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Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ Analyzing WAITING FOR GODOT ~~
THEATER OF THE ABSURD
Although audiences had already been introduced to modernist, experimental modes of theater before Beckett's Waiting for Godot appeared in 1953, this is the play that had the most profound and wide-ranging impact. This is the play that started a trend which became known as "theater of the absurd." Before this play, audiences could expect the "well-made" play-life-like, psychologically realistic characters, witty dialogue, and well-crafted, causal plots with neatly tied up beginnings, middles, and ends. But the theater of the absurd subverts these expectations at every turn. The characters are unfamiliar, weirdly motivated; their dialogue is filled with non-sequitors and "blather," seeming nonsense. The movement of the plot is arbitrary; there's no identifiable beginning, middle, and end-no "Freytag's pyramid" to help us get a grip on the plot.
Most strikingly, Beckett, like other dramatists working in this mode, is not trying to "tell a story." He's not offering any easily identifiable solutions to carefully observed problems; there's little by way of moralizing and no obvious "message." The circularity of Waiting for Godot is highly unconventional. Even today, it's not what we expect at all. But it's very common in the tradition of the theater of the absurd.
Martin Esslin writes very lucidly about how the theater of the absurd works like poetry rather than narrative. Traditional narrative drama tells a story, develops dynamically. The characters grow and change before our eyes, and that is the point of the story-to reveal that growth, that change. We reflect on why it happened, what it implies, how we relate to it ourselves, what it means. But the theater of the absurd doesn't aim for traditional narrative because it rejects such narratives as too artificial, too contrived. The world isn't really as neat and tidy as all that. Things happen by chance, at random. Chaos and irrationality describe reality better than rationality and order. So the aim is not to create artificially causal plots, but to reveal for audiences a powerful image, which can be literal, metaphorical, analogical, or allegorical-like poetry. The ambiguity of the poetic image, then, replaces the dynamic development of traditional narrative in theater of the absurd. The image Waiting for Godot evokes, then, is poetic and lyrical in essence rather than narrative; like a lot of theater of the absurd, it's both tragic and comic in nature. The play is therefore referred to as a tragicomedy, or "black comedy." The tragedy is the futility-Vladimir's desperation, his growing awareness of the absurdity of his situation; Gogo's frustrated desire to leave. The comedy is everything else.
In Beckett's work, too, we are aware of how the imagery (everything from plot to character to dialogue to set) is characteristically stripped to bare essences. His plays take on an abstract quality which many compare to a kind of abstract expressionism for the theater.
So we come back around to the question: why are these artists so unconventional? Why be abstract? Why not tell a story in the traditional way? Martin Esslin takes up this question in Absurd Drama (Penguin, 1965):
Bottom line: these artists have lost faith in a well ordered, rational universe. The world is a place where things happen randomly, by chance. You live or you die by chance. The conditions you endure, you endure by chance. There is no well-crafted plan, no scheme of justice by which the universe operates.
Recall the Dante we found in Canto I of the Inferno. He was lost in just such a dark wood of meaninglessness. Didi and Gogo are equally lost in a dark wood, but Godot, unlike Virgil, never arrives.
NIHILISM and EXISTENTIALISM
Nihilism is a radical philosophy of meaninglessness. Wikipedia tells us that it is a "belief in nothing." The world and all the humans in it exist without meaning, purpose, truth, or value. Any system of belief, or artistic expression, that denies or drains away meaning can be described as "nihilistic." Nietzsche famously accused Christianity of being a nihilistic religion because it drained meaning away from earthly life and kept its followers focused on a hope-for afterlife. His declaration that "God is dead" reverberated throughout the 20th century.
It's not too hard to understand why nihilistic philosophy, which eventually gave way to a very un-nihilistic existentialism, threatened to overwhelm us in the mid-20th century. The waning of religious faith which really began in the Enlightenment and grew even stronger with the steady rise in our faith in the sciences was helped along by the brilliance of Nietzsche and the horrors of the Holocaust. The devastation of WWI put a huge damper on the liberal ideals of secular social progress, and revolutionary movements like communism lost a lot of steam in the wake of Stalin's totalitarianism. Hitler had plunged Europe into barbarism and genocide, justifying mass murder as the "civilized thing to do." Atomic bombs demonstrated how fragile and insignificant human life could be. In the prosperous West, a kind of spiritual emptiness descended. Under these conditions, nihilistic philosophy and art flourished.
