Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comic and Farcical Elements in Waiting for Godot

Music-hall Comedy
Vladimir and Estragon—who call each other Gogo and Didi—are clearly derived from the pairs of cross-talk comedians of English music-halls. Their dialogue has the peculiar repetitive quality of the cross-talk of comedians’ patter:

Estragon.        So long as one knows.
Vladimir.         One can bide one’s time.
Estragon.        One knows what to expect.
Vladimir.         No further need to worry.           (Page 38)
And the parallel to the music-hall and the circus is even explicitly stated:
Vladimir.         It’s worse than being at the theatre.
Estragon.        The circus.
Vladimir.         The music-hall.
Estragon.        The circus.                                  (Page 35)
In accordance with the traditions of the music-hall or the circus, there is an element of crudely physical humour: Estragon loses his trousers; there is a prolonged gag involving three hats that are put on and off and handed on in a sequence of seemingly unending confusion (Pages 71-2); and there is an abundance of pratfalls (one critic having listed as many as forty-five stage-directions indicating that one of the characters leaves the upright position which symbolises the dignity of man.)
Comparison With the Comedians—Laurel and Hardy
According to an eminent critic, Estragon and Vladimir in their bowler hats, one of them marvellously incompetent, the other an ineffective man of the world devoted to his friend’s care, greatly resemble the two famous cinema comedians of the 1930s: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, whose troubles with such things as hats, and boots were notorious, and whose dialogue was spoken very slowly on the assumption that the human understanding could not be expected to work at lightning speed. Those two comedians journeyed, undertook quests, had adventures; their friendship, tried by fits of irritation and annoyance, never really collapsed. They seemed not to become older or wiser; they were always in a state of nervous agitation. Neither of them was especially competent, but Hardy invariably made a show of being competent. Laurel was defeated by the most trifling requirements. In one of their pictures occurred the following bit of dialogue:
Hardy.             Get on the mule.
Laurel.                        What ?
Hardy.             Get on the mule.
This dialogue comes quite close to the following exchange towards the end of Beckett’s play:
Vladimir.         Pull on your trousers.
Estragon.        What?
Vladimir.         Pull on your trousers.
Estragon.        You want me to pull off my trousers?
Vladimir.         Pull ON your trousers.               (Page 94)
In the same film there was much fuss with Laurel’s boots the holes in which he patched with rotten meat, thus attracting unwanted dogs. Beckett’s play begins with Estragon struggling to take off his boots and saying: “Nothing to be done”. Indeed, insofar as the play has a message, it is more or less contained in these words: “Nothing to be done”. And yet the two tramps go on doing if we can use the word “doing” for their activities.

Boots At Last Pulled Off
We also learn that if Estragon has chronic foot trouble, Vladimir has chronic bladder trouble. The dialogue comes round again to the theme words: “Nothing to be done”, this time spoken by Vladimir; and, as he speaks, these words, the action also comes round to where it started, with Estragon by a supreme effort falsifying the words and managing to pull off his boots. That is one thing accomplished anyhow.
Verbal Antics
The dialogue in Waiting for Godot shows certain features which are characteristic of Beckett’s manner. One of the verbal antics employed is the device of cancellation or qualification. On two occasions, for instance, Vladimir qualifies his admission of ignorance about the nature of the tree:
Estragon.        What is it?
Vladimir.         I don’t know. A willow.             (Page 14)
Estragon.        (Looking at the tree). What is it?
Vladimir.         It’s the tree.
Estragon.        Yes, but what kind?
Vladimir.         I don’t know. A willow.             (Page 93)
On both occasions, after saying that he does not know what tree it is, he adds-”A willow”. (A similar hesitation perhaps explains why some of the play’s many questions terminate in a full-stop rather than a question-mark).
Comic Misunderstandings
Much of the dialogue follows the inconsequential spontaneity of everyday speech in which the different participants tend to pursue a line of thought independently of one another. Many comic misunderstandings result from this kind of technique. There is, for instance, the exchange preceding Lucky’s monologue, where Pozzo asks what he can do for these honest fellows, the tramps. Estragon would be satisfied with ten francs, while Vladimir remarks: “We are not beggars” (Page 39). Such comic misunderstandings are pure vaudeville. Here is another example:
Vladimir.         Where are your boots?
Estragon.        I must have thrown them away.
Vladimir.         When?
Estragon         I don’t know.
Vladimir.         Why?
Estragon         (Exasperated). I don’tknow why I don’t know!
Vladimir.         No, I mean why did you throw them away?                                               (Page 67)
In such bits of dialogue time is lost through confusion over the precise meaning of words. “Are you friends?” blind Pozzo asks in Act II, provoking Estragon to noisy laughter: “He wants to know if we are friends!” Vladimir mediates here as on other occasions by pointing out, “No, he means friends of his”             (Page 85)
Music-hall Cross-talk
The dialogue owes a great deal in fact to the well-established music-hall cross-talk in which two characters—a “straight” man and a “funny” man—become entangled in complexities. Estragon tries to explain to Vladimir that since the latter is the heavier of the two he should logically try hanging himself from the bough first. “If it hangs you it’ll hang anything”, Estragon concludes. The comedy of this is reinforced when the initial basis of the argument is itself brought into question. “But am I heavier than you?” asks Vladimir. Another familiar music-hall joke is that of mirrored repetition. Both Estragon and Vladimir, for example, almost simultaneously shake, and look closely into, a favourite object (Vladimir his hat, and Estragon his boot), and both men exclaim: “Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!” within a minute of each other (Pages 10-11). Here is another bit of comic cross-talk of the music-hall variety.
Estragon.        And we?
Vladimir.         I beg your pardon?
Estragon.        I said, And we?
Vladimir.         I don’t understand.
Estragon.        Where do we come in?
Vladimir.         Come in?
Estragon.        Take your time.                           (Page 19)
Another form of music-hall comedy was the monologue. In this play it is Pozzo who makes use of it, in his discourse on the twilight which ends gloomily: “That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth” (Page 38) and also in his speech in Act II about life taking up but an instant as “they give birth astride of a grave” (Page 89), though the latter piece is rather sombre. But Vladimir too provides an example in the comic banter which begins, “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse”, and proceeds to do just that (Pages 79-80).
Circus Humour
The circus is another source of the unique brand of the humour of Waiting for Godot. (Jean Anouilh compared this play to the Thoughts of Pascal performed as a comedy sketch for clowns). The totters, the pratfalls, the tumbles, Estragon’s trouser-dropping, Vladimir’s clumsy gait, Lucky’s palsy and Pozzo’s cracking of the whip—these are all lifted straight from the clowning in a circus. The amount of gesture in a play supposed to be devoid of action is in fact extraordinary. Estragon and Vladimir, for instance, entertain themselves (and their audience) at one moment by exchanging hats in a complex routine which leaves Vladimir significantly in possession of Lucky’s, the source of the slave’s eloquence. The hats themselves are a direct tribute to the masters of silent-film comedy—Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—and their talkie successors—Laurel and Hardy. All of this—music-hall patter, circus-clowning, and movie costume—is taken, even down to the round song and the lullaby from the most popular and elementary forms of entertainment. This is the comedy which resides in a work unjustly thought of as gloomy and boring. How can a play like this be dull, if Estragon’s priceless howler (in asking a question answered pages earlier) is delivered as it should be, with an exact sense of timing? Or if Pozzo’s words and actions are exploited by an actor with the requisite presence and physique? Far from weakening the play, a director who brings out its comic elements accurately enables the play’s serious meditation on the vanity of human wishes to be made all the more effectively and forcefully.

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