The Interactive Oral session held in class helped me develop a deep understanding of the play and its themes. Themes such as ‘absurdity of existence’ and ‘purposelessness of life’ were also discussed along with the cultural context of the play. In this reflective statement, I aim to demonstrate my understanding of the cultural context in Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. This reflection is based on the knowledge shared among my classmates during the discussions.
The play is set in post World War Two, during which the witnesses of the war had lost its faith in God. Life seemed meaningless to those who had suffered the tragedies of war. As a result of the war, notions such as surrealism and existentialism influenced the arts drastically. This change brought about scrutiny of preconceived ideologies of western civilization among many. In this setting, we are introduced to Vladimir and Estragon who await Godot to find purpose in their lives. They are perpetually stuck in an absurd existential conundrum. To kill time, they engage in suicidal thoughts and discuss leaving but strangely never do. The pointless actions along with the inarticulate dialogue among the characters of the play are seemingly nonsensical making absurdity a noticeable feature portrayed by Beckett. In 1965, he stated that there is not any logical value to his work which itself emphasizes the play’s meaninglessness. Through the play, he reminds us that just like our everyday lives, the world onstage can too be meaningless. It can explore both certainty and illusion, the familiar and the bizarre.
Theatre of the Absurd is a term applied to plays that portray a “hostile, meaningless universe looming large over individuals who are either unsure of or unconcerned about what to make of themselves, their situation, and the other people and things they encounter” (Gale 214). It can be seen as a literary movement instigated by the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. Camus has written about the absurdity in humanity in his eminent work; The Myth of Sisyphus. His philosophies can be easily recognized in Beckett’s play. Therefore, making Waiting for Godot is an example of a masterpiece in absurdist literature.
In the world of literature, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett is considered a play that changed the face of modern drama. In fact, the British Royal National Theatre voted it as the most significant English language play of the 20th century. The play was written between 1948 and 1949 by Beckett, to portray his philosophical ideas on life. The play revolves around two tramps, Vladimir, and Estragon who wait for the appearance of an individual named Godot. The latter, however, never arrives, leaving the two in perpetual waiting. In this essay, I aim to examine how Beckett uses language to portray absurdity in the play.
Waiting for Godot, in its absurdist context, is intentionally confusing. The characters of the play employed by Beckett are unable to find purpose or inherent meaning in their surroundings. The structure of the play is sculpted by his frequent use of repetition. In the play, Beckett often repeats phrases, ideas, and actions to emphasize the monotony and futility of life. “Nothing to be done” is one of the many phrases that is repeated in the course of the play. This phrase helps illustrate existential desolation as one of the predominant themes of the play. The theme of ‘Existentialism’ intensified tremendously in literature after the second War Two. The phrase “Nothing to be done” perhaps expresses the hopelessness experienced by the survivors of the apocalypse. Through the use of the phrase, Beckett alludes that we are all trapped in an absurd universe, with no clear direction. He writes in a language that conveys that the world is absurd and chaotic, and existence is futile. This language is devoid of context, unlike literature’s congenital views. It is a way Beckett expresses himself and expects his audience to draw their conclusions. Although the philosophical movements of France seem to be recognizable in the text of the play, Beckett claimed otherwise. Beckett establishes this in the opening notes when he quotes: “No truth value attaches to the above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience.” This quotation further accentuates the ambiguity and absurdity of the play.
Vladimir and Estragon await Godot to find purpose. In the first act, they choose to seek some kind of direction from Godot over hanging themselves. Without Godot, there seems to be no purpose in the play. None of the characters employed by Beckett have a significant purpose or identity. The fact that Godot never arrives, gives Vladimir and Estragon no purpose. Due to this, the reader is left unsatisfied as the play lacks a cohesive plot or a conclusive ending. Pozzo, the master to a slave named Lucky in the first act, claims to be on his way to sell him. They come across Vladimir and Estragon a night later again and do not remember them. Pozzo does not sell Lucky, making their travels equally meaningless. Lucky’s famous speech entirely lacks coherence. Godot’s messenger has no purpose either since Godot never arrives. We, as readers struggle to find meaning behind every happening of the play. These examples make search for meaning in absurdity an extremely noteworthy aspect of the play. Strangely enough, in this lineup of characters, we notice of an absence of any female character. We can only assume that the playwright’s misogynistic views are prevalent in play. This too can be reckoned as a point of absurdity.
In the play, Godot is seen as the only ray of hope in the gloomy world that Vladimir and Estragon are stuck in. Needless to say, ‘Godot’ sounds phonetically similar to God, due to which the audience is likely to associate him with God. Moreover, the boy, who possibly symbolizes a prophet, states that Godot is a white man with a beard. This description is enough to strike up an image that resembles the Christian representation of God. Various biblical allusions are made throughout the play including Cain-Abel and the two thieves further strengthening the association. Nevertheless, Beckett has publicly stated that he did not wish to portray Godot as God, else he would have named his character “God”. He also said that he does not know who Godot is. In fact, the original play was written in French; a language in which the word ‘God’ has no meaning. This further justifies Beckett’s point of lacking any religious references. The uncertainty and ambiguity further accentuates the play’s absurdity.
Waiting for Godot strangely does have elements of humor in its text. The fact that Beckett chooses to use humor during the time of misfortune is quite absurd. The humor used is uncomfortably associated with tragic content such as death, categorizing it as dark humor. A strong example of this would be the casual demeanor in which Vladimir and Estragon discuss suicide. Such humor can have a discomforting effect on the audience, who is perplexed at the absurdity depicted through the mixture of comedic and tragic language. To summarize, Beckett creates a play that falls on the border between tragedy and humor, in a region that can be called the absurd. Beckett also uses contradiction for comic relief. For instance, the ill-treated slave, Lucky, has a name that contradicts his situation. Contradiction itself can be a portrayal of absurdity in the play. The existence of slavery in Beckett’s world is a reflection of the loss of human values in terms of equality and freedom. France at the time was too in a state moral disarray post the occupancy of the Nazis. Beckett’s world bears close semblance to the situation of France at the time, blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
In my opinion, theatre must be entertaining. Absurdity in theatre is often comically amusing or meaningful enough to be thought-provoking. However, the absence of any meaning or coherence in Waiting for Godot’s storyline made the play an extremely wearisome one to read and analyze. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this literary work if it was for my personal consumption as opposed to the purpose of analysis or examination. The struggle to find meaning in every aspect of the play maddened me, allowing me to understand as to why the play faced criticism initially. Despite this, I have attempted to analyze the language used by Beckett to explore the play’s absurdity.