© March 14, 1998
Meaningless Waiting: On a Universal Approach to Waiting for Godot
Perhaps it’s because everyone, all the others, are convinced in some unformulated, irrational way that one day everything will be made clear. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for humanity. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for me.”
~ Eugene Ionesco
(Extract from “The Hermit”, 1973)
It is right that he [man in general] too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter.
~ Samuel Beckett
What was the purpose of the Absurd Theater? Its presentation was a different form of communication than that of the conventional play of previous centuries. One of the leading absurd writers of his time, Eugene Ionesco puts it plainly in this way: “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, and useless.” (Abrams 1).
Ionesco does not necessarily mean that given all the props we have we are not aware of our emptiness, but on the contrary: when we are aware that everything around us are props, then we experience a cutting off from this present reality, and the reality of our true self—senselessness, absurdity, and uselessness—comes into full focus. That everything we have and do is all together without meaning, if we do not have a hope of something more than what we experience in the routine of life.
The Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, wrote and portrayed a perspective on the absurdity of life through his dramatic presentation Waiting for Godot. In discussing this work, and suggesting an interpretation through analysis, we filter it from Beckett’s perspective through Ionesco’s definition of absurdity, and having portrayed it in absurd theater, we are inclined to read his intention on a much deeper level than the hoax of humanity, but instead to manifest our secret hopelessness—or disbelief—in the resilience of humankind by its unique ability to be absurdly hopeful beyond any reason for hope.
In this analysis, and the reactions to it—by the audiences, literary critics, and we ourselves—we may consider a conclusion in which we might surmise a conclusion with purpose : The play could be analyzed as merely entertaining and imaginative; portraying essentially nothing but sheer absurdity, which would be written off as simply a play on words, actions, and contradiction to a sound mind. Or, the play is ingeniously structured with a universal message—we might not otherwise perceive, if it were not through laughter and absurdity—that the playwright uses this media of performance, rather than a didactic method, to convey the hopelessness of waiting for what seems every lifetime that has ever been in existence: the hope of an explanation for our very existence and purpose of living.
Author Ruby Cohn, in her Casebook on Waiting For Godot, states that: “In his four characters, Beckett summarizes human relationships; in their activities, he sums up human living” (Cohn, 7). Martin Esslin, in his essay about the play’s performance at San Quentin, told of the reporter who received feedback from convicts of the meaning of the play. “Godot is society,” “He’s the outside.” In other words, prisoners are waiting to be set free from prison, simply justified by this explanation. However, “[The prisoners] know what is meant by waiting…and they knew if Godot (or freedom) finally came, he would only be a disappointment” (Cohn, 84). But Beckett’s Godot is much more than this. A monumental mound of literature in the form of commentaries, biographies, and critical works, have been produced by critics around the globe about Beckett’s complex, yet paradoxically simple rendition of life in the world of Godot.
On the other hand, communication of universal ideologies is not necessarily intentional on Beckett’s part, as his idea of portraying absurdity of life itself, is ingeniously left generic enough for personal interpretation to be accomplished by others, such as the San Quentin prisoners.
Hence, we find that directors have used artistic license to interpret their own local or political ordre du jour while postponing, and even neglecting, the presumably deeper meaning of the play.
Nonetheless, because of its essentially generic template—created deliberately vague by its characters and sparse scenery—the universal theme of the play comes through in spite of directorial license. We might even surmise that Beckett could have made a mockery of the idea that people make something to mean whatever they wish it to mean, as long as it is vague and sparse enough, which in itself is ingenious.
One such interpretation might be that of the subtle frailty and redundancy of humanity and its absurd propensity to hope in spite of a changeless world, though this is still too defined. Another might be simply that humanity is expectant of something—no one knows what for sure—and keeping ourselves busy in routine activities is therapeutic. Until that something or “Someone” has arrived to bring meaning to our existence, we must keep on living. An interesting occurrence is the one noted by critic Shoshana Weitz after interviewing hundreds of play-goers of Waiting For Godot, put on by the Haifa Arab Troupe of Palestine. It was politically biased in reference to the Israeli-Arab conflict. She states, “It is evident that this [Haifa Arab troupe] production was perceived [by interviewees] primarily within an existential/universal perspective, secondarily within a class-oriented context and only last as related directly to the Israeli-Arab conflict”(Scolnicov, 197).
The opinion of its meaning can only be derived by each one’s own understanding. By looking at the second and last act of the play, and particularly the interaction between Estragon and Vladimir, we see the height of these characteristics of humanity in Gogo and Didi. This part of the play is where we also receive the message of hope in humanity, in spite of the characters’ haunting phrase, “Nothing ever changes.” So then, what can we make of these two characters?
