Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Structure of Waiting for Godot

Different Views About the Play’s Structure
The structure of Waiting for Godot, like its meaning, has intrigued critics. One critic has spoken of its being’“undramatic but highly theatrical.” But this critic modifies his own view by suggesting that we should speak of the play “not as undramatic, but as a parody of the dramatic”. Another critic speaks of Beckett’s notion of “symmetry to suggest a static design”, and he dismisses the possibility of dividing this play into Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. Yet another critic feels that it is the “asymmetrical structure” of the play which accounts for all its power.

A Firm Structure Based on Repetition and Balance
Waiting for Godot is not constructed along traditional lines, with exposition, development, reversal (i.e., sudden change of fortune), and denouement; but it has a firm structure, though of a different kind, a structure based on repetition, the return of the leading motifs, and on the exact balancing of variable elements. The use of repetition may be illustrated with an example. Pozzo, having eaten his meal and lit his pipe, says with evident satisfaction: “Ah! That’s better”. Two pages later Estragon makes precisely the same comment, having just gnawed the remaining flesh off Pozzo’s discarded chicken bones. But the circumstances, though similar, are not identical: Pozzo has eaten to his fill, while Estragon has had a meagre something. The repetition of the words is therefore an ironical device for pointing a contrast like that between Pozzo’s selfish order to Lucky to give him his coat in Act I and Vladimir’s selfless spreading of his own coat around Estragon’s shoulders in Act II.
Repetition With a Difference
The entire movement of the play, therefore, depends on balance. “It is the shape that matters”, Beckett, once remarked with reference to the Augustinian saying which underlies so much of the play’s symbolism: “Do not despair—one of the thieves was saved; do not presume—one of the thieves was damned”. It is certainly the shape that matters here. The movement of the play relies heavily on asymmetry, or repetition-with-a-difference. In both Acts, for instance, Pozzo’s arrival is curiously foreshadowed by one of the men imagining he hears sounds of people approaching. And whereas in Act I the two men prop Lucky up, in Act II they serve as pillars of support (“caryatids”) to Pozzo. But the most poignant example is the ending of the two Acts, where the wording is identical, the punctuation varied only slightly to slow down delivery the second time, but the roles reversed: in Act I Estragon asks the question, but in Act II the question is asked by Vladimir:
Vladimir.         Well? Shall we go?
Estragon.        Yes, let’s go.                               (Page 94)
The first time, these two sentences can be delivered at more or less normal speed, but on the second occasion they should be drawn out, with a slight pause between the phrases. When this is done, the intense emotion generated among the audience is suggestive of great sadness.
Contrasted Characterisation
Another feature of the play is Act-structure being reflected in the contrasted characterisation. Estragon’s name is composed of the same number of letters as Vladimir’s name; the same applies to Pozzo and Lucky. Hence they find themselves associated, and have been joined in a complex sado-masochistic relationship for many years. But their natures obviously come into conflict: Vladimir is the neurotic intellectual type, Estragon the placid intuitive type; Pozzo is the bullying extrovert, Lucky the timid introvert. Vladimir instinctively sympathises with Lucky, while Estragon experiences a degree of fellow-feeling for Pozzo. Vladimir and Pozzo, like Lucky and Estragon who kick each other, are at the extremes of the poised poles. Estragon is afraid of being “tied” (Page 20), Lucky is tied in effect; Vladimir is humble towards authority, Pozzo asserts it forcibly. The characters, in fact, like the occurrences, are held in uneasy equilibrium within the play.
The Change In Tone From One Extreme To Another
Yet another of the play’s structural features is the way the writing modulates continually from one tone to its opposite. Pozzo’s declamation on the subject of “night”, for instance, shifts almost violently from the false sublime to the prosaically ridiculous, and after rising to vibrant heights lapses to gloomy depths, and ultimately to inevitable silence (Pages 37-8). After a long pause, Estragon and Vladimir strike up and exchange vaudeville remarks:
Estragon.        So long as one knows,
Vladimir.         One can bide one’s time.
Estragon.        One knows what to expect.
Vladimir.         No further need to worry.
Estragon.        Simply wait.
Vladimir.         We’re used to it.                       (Page 38)
The transition is masterly, almost musical in subtlety. Similar modulation occurs between the boisterousness around. Lucky in Act I and the high grief of Vladimir’s cross-examination of the Boy in Act II, culminating in the cry: “Christ have mercy on us!” Farce and pathos are closely mingled throughout, but perhaps most obviously at the start of Act II in the clowns’ loving embrace which ends, appropriately, in a grotesque pratfall.
