Saturday, December 4, 2010

Waiting for Godot—An Introduction

A Great Commercial Success
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has proved the most commercially successful “experimental” play since Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). First produced in Paris in 1952, Wailing for Godot has since been translated into eighteen languages and performed all over the world.

Nothing Happens; No Female Character
In the play practically nothing happens. There is nothing done in it; no development is to be found; and there is no beginning and no end. The entire action boils down to this: on a country road, near a tree, two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, idle away their time waiting for Godot, who never comes. Two strangers, a cruel master and his half-crazy slave, cross their path, and soon depart. At the end of the first Act, a messenger from Godot arrives and says that he will come tomorrow. In the second Act the waiting goes on; the other pair pass by once more, but the master is now blind and the slave is dumb. The master and slave stumble and fall and are helped on their way by the tramps. The messenger appears again with the same promise, namely that Godot will come on the following day. Everything remains as it was in the beginning. There is no female character in the play. 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. Beckett denies satisfaction to his audience. He wants the audience to suffer extreme despair.
Funny and Sad
The immediate appeal of Waiting for Godot is due to the fact that, even though nothing much happens, it is intensely theatrical. The endless cross­talk act of the two tramps is always funny and at the same time sad—funny because good cross-talk acts are very funny, and sad because their main reason for talking at all is just to pass the time, to fill in the void. Under the farcical ripple of the dialogue lies a serious concern.
Serious Subject-Matter Under a Farcical Surface
To take only one example of Beckett’s technique, the dialogue between the tramps about only one of the four Evangelists having recorded the incident of a thief being saved by Christ presents serious subject-matter in music-hall form. The genuine concern of one tramp with the possibility of salvation is constantly broken into by the other with remarks like “I find this most extraordinarily interesting,” and the discussion follows a carefully constructed comic pattern, with Vladimir’s logic steadily tightening only to be punctured by Estragon’s final “People are bloody ignorant apes.” This tug between subject-matter and form runs through the whole play. Much of the surface is taken up with farcical satire of conventional social behaviour. Pozzo, for example, is unable to take a simple action like sitting down without an attendant paraphernalia of ceremony; and the two tramps are always trying to strike up what will pass for a polite conversation, using . catch-phrases like Vladimir’s “This is not boring you, I hope ?” But the satire is not mere incidental comedy. The emphasis on the surface aspects of life has its part in the meaning of the play. At one point, fat Pozzo is lying on the ground, unable to get up. Spasmodically he shouts “Help”! Vladimir, glad of this chance to be useful for once, says: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse” and launches into a long speech. This is a typical Beckett scene. The situation itself is farcical and yet has serious implications; and Vladimir’s speech, though mock-pompous in tone, contains the real meaning of the play. He says:
What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.          (Page 80)
and later he says:
All I know is that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which—how shall I say—which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit. You may say it is to prevent our reason from foundering.                                      (Page 80)
The surface “proceedings” of life, of which the play is made up, keep mankind’s attention off the despair beneath it all. For Beckett it is a relief because he does not have an optimistic Christian faith in a redemption beyond the despair.
A Picture of the Human Condition
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was one of the very best plays of the decade (1950—60). Its two tramps, with their boredom, their fear of pain, their shreds of love and hate, are a surprisingly effective version of the whole human condition—a condition for which action is no answer, chiefly because there is no obvious action to be taken, ‘nothing to be done’. Beckett comes to a nihilistic conclusion.
A Synopsis of the Play
One evening, on a lonely country road near a tree, two elderly men—half-tramp, half-clown—are waiting for someone of the name of Godot who, they hope, will do something for them. The two men, Estragon (“Gogo”) and Vladimir (“Didi”) are not sure what exactly Godot will do for them, any more than they know for certain whether they have come to the right place on the appointed day. They occupy the time as best they can until the arrival there of Pozzo, a local landowner, on his way to the fair to sell his slave Lucky. Pozzo halts a while with Estragon and Vladimir, eats a meal in their presence, even granting them the bones which his slave rejects, and then in gratitude for their society makes Lucky dance and next think aloud for their entertainment. The three become so agitated by Lucky’s intellectual performance that they all set upon him and silence him. Soon Pozzo takes his leave, driving Lucky before him. Estragon and Vladimir have not been alone many moments together before a small boy appears with the news that Mr. Godot “won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow”. The boy departs; night falls, abruptly; and after briefly contemplating suicide by hanging themselves from the tree, the two men decide to leave but, despite their decision to go, do not move as the curtain falls.
The curtain rises the next day on a scene identical except for the fact that the tree has put forth a few leaves. Vladimir is joined on the stage by Estragon and much the same things happen, except that when Pozzo and Lucky appear (from the side they made their exit in Act I), Pozzo happens to have gone blind and Lucky dumb. All four collapse on top of one another and then somehow manage to get up again. Pozzo becomes exasperated at Vladimir’s questions about time, saying furiously that life itself is only a brief instant. Pozzo leaves, driving Lucky before him, from the side he had entered in Act I. After another brief interval the boy comes again and delivers the same message as before. The sun sets; the moon rises abruptly; the two men again contemplate suicide; and then, despite their agreement to leave, make no movement as the curtain falls. So ends the play in which, as one critic has wittily put it, nothing happens, twice.

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