Waiting for Godot: Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece co-mingling with tragic-comedy
A modernist, Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright, novelist, poet, theatre director of the 20th century is often associated with the ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’. His creations tend to eschew conventional plotting upholding the inclination in the exploration of human philosophy, mind and condition in ways that are both starkly humorous and subtly profound, where laughter is a weapon against despair.
Rendered as a classic example of ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, Waiting for Godot is a dramatic work that highlights the philosophy of its name. This play revolves around two men spending their entire time doing absolutely nothing productive, or rather normal. The actions and dialogues of the play are far from any normalcy or synchronisation. The two men, Vladimir and Estragon, are killing their time waiting for a mysterious man, Godot, who fails to show up everytime. The characters of the play, at times, reflect a sense of artifice, idly living in a world devoid of any meaningful actions and filled with language which fails to effectively communicate. A summarisation of the play might help us dig deep into the aim of our topic.
Waiting for Godot commences with two men, Vladimir and Estragon, on a barren road by a leafless tree. The world of this play operates with its own set of rules where nothing happens, nothing is certain and nothing to do. These two men are waiting for Godot, without even a vague idea of the accuracy of the place they are ought to wait for or the time or even the firm consolation of the arrival of Godot. While they kick their heels, Vladimir and Estragon kill their time with a series of humdrum activities, like taking a boot on or off. They engage in paltry conversations regarding turnips and carrots, bestrewed with more serious reflection involving dead voices and suicide and the Bible. They are soon interrupted by the arrival of Lucky, a slave with a rope tied around his neck and Pozzo, his master, holding the other end of the rope. All of the four men go ahead to do what Valdimir and Estragon were doing till now, that is nothing.
Pozzo ate chicken and smoked and also made Lucky dance and think. After their daft encounter, Pozzo and Lucky left, which marked the entrance of a timid boy, a messenger from Godot. He informed Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not come that day but surely come the next day. After the boy left, Vladimir and Estragon decided to leave and come the next day but no one moved from their place which marked the curtain fall for Act I.
Act II begins with Vladimir and Estragon waiting in the same place, next evening, only Estragon does not remember anything from the previous day while Vladimir is trying to make Estragon recall them. Then enters Pozzo and Lucky, except Lucky has turned mute and Pozzo, a blind. There has been a role change, where Lucky is holding the rope which is tied around Pozzo’s neck. After a series of inane events, Pozzo and Lucky leave. The boy again enters with a news from Godot which informs that Godot will not be coming that day also and will come the next day. After some queries, the news bearer left. Vladimir and Estragon thought of giving up and committing suicide but the unavailability of ropes made them drop the plan. They decide to leave, but they still do not move, and the curtain falls.
The absurdity in Vladimir and Estragon’s situation does not show any resemblance to the reality we are familiar with. The play, waiting for Godot is driven by a lack of truth, precisely uncertainty. The characters claim this is that they are uncertain of the consequences and thus, are unable to act in any meaningful way.
Besides being an exemplary example of a classic of ‘ the theatre of absurd’, it also is an acclaimed tragicomedy. Before upholding the tragic-comic elements of the play, the knowledge of what a tragicomedy is and how it is different from dark comedy. Tragicomedy is a literary genre that blends aspects of both tragedy and comedy. In dramatic literature, tragicomedy can either be an introduction of comic elements to lighten the overall tragic mood or a serious play with a prosperous ending. Totally another aspect, dark comedy is a subgenre of comedy which makes light of terrible situations. In Waiting for Godot, there are several mentions of death and many terrible situations of which the characters don’t make fun. According to Fletcher in his ‘Preface to the Faithful Shepherdess’, tragicomedy is : “A tragic-comedy is not so called in respect to mirth and killing, but in respect it wants death which is enough to make it no tragedy.”
Waiting for Godot has many dialogues, situations, gestures and actions that are saturated with pure comedy and hilarious segments. The musical devices employed in the play are to create laughter in the tragic situation of Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting. There are instances of dark comedy too. For example, Estragon pleads with Vladimir to hear his nightmare but the latter is determined not to, while Estragon says that there is nobody else to whom he may communicate his private nightmares.
The audience cracks up when they see Estragon struggling with his boots, putting them on and off. Most of the actions of the play appear as if happening in a circus. Vladimir walking with stiff and short strides because of his prostate problem is no less funny than Estragon’s limping with his foot problem. Also, the characters in the play bear a strong resemblance to clowns. Both Vladimir and Estragon wear baggy clothes, bowler hats and boots. Estragon’s gestures of encouraging Vladimir to urinate offstage are farcical. The comedy in this play carries an impression of Vaudeville at certain times. There are many dialogues which occur like a comic paradigm in the play like:
Estragon: Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can not.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We are waiting for Godot.
(They do not move.)
