The Breakdown of Language
Beckett’s plays are concerned with expressing the difficulty of finding meaning in a world subject to change. His use of language probes the limitations of language both as a means of communication and as a vehicle for the expression of valid statements, an instrument of thought.His use of the dramatic medium shows that he has tried to find means of expression beyond language. On the stage one can dispense with words altogether (for instance, in his mime-plays), or at least one can reveal the reality behind the words, as when the actions of the characters contradict their verbal expression. “Let’s go”, say the two tramps at the end of each Act of Waiting for Godot, but the stage directions inform us that “they don’t move”. On the stage language can be put into such a relationship with action that facts behind the language can be revealed. Hence the importance of mine, knockabout comedy, and silence in Beckett’s plays—Krapp’s eating of bananas, the pratfalls of Vladimir and Estragon, the variety turn with Lucky’s hat, Clov’s immobility at the close of Endgame, which puts his verbally expressed desire to leave in question. Beckett’s use of the stage is an attempt to reduce the gap between the limitations of language and the sense of the human situation he seeks to express in spite of his strong feeling that words are inadequate to formulate it. The concreteness and three dimensional nature of the stage can be used to add new resources to language as an instrument of thought and exploration of being. Language in Beckett’s plays serves to express the break-down of language. Where there is no certainty, there can be no definite meanings—and the impossibility of ever attaining certainty is one of the main themes of Beckett’s plays. Godot’s promises are vague and uncertain. In Endgame,
Language Ineffective as a Means of Communication
Ten different modes of the breakdown (or disintegration) of language have been noted in Waiting for Godot. They range from simple misunderstandings and double-entendres to monologues (as signs of inability to communicate), cliches, repetitions of synonyms, inability to find the right words, and telegraphic style (loss of grammatical structure, communication by shouted commands) to Lucky’s farrago of chaotic nonsense and the dropping of punctuation marks, such as question marks, as an indication that language has lost its function as a means of communication, that questions have turned into statements not really requiring an answer. A whole list of passages drawn up by a critic from Waiting for Godot shows that the assertions made by one of the characters are gradually qualified, weakened, and hedged in with reservations until they are completely taken back. In a meaningless universe, it is always foolhardy to make a positive statement.
The Breakdown of Dialogue
But more important than any merely formal signs of the disintegration of language and meaning in Beckett’s plays is the nature of the dialogue itself, which again and again breaks down because no truly logical discussion or exchange of thoughts occurs in it either through loss of meaning of single words or through the inability of characters to remember what has just been said. In a purposeless world that has lost its ultimate objectives, dialogue, like all action, becomes a mere game to pass the time.
Devaluation of Language
Beckett’s use of language is thus designed to devalue language as a vehicle of conceptual thought or as an instrument for the communication of ready-made answers to the problems of the human condition. And yet his continued use of language must, paradoxically, be regarded as an attempt to communicate the incommunicable. Such an undertaking attacks the cheap, and facile complacency of the view that to name a problem is to solve it or that the world can be mastered by neat classification and formulations.
Beckett, a Great Master of Language
Beckett’s entire work can be seen as a search for the reality that lies behind mere reasoning in conceptual terms. He may have devalued language as an instrument for the communication of ultimate truths, but he has shown himself a great master of language as an artistic medium. He has moulded words into a superb instrument for his purpose. In the theatre he has been able to add a new dimension to language—the counterpoint of action, concrete, many-faceted, not to be explained away, but making a direct impact on an audience. In Beckett’s theatre it is possible to bypass the stage of conceptual thinking altogether, as an abstract painting bypasses the stage of the recognition of natural objects. In Waiting for Godot and Endgame, plays drained of character, plot, and meaningful dialogue, Beckett has shown that such a seemingly impossible feat can in fact be accomplished.