Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Concept of Time in Waiting for Godot

Circular Movement
A life, which is characterised by a complete aimlessness, may be said to have become a “life without time.” What we call time springs from man’s needs and from his attempts to satisfy them. Life is temporal only because needs are either not yet satisfied, or goals have already been reached, or objectives are still at one’s disposal. Now, in Estragon’s and Vladimir’s lives, objectives no longer exist. For this reason in the play time does not exist either; and it is for this reason, and quite legitimately, that events and conversations are going in circles; after a while this circular movement gives the impression of being stationary, and time appears to be standing still.

Nothing New in Act II
Beckett carries this concept through with such complete consistency that he presents a second Act which is but a slightly varied version of the first, (and this is probably without precedent in the history of drama). In the second Act he offers to our startled eyes nothing new or startling. Accustomed as we are to witness new situations in the course of a play, we are deeply surprised by this lack of surprise, by the fact that scenes repeat themselves, and we are filled with the horror which we feel in the presence of people who are suffering from a complete loss of memory. For, with one exception, none of the characters is aware of this repetition; and, even when reminded of it, they remain incapable of recognising that their experiences or conversations are merely repetitions of yesterday’s events or talk.
“Killing” Time
If time still survives here, it is due to the fact that the activity of “killing time” has not died out yet. The two tramps try to produce merely the sequence of time. When they decide to leave, they remain; when they wish to help, they hardly lift a finger. Even their impulses of goodness or indignation stop so suddenly that their sudden disappearance gives the effect of a negative explosion. And yet they resume their “activity” time and again, because this kind of activity keeps time moving, pushes a few inches of time behind them, and bring them a few inches closer to the supposed Godot.
The Tramps Indispensable to Each Other
This goes so far that the two tramps even propose to act out feelings and emotions, that they actually embrace each other, because, after all, emotions too are motions. If again and again Vladimir and Estragon rack their brains what to do next, they do so because “it helps to pass the time”, or because whatever they do, will reduce the distance which separates them from Godot. The best way to overcome the difficulty is through the activation of their being together, through their taking advantage of the chance that it is at least as a pair that they have to bear their senseless existence. If they did not cling to each other, if they had not their quarrels, if they did not leave each other or re-unite, they would actually be lost, and these are actions which, after all, cannot take place without taking up time. That Beckett presents us with a pair is, thus, not only motivated by his technical insight but also by his wish to show that everyone is the other’s pastime, that company facilitates endurance of the pointlessness of existence.
The Modern Worker’s Work,—A Sham Activity
The pitiful struggle, which the two tramps wage to keep up some sort of action, is so impressive only because it mirrors our own fate, the fate of multitudes of modern men. Through the mechanisation of labour, the worker today is deprived of the chance to recognise what he is actually doing, and of the chance to see the objectives of his work. His work has therefore become something like a sham activity. Real work and the most absurd pseudo-work (for instance digging ditches and filling them again just in order to keep busy) differ in no way, neither structurally nor psychologically. On the other hand, the modern worker has, because of his mechanical work, become so thoroughly imbalanced that he now feels the urge to restore his equilibrium during his leisure time by engaging in substitute activities and hobbies, and by inventing pseudo-objectives with which he can identify himself. Thus it is precisely during his leisure time and while “playing” that he seems to be doing real work—for instance, by resuming obsolete forms of production, such as cultivating his balcony garden or do-it-yourself carpentering. The modern worker has today become deprived so completely of his initiative and of the ability to shape his leisure time himself that he now depends upon the ceaseless radio and television programmes to make time pass. The best proof, however, of the affinity which exists today between working time and leisure time is the fact that there are already situations in which the two occur simultaneously, for instance in millions of homes and factories where the flow of work and the flow of the radio transmission are becoming one single stream. If the silly seriousness with which Estragon and Vladimir struggle to produce a semblance of activity strikes us as being so symptomatic for our time, it is only because today working time and leisure time, activity and indolence, real life and playing, have become so closely inter-twined.
Our Existence, A Mere Playing of Games
The two tramps improvise and invent games to pass the time. They borrow activities from the vast store of everyday actions and transform them into play in order to pass the time. In those situations in which we play a game like football, and, having finished it, can start playing it all over again, Estragon plays the game of taking his shoes off and putting them on; by doing so he does not exhibit himself as a fool but exhibits us as fools: he demonstrates through the device of inversion that our playing of games has no more meaning than his. Our playing of games is similar to taking off shoes and putting them on again: a ghostly activity meant only to produce the false appearance of activity. Our everyday existence too is nothing but playing of games, clown-like, without real consequences, springing solely from the vain hope that it will make time pass. We are brothers to the two tramps; only these two know that they are playing, while we do not. Thus it is not they but we who are the actors in the farce.
Pozzo and Lucky as Champions of Time
However shy Vladimir and Estragon may feel when first facing Pozzo and Lucky, there is one thing they cannot conceal: that they regard the new pair as enviable. Themselves sentenced to “being without time,” Vladimir and Estragon look upon Pozzo and Lucky as privileged beings because they are the champions of time. Pozzo, the master, is enviable because he has no need to “make time” by himself, or to advance by himself, not to speak of waiting for Godot, for Lucky drags him forward anyway. And Lucky, the servant, is enviable because he not only can march on but actually must do so, for Pozzo is behind him and sees to it that he does. And even though they pass the two timeless tramps by without knowing that they have already done so the day before, they nevertheless are already in motion and therefore, in Estragon’s and Vladimir’s eyes, fortunate creatures. It is therefore quite understandable that they suspect Pozzo of being Godot himself; for behind Pozzo’s whip, they feel, their waiting might find an end. Nor is it a coincidence that Lucky is called by that name. For although he is to bear everything and spend his life carrying sacks filled with sand, he is totally freed from all burdens of initiative and if the two tramps could stand in his place they would no longer be compelled to wait at one and the same place but could move on, because they would be forced to move on and their hell would thus lose its sting.
The Sadness of the Play
To try to find in this image of man and his world any positive or consoling features is in vain. And yet in one respect Beckett’s play differs from all those nihilistic writings which mirror our age: it Differs from them in its tone. The tone of those writings is usually one of a beastly seriousness or one of cynicism—inhuman in either case; but the tone of this play is neither beastly serious nor cynical. This play has a sadness which reflects the sadness of all human fate, and which therefore can create a feeling of solidarity among men, and by doing so make this fate a little less unbearable.

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