Saturday, December 4, 2010

How far is it appropriate to call Waiting for Godot a tragedy?

Tragic But Not in the Traditional Sense
Waiting for Godot is certainly a funny play in parts: it has a number of comic elements which include some clowning acts borrowed from the circus and amusing cross-talk borrowed from the music-hall. But essentially it is a serious, even tragic play.
Of course, it is not a tragedy in the traditional sense: we are far from Aristotle’s conception of tragedy and we are very far indeed from Shakespearean tragedy. This play does not bring about that “catharsis” of the feelings of pity and fear about which Aristotle spoke, and it does not have an inspiring effect on us of the kind that Shakespearean tragedy has. The impact of this play is certainly not as powerful as that of a tragedy by Shakespeare. Yet it is appropriate to describe Waiting for Godot as a tragic play. It is tragic in the sense that it makes us keenly aware of the human predicament and human misery; it also produces in us the feelings of mystery, fear, pity, and even awe. However, instead of giving rise to any exhilaration that comes through catharsis, this play fills us with sheer despair. Life is presented as bleak and hopeless, even though it has its funny side. The play is a dramatisation of the themes of habit, boredom, and the “suffering of being”. Towards the close of the play, for instance, Vladimir says: “Habit is a great deadener.” By then he and Estragon have had more than ninety minutes on the stage to prove it. The play is also about waiting, ignorance and impotence. The two tramps produce in us a sense of baffled helplessness which we experience when forced to remain in a situation which we do not understand and over which we have no control. All that Estragon and Vladimir do is to seek ways to pass the time in a situation in which they find themselves. They tell stories, sing songs, play verbal games, pretend to be Pozzo and Lucky, do physical exercises. But all these activities are mere stop-gaps valuable only to pass the time. Here we have the very essence of boredom. It has to be noted that the play itself is by no means boring; it is a fascinating play which depicts boredom, besides, of course, helplessness, ignorance, and impotence. The effect of this dramatisation of boredom and impotence on us is depressing and saddening. There lies the tragic essence of this play which is different from traditional tragedies. Here we come across no heroic endurance of misfortune and no magnificent portrayal of the greatness and glory of human nature. The only endurance here is an endurance of sheer helplessness.
The Feeling of Despair
Despair is the keynote of this tragic play, and the keynote is struck in the very opening words of Estragon: “Nothing to be done” which he speaks with reference chiefly to his failure to pull off his boots and which are echoed soon afterwards by Vladimir. The feeling of helplessness is also conveyed to us in the very opening dialogue when we are told that Estragon has been beaten as usual by “the same lot” of unknown persons during the night which he felt compelled to spend in a ditch. The two men are evidently in a miserable condition. Vladimir resents Estragon’s behaving as if he were the only one to suffer and as if Vladimir did not count. Vladimir also recalls better times when he and his friend were presentable and when they used to come down hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower among the first. Vladimir then introduces the theme of salvation, and it worries him to think that one of the two thieves was damned. Then follows a reference to Estragon’s nightmares which Vladimir would not like to hear about. The condition of these two friends must, indeed, be hopeless because Estragon suddenly offers the suggestion: “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!” The suggestion has obvious tragic implications and, even though the suggestion fizzles out because the tree nearby does not have a bough strong enough for a successful hanging, it is revived later in the play—towards the end of Act I and again at the end of Act II.
The Agony of Waiting for Godot
The ordeal of having to wait for that mysterious person, Godot, is in itself tragic enough. Early in the play we learn from Vladimir that the two friends must wait for Godot, but a hint is dropped at this very point that Godot might not come on this particular day or even on the following day. Thereafter the words “we’re waiting for Godot” occur in the course of the play several times like a refrain and they acquire a more and more depressing quality each time they are repeated because Godot alone, it would appear, can save these two men from their sad fate and Godot is nowhere in sight. Thus the two friends are waiting to no purpose at all. The boy who brings Godot’s message holds out the faint hope that Godot will come on the following day, but we can see that this hope is not likely to be fulfilled. If the audience identify themselves with the characters on the stage, as they usually do during a theatrical performance, they will fully share this agony of futile waiting. This agony is experienced by us even when we are reading the play by ourselves in the study. The meagre information that is provided by the messenger boy about Godot is not very heartening either. Godot does not beat this boy, but he beats his brother who is a shepherd; Godot has a white beard; Godot does nothing. Perhaps, Godot represents the Old Testament God, but we are not given a cheering image of the Almighty. Or Godot may be a mythical human being, in which case waiting for him is bound to prove a frustrating experience.
The Pozzo-Lucky Scenes
The tragic quality of the play is deepened by the Pozzo-Lucky interludes. Lucky’s plight is indeed, pitiable. He is no better than a beast of burden, and there are sores on his neck. Pozzo treats him worse than an animal. It is true that Lucky’s past was glorious. There was a time when he was a source of beauty, grace and truth for his master, but the contrast between what he was and what he has been reduced to is very painful, indeed. Pozzo is now taking him to the fair where he hopes to get a good price for him, though Pozzo thinks that the best thing would be to kill creatures like Lucky. When Lucky begins to weep, Pozzo says, “Old dogs have more dignity.” The incoherent monologue that emanates from Lucky shows how gravely his mental powers, have deteriorated and declined. There is still much sense in what he says—and his theme is the regression of the entire human race in a universe which is not looked after by an exactly benevolent God—but the signs of mental decay in him are unmistakable. If the Pozzo-Lucky relationship represents a master-servant relationship, as it most probably does, the tyranny of the master arouses deep resentment in us, and the abject surrender of the slave arouses mingled feelings of pity and disgust. Pozzo’s going blind soon afterwards and Lucky’s going dumb deepen the tragic situation. Pozzo now feels almost as helpless as Lucky and when the two stumble and fall they cannot get up without external help.

