A Curious Blend of Comic and Tragic Elements
Waiting for Godot has appropriately been called a tragi-comedy. It is a play which combines comic elements with tragic elements. It is true that the dominant, over-all impression of the play is serious and tragic, but the comic elements occupy a considerable position in the play. There is much in the play to move us, but there is much to amuse us also. And then there are certain situations and remarks that simultaneously move and amuse us. Indeed, it is a curious play in which it becomes really difficult to demarcate the serious and tragic elements from the light and comic ones. Even apart from the situations and the dialogue, the characters themselves are partly comic and partly tragic: we commiserate with them and at the same time we laugh at them.
Boots and Hats; Circus Acts
The very opening of the play is funny. Estragon’s vain efforts to take off one of his boots are amusing, even though his remark “Nothing to be done” proves to have serious implications in the light of later developments. If Estragon amuses us by his struggle with his boot,
amuses us by taking off his hat, peering inside it, putting it on again, taking it off again, peering inside it again, and then echoing Estragon’s words: “Nothing to be done”. Vladimir taunting remark that Estragon is true to his character in “blaming on his boots the faults of his feet” is also amusing. Soon afterwards Estragon begins to tell the funny story of an Englishman going to a brothel, but is stopped by Vladimir from completing it. When Vladimir and Estragon embrace as a mark of their mutual friendship, Estragon recoils saying: “You stink of garlic”, and Vladimir explains that he has to take garlic as a treatment for his weak kidneys. Later in the play there is a situation when Estragon and Vladimir put on different hats one after the other: they “permute” hats. This is a comic act that is bound to evoke peals of laughter from the audience. The act is obviously borrowed from the circus. Estragon’s trousers falling about his ankles when he loosens the cord holding them up is also a funny sight. Vladimir
Cross-talk, Borrowed From the Music-hall
Much of the dialogue between
and Estragon is amusing, though it should be remembered that the two tramps are not consciously humorous and that it is not their object to produce fun. What they say is integral to the situation in which they find themselves, and much of what they say is funny from our point of view. Early in the play, for instance, Estragon says that “it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes,” thus giving a twist to the familiar proverb: “Strike when the iron is hot.” Some of the dialogues between the two friends consist of very brief remarks or comments or suggestions, and these exchanges, by their very swiftness and conciseness, acquire a humorous quality. For instance when they refer to Godot’s commitment to them to think over what he can do for them, Vladimir says that Godot will “consult his family.” Thereupon we have the following exchange: Vladimir
Estragon. His friends.
Estragon. His correspondents.
Estragon. His bank account.
A little later,
remarks that a man’s reaction to eating (a carrot) is a “question of temperament.” Thereupon we have the following conversation: Vladimir
Estragon. Of character.
Estragon. No use struggling.
Estragon. No use wriggling.
Estragon. Nothing to be done.
Yet another example of this kind of humour in the play is the conversation in which the two friends call each other names just to pass time. They call each other by such names as “ceremonious ape”, “punctilious pig”, “moron”, “vermin”, “abortion”, “morpion”, “sewer-rat”, “curate”, “cretin”, the climax coming with the word “critic”. At the end of this exchange Estragon suggests that they should make up the quarrel whereupon they address each other affectionately as “Gogo” and “Didi” and then embrace each other. This way of passing time is followed by a suggestion from
that they should do their exercises for which the two friends then use the following descriptive epithets: “our movements”, “our elevations”, “our relaxations”, our elongations”. And, “of course there are several other bits of dialogue of this variety. This kind of conversation, known as crosstalk, is borrowed from the music-hall comedy. Vladimir
The Tragic Plight of Lucky; Pozzo’s Moving Speech
The tragic element in the play is chiefly provided by the treatment which Lucky receives from his master Pozzo. Pozzo drives Lucky by means of a rope passed round his neck. Lucky carries a heavy bag, a folding stool, a picnic basket, and a great coat. Pozzo uses his whip upon Lucy mercilessly, and to each crack of the whip, Lucky has quickly to respond in order to minister to some or other need of Pozzo. The two tramps comment pitifully upon the plight of Lucky. The rope has caused a running sore on Lucky’s neck, the two tramps observe Lucky looks a “half-wit” to them.