Existentialism is a progressive step up from nihilism, because whereas the nihilist asserts meaninglessness out there and leaves it at that (justifying any behavior at all), the existentialist asserts meaninglessness (out there) but goes on to assert that it's the responsibility of the individual to create meaning (in here)-that to create meaning, as Dante created The Divine Comedy to rescue his world from meaninglessness, is our human purpose. Of course it's more complex than that, but that's a bird's eye view of their relationship.
A thoughtful question to ask of Waiting for Godot is whether it expresses a nihilistic or existentialist perspective. And to kick that into high gear, you could ask whether or not it is a postmodern play.
What do you expect from a set when you go to the theater? How does Beckett's set defy your expectations? What's the purpose, do you think, of his unconventional approach to setting?
As precise as Beckett is in his set directions, and as spare as the stage is obviously supposed to be, there is still plenty of room for individual directors to interpret the setting in various ways. For instance, the following two sets are vastly different from the one you saw in the Beckett on Film production.
Here's a set which appeared in a 1970 production at the Landestheater in Salzburg in Austria:
How important is setting to your understanding of the play? How do you think the different stages influence how you understand what's happening in the play?
Each of these sets seeks to amplify some aspect of the play's meaning, or reinforce its impact. Individual directors can pursue different interpretations of the play, which leads to each production being unique in its own right. That is the magic of the theater.
The one lighting effect is when day turns rapidly to night and the moon rises. The surrealistic, dreamlike effect of this heightened change from day to night amplifies the theme of uncertain time.
Several biblical references enter the play, but some of the allusions that are less obvious are literary ones.
At the end of ACT I, Gogo's comment about the moon alludes to a Shelley lyric:
In the typical drama, the main character or characters undergo some type of transformation, some significant growth or change. This was a theme we explored earlier in the semester in Ovid’s tales, in “Axolotl” and even in the Inferno. However, Beckett’s main characters, Didi and Gogo (Vladimir and Estragon), remain, annoyingly or amusingly depending on your sensibility, resolutely static and unchanging. While they remain static, the minor characters (Pozzo and Lucky) are dynamically transformed (Pozzo most obviously, Lucky more subtly). Addressing Pozzo, in recognition of his startling blindness and deep despair, Didi remarks melodramatically, “How you’ve changed!” Other changes are evident in the second act, but the more we notice these the less important they seem. The dead tree has leaves. It still looks dead. Didi offers Gogo a radish rather than a carrot. Is it a case of “the more things “change” the more they stay the same? What happens when that old cliché is applied to character?
PLOT / CONFLICT
Traditional cause/effect plot development is abandoned in Waiting for Godot. The movement of the play is circular and symmetrical. The second act parallels the first. Nothing new happens except the tree grows leaves, indicating a surrealistic passage of time. The characters engage in ways that closely parallel the first act; the key difference seems to be an increased struggle in the second act to “pass the time,” which passed quickly in the first act because of Pozzo and Lucky, whose appearance is briefer in the second act. The dilemma intensifies in the second act because Gogo is more and more desperate to leave and Didi has to continually remind him why they mustn’t leave because they’re waiting for Godot. There is a kind of climactic thematic crescendo in Pozzo’s parting speech and another in Didi’s brief speech just before Godot’s messenger arrives for the second time. These brief speeches don’t necessarily provide much of a climax to the action as much as they deepen themes already established.
You can see how this play presents us with a non-traditional plot, although there is a dilemma: the characters want to go but feel “stuck” waiting for Godot. They want to commit suicide, but have grown either too apathetic or too helpless to act on their desires. Habit deadens their own cries as surely as it deadens the cries of others.
We can’t fail to miss the theme of uncertainty in Waiting for Godot. Uncertainty is pervasive throughout the play: the uncertainty of purpose, of time, place, emotion, relationships, truth, and hope. Existence is the only certainty the play allows. The Cartesian dictum that declares with such certainty “I think, therefore I am,” is challenged, but essentially hold true. Didi and Gogo are themselves vivid dramatic representations of the Descartes’ body/mind split. Didi is all mind, Gogo all body. Thinking and inexhaustible talking may not be the same thing, but in the absence of the one the other will do. Throughout the play thinking is associated with doubt, uncertainty, difficulty, weariness, or absurdity. Clearly, our ability to think is challenged in this play.
Related to this critique of our rational capabilities is the play’s critique of language as essentially meaningless, repetitive blather and chatter on the one hand and oppressive tyranny on the other. At times it is coercive; other times it’s rhetorically empty, full of hot air—worse than blather—hypocrisy, or mystification. Only rarely does it serve us well, leading us to truth or beauty, but we can’t sustain those functions very well. Pozzo’s poetic description of the twilight may be true and even beautiful, but it peters out—“And that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.” Language fails us just when we most need it. Even when it hits home, our first impulse is to run away from the “melancholy truth” we’ve somehow managed to accurately express, a truth no longer unconsciousness but given the full light of language, as Didi does near the end of the play when he empathizes with Pozzo’s despair. “What have I said?” However true, we don’t want to know.
The critique here seems to stem from a deep, postmodern distrust of the efficacy or absoluteness of language. We place our trust in it, but should we? Language is the source of all our illusions, the source of all the mythic fictions we’ve invented to console ourselves from an awareness of our real condition. These fictions have blinded us to the reality, the essential truth of our existence. The only truth is this present moment, which we are free to spend wisely or waste away, and to waste it away by hoping for some future “salvation,” by waiting for a Godot that almost certainly will never come, is tragic and absurd. The misery of the characters as they wait is palpable. If they weren’t waiting what better thing might they think to do, might they actually do?
The language of the play is stripped bare, scaled down to its naked essence. You won’t find a writer more capable than Beckett in this regard. The beauty of Beckett’s language is in its absolute economy. It’s a tight little fist that punches hard. The language of this play forces us to reflect on how we use language, really—what our talk consists of, in essence. Are we really that concerned about thinking hard, or using our rationality? To what use do we actually put this “gift” of language and rationality?
In all of its aspects, including its language, Waiting for Godot confronts the absurdity of existence and challenges us to figure out who we are exactly and what we’re doing with our time. In this random universe, where everyone who lives and who dies, who’s up and who’s down, is a matter of pure chance, and the odds aren’t necessarily in our favor, what do we do? What’s our purpose? The existentialist would say that our purpose is to confront our existence, our being, to be aware of and a part of every passing moment—to make choices, to act—to live authentically, in good faith, aware of our essential freedom and responsibility. This is what Didi can’t or won’t do, and he persuades Gogo to keep him company while he continues to wait for Godot, while he pins his hopes on a future that almost certainly will never arrive. His futile waiting is either absurd or heroic, depending on your own interpretation.
Beckett was interested, it seems, in the relationship between hope and despair. Are Didi and Gogo in despair? Or do they have faith?
There’s quite a lot more we could observe in terms of theme, though having said so much already, I think meaning in this play is probably best approached subjectively—the way you individually choose to understand it. How do you talk about the meaning of a circle? My observation of the play and everything I’ve read about it leads me to conclude there is very little objective interpretation which will make this play mean much more than it means quite obviously on the surface. Two lowly tramps are waiting for someone they think will help them, but this person, Godot, never arrives. It seems reasonable to assume that Godot will never arrive, but Didi and Gogo go on waiting, perhaps because they hold out hope that he will, perhaps because they have nothing better to do, perhaps because they have no choice. Do they have a choice?
There are those who will still be asking, but what is this play really about? What does it all mean? What does it all have to do with us? Some audiences see immediately how they, like Gogo and Didi, are waiting, too. Maybe not for “Godot,” but for something. A little help, a little push, a little sunshine, a little windfall. The play takes pains not to be specific, to provide the space to read into it any way we want to. It does not preach a “message.” But when you think about it even a little bit, you realize that, just like Gogo and Didi, we’re waiting all the time, too. Think about it: aren’t we waiting for the war in Iraq to end, waiting for the oil to flow, waiting to win the war on terror? We’re waiting for nicer weather, the end of exams. Or maybe in the back of our minds we’re waiting for an end to racism….an end to poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence… Many of us are waiting for environmental disaster, the next world war, the next flu pandemic, the next school shooting, the next terror attack… we’re waiting for security, good times, that great vacation, that better job, nicer clothes, a better car, a smaller cellphone, a bigger house; we’re waiting for the perfect soul mate, the perfect body, the perfect moment… we’re waiting for our hopes to be heard, our prayers to be answered, our wishes to be granted… we’re waiting, and meanwhile, we’re….here.
