Saturday, December 4, 2010

Themes of Waiting, Ignorance, Impotence, Boredom—A New Kind of Play

The Striking Success of the Play
Waiting for Godot achieved a conspicuous success on the stage. Since its first performance in Paris in 1953, it has been performed by all sorts of actors in all sorts of places in many different countries, and it has been translated into many different languages. Obviously it is not a play with only a limited appeal; nor can it be called, as some do call it, an elaborate intellectual “hoax”.

Waiting for Godot has proved itself to be world theatre. However, its tremendous success is a matter for surprise because, for one thing, it is an uneventful play.” As a critic has said, it is a play in which “nothing happens, twice There is in it no story and no message. Besides, the play has no spectacle, no star-part, no sex, not even a woman in the cast. The question why it has achieved such a striking success is not easy to answer. The main reason for its success perhaps is that it depicts a situation which has a general human application.
The Essence of Boredom Depicted
At first sight this play does not appear to have any particular relationship with the human predicament. For instance, we feel hardly any inclination to identify ourselves with the two garrulous tramps who are indifferent to all the concerns of civilised life. Godot sounds as if he might have some significance; but he does not even appear on the stage. However, watching the play on the stage we do realise that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting and that the waiting is of a particular kind. Although they may say that they are waiting for Godot, they cannot say who or what Godot is, nor can they be sure that they are waiting at the right place or on the right day, or what will happen when Godot comes, or what would happen if they stopped waiting. They have no watches, no time-tables, and there is no one from whom they can get much information. They cannot get the essential knowledge, and they are ignorant. Without the essential knowledge they cannot act, and so they are impotent. They 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 the 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. They understand this perfectly. “Come on, Gogo”, pleads Didi, breaking off a reflection on the two thieves crucified with Christ, “return the ball, can’t you, once in a way?” and Estragon does; as he says later, “We don’t manage too badly, eh Didi, between the two of us,”..........“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist” Here we have the very essence of boredom—actions repeated long after the reason for them has been forgotten, and talk purposeless in itself but valuable as a way to kill time.
A Presentation of Waiting, Ignorance, Impotence, Etc.
Waiting for Godot is not about Godot or even about waiting. It is waiting, ignorance, impotence and boredom, all made visible and audible on the stage before us. In his dramas, Beckett does not write about things; he presents the things themselves. In other words, a play by Beckett is a direct expression or presentation of the thing itself as distinct from any description of it or statement about it. The result is that the audience responds directly to what is directly expressed or presented, because the audience recognises in it its own experience. We may never have waited by a tree on a deserted country road for nightfall or for a distant acquaintance to keep his appointment, but we have certainly experienced other situations in which we have waited and waited. So, after all, we can discover a common ground between ourselves and the two tramps who are waiting for Godot; we feel with them and with millions of others who have known ignorance, impotence and boredom. Here is, then, a situation of general human application which gives to this play a recognisable significance and accounts for its widespread appeal.
A New Concept of Drama Represented by this Play
No one in the theatre had, before Beckett, dealt with this experience, the experience of someone ignorant and therefore impotent. 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. The only possible character-development for a “non-knower” (that is, ignorant man) would be to turn him into a “knower”, thereby destroying his character altogether. Movement, therefore, would 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[4] created a whole new concept of painting. The dramatist who grasps this concept of direct expression through total theatre would not be confined to working with ignorance and impotence. Beckett himself has applied it to time (in at least three different ways), and to awareness.
Beckett Belongs to no “School”
Beckett belongs to no school of dramatists. Labels like the “theatre of cruelty” or the “theatre of the absurd” bear no relation to his work. Nor did he relate his discovery to any overall system of belief as a Marxist, an Existentialist, a Nihilist or any other “ist” might do. The new kind of play which he evolved directly serves his individual needs as a creative artist. He sees no evidence of any system anywhere; he has no message to give. Yet he cannot escape a pressing urge to try to say the unsayable.
The Dramatist’s Own Agony
Beckett does not describe ignorance and impotence with clinical detachment, standing back as a doctor might, noting symptoms; he does not deal with his subject in that manner, going into the probable causes, effects, and possible cures. As he struggles to capture ignorance and impotence, he is tortured by these emotions himself. He has rightly described himself as a man whose world has no outside. “It is impossible for me to talk about my writing because I am constantly working in the dark”, he once explained. “It would be like an insect leaving his cocoon. I can only estimate my work from within.”
The Response of the Audience; Vladimir’s Lament for all Mankind
The thing itself, not something about the thing, creation not description, first-hand not second, this is what makes Waiting for Godot a great original play. It is not just a technical tour deforce. We are made to feel it through our own experience. The play springs directly from Beckett’s own anguish, and we respond to it directly because we too are human beings who must feel as well as season. Here is Vladimir musing after Pozzo’s final, terrible departure:
Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today ?.......! can’t go on. What have I said? (He goes feverishly to and fro, halts finally at extreme left, broods).                                                                           
                                                                   (Pages 90-91)
Here the dramatist and his character are one. We are here reminded of Beckett having written in his essay on Proust about “the perilous zones in the life of the individual, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment, the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.” Now, before our eyes, Vladimir enters one such zone, changing from a clown into a poet. He no longer feels any misery or anger on his own account. A few minutes earlier he had wakened Estragon because he felt bored and frightened; but now as his awareness increases, Vladimir’s concern goes beyond himself, beyond his friend, to include all kinds of people. Here is a penetrating consciousness of the human condition, of the sadness implicit in being a living mortal. But there is nothing deadening or paralysing about the suffering. Quite the opposite, for, as Beckett says, “it is the free play of every faculty.” With this free play there comes an end of self-deception. Vladimir had earlier admitted quite cheerfully that “the hours are long under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which—how shall I say—may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit;” and as he says later, “habit is a great deadener.” Now habit can no longer keep him away from the truth because with every faculty he feels the happenings of the day for what they are, a series of pathetic attempts to pass the time: “But in all that, what truth will there be?” Estragon too has suffered, and in the end what has he learned? “He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot.”3 Ignorance and impotence remain unassailable; only time has passed imperceptibly. Vladimir now knows and accepts that life can be no more than the distance between birth and death: “Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old.”3 The lament is for all mankind, arising from a union of compassion and anguish as fundamental to Beckett’s work as the sense of impotence and ignorance which directly inspires it. This anguish is not a thing of the intellect or the body in isolation; it permeates the whole being (as Beckett had already described in his study of Proust). This kind of anguish or suffering transcends the immediate and thus makes Beckett’s work, for all its savagery and irony, an art of goodwill or an art of love.

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