Silence, anticipation, dangerous cycles of repetition, intangible mysteries, unanswerable questions; are all techniques used by Samuel Beckett in his play "Waiting for Godot" to create a tense world of existentialism into which the reader is thrust. "Waiting for Godot" is a two act play about two vagrants living in extreme poverty in a barren landscape. Devoid of social skills and devoid of independence they find solstice in each other being both amused and disgusted by one another's company. Their life is meaningless with the exception of one diminutive task: Waiting for Godot, a mysterious stranger who, though much anticipated, never appears. The only people who do arrive are Pozzo and Lucky a master and his mistreated slave. Beckett wrote this play in reference to the limbo between WW1 and WW2. A time of totalitarian armies of German and Russian Solders, the holocaust, dislocation of belief, National socialism and loss of innocence.
People were treated as cannon fodder and individuals meant nothing, they were simply disenfranchised from their own futures. In the midst of this was the overshadowing fear of impending nuclear warfare; It's as though the people were simply 'waiting' for death. In response to this rose the Absurdists. They were the dramatic version of Dadaists and they sought to make fun of the terror and to challenge the audience. Beckett was an Irishman therefore subjugated by the English. This shared oppression gave him a broad audience across Europe. Other Absurdist playwrights arose out of this time such as Ionesco, Camus and Sartre. Absurdists believed that the world was out of harmony with nature, reason and propriety and therefore 'absurd' (class notes), many also adhered to the existentialist philosophy which stated that despite ones ability to doubt all existence it is impossible to disregard the existence of the thinking conscience. Existentialism seeks to know the meaning of existence whilst criticizing life for its apparent absurdity.
Beckett develops the theme of Quality of Existence by using tension of task and tension of relationship (dilemma). He weaves his characters a poverty stricken environment in which they are awkwardly bound to depravation, each other and worst of all to themselves. He fills each character with contradicting philosophies that force them to choose between their pessimistic existentialist ramblings, their false pride and their basic morals inherent to all humanity. Whilst Pozzo plots what to 'gift' his two new comrades Estragon and Vladimir (torn by contrasting morals) argue about the acceptance of his charity.
Estragon:Even ten francs would be welcomeVladimir:We are not beggars!Estragon:Even fiveVladimir:(to estragon indignantly) That's enough!(Line 8 Page 38)Vehement environmental factors such as sleeping in ditches and being beaten by bullies are endured with acceptance by the characters Didi and Gogo who are consequently stripped of all ability to behave morally.
Estragon:In a ditchVladimir:(admiringly). A ditch! Where?Estragon:(without gesture). Over There.
Vladimir:And they didn't beat you?Estragon:Beat me? Certainly they beat me.
Vladimir:The same lot as usual?Estragon:The same? I don't know.(Line 9 Page 9)They are unable to satisfy their basic needs of food and shelter and are consequently unable to have a social conscience. This inner struggle translates into tension between Didi and Gogo who are both simultaneously amused and disgusted by each other. This 'quality of existence' or lack there of is acknowledged by all characters as 'luck of the draw'. Pozzo, who is easily identified as a character with wealth and status, is equally aware of the 'luck' which he possesses and which is actually personified in his possession and servant Lucky.
Pozzo:Remark that I might just as well have been in his shoes and he in mine. If chance had not willed otherwise. To each one his due. (Line 16 Page 31)The characters except this notion of 'luck' and as a result do not begrudge Pozzo for his wealth. Beckett's choice not to enhance the tension between the class system further demonstrates his belief in pure chance regardless of achievement or talent. Despite this acceptance of their socio-economic position Didi and Gogo continue to feel uncomfortable with there surroundings or their selves.
Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting he gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
As before.(Start of Page 9)Beckett's constant use of the symbolic boot that doesn't fit is a representation of the dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment in their lives. Estragon doesn't fit the boot nor does he fit into this 'absurd' world in which he is placed. Tension of the task is created by Didi and Gogo's obligation to maintain a state of perpetual anticipation whilst awaiting the arrival of the elusive Godot. This repetition of anticlimactic waiting is related to the Sartrean existentialism movement which believed that man unlike a utensil which is made for a purpose a person is born without a purpose into a world devoid of meaning 'existence precedes essence'(Jean-Paul Sartre). Despite their wish to leave, Beckett forces the characters to remain dormant in a circumlocutory universe. The tension and frustration felt by the characters builds as events slowly repeat themselves and the characters memories fail to remember or distinguish between today, yesterday and tomorrow. Everything is an oppressing continuum which they must not begin to live because once you do it ends (Ionesco). The lack of will power expressed by Didi and Gogo creates a type of anti-tension which builds and then is shattered usually by the characters absence of body movements in direct contradiction to their pro active thoughts and desires.
