The Theater of the Absurd
In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett breaches all classical rules and conventions of traditional theater. To begin with, the play is not a linear one—as all traditional plays are—but is actually circular or cyclical in structure, for it has no Aristotelian beginning, middle or end. Therefore it can—much like a merry-go-around (carousel)—continue the “waiting for Godot” practically ad infinitum—even with possible new acts (Acts III, IV, V and so on) that will be completely indistinguishable from the playscript's Acts I and II. The play ends in the same place it begins, being in that respect very similar to Lewis Carroll’s enigmatic novel Alice in Wonderland. Secondly, the theatrical form of Waiting for Godot is completely divorced from its dramatic content. For instance, there is no hint of realism—the classical dramatic convention aiming at accuracy and verisimilitude in the theatrical presentation of time, place, speech, and behavior. There is nothing like Tennessee Williams' “poetic realism” or Arthur Miller's “expressive” or “subjective” realism. Nor, for that matter, anything reminiscent of Bertold Brecht's “dialectical” or “epic” theater, let alone of his so-called “theatricalism”—the Brechtian dramatic convention, in which his actors tell the audience that the stage is a stage, the play is a play, and that they are only performing their assigned stage roles.
In spite of some attempted critical comparisons between the two, Beckett's Waiting for Godot is clearly not a “poetic theater” a la Tennessee Williams, as it makes no use of dream and fantasy nor does it employ conscious poetic language. There is not even the traditional theater's illusion of “fourth-wall realism” here—as, for example, in August Strindberg's “intimate realism.” Finally, Waiting for Godot is devoid of any real plot, characters, dialogue, or traditional setting in terms of Aristotle's famous six elements of drama (Spectacle, Character, Plot, Diction/language, Melody, and Thought/theme). Even the play's desolate scenery is a most minimalist one: “A country road. A tree. Evening” (Beckett p. 1358), contributing to the otherworldly mood and tone of this unusual “tragicomedy.” Most readers will have recognized by now that such a unconventional drama belongs to the so-called Theater of the Absurd—a term which applies to a group of avant-garde dramatists who became famous in the 1950's and 1960's for their radical artistic innovations in the theater. There is no dramatic conflict, crisis, or resolution in their plays, as is required by Aristotle's famous insistence that a drama should have a “beginning,” a “middle,” and an “end” (denouement). Without these Aristotelian requisites, you may have a story of some kind, but not really a plot.
Two vaudevillian-style Charlie Chaplin look-alikes, the tramps Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi), are the main characters in Waiting for Godot. But don't look for Aristotelian “Character” in these two bizarre caricatures in the sense of them having any logical desires and purposeful thoughts about how to fulfill those desires. Gogo and Didi—like the other three sketchy characters, Pozzo, Lucky and the Boy—embody no particular ideas, ideals, archetypes, or philosophies. Nor do they represent in any shape or form the identity/personality of their Paris-based expatriate Irish author—the way that Blanche DeBois in Streetcar Named Desire, for example, represents Tennessee Williams in the old psychological tradition of Gustave Flaubert's famed realist novel Madame Bovary (“Madame Bovary c'est moi”). In fact, Beckett's protagonists seem to have no clearly defined or coherent personalities at all. For most of the play, Gogo and Didi behave illogically, speak mostly in clichés, rarely communicate intelligibly with each other, and tend to exist in virtual isolation. They are both waiting for some illusive stranger named Godot (who never even shows up)—or more likely for their own ultimate demise, given their desperate and fatalistic attitude. Probably because their lives have been an endless rain of body blows, both tramps try several times to hang themselves from that lonely tree on the stage.
Obviously, the play has all the structural-formal characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd, since the dramatic action is indeed “circular or cyclical in structure,” as nothing in Act I is really any different action-wise from Act II, except for “the darker” atmosphere in the latter (Garner p. 1356). Nor is there any attempt to cultivate “the art of being a spectator” in terms of promoting either the Aristotelian emotional involvement (catharsis) or the Brechtian emotional detachment (Brecht's famous “estrangement/alienation effect”). Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, for instance, is also an Absurdist drama, but it is very engaging and lively, and its social psychology makes a lot of sense. In contrast, Beckett's Waiting for Godot appears at first inspection to be childish and goofy. Nonetheless, it is still one of the celebrated masterpieces of the Theater of the Absurd.