Tragic Utterances
Some of the utterances in the course of the play produce a deeply tragic effect on us. To take only a few examples, Estragon at one point says, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” At another point Estragon thus expresses his misery: “All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery! You and your landscapes! Tell me about the worms!” Again, we have the following bit of dialogue:
Estragon.        Ah! What’ll we do, what’ll we do!
Vladimir.         There’s nothing we can do.
Estragon.        But I can’t go on like this!
But perhaps the most tragic words are uttered by Pozzo when he says: “One day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die.......They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Some of the words of this utterance are subsequently echoed by Vladimir: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” Remarks like these heighten, deepen, and intensify the tragic quality of this hopeless play.
No Sublime Picture of Human Dignity
A genuine tragedy produces in us a sense of the grandeur of human nature. Oedipus, Hamlet, the Duchess of Malfi, Tess, Santiago (in Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea) are only a few examples of tragic heroes who offer an edifying spectacle of human suffering, human endurance, and human dignity. But we do not have any such character in Waiting for Godot. The two tramps are poor specimens of humanity: Estragon, fearful, timid, forgetful, devoid of self-respect; Vladimir certainly brave, mentally alert, and determined (to “wait”, if nothing else) but otherwise not much above the average in any respect. pozzo is a hateful tyrant in Act I, and a contemptible, pathetic character in Act II. Lucky is an abject, helpless slave. The entire behaviour of these men is either funny or disgusting; we feel no admiration for anyone, and very little pity. There is neither a tragic conflict (all characters except the tyrannical Pozzo being passive), nor a tragic “flaw”. Only once or twice (in the description of the twilight sky and statement of the brevity of human life) does the play attain any dignity. But, though not a genuine tragedy in the accepted sense, the play is not devoid of its value as a graphic and powerful presentation of the boredom and emptiness of human life, and of the inevitability and futility of waiting.
Anguish and Catharsis
However, according to one view, Beckett’s characters experience Beckett’s own anguish, and that anguish then becomes our anguish. If we assimilate this anguish into our particular experience, we shall have the catharsis Aristotle talked about. Besides, the mutual attachment of the two main protagonists in this play is something which raises them in our estimation and makes them truly tragic.

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