or Vladimir who gave him it, and any other details and object reveal nothing as well. All elements of the play support its meaninglessness (Graver 101).
The situation of absurd is intensified by names of the characters. The Russian-sounding name Vladimir is rather eccentric for France as much as for England. Estragon means tarragon in French, but in this context it reveals nothing. They both call each other Didi and Gogo and respond to others names as well. Besides, the most miserable character is ironically called Lucky. Therefore, Beckett intentionally ignores one of the artistic means for a writer and his names mean nothing on purpose.
The constant change of moods and responses out of place contribute to the general feeling of absurdity experienced both by the characters and the audience. Vladimir and Estragon openly discuss suicide in a nonchalant manner. When Vladimir refers to his urinal problems saying: “One daren’t even laugh anymore,” the audience might take it on its behalf as it also does not know how to react to this stream of contradictory emotions and words.
As Godot never turns up in two acts of the play, the meaningless activity of the characters can carry on endlessly. They clearly realize the void of human existence but do not even try to act some meaning through meaningful activity as existentialists advised. Engaged in empty talking, they pass the time as best as they could. “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” Estragon asks and reveals the ultimate truth about their existence (Beckett). They do not even feel alive; they feel that their task is to pretend as if they live. That is the reason why they are so easy about suicides and death.
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Destructing the traditional play structure, Beckett manages to create an absolutely new form that reflects a meaningless existence of humanity. People can humiliate and hurt each other and they do not need any particular reasons for it. Their hurtful behavior mirrors their lost state. Feeling abandoned by God, people lose any reasons to keep decorum. Through the use of formal elements, Beckett underlines the absurdity of the characters and their dialogues. Both the play’s content and structure reflect the nihilistic model of the world.