The Influence of Existentialism
Most Absurdist plays are a dismal, depressing portrayals of our desolate human condition, while their dramatic style is itself a medium for conveying this tragic impression to the audience. Existentialist philosophy permeates Beckett's entire play—especially the Existentialist idea that human life lacks any purpose or meaning and also that humans live in a world that is either deeply hostile or is at best indifferent to them. There is no God, so the only indisputable truth is that we, humans, exist in a strictly materialist or Godless universe. Therefore, each person must individually choose for themselves their own reality, truth, morality, justice and even the “essence” of what life means to us. There is a deep distrust of any traditional values and institutions (especially religion) that could provide moral guidelines for people to follow. One way to understand Absurdist plays like this one is to realize that they are the playwright's vehicle to conjure an onstage world that depicts mankind's purely material existence before humans could impose their religious/ideological order or “essence” upon it. Waiting for Godot, in fact, dramatizes most of the essential ideas and thinking of French Existentialism.
But could Beckett's Absurdist play also lend itself to a religious interpretation? Can Godot be seen as a Christ-like religious figure? If so, what exactly is implied by his failure to appear on stage at all? Waiting for Godot may be devoid of a dramatic theme, plot, characters, setting, and even real action and dialogue, as Aristotle defined them, but this Absurdist farce is not without any meaning (subtext). It is, above all, a mock parable—that is, a parody satirizing religion, especially Christianity. Very early into this tragicomedy the playwright introduces the motif of religion and Christianity:
“Vladimir: Did you ever read the Bible?
Estragon: The Bible...[He reflects.] I must have taken a look at it.
Vladimir: Do you remember the Gospels?
Estragon: I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Coloured they were. Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue. The very look of it made me thirsty. That's where we'll go, I used to say, that's where we'll go for our honeymoon. We'll swim. We'll be happy (1.77-83).”
A bit later, Beckett gives us the first subtle hint that his Godot may actually be God:
“ESTRAGON: What exactly did we ask him for?….
VLADIMIR: Oh... Nothing very definite.
ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer.
ESTRAGON: A vague supplication.” (1.268, 271-274)
Even the play's desolate scenery—describing a lonely and leafless tree by a rural road with the two tramps loitering around it and waiting in vain for Godot to arrive before night falls—evokes the biblical image of Jesus Christ and the two thieves crucified alongside him on the Golgotha. Although a few leaves do appear on the previously lifeless tree in Act 2, absolutely nothing important takes place in spite of this religious symbol of hope. Nobody's desire for salvation is ever fulfilled.
While lacking in depth and development as dynamic and believable characters, Estragon and Vladimir still represent the human race or at least the Christian part of it: “But at this place, at this moment of time, mankind is us, whether we like it or not” (2.642-643). In spite of Beckett's repeated public denials, Godot does appear to be a metaphor and a symbol of the Christian God. Otherwise, why would Beckett choose such an equivocal name for his absentee main character—Godot, which means “little god” in pidgin Anglo-French? I searched the Internet, but could not find a single instance of the name Godot (either as first or last name) being used—not in France, nor in any French-speaking country and colony, nor anywhere else around the world. And why all these unambiguous religious references, overtones, and allusions to the Bible, Jesus Christ, Adam (but not Eve), Cain and Abel, the old biblical story of Jesus and the two crucified thieves, and so on throughout the text?
The text is, in fact, interspersed with numerous references to God such as, for example, “Estragon: Do you think God sees me?” (2.553). Even Lucky's seemingly incoherent and nonsensical speech starts with the mention of “a personal God...with a white beard” (1.924-925). Which is probably why Vladimir asks the second messenger boy about the color of Godot's beard and is overjoyed by the boy's reply that the color of Godot's beard is a biblical “white”:
“VLADIMIR [softly]: Has he a beard, Mr. Godot?
