Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Waiting for Godot: A Trend-setting Modern Drama' by Jahangir Bin Sarwar

[Abstract: Samuel Beckett is evaluated, on the basis of a slim corpus of plays, to be one of the great literary figures of twentieth-century modern drama. His Waiting for Godot has won the status of a modern classic. Jean Anouilh, a famous French playwright, considered the opening of Waiting for Godot as significant an event as the first production of a Pirandello play in Paris thirty years earlier. This paper attempts to evaluate Beckett's Waiting for Godot as a pioneering work of universal appeal. Its trend-setting merits and its reception in the contemporary theatre come within the purview of this paper.]



Waiting for Godot has established a new frame of reference for contemporary theatre and continues to condition the subsequent artistic trends. It has set the new absurdist drama into immediate prominence and obviously, has prompted the lesser playwrights everywhere to try their hand. Its influence has been very profound on the minds of the audience as well as the playwrights of younger generation. Referring to this fact, Richard Dutton writes: "Waiting for Godot was one of the seminal works of post-war European drama, setting a mode, a tone, a style that was echoed and imitated by younger dramatists like Pinter, Albee and Stoppard from the late fifties to the early seventies" (1986:12). The structure of this play is static and it offers no conflict and no conclusion. Moreover, this is a play which refuses to be pinned down to a single mould and its meaning remains open-ended. In this play Beckett invites each member of the audience to draw his own conclusion and react in his own way. Waiting for Godot, to quote Beckett's words, is "a play that is striving to avoid definition" (quoted in Kennedy, 1991:32). Since its first production in Paris at the Theatre de Babylone on 5 January 1953, it has provoked unusual critical attention as a single dramatic piece and has already won the status of a contemporary classic. Before the success of Waiting for Godot Beckett was almost an obscure writer. "Not only scholars but, more importantly", Ruby Cohn observes, "artists have been inspired by Godot—painting, song, dance, and especially drama" (1987:17). In this paper I would like to examine the merits of the play to justify its universal popularity and its centrality as a pioneering text. Waiting for Godot was published in 1952. It was produced at the tiny Theatre de Babylone on the Boulevard Raspail in 1953. Beckett submitted his play to Roger Blin, the first director of Waiting for Godot, who took three years before he could find a cheaper play-house for staging the play. The initial responses of the Paris audience were mixed. Jean Jacques Gautier of Le Figaro and Thierry Maulnier of Revue de Paris dismissed the production for its lack of merit. Fortunately, some distinguished writers had also seen the production and expressed their opinion in Arts and Critique. Jean Anouilh recommended that he thought the evening to be "as important as the premiere of Pirandello put on in Paris by Pitoeff in 1923" (quoted in Styan, 1985:129). Armand Salacrou claimed that they had all been waiting "for this play of our time" and Jacques Audiberti considered it "a perfect work which deserves a triumph" (quoted in Fletcher, 1985:42). Waiting for Godot was first produced in London at the Arts theatre in 1955 by the direction of Peter Hall. Except for the reviews of Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times and Kenneth Tynan in the Observer, the attitude of the London press was discouraging. But the unfavourable reviews of the press could not stop the favourable responses of the audience that they showed for such an original and uncompromising dramatic performance. In this connection