|Still from the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s 2009 production of Waiting for Godot|
“Nothing to be done.”–Estragon
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”–Pozzo
“At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.”–Vladimir
“I can’t go on like this.”–Estragon
“That’s what you think.”–Vladimir
Beckett translated the text of Waiting for Godot from French to English himself. When he did this, he included the subtitle, “A tragicomedy.” This portmanteau suggests that the play blends elements of tragedy and comedy together. At first, this definition seems somewhat impossible. How can something be both tragic and humorous at the same time? This paper analyzes specific themes throughout the play in an attempt to demonstrate just how accurate Beckett’s description is. More specifically, it asserts that this tragicomic quality appears most often in the moments where the characters feel as if they lack control over death, time, Godot (standing in for the unrealized), and the self.
Waiting for Godot is the most well-known play from the Theatre of the Absurd movement. It was written by Samuel Beckett and performed for the first time in Paris on January 5th, 1953. At its premier, the play shocked its audience as it presented a new type of theatre which used very unconventional methods. In fact, it is said to have nearly caused riots across Western Europe (Esslin 2). Godot’s debut in the United States took place at San Quentin penitentiary in 1957. Unlike European audiences, the prisoners were able to identify with the play, primarily because they understood the concept of waiting (Esslin 19). Eventually, Waiting for Godot received the recognition it deserved and took its place as a classic of modern theatre. This anecdote is an excellent preface to reading or seeing Waiting for Godot because it prepares the audience to abandon any preconceptions they may have about theatre in order to better understand the piece.
Most human beings adopt a passive stance and see themselves as powerless in the face of death. This is true to a certain extent–one cannot conquer death when it comes. Yet, there is still some amount of control one can exert over when he or she will die. This control lies in the ability of human beings to commit suicide. Vladimir and Estragon occasionally express this desire to take their own lives. In Act One, they debate hanging themselves from a tree but are afraid that the first will break the branch, thus leaving the other alive and on his own (Beckett 1.12-13). At first, the scene appears to be only tragic. The basic human instinct is survival, so when one not only lacks this instinct, but also seeks a means to directly counteract it–it invokes feelings of despair and regret from those witnessing it. Essentially, the act of suicide is tragic because the act itself takes away one’s humanity. However, when they make their decision to refrain it becomes morbidly humorous:
VLADIMIR: Well? What do we do?
ESTRAGON: Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer (Beckett 1.13).
What makes this scene humorous is that at surface, Estragon’s response seems cowardly and illogical. When a person dies, he or she no longer exists in the world. Therefore, worldly concerns, like safety, become irrelevant. Initially, the audience finds Estragon’s inability to make this differentiation laughable. Looking beneath the surface, however, we can see that his response is not pure nonsense. Vladimir and Estragon feel that they must continue living because death and the separation that it risks are too dangerous, or rather, obscure. Fearing a loss of the familiar, life is “safer.” Clearly they fear the possible separation that could occur if the tree branch breaks. However there is more. They realize that while committing suicide may grant them temporary control over life, the state of being dead will throw them into a condition of helplessness once more. Therefore, Vladimir and Estragon feel as if they lack control in life and in death. The way in which this sentiment is conveyed is tragicomic due to its ability to speak to the audience on two different levels.
Whereas death can be controlled to a certain extent, time is something which no one can exert any control over. Our attempts to organize time and to control its speed are mere illusions–time has no schedule, and it continues on despite our regulations. This does not mean, however, that our own perception of time cannot be altered. If one is busy, time appears to go by quickly; if one is idle, it goes by slowly. In Waiting for Godot, the tragic element (in regards to time) is that Vladimir and Estragon are idle. They spend the entire play waiting around for another man. Anyone who has spent a long amount of time waiting on another person knows how torturous it can be. The comedic relief is in their attempts to occupy themselves:
VLADIMIR: What about trying them.
ESTRAGON: I’ve tried everything.
VLADIMIR: No, I mean the boots.
ESTRAGON: Would that be a good thing?
VLADIMIR: It’d pass the time (Beckett 2.78).
These lines are humorous because their attempts to “pass the time,” or to alter their own perception of time, are not very successful. Trying on a pair of boots can take no more than a few minutes, and is therefore, not going to occupy the pair for very long. They will soon have to find yet another way to entertain themselves. Essentially, Vladimir and Estragon are slaves to time in their constant state of waiting. It is tragic because they are no longer free to live their lives on their own terms. The pair recognize their own enslavement and rather than attempting to fight it (by walking away), they choose to operate within its frame by filling up the space with meaningless, yet humorous, activity.
Godot (The Unrealized)
Without diving too deeply into the debate over just what “Godot” stands for
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, one can safely assert that despite his ambiguous identity, he functions as “the unrealized.” Essentially, he is that thing for which we are all waiting, but have not yet received. By presenting this notion as a character, Beckett directly confronts Vladimir and Estragon with their own “unrealized.” And furthermore, by never allowing Godot to appear onstage, Beckett brings yet another tragic element to the play. Neither Vladimir nor Estragon has any control over when Godot will appear; they are waiting helplessly at the mercy of another. Yet Godot’s continual absence in the play suggests that he will never actually come and confronts the audience with the possibility that our pair is waiting in vain. Even if one does not care for the characters, he or she can sense their own similar condition in life and lament for themselves.