Some define the characters of Estragon and Vladimir merely as two tramps (Zegel, 12); some suggest that the two characters form one composite character (Johnston, 34); still others refer to them as clowns (Busi, 5). At any rate, these two characters dominate the stage. The interaction between these two is constant, yet seemingly of no real conversational depth. In fact, they seem only to speak, and interact for the sake of passing time while waiting for someone named Godot. Through numerous outlandish contradictions—movements when speaking of rest; non-movements when speaking of activity like hanging, beating, and so forth—nothing seemingly goes on. Throughout this context of interaction, they are met with two other dubious characters who we might consider standing for any of a number of universal or philosophical archetypes or ideologies. Pozzo-the wealthy and powerful owner of Lucky the human slave—might easily be representative of the devil, the rich, governmental authorities, religious organizations, anyone or anything with the tyrannical machinery to victimize or oppress a weaker group, or the general populace. Lucky can easily be seen as the victim, except that at one point, he seems to be accepting of this role, and even “kicks” or incapacitates another to keep himself from being saved. Thus, Lucky could stand for those gifted or talented, but irresponsible kinds of frail, cowardly figures in society, that allow for the rich, or powerful, or tyrannical forces to lord over them. We could say, in relation to the devil, that Lucky could stand for fallen humanity that chooses to be under the devil’s command. Lucky could be anyone who prefers victimization over the dynamic responsibility of initiating power over one’s own life. As put by another critic, the general consensus of the play is that nothing happens, but the waiting is the happening itself: “This is not all. In the course of the play, nothing happens. Such dramatic progress as there is, is not toward a climax, but toward a perpetual postponement” (Hobson, English Review, 1955). This seems true in totality of the play’s content, yet what of the subtlety of those universal truths that emerge from a deeper study? Could there be a general formula to fit any circumstance, or are there only subconscious shadows of our own desires that define what is seen? We search then, for clues that Beckett may have embedded into the general matrix of the play, to prick the subjective and/or collective conscious of his audiences.
There are no scene separations, but in Act 2, at the opening there is a segment in which we will look to find some of these qualities of “human relationships within the characters, and human living within the activities,” as Cohn previously suggested (Ibid). The stage is set essentially the same as in the first Act. It is bare except for a few neutral items. A tree is propped at the center of the stage with perhaps a slight, rocky mound beside it, where Estragon sat in the first Act, struggling with his activity of removing his boots. A country road leads ad infinitum behind the tree, and nothing more. Note, one difference from Act I is that the tree now has a few leaves—indicative of the passing of time—but nothing of particular enlightenment is added to the stage setting. The boots of whom Estragon complained in the previous act, now stand alone in front of the tree, also waiting for something or someone. Vladimir is the first to return to the same place. He looks about him with agitation, as though he is not sure how to begin his wait; the same wait he must always begin, the wait for…“Godot,” who neither he nor the audience knows. Now, the audience too waits for Godot. One interesting subtlety is that Estragon was first to show in Act 1. He was trying to remove his boots, when Didi came in at that act. At the close of the first act, Gogo succeeded in removing his boots, those of which the two men had a nice argument over, and Gogo walked off stage barefooted. Here now, the boots stand as they were left. Didi, in an acutely agitated state, looms about in a furious frenzy looking outward with his hand shading his brow, anxiously, expectant. He seems to need some form of distraction, and suddenly notices the boots. Picking it up, he attempts to examine the one boot; smells it, and recoils with a pungent scowl. Carefully then, he sets it back in its proper place. Once again, he leaves; returns; looks outward, and the whole routine is done all over again. At this point, he does not merely stop walking, but halts abruptly as though he had thought of a sufficient distracting activity to help him in his wait; he begins to sing. All this stage activity of one man creates a sense of acute expectancy in the audience, and wonderment for the way one may culminate activity in order to tolerate one’s own anxiety in waiting. Even his manner in which he sings helps in distracting himself, for he is in search of the right pitch, the definition of his words, the nostalgic power they have in inciting his brooding and contemplation; singing, then brooding again. At this point he begins the whole lunatic activity of pacing, when thankfully he is distracted by Gogo entering somberly, with his head down, and at a slow pace.
The directions here seem so long, yet, we must remember what the title indicates; we are waiting; waiting for Godot. These are the humorous, neurotic things we all do sometimes, while we wait for life to end perhaps, or for things to “change,” and these distractions while waiting are naturally accentuated here for purposes of its exposition.
“You again!” (Estragon halts without raising his head, as though he was caught in the secret act of his appearance.) “Come here till I embrace you.” Interestingly, Vladimir says that same line at the beginning of the first act when he sees Estragon fussing about with his boots. It indicates to me that Didi is the “instigator” of activity, while Gogo is the “responder,” but this is not always the way. Gogo usually instigates with subtlety, or perhaps we could say, he is good at pretending he does not care. Didi, on the other hand, is one for “making a point.” He is always rousing his audience for response, seeking his own validity in the response of others. One might equate Didi’s character with the politician, the philosopher, or a union leader, rousing his comrades; even a parental figure—all in the position of “instigator.”