BOY: Yes Sir.
VLADIMIR: Fair or... [He hesitates.] ...or black?
BOY: I think it's white, Sir.
VLADIMIR: Christ have mercy on us! (2.1006-1010)."
This tragicomedy is no doubt a literary travesty ridiculing Christianity as a false, pie-in-the-sky religion which never delivers on its promise of Christ's Second Coming and spiritual salvation. The two vaudevillian tramps are waiting forever for the appearance of Godot—an obviously religious, God-like figure—so that “We'll be saved,” according to Vladimir (2.1067). But Godot (God) never shows up "by the tree," thus failing even to prove his existence. It looks like that the sufferings of Gogo and Didi in the play are meant to symbolize the forsaken Christ's agony on the cross. Anyone who rejects the drama's religious motif needs to offer their own plausible explanation for its name/title and for all these biblical parallels and allusions.
If anything, the play openly ridicules the folly and logical inconsistency of mankind's empirically unproven and unprovable religious beliefs. Estragon even mockingly attempts to equate himself with Christ. Talking about the Gospels, Vladimir questions the very veracity of the Bible: “And yet...how is it—this is not boring you I hope—how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four of them were there—or thereabouts—and only one speaks of a thief being saved.... One out of four. Of the other three two don't mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.... But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others” (1.100-103, 106-107, 124-125). In response, Estragon cynically concludes, “People are bloody ignorant apes” (1.128). Yet, he admits that he likes to compare himself to Christ, thus comically pretending to be another martyr figure: “All my life I've compared myself to him” (1.1205). In essence, Beckett argues that an ignorant, spiritually poor and very gullible humanity cannot live without a God or religion. As Karl Marx used to say: “Religion is opiate for the masses.” Obviously, the play's biblical references, allusions and parallelisms are intended to bring to mind and satirize religion, God, and in particular Christianity.
Two major thematic characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd appear as basic themes in this farce—namely, the dehumanization and powerlessness of mankind in modern society, but also the meaninglessness of human life itself. One finds plenty of both themes in Waiting for Godot—in addition to pessimism, misanthropy, hopelessness, and resignation to being totally powerless and helpless. Its very first line (spoken by Estragon) says, “Nothing to be done” (1.1)—a gloomy thought which is repeated throughout the play: “Nothing you can do about it.... No use struggling” (1.364-365); “No use wriggling.... Nothing to be done” (1.367, 369); “No, nothing is certain” (1.1237); “There is nothing we can do” (2.328); “There's nothing to do” (2.489)—among at least half a dozen similarly fatalistic pronouncements by either Vladimir or Estragon. The bleak summary of Waiting for Godot is encapsulated in Estragon's despairing line “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful” (1.900), while its motto is contained in another of Estragon's cynical lines “Such is life” (1.1047). In his dark fatalism, Estragon, who seems to be the more pessimistic of the two tramps, advises Vladimir not to do anything before the illusive Godot appears before them: “Don't let's do anything. It's safer” (1.258). But, of course, no Godot (God) ever shows up to relieve their despair, defeatism, and agnosticism. What makes this play Absurdist is this very inconclusive and philosophically ambivalent ending. The end of the play is not a conclusion in the usual theatrical sense. The endless wait for Godot continues; the conversation between the two tramps is mostly an incomprehensible gibberish which does not have any lucid and understandable ideas; any human contact seems impossible; mankind's existence remains futile, purposeless and without meaning. While a small change in setting does occur in Act II, it is only that the lonely tree in the initial mise en scène has now sprouted out four or five leaves.