says that Lucky is “panting” and Estragon says that Lucky seems to be “at his last gasp”. Lucky’s condition becomes all the more poignant in our eyes when Pozzo informs us that there was a time when Lucky used to be a source of great pleasure to him, and when he used to teach him all the beautiful things of life. “Beauty, grace, truth of the first water”, were all beyond Pozzo in those days, and Lucky provided these to him. And yet this same man is now being taken by Pozzo to be sold at a fair. “The truth is you can’t drive such creatures away. The best thing would be to kill them,” says Pozzo; and Lucky, on hearing this callous remark, begins to weep. The Pozzo-Lucky situation gains even more pathos if we interpret it as representing the master-slave relationship or the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves. In Act II the situation becomes even more poignant. Now Pozzo, the tyrant, also becomes a pathetic character, having gone blind while Lucky has become dumb. Now whenever the two of them stumble and fall, they have to be helped by others to rise to their feet. At this point Pozzo makes what is one of the most moving speeches in the play. The word “when”, he says, is meaningless. One day is like any other day. One day he went blind, and one day Lucky went dumb. One day they were born, and one day they would die, and he goes on to say: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant; then it’s night once more.” This remark refers, of course, to the brevity of human life, the word “they” denoting mankind. Shortly afterwards Vladimir echoes Pozzo’s words, saying: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth….We have time to grow old……But habit is a great deadener,” and Vladimir ’s words are moving also. Vladimir
The Tragic Effect of the Ordeal of Waiting; the Night-Mares: the Attempted Suicide
A tragic effect is produced also by the constant repetition by
of the fact that he and Estragon are “waiting for Godot.” The first time we learn that the tramps are waiting for Godot, Vladimir ’s remark hardly produces any effect on us. But thereafter whenever Vladimir says that they cannot leave because they are waiting for Godot, the effect is one of pathos because Vladimir ’s wards are a repeated reminder to us of the two tramps’ state of hopelessness or vain expectancy. Estragon’s nightmares and his fear of the “Others” add to the poignancy of the situation. The “Others” are the unknown, mysterious persons who have been beating Estragon and of whom he feels terribly afraid, with Vladimir being the only one to provide him consolation and protection. In fact, we learn this fact about the beatings at the very opening of the play when Estragon says that he spent the night in a ditch and was beaten by the same lot of persons. On three occasions—at the outset, at the end of Act I, and at the close of Act II—the tramps plan suicide. The attempted suicide proves abortive, but their very thought of it makes them pathetic characters. We are also informed that once, in days gone by, Estragon had jumped into the Vladimir Rhone to drown himself and that he had been rescued by . Vladimir ’s speculations about the thief who was “damned” and the one who was “saved” have also an ominous ring. There is something pathetic about Estragon’s lament: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful,” and “All my lousy life I’have crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery.” Vladimir
The Boredom, the Hopelessness, the Despair
The general or over-all impression that the play produces in us is one of helplessness and the boredom which human beings have to experience in life. The author effectively conveys to us the pointlessness of human life in our times. Human existence is devoid of meaning and purpose. Thus a feeling of despair dominates the play, and this is in itself tragic even though farcical situations are employed to suit the author’s design of a tragi-comedy.
Elements that are Both Tragic and Comic
Certain elements in the play have a dual character: they are simultaneously tragic and comic. Such is the attempted suicide of the tramps. The possibility of their deaths is tragic, but their failure to commit suicide is comic: on one occasion they feel that the tree is not strong enough; on another occasion they do not have a suitable rope for the purpose. Then there is the monologue of Lucky—horrifying because it foretells mankind’s extinction but funny because of its incoherence and disconnectedness. It is amusing also to find that Lucky can “think” only when he puts on his hat, so that when he has to be stopped from continuing his rhetoric, his hat has to be snatched away from him. The decision of the tramps to go away at the end of both Act I and Act II and their immobility inspite of this decision are likewise tragic and comic at the same time.