An Unconventional Play
When Waiting for Godot was first presented on the stage, it offered to theatre-audiences an experience unknown before. It was a new kind of play, a play which broke entirely fresh ground. It was a wholly unconventional dramatic composition. It was unconventional in respect of its character-portrayal as well as its plot-construction. It was unconventional also in not depicting any dramatic conflict in the accepted sense of the word. In fact there was an all-round deficiency of action, characterisation, and emotion in this play. And yet the play proved immensely popular, and its popularity has never declined.
The Action of the Play Devoid of Incidents
The critic who said that Waiting for Godot was a play in which “nothing happens, twice”, was not far wrong. The keynote to this play is to be found in the memorable words which Estragon utters with regard to his own life and the life of his friend, Vladimir. Those words are: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” Because of the strange paucity of action and situation in the play, a critic in sheer desperation has remarked that practically nothing happens in it: “There is nothing done in it; no development is to be found; and there is no beginning and no end.” Indeed, the entire action boils down to this: On a country-road, near a tree, two tramps, Estragon and
, idle away their time waiting for Godot. One takes off his boots, and the other talks of the Gospels. One eats a carrot which the other offers. They have nothing substantial to say to each other. They address each other by two diminutives, Gogo and Didi. They cannot go away, because they are waiting for someone called Godot. Eventually a boy arrives with a message that Godot will not come this evening but surely tomorrow. The two tramps decide to go away and come back again the next day. But they do not move and the curtain falls. Earlier, two other character’s, a cruel master called Pozzo and his half-crazy slave called Lucky, have appeared to create a diversion, and Lucky has delivered an incomprehensible speech made up of disconnected fragments. In Act II the waiting goes on; Pozzo and Lucky pass by once more, but the master is now blind and the slave is dumb. The master and the slave stumble and fall and are helped on their way by the tramps. The same boy comes back with the same message, namely that Godot will not come this evening but that he will come on the following day. Everything remains as it was in the beginning. The two tramps would like to hang themselves, but they have not got a suitable rope. They decide to go away and come back again the next day. But they do not move and the curtain falls. Vladimir
The Twilight-State in Which the Tramps Live
Waiting for Godot is a play made up out of nothingness. The spectator or the reader is fascinated by the strangeness of what he witnesses, hoping for a turn in the situation or a solution, which never comes. The play holds the audience from beginning to end, and the audience remains riveted to the two tramps who do nothing and say practically nothing. The two tramps are incapable of anything more than mere beginnings of impulses, desires, thoughts, moods, memories, and impressions. Everything that arises in them sinks back into forgetfulness before it arrives anywhere. They both live, to a large extent, in a twilight-state and though one of them, Vladimir, is more aware than his companion, complete physical listlessness prevails throughout. Their incapacity to live or to end life (and this is the opening and concluding theme of the play) is intimately linked with their love of helplessness and of wish-dreams. They are full of frustrations and resentments, and they cling to each other with a mixture of inter-dependence and affection.
Dealing With the Essential, Without Beating About the Bush
There had been in the past some attempts to do away with theatrical conventions regarding action on the stage. But this play marks a sort of climax. No dramatist had ever taken so great a risk before, because what this play deals with is the essential, without any beating about the bush, the means employed to deal with it being the minimum conceivable.
Plot Minimal; Dialogue Dying
Waiting for Godot does not tell a story; it explores a static situation. Act II precisely repeats the pattern of Act I. Act I ends thus:
Estragon. Well, shall we go?
Act II ends with the same lines of dialogue, but spoken by the same characters in reversed order. No dramatist had ever taken such an extreme position. Not only have conventions been done away with, but even some necessary information has been withheld from the reader. According to the conventional view, a play was to have a certain plot necessitating certain situations and actions, and characters who performed those actions and who were caught up in the tangles of the plot. But Waiting for Godot hardly offers a plot. It is as if we were watching a sort of regression beyond nothing. The little we are given to begin with soon disintegrates like Pozzo, who comes back bereft of sight, dragged by Lucky bereft of speech. “This is becoming really insignificant,” says one of the two tramps at this point. “Not enough,” replies the other. This answer is followed by a long silence. From beginning to end the dialogue seems to be dying. At various stages one or the other of the two tramps suggests something to pass the time—making conversation, repenting, hanging themselves, telling stories, abusing one another, playing at Pozzo and Lucky. But each time the attempt fails; after a few uncertain exchanges they peter out, give up, admit failure. The words “We’re waiting for Godot” occur again and again like a refrain. But it is a senseless and tiresome refrain; it ‘has no theatrical values; it represents neither hope nor longing. A typical situation in the play is Pozzo and Lucky falling down, followed by the two tramps, and all of them lying on the ground in a helpless heap, from which one tramp’s face emerges to pronounce: “We are men.”