Beckett, very skilfully mixed tragic and comic elements in the play. The play opens with Estragon struggling with his boots, eventually saying, “Nothing to be done”. Here the sentence appears funny but gradually we grasp the negative implication of the sentence- the helplessness and frustration of the tramps all bursting out in the first sentence itself. Also, we get amused by the wit of the characters. Vladimir wittily said, “”There’s man all over you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.”
But the fact that Vladimir himself does the same thing with his hat is capable of eliciting laughter amongst the audience.
Also, the way that the characters twist the dialogues is funny to hear. Earlier in the play, Estragon says that, “ it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes”, thus giving a twist to the original proverb that is , “ strike the iron while it is hot”. The short and brief sentences that the characters say in a swift manner are also comical like:
Vladimir- Charming evening we are having.
Vladimir- And it’s not over
Estragon- Apparently not.
Vladimir- It’s only beginning.
Estragon- It’s awful.
Vladimir- Worse than the pantomime
Estragon- The circus.
Vladimir- The music hall.
Estragon- The circus.
Often, the total atmosphere of the play approaches close to dark comedy when comedy is alloyed with certain serious implications. For instance, in Act I, when Pozzo and Lucky enters, Pozzo’s mockingly hilarious military-style attitude elicits laughter but just when we see the merciless treatment he casts on Lucky, it is no more funny. There is a scene where Vladimir and Estragon are taking their hats on and off of one another as well as that of Lucky again and again, it seems funny but when we dig deep inside the superficiality, Beckett showed us the repetitive, monotonous and stagnant cycle of life. Also we cannot judge the border between comedy and tragedy when the cord with which the tramps commit suicide strains and breaks. The two men are deprived of free will to die in the bleak world where living is no more than a curse.
The play also has several moments which are outright comic without a touch of seriousness. The fact that someone beats Estragon daily is not funny.
Estragon: Beat me? Certainly they beat me.
Estragon’s feet and Vladimir’s kidney are also in a state of plight. They resent questioning them of their condition because their anguish is so obvious that they should not be interrogated about their well-being.
When Vladimir asks Estragon whether his boots are hurting him, he responds:
“Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!”
A little later Estragon asks Vladimir about his kidney trouble and the latter replies in the same words:
“Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!”
Their trouble is so bad that their world is one of absolute negation in which inactivity is the safest course; as Estragon says:
“Do not let us do anything, it’s safer”.
The tramps live on the barest level of existence. They feed on carrots and turnips. Estragon remarks his despair :
“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”
In contrast with the glorious past Lucky had as Pozzo said, his current situation is quite ghastly. The Anguish breaks in his coherent harangue:
“… the flames, the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the skull alas the stones Cunard (melee, final vociferations) tennis … the stones … so calm …Cunard … unfinished …”
The climax of Beckett”s tragicomedy is the role of Lucky’s. He wears a servant vest but also a funny creature. He dances and thinks aloud. His appearance is fantastic as well as grotesque. But he becomes a subject of human misery when we realise he is half-wit. The irony is when Pozzo says he has learnt the most beautiful things from Lucky over the years, but now, after all these years of parasitising on his servitude, Pozzo is taking Lucky to the fair to sell him away. The deplorable plight of Lucky denotes the relationship of an owner and his slave and the exploitation of man by man.
The element of farce dissolves gradually and a miserable condition of man looms large in our imagination. Their life is even comparable to one of a prisoner, for whom escape is not an option, neither is suicide.
The continuous switching from farce to absurdity brings a lot of tragic sentiment in the play. The pointless waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon twiddling their thumbs endlessly, no surety about the place and time and even the conclusive fruit of their appointment, are a major source of tragedy and helplessness. Lack of essential knowledge makes them impotent and powerless. Every action is a mockery of human existence.
Waiting for Godot does not let us have an uninhibited laugh at the foolish gestures of the characters but constantly remind us of the helplessness of the tramps, their melancholic monotonous cyclic life and the status quo they are stuck in. Nevertheless, the comics and farcical elements give us the necessary comic relief. Though Beckett wants to convey the heaviness of the philosophical implications given in the play, he surfaced the heaviness with the hilarious activities of Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky. Tragicomedy is life enhancing as it tries to “remind the audience of the real need to face existence ‘knowing the worst,’ which ultimately is liberation, with courage and humility of not taking oneself or one’s own pain too seriously, and to bear all life’s mysteries and uncertainties; and thus to make the most of what we have rather than to hanker after illusory certainties and rewards” (Esslin, Theater 47).”
In Waiting for Godot, the comedy has been checked by tragic sentiments while the effect of tragedy has been mitigated by farce created through characters, actions, gestures and dialogues. The total essence of this co-mingling of tragic and comic grounds suggests that Beckett was a realistic dramatist who considers and evaluates life from the position of a pessimist and an optimist. Well, as Sean O’Casey says, “Beckett is a clever writer, for within him there is no hazard of hope; no desire for it; nothing in it but a lust for despair and a crying of woe, not in a wilderness, but in a garden.”