Saturday, December 4, 2010

Laughter in Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett’s plays do not contain much laughter. Most of the laughter that we do get in his plays is excited by cruelty and suffering. The kind of laughter that results from scenes of cruelty and suffering must necessarily be either mirthless or bitter.

In Waiting for Godot there are eight laughs in all. Four of the laughs belong to Pozzo, two to Vladimir and two to Estragon. Lucky never laughs, and this fact emphasises the irony of his name. Of the eight laughs, seven occur in Act I, and only one in Act II. Numerically this contrasts with Beckett’s use of the phrase: “We’re waiting for Godot,” which occurs only three times in Act I and ten times in Act II. Just as a repetition of the waiting phrase emphasises the long, long duration of that wait, so the gradual disappearance of laughter contributes to the dull desolation of that wait. Moreover, this reduction of laughter in the play as a whole is reflected in the reduction of the laughter of the principal laughter, Pozzo.
Pozzo’s first laugh, on questioning the two tramps, is an “enormous laugh”. The next two times, the stage directions merely state: “He laughs,” and the last time, “He laughs briefly.” All four laughs of Pozzo occur in Act I, because by Act II, with the loss of his eyesight, he has lost the power to laugh, ‘and perhaps even the memory of laughter.
In contrast to this evident decline of laughter in Pozzo, the limited laughter of the two tramps is constant, and it is a constancy which can perhaps be linked with the constancy of their waiting for Godot. Vladimir’s two laughs are hearty and those of Estragon are noisy. As he suffers from a bladder weakness, Vladimir’s two laughs are painful to him; and he laughs no more after the first few minutes of the play. Estragon, on the other hand, delays his one-laugh-per-Act until the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky. Like many of the laughs which the two friends excite in the theatre-audience, their own stage laughter is problematic in origin though not problematic in its quality or nature.
Quite early in the play, before Godot is mentioned, Vladimir has the bright idea that the two friends should repent, but cannot answer Estragon’s question what they should repent of. Then Estragon suggests that they might repent of having been born, and Vladimir breaks into a hearty laugh which, however, he has to suppress because of his pubic pain, complaining: “One daren’t even laugh any more”. Vladimir’s first laugh is thus bounded by suffering—the fact of being born and the fact of his pubic trouble. Although Vladimir tries to substitute a painless smile for the painful laugh, he says: “It’s not the same things.”
Beckett’s stage directions attach Vladimir’s second laugh to his first, since it is “stifled as before, less the smile”. This second laugh, which follows the first after a few minutes of the start of the play, punctuates the friends’ conversation about Godot, through which their anxiety about their own situation is clearly perceptible. “Where do we come in?” Estragon wants to know. Vladimir replies: “On our hands and knees.” Estragon asks innocently, “We’ve no rights any more?” Thereupon Vladimir explodes into his last laugh of the play. This laugh borders on both the intellectual or hollow laugh (which laughs at that which is not true) and the mirthless laugh, for the truth of their rights seems absurd, and their unhappiness is evident, deprived of rights as they are. Even the right to laugh seems to have disappeared for Vladimir who declares: “You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited.”
Though Estragon’s laughter does not seem to be prohibited, it too is ambiguous. In Act II Estragon laughs noisily when Pozzo asks whether the two bums are friends. There is some doubt about whether Estragon is laughing because he thinks that they are friends, or are not friends. But he apparently knows the truth that arouses his intellectual laugh. And even as Estragon indulges in his intellectual laugh, the theatre-audience is indulging in a different intellectual laugh, for, as Vladimir points out, Pozzo is not in the least interested whether or not the two bums are friends. What he wants to know is whether they are friends of his: Estragon laughs at the truth which he misunderstands in Pozzo’s question, and we laugh at his misunderstanding.
Estragon’s first laugh—evidently a series of laughs embraced by the stage directions “laughs noisily” and “convulsed with merriment”1—is also inspired by Pozzo, since he “laughs noisily” when Pozzo cannot find his pipe. Estragon’s laugh at Pozzo’s loss is an example of pure laughter, and that purity is emphasised when Pozzo is on the point of tears while Estragon is “convulsed with merriment” at the off-stage urination of Vladimir, which also involves suffering. Estragon’s laugh begins at the unhappiness of Pozzo, and continues at the unhappiness of Vladimir.
Although both tramps laugh, and Lucky weeps, Pozzo alone indulges in both tears and laughter, and he includes both reactions, in a philosophical pronouncement: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh” (He laughs). Within his tightly closed system, then, he has just deprived someone of laughter by laughing himself.

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