Everything Uncertain, Incomplete, and Collapsing
Waiting for Godot is based on Beckett’s dual obsession with journey and stasis. No doubt a number of adjustments are made during the interval between the two Acts: Pozzo goes blind and Lucky becomes dumb; the tree puts forth some leaves, Estragon’s boots are changed, and Lucky gets a new hat. These changes serve to show that something is still taking its course in time. The tree’s movement from winter to spring, apparently in a single night, is not something believable. The tree moves fast in relation to the tramps, reminding us that objective time proceeds, indifferent to their anguish. But otherwise there is very little movement. Sentences remain unfinished; stories are interrupted (for example, that of the Englishman in the brothel); Lucky is not allowed to complete his terrible speech; thoughts, like the speculation on the two thieves, do not reach a conclusion; actions, like the two attempts of the tramps to hang themselves, do not take complete shape; indeed, thoughts and actions fade into a helpless uncertainty, confusion, and silence. All the devices of the tramps to pass their time eventually collapse into nothing.
Habit and Boredom
As Beckett’s subject in this play was habit and boredom, he could dispense with plot. As his characters were without history, he could dispense with background. All that was left was a skeleton of language, logic, and wit. The dialogue is maintained even though there is nothing to say, and it is maintained by the single device of instant forgetfulness. (Estragon can remember nothing for two minutes together and can refer back no further than to the last phrase uttered.) It is as if a thick fog of boredom surrounded every event and every word the moment it occurred or was spoken.
A New Theme; and a New Concept of Drama
No one in the theatre had, before Beckett, dealt with the experience of ignorance and impotence. Nor could anyone do so as long as the dramatist and the public thought along the traditional lines of a well-made play with a strong story involving conflict, character-development, and a final solution. Impotence cannot produce action, and without action there can be neither conflict nor solution. Movement would therefore be clearly impossible under these circumstances. But, according to the traditional view, a static drama was a contradiction in terms. Beckett solved the difficulty by substituting situation for story, and direct impact for logical, indirect description. But he did more than solve one particular artistic problem. He created in effect the whole new concept of drama much as the Impressionists created a whole new concept of painting.
The Lack of Incident a Necessary Consequence of the Theme and the Persons
The principal theme of this play is waiting, the act of waiting as an essential and characteristic aspect of the human condition. Throughout their lives, human beings always wait for something, an event, a thing, a person, death. Moreover, it is in the act of waiting that people experience the flow of time in its most evident form. To wait means to experience the action of time. Waiting for Godot is a dramatic statement of the human situation itself. It lacks both characters and plot in the conventional sense because it tackles its subject matter at a level where neither characters nor plot exist. Characters pre-suppose that human nature, the diversity of personality and individuality, is real and matters; plot can exist only on the assumption that events in time are significant. These are precisely the assumptions that this play puts in question.
and Estragon are not characters but embodiments of basic human attitudes. And what passes in this play are not events with a definite beginning and a definite end, but types of situation that will for ever repent themselves. That is why the pattern of Act I is repeated with variations in Act II. The two tramps have no ambition, no special purpose, no place to go to, only a place to wait at. Instead of feeling discouraged, they claim that they are blessed in their waiting that provides them with an answer to the question of what they are doing here. Heroes are defeated by time and the process of history, but anti-heroes go on living, thinking, biding their time. Although they sometimes speak of suicide, there is always a good excuse to postpone this project. It is better to endure, to be. “Let’s not do anything. It’s safer”, Estragon suggests at the beginning of the play. Patience, passive resistance, the silent rebellion of the spirit seemed greater virtues to generation that had known concentration camps, slave-labour camps, and nightmares created by the men of action of the contemporary world. The predicaments of the two tramps are the common, human ones: aching feet, stinking breath, the pangs of hunger, and the sensations of fear. Vladimir
The Stripping-down Process
Thus to a very large extent Beckett has stripped down action, situation, emotion, and characterisation. It may be noted, however, that the stripping down process can go much further as Beckett himself went on to prove in Endgame and Happy Days. The extreme in this respect is reached in Beckett’s novel How It Is in which the crippled characters crawl painfully along face downward in the mud and communicate by jabs with a tin-opener. Compared to any of these,
and Estragon are highly articulate persons possessing a sharp sensitivity. It is to be noted, also, that despite the paucity of incident, the play achieves, with conspicuous success, its purpose of communicating the experience of waiting, of boredom, of helplessness, of impotence, and of ignorance to the audience. Vladimir