Beckett offers some penetrating social commentary as well. The master-slave relationship between Pozzo and Lucky is a Brechtian-style parable and satirical allegory about the cruel exploitation and dehumanization of manual workers under capitalism. In Act I, Pozzo is the tyrannical, capricious, and abusive capitalist boss, while “the ironically-named Lucky” is his long-suffering, obedient, and servile wage slave (that is, a dehumanized manual laborer or simply “pig,” as Pozzo calls him). Pozzo believes that he is doing Lucky a great favor by employing and exploiting him, while constantly bullying him and threatening to either fire or sell him after having mistreated Lucky for six years. For his part, Lucky seems to believe Pozzo's insults and threats, probably feeling that he could not survive for long without his master's employment and meager pay. In Act II though, Pozzo is suddenly incapacitated, having become blind not only to Lucky's silent suffering but also to everything that is happening around him—even the passage of time. In turn, Lucky has grown mute and is thus even more incapable of protesting against Pozzo's abusive mistreatment and exploitation of him. An overworked and exhausted Lucky is now leading the blind Pozzo around, so their relationship seems to be even more symbiotic and mutually dependent, recalling the dependency relationship between the socially dominant upper class owning and controlling the national economy and the exploited working class selling its inexpensive but indispensable labor to the capitalist bosses.
Both characters, a wage slave and a capitalist master, also embody another popular theme of the Theater of the Absurd—namely, human loneliness and apprehension as well as one's inability to communicate and socialize in a universe lacking any absolute truths, a Supreme Being or even that other human invention/convention, Time. Beckett, in fact, attacks the traditional notions of Time, especially its two main elements—Habit and Memory. For example, Vladimir keeps complaining about the absurdity of our world, in which even “Time has stopped” (1.762). We find that both Estragon and Pozzo are battling the conventional views of Time and Memory. For Pozzo, who claims to have lost all sense of Time, one day is just like any other, since the day we were born is indistinguishable from the day we shall die. But the central theme of Waiting for Godot—and that of the entire Theater of the Absurd as well—is, of course, mankind's tragic awareness about its lack of hope, purpose and meaning which only produces a universal human state of metaphysical angst and spiritual anxiety, ultimately resulting in alienation, God-worship and religion. That is why Absurdist plays abandon all logical construction, rationalism and intellectually consistent arguments, replacing them with the anguish, insecurity and irrationality of our human experience, as acted out on stage.
Modern Art or Government Propaganda?
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was an important figure among the French Absurdists. I find his anti-religious (anti-Christianity) parody Waiting for Godot to be very original and truly remarkable. Yet, how did this whole Theater of the Absurd become so wildly popular in the 1950's and 1960's that most theater critics in the West could only applaud it and even swoon over it, rather than inspect more critically the new theatrical movement's numerous artistic deficiencies and stylistic flaws? How did the Theater of the Absurd so quickly and unexpectedly eclipse the heretofore dominant “Modern Theater” of Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg and Eugene O’Neill, particularly the profound social and psychological realism pervading the well-crafted plays of these world-famous masters? Then I read a couple of articles about how the CIA secretly bankrolled and catapulted to international fame a group of self-styled American avant-garde “painters” (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and a few others) who became known as the notorious Abstract Expressionism “movement” of modern art after World War Two. According to an Independent Magazine article by Frances S. Saunders (entitled “Modern Art Was a CIA Weapon”), the U.S. government very generously financed and clandestinely promoted the “anti-message” Abstractionist art as an apolitical antidote to the socially-oriented, supposedly “pro-Communist” art of left-leaning artists like Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco, Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, and David Siqueiros (Saunders).
But why did Washington and the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom secretly support Abstractionist art (which another generous financial donor to it, the Rockefellers, called “free enterprise painting”)? “Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US,” concludes in a rather ironic and skeptical tone the above-cited Independent article (Saunders). According to a quote from Tom Braden, a former high-ranking CIA official who managed the New York Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940's, “We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think that...it played an enormous role in the Cold War” (quoted in Saunders).