Act II Slightly Different in Tone From Act I
The whole of Act II, in fact, shows a slightly different tone from Act I. The cross-talk is of a more “intellectual” and less strikingly music-hall kind; the confident Pozzo of Act I is changed into the blind decrepit of Act II; and the words of the Boy, delivered in a rush in Act I, have to be dragged out of him by Vladimir in Act II. The entire Act II is less naturalistic, and assumes familiarity with the two tramps and their ways which permits a briefer restatement of the theme. In Act II Pozzo enters later, and is sooner gone. Lucky’s monologue of Act I, despite its repetitious jargon, made a point, but no statement from him can recur in Act II because he has gone dumb.
The Dialogue About the Dead Voices, A Symmetrical Structure
The substance of Waiting for Godot is waiting, waiting amid uncertainty. There had never been a play about waiting before, because waiting seemed contrary to the grain of the theatre where the normal unit is the event, and where intervals between events are cleverly filled so as to persuade us that forces are at work to produce the next event. To wait and to make the audience share the waiting, and to bring out the quality of the waiting—this is not to be done with a plot in the conventional sense. Beckett fills the time with beautifully symmetrical structures. For instance, there is that dialogue in which the two tramps discuss “the dead voices”. In a beautiful economy of phrasing, the two tramps ask and answer, evoking those strange dead voices that speak, it may be, only in the waiting mind, and the spaced and measured pauses in the dialogue are as much a part of the dialogue as the words. And the special qualities of the speakers are never ignored. Estragon insists that the voices rustle like leaves. Vladimir, less enslaved by idiom, says that the voices murmur “like wings”, “like sand”, “like feathers”, “like ashes”. However, Estragon’s simple simile is, by its very stubbornness, in each case the last word. And the utterances are gradually reduced from several words to only two, and the ritual exchange about waiting for Godot has its ritual termination like “Amen”, being the shortest utterance in the play: “Ah!” It is a splendid duet, in which, contrary to theatrical custom, neither part dominates.
Symmetrically Constructed Acts I and II
As the speeches are symmetrically assigned, so the two Acts are symmetrically constructed, the Pozzo-Lucky incident in each Act preceding each time the appearance of the boy who brings the news that Godot will not come today but surely tomorrow. The molecule of the play, its unit of effect, is symmetry, a symmetrical structure. The stage is divided into two halves by the tree; the human race is divided into two (Estragon and Vladimir), then into four, (Estragon-Vladimir and Pozzo-Lucky), then, with the boy’s arrival, into two again. And symmetries encompass opposites as well: Lucky’s long speech in Act I, and Lucky’s utter silence in Act II. And symmetries govern the units of dialogue: at one extreme, the intricate fugue-like structure about the dead voices and at the other extreme an exchange as short as this:
We could do our exercises.
Our movements.
Our relaxations.
Our elongations.
Our relaxations.
To warm us up.
To calm us down.
Verbal Symmetries
Indeed nothing satisfies the mind like balance; nothing has so convincing a look of being substantial. It is rather from Act II of the play than from Act I that its finest verbal symmetric can be obtained, for the play converges on symmetry:
Say, I am happy.
I am happy.
So am I.
So am I.
We are happy.
We are happy. (Silence). What do we do, now that we are happy?
Wait for Godot. (Estragon groans. Silence).
The play also converges on certain stark statements, the eloquence of which has sometimes created an impression that they convey the “meaning” of the play. When, for instance, Pozzo says: “They give birth astride of a grave,” etc., his remark has the appearance of a proverbial statement. Pozzo is provoked to make this statement by Vladimir’s irksome questioning, and the statement is the culmination of the speech which begins with the following sentence: “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!” This speech of Pozzo’s is like saying that there are many days like those two on which Pozzo has met the two tramps, that all waiting is endless and all journeying too. The striking metaphor is characteristic of Pozzo: “They give birth astride of a grave.” The metaphor sticks in Vladimir’s mind and, a few minutes later, alone with the sleeping Estragon, he reflects that he too may be sleeping, so dream-like is the tedium. Then he repeats Pozzo’s metaphor saying: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth…..But habit is a great deadener. At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” In other words, Vladimir is watching Estragon, while someone else is watching Vladimir; someone invisible watches us all in turn: this evokes not so much a Deity as an infinite series. Like music, Beckett’s language is shaped into phrases, orchestrated, cunningly repeated.

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