Nevertheless, Beckett seems to be aware how heavy such an acknowledgement is, and so, he infuses their waiting with bits of subtle comedy:
ESTRAGON: Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot (Beckett 1.8).
If most people were to spend entire days waiting for someone else, they would most likely remember that they were doing so. Moreover, they would probably be infuriated that the person had not yet come. Therefore, it is slightly amusing that Estragon frequently forgets that they are waiting for Godot. He appears to be undaunted by their difficult position, which gives the audience a lighter, more carefree, perspective in terms of “the unrealized.” Essentially, it is almost as if Beckett is poking fun at the human condition. He is saying that we are powerless by way that we must wait, but if we do not focus on this fact, life is livable (shown by Estragon’s suggestion that they stop waiting.)
Whereas death, time, and the unrealized, are all external forces that act without one’s consent, the self is an internal thing that typically acts under one’s consent. Vladimir and Estragon, however, frequently feel that they lack control over themselves. While self-control often refers to restraining oneself, it can also refer to one’s ability to motivate him/herself. It is in the latter sense, that these characters lack self- control. They frequently express the desire to do a particular thing, but are unable to make themselves do it. These instances are almost always tragicomic.
In the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon, this inability of the two to control themselves is particularly obvious. Each frequently expresses a desire to leave the other:
ESTRAGON: I’m going. (He does not move) (Beckett 1.6).
Ironically, Estragon says one thing and does another. It is the contradiction between the spoken word and the stage directions that provides the humor. (He expresses the desire to leave but lacks the control over himself to actually do so.) There seems to be a disconnect here between mind and body which is further emphasized when they try to discern why they never leave each other:
ESTRAGON: You see, you feel worse when I’m with you. I feel better alone too.
VLADIMIR: (vexed) Then why do you always come crawling back?
ESTRAGON: I don’t know (Beckett 2.115).
The tragedy of their relationship is that they would be better off without each other. They are happier alone, but continue their relationship without knowing why. Most can relate to this sentiment, and furthermore, to how painful it is to see the better option and to choose the worst. Vladimir and Estragon state that they do not know why they do not control themselves; however, it seems to be a matter of familiarity. As human beings, we typically flock towards things that we know because our instinct is to be afraid of unfamiliar things. This is why Vladimir and Estragon remain together and precisely why they are not able to exert control over themselves.
The word “habit” suggests a forgetfulness of the self. When the mind is not conscious of itself, the body defaults to a series of routines that are familiar and do not require mental concentration. Essentially, habits are indicative of a loss of self-control. Vladimir and Estragon’s established habits, which propel a large portion of the play in terms of action, are tragic and comedic at the same time. Vladimir frequently fiddles with his hat and Estragon with his boots:
VLADIMIR: (He takes off his hat, peers inside it, feels about inside it, shakes it, puts it on again.)….(He takes off his hat again, peers inside it.) Funny. (He knocks on the crown as though to dislodge a foreign body, peers into it again, puts it on again.) Nothing to be done. (Estragon with a supreme effort succeeds in pulling off his boot. He peers inside it, feels about inside it, turns it upside down, shakes it, looks on the ground to see if anything has fallen out, finds nothing, feels inside it again, staring sightlessly before him) (Beckett 1.4).
The routine is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films, in which the humor comes solely from the actions of the actors and not from the dialogue (Esslin 335). It is humorous that they keep checking within their hats and boots as if something might be inside of them. The fact that they never actually find anything within these garments, is the tragic aspect of the scene. They are, in a sense, slaves to their own fruitless habits. Essentially, their lack of self-control sentences them to an existence which produces nothing valuable.
All of these moments where Vladimir and Estragon lack self-control are comedic because one should be able to make himself or herself do something, especially when the tasks are as simple as those which the characters propose. At the same time, they are tragic solely because the characters honestly feel that they have no control over themselves:
VLADIMIR: Nothing you can do about it.
ESTRAGON: No use struggling.
VLADIMIR: One is what one is.
ESTRAGON: No use wriggling.
VLADIMIR: The essential doesn’t change (Beckett 1.17).
They talk almost as if they operate outside of themselves–that they are not present in their own bodies–and therefore, have no control. Furthermore, with these lines, they admit that they are resigned to this lack of control because they feel it is useless to try–things will not change.
Essentially, Vladimir and Estragon cannot control neither themselves nor the outside forces that act upon them. This fact is tragic because one wonders why he/she should continue living in a world which renders him/her as completely and utterly powerless. This question is at the heart of absurdist theory and inspires the absurd notion that man’s existence is without purpose. When one cannot control anything, it seems as if nothing one says or does can have any effect on the world. Essentially, the world becomes an isolated entity and our presence in it meaningless. (See the Theatre of the Absurd page for a more in-depth discussion of these theories.) Vladimir and Estragon’s attempts to continue living despite this truth are the doorways for humor within Waiting for Godot. They give movement to the heavy, hard-hitting themes of the play. Thus, Vladimir and Estragon’s powerless existence is simultaneously tragic and comedic.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot: A tragicomedy in 2 Acts. New York: Grove, 1982. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008. Print.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Vintage, 2004. Print.
Gussow, Mel. “Samuel Beckett is Dead at 83.” The New York Times. 27 Dec. 1989. Web. 8 Oct. 2010.
Image from Waiting for Godot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Contributor: Delanie Laws