Estragon:Well Shall we go?Vladimir:Yes lets go.
They do not move(Line 3 Page 54)Estragon:Saved from what?Vladimir:HellEstragon:I'm goingHe does not move(Line 17 Page 12)Through this use of opposing philosophies, pride, poverty stricken characters and environment as well as frustrating repetition and skillful use of anticlimactic movement Beckett ensures that the play creates meaningful tension of dilemma and task to highlight the quality of existence described by Sartrean Existentialism.
The relationships between Didi and Gogo and Lucky and Pozzo create tension of intimacy, conflict and ritual in such away as to develop the theme of antisocial dependency which is a cruel irony so popular in Absurdism. Beckett establishes these tensions by using suffocating dependency, defeated anger and belittling repetition. Pozzo's dependency on Lucky is often linked to the imagery of a net often physically sensed by Lucky.
Pozzo:The Net. He thinks he's entangled in a net(Line 13 Page 40)Later on in the play Beckett places all of the characters in an imaginary net rolling uncontrollably on the dirt floor of the stage. The closeness of the proximity between the characters creates a smothering tense intimacy despised and found revolting by Estragon.
Estragon:(recoiling). Who FartedVladimir:PozzoPozzo:Here! Here! Pity!Estragon:It's revolting!(Line 27 Page 81)The symbolically dirt floor of the landscape and enhances the anger at their circumstance felt by the characters.
Estragon:(suddenly furious). Recognize! What is there to recognize? All my lousy life I've crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery! (looking wildly about him). Look at this muckheap! I've never stirred from it!(Line 17 Page 61)The floor can also be related to the existentialist belief that "The forceps of birth lead directly to the shovel of death." (Class notes) Being that the only level lower than dirt is to be underground or dead, the floor therefore metaphorically represents the waiting room of eternal death. The repetition of events causes conflict between the characters who are aggravated by the seemingly endless loop of time and the overwhelming feeling of inferiority forced on them by the knowledge that they are destined to repeat lives already lived by generations before them.
Vladimir:Time has stopped.(Line 18 Page 36)Beckett demonstrates this by having Vladimir take on characteristics of Lucky and Pozzo in Act 2by wearing Lucky's hat and referring to Estragon as "hog". The ritualistic formalities and perpetual greetings between Estragon and Vladimir create an awkwardness that prevents them from truly understanding or supporting each other. Dependency without complete trust, smothering closeness and frustration are expressed by Beckett's use of blocking and dialogue serve as effective dramatic conventions to heighten the tension of relationship and existential irony.
Beckett uses the reader's curiosity to highlight the most important question of existentialism: Why? Beckett establishes this tension of mystery through the use of symbolism and silences in the text and back ground stories of the characters lives. 'Waiting for Godot' uses supposed 'symbolism' to ensure that the reader is always tensely trying to decipher meanings and awaiting a revelation that never arrives. Beckett is essentially forcing the reader to think like and feel the frustration of an existentialist. "They ask who is Godot?" and are tantalized by Beckett's brief elusions to previous lives that beg the question "What were they doing before they were waiting?"Pozzo:Certainly Aloud. He even used to think very prettily once, I could listen to him for hours.
(Line 15 Page 39)Estragon:No, I was never in the Macon country. I've puked my puke of a life away here, I tell you! Here! In the Cackon country!Vladimir:But we were there together, I could swear to it! Picking grapes for a man called . . . (he snaps his fingers) . . . cant think of the name of that man, at a place called . . . (snaps his fingers) . . . cant think of the name of the place, do you remember?(Line 2 Page 62)Silence is used to frame statements and allow the reader time to question the meaning of what is being said.
Vladimir:Let him alone. Can't you see he's thinking of days when he was happy? (Pause.) Memoria praeteritorum bonorum-that must be unpleasant.
(Line 5 Page 86)This use of tension of mystery forces the reader to think outside their comfort zone by teasing them with information, anti-climax and reflective silences.
In conclusion Beckett created characters unable to be calm in themselves due to their contrasting condescending and contented mindsets. Beckett's characters are entirely dependant on each other and resentful because of this. In addition to creating characters of such existentialist faultlessness he also uses dramatic conventions such as movement, blocking, repetition, silence to create mystery, intimacy, dilemma and tension of the task. The tensions that he creates then enforces the questioning, uncomfortable, ironic and condescending nature of Absurdism.
BIBLIOGRAPHY "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett no texts in addition to the play itself and class notes were used.