According to the same Independent article, the CIA has denied playing a similarly secret role in sponsoring and promoting any other modern-art movement—apart from Abstractionism in painting (Saunders). (If that's true, then how do you explain Andy Warhol and his “pop-art” Factory in New York?) I personally cannot believe for a moment that Washington would spend so much time, energy, and financial resources to create an “apolitical” avant-garde movement in the purely visual arts without a corresponding effort in the performing arts like the theater, given the latter's enormous potential for political influence and propaganda. I find very suspicious, for example, the Rumanian-French Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's repeated vicious attacks on Existentialism (whose rejection of traditional values and absolutes was a major philosophical inspiration and impetus for the Theater of the Absurd). He even accusing top Existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre and other French Existentialists of being “anti-American Communists” who were supposedly preoccupied with U.S. war crimes in Indochina and elsewhere, while disregarding “Communist atrocities.” Without any provocation or excuse for his frenzied hatchet job, Ionesco violently assaulted Sartre's work and politics, including in Ionesco's best-known Absurdist comedy Rhinoceros. Similarly, the Czech author of popular Absurdist dramas, Vaclav Havel (the first President of the post-Communist Czech Republic) was admittedly not only secretly financed in the past by Western embassies in Prague, but his highly politicized plays portray dehumanization and powerlessness of humans in modern society, as well as the meaninglessness of human life, as existing only in Communist societies, but never in the West (?!).
For some of our government officials this is a politically much better “artistic” message than the one from “subversive” artists like Samuel Beckett, Bertold Brecht, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Tony Kushner, or even Tennessee Williams. It is no surprise that in time some of the most famous Absurdist playwrights like Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party), and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Physicists) jumped off the Theater of the Absurd's “apolitical” and “anti-message” bandwagon and went “political” and non-Absurdist. There is more evidence hinting at Washington's secret manipulation of the Theater of the Absurd's dramatists, but I believe that Beckett himself and especially his Waiting for Godot are completely above suspicion in that respect.
Absurdist plays are stylistically marked by an abandonment of familiar conventions such as realistic characters, a clarity of plot, comprehensible dialogue, and historical accuracy. This helps the audience to confront the total absurdity and mindlessness of our world, as that is played out on the stage. We can see that Beckett's tragicomic play is an unmistakable example of the Theater of the Absurd simply by the way in which its few “characters” (all of them males) are portrayed as strange and isolated misfits who engage in abstruse and incoherent colloquy that seems to be full of playful absurdities, illogical non-sequiturs, and outright blasphemies. Our Existentialist playwright obviously believes that mankind's spiritually empty existence is foolish, meaningless and totally devoid of any purpose, as well as far from being in harmony with Mother Nature.
Waiting for Godot is thus a theatrical, rather than a realistic tragicomedy. It is an Absurdist parody which describes a universe that is irredeemably crazy, topsy-turvy and senseless. The play is nearly plotless: nothing seems to happen in either of the two indistinguishable acts, as cause-and-effect relationships play very little, if any, role in the dramatic action (or lack of it). Absolutely nothing is actually happening on stage, while Estragon and Vladimir—behaving like two almost mechanical puppets—are waiting for Godot (God) who never even shows up to prove that he really exists. In fact, they are waiting in vain for somebody who is completely unknown to them. Or is perhaps even unknowable to them, since they both mistake Pozzo (capitalism) for Godot (God)—hardly an unreasonable logical error today, especially here in the U.S.
Beckett's agnostic and iconoclastic masterpiece is a great example of the Theater of the Absurd in which two self-deluded tramps do practically nothing on stage except endlessly discuss how they have been stranded to wait eternally in an utterly absurd and nonsensical situation. This Existentialist drama reveals the Irish playwright's poignantly distressing (and depressing) view of humanity's hopeless plight in an irrational existence which is alienated, purposeless and without any meaning.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 1358-1415.
Garner Jr., Stanton. “Samuel Beckett,” in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 1352-1358.
Saunders, Frances Stonor. “Modern Art Was CIA 'Weapon.' Revealed: How the Spy Agency Used Unwitting Artists such as Pollock and de Kooning in a Cultural Cold War.” The Independent, October 21, 1995 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html).