By contrast, Gogo could be looked at as the voting mass, the societal subculture; the “follower.” He could be a metaphor for women, homosexuals, religious groups or children—namely, those who have no power but look to those who are powerful to help them be heard. So then, it all begins again as in the first act. Both are present to distract one another, and to help each other wait; wait for Godot, as we all wait for who knows who or what.
“Don’t touch me!” Estragon, head still bowed as though in a state of shame and self-loathing. Much like a rape victim, he appears to have been “beaten” as he puts it. Didi looks pained, but frozen, in respect for Gogo’s need for space to brood; Gogo brooding, as a remedy for healing. Didi tries to accentuate this remedy, once again looking for some way to allay the situation.
“Do you want me to go away?” There is a silent pause: “Gogo!” Vladimir appears to be genuinely attentive as though his contributive resolve would fix everything for Gogo.
The very attenuation of this scene with little dialogue, much monologue, and more stage directions than anything else, indicates that Beckett meant for us to see its importance. This small excerpt is a fragment, but wholly exhibitive of the interaction between these two paradoxical characters in full juxtaposition. As they continue to wait for Godot, their interaction is much of the same. Hints of ideologies are found perhaps, like the concept of purposelessness, but activity in the inevitable continuum of the cycle between hope and hopelessness. This all seems quite morose and fatalistic, and that may seem to some, to be the way we are meant to live. The one note within this entire charade—absurd waiting, arguing, audacious interaction with the grand Pozzo and his masochistic slave, Lucky—is the sneaking suspicion that we are all a little of all of the characters.
We are all some of Gogo and Didi, and even Pozzo and Lucky, at various times. If we look at it this way, we can look at this play merely as absurd, and we can laugh at ourselves for it. But if we choose to look deeper, we will have to reckon with the fact that we all at some time in our lives have a tendency to have a kind of inner expectation; a daunting hope against hope and hopelessness. This is evident in one of the first lines Beckett chooses to have Didi say, when he says: “Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?” This is an indirect reference to the Ecclesiastical book written or spoken by Solomon in the Bible. This was a proverb posed philosophically about life in general: “Hope deferred maketh the [heart] sick.” It is curious that Beckett makes many references and symbolic allusions to Christ, and Biblical principles. There is also a battery of commentaries to this defense.
It seems, however, that the encompassing theme of Godot seems to be that of form more than meaning. Perhaps that is why Beckett chose to use the theater of the Absurd for his play. He chose to decide that the idea of waiting for someone or God, or a savior of some kind of something was absurd because it makes one irresponsible for one’s own life choices. Perhaps Beckett merely wanted to convey the natural events of humanity like waiting, hoping, staying active while hoping; losing hope, regaining hope, and so forth—just the basic propensities in human behavior.
It is plausible that Beckett’s play helps to make us see how we “move through life,” and gives us all something to assess about our place, our life, and then to better our existence and rule our destiny by accepting ourselves, and our contributions. As Didi states in one speech when he and Gogo have the power transferred to them from Pozzo, by Pozzo’s need for their help: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed…”(Godot, 51).
Maybe it was simply humorous to Beckett, in a sentimental way, how all of humanity looks like these characters at some point. We all have been as Gogo is, in his fatalistic acceptance of being ruled over. Or we have all experienced control like Didi, in his diligent attempt to resolve everything in his life. Sometimes we run roughshod over other weaker sorts by our inability to empathize or by our own weakness of being shallow and self-inflated, like Pozzo, or we give in fully with no more conscience, like Lucky.
We can only project our own definition to this play, for Beckett himself was reluctant to translate his meaning to us (Busi, 3). There is however, some contrasting allusions formulated to various meanings given, that it does have connotation toward religion and God, but not in the existential, or fatalistic connotation we are often used to hearing. Frederick Busi postulates this careful thought, when he concludes “In the same year that Godot was first staged, Beckett published Watt and expressed a pragmatic compromise in the conflict between form and content. ‘For the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something, just as the only way one can speak of God is to speak of him as though he were a man, which to be sure he was, in a sense, for a time, and as the only way one can speak of man, even our anthropologists have realized that is to speak of him as though he were a termite.’” (Ibid.). This could indicate that Beckett might have been more concerned with a good piece of art rather than solving the question of universal tenets and existence, yet may have unconsciously insinuated personal views about the existence of a higher source than humanity.
In conclusion, we are reminded of ourselves in Beckett’s play; in our endless search for more in life, while musing on our plight, waiting for some alienated being or figure to unite humanity in some form so as to bring a kind of universal relief from strife,sorrow, and weariness. We can only be thankful for the contribution of genius, the expansion of our cultural and humanistic view through that single human voice. Playwright, Samuel Beckett, and his ingenious depictions in Waiting for Godot, show us about ourselves and how we may look even at the incidental or insignificant things in our lives.
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