I remember asking this question on the very first day of class one semester: what are you most looking forward to this term? And many students answered: summer vacation. Spring break. The end of the semester. As you can imagine, this amused everyone every time and in every way it managed to be stated. I’ve always been pathetically naïve, so that was an answer I hadn’t expected! On top of that, I’m admittedly an idealist; I like shiny bright ideas as opposed to bitter realities, but buried beneath my frequent disappointment with the real world, I’m deep down an optimist. I had an optimistic illusion that students would be curious about what the semester would hold, what classes would be like—probably not our class in particular since it was/is a gen. ed. class, a requirement and not entirely a free choice—but the semester in general. I thought that’d be a good first-day ice-breaker topic. But that illusion was popped right away. The truth is the truth—idealist or not I prefer it over illusion any day. I recognized that this was an honest answer, given in an offhand, lighthearted, friendly way—but all the same I thought about it because it struck me as somehow terrible. Those students were waiting for the end of the semester and the semester had only barely started. If they were already waiting for the end, then it was almost certain that whatever might happen along the way would be all but meaningless. They were looking past it. Through it. Beyond it. What they really would have liked was to be saved from it, delivered on a magic carpet from January straight to May. After I gave it some thought I began to realize why that lighthearted joke made me uneasy: it introduced the possibility that we were about to enter into an absurd charade, that instead of learning together we’d be killing time together (like Didi and Gogo in this play). I can’t explain my feeling otherwise. As lighthearted as that response was there was also something disturbing about it because, in its offhand (and rare) truthfulness, it indicated such a profound disengagement with the moment, such a dispirited boredom (and classes had barely even started). To arrive at something waiting for it to end is to forfeit all the possibilities of the present moment, to hand everything over to pointlessness, absurdity, tragicomedy, as Waiting for Godot so poignantly reveals. But life is not art and unlike the play, the semester did come to an end. Time passed and summer did arrive to put an end to everyone's waiting. But I'm sure, if you're reading this, you can imagine that flicker of an instant that brought the summer to an end, too, and you can probably imagine those same students coming back to these same classrooms once again. I suppose they are waiting once again, but I hope not. I would hope they’d be fully engaged in whatever gift of a moment they find themselves in, appreciating the present, instead of waiting for some better end.
Waiting for Godot is a poignant play about such waiting, about the repetition, the meaninglessness, the absurdity of waiting, of feeling (and being) suspended in time instead of moving forward in a meaningful direction. It’s not necessarily about the absence of God, or about Christian salvation, or existential despair, or nihilistic meaninglessness, or postmodern critiques of language, though interpretation is a subjective enterprise, and we can interpret literature how we choose. One way of understanding this play is to see it as an abstract play about waiting, about waiting for the possibility of a better future that we are not quite fully convinced will never arrive.
How do we arrive in this seemingly absurd state of waiting? Laying an existential interpretation atop the play, we might say that this play confronts an unpleasant truth about the human condition. As human beings we’re all clinging to the hope of some kind of salvation, some kind of Godot to come and save us from whatever intolerable moment we happen to be suffering—our poverty, our disease, our boredom, our quiet desperation. This hoping, this waiting, removes us from the potentially liberating awareness that the moment we’re actually suspended in, this moment between birth and death that glows so briefly, is ultimately more important than any vague “better future” we might desire. This waiting is what prevents our passages, our meaningful transformations, our growth.
Everything in the play points to suspension: suspension of time, suspension of progress, suspension of reason, suspension of purpose. As drama, every convention has been suspended; the characters and their dialogue dance around in the ether of a nearly empty stage. There’s no shortage of void, as Didi declares. It seems the only thing that’s not suspended is our disbelief. Are these characters supposed to represent us? We resist. But ultimately Beckett’s art prevails.
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