For this week’s post I am going to explore the confusing yet somewhat surprisingly popular play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. As mentioned in the post for Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Beckett wrote in what became known as the theater of the absurd (two pages into the play and you begin to understand what that means). I have actually read several other works written by Beckett, including another of his plays, Endgame. Reading Beckett’s other work did help me better understand this one. And as usual with plays, it is probably a good idea to watch a performance of Waiting for Godot as plays are meant to be seen and not read.
Of course, there is the genre of the theater of the absurd. The play completely violates ordinary expectations, and the characters actions seemingly make very little sense. Beckett’s play has also been described as expressionistic minimalism. There is never a change in scenery, the characters stay in one place, and they seemingly will continue to stay in that place until Godot comes. But the assumption at the end of the play is that Godot never will come, and not only have these characters been waiting a long time for him, but they will continue to wait apparently until the end of time. This endless waiting for something causes many critics and readers to link Beckett with existentialism. They even want to walk away, but are paralyzed in place simply because they feel they have to wait for Godot. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a hope or saving force that will never actually come.
The cover of the play also announces that it is a “tragicomedy in two acts.” This is yet another one of those works on the M.A. list that is funny in spots, but ultimately it is incredibly depressing and void of hope (there seems to be a lot of those on the exam list). The back and forth between Vladimir and Estragon can be quite funny at times. In fact, for me, this play is an example of repetition used effectively (unlike that travesty of a novel I wrote about last week*). But of course, there are darker elements: at one point Estragon suggests that both he and Vladimir hang themselves; the mistreatment of Lucky as Pozzo’s slave; the fact that Estragon seems to spend every night in a ditch and is continually beaten by a group of men; and of course, that awful reality that these men are simply fated to live this same terribly bleak day over and over.
The very first words in the play are “Nothing to be done,” uttered by Estragon after multiple attempts to take his boot off. Beckett was a man that chose his words carefully. He was an Irish born writer who studied in England and spent most of his life living in France. The original text was actually written in French, and Beckett has been quoted as saying that he prefers to write in French because his vocabulary in that language is much more limited than it is in English. I believe (and I could be wrong on this) that his point is that if he writes in French, he has to pay more closely to what he is putting down on paper because the words do not come to him as naturally. Beckett actually loved language and loved words, and for proof of this I recommend you refer to his novel, Watt, where the narrator obsessively explores a situation of issue by playing out every possible scenario or combination (i.e. “my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s father’s…). Apart from a somewhat philosophical soliloquy by Lucky, there isn’t much extensive rambling in this play. Everything is fairly minimal, and a lot of the dialogue is used over and over again as the characters discuss the same issues. I am not sure if these issues of Beckett’s language would necessarily fall under theme, but it is important to the play and something that stands out to anyone who has read or seen it.
The general overarching themes seem to be along the lines of desperation and hopelessness. The mean are desperate enough to result to suicide, but even that means of escape is thwarted, twice. The first time they just realize that they both may not die and that would leave one of them alone, and that is completely unacceptable. The second time their “rope” breaks (Estragon’s belt), leaving them nothing to hang themselves with. They are waiting for Godot, seemingly so they can leave, but because he never shows up, they do suggest that they go without him, yet they never move from where they sit or stand. For me, this is a picture of utter hopelessness.
The original French text was written between 1948 and 1949, and some would argue that it captures a general feeling that followed World War II.
Because of it is an absurdist play, its out of the ordinary dialogue and sequence of events have invited misinterpretation after misinterpretation. Beckett quickly became sick of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations. He asserted that people were overcomplicating things. Nevertheless, there are political, religious, psychological, ethical, and even homoerotic interpretations. And the fact that the play was so open to a variety of readings led Beckett to sanction a famous mixed-race production of the play , which of course led to many more misreadings and misinterpretations. So my advice, do not try to fight the text. If you feel like you are trying to “win” or “defeat” it, then you are probably trying too hard.
Next week there will not be a posting as it is Thanksgiving break and I will be enjoying time with my family. So I will say Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading.
*See the title of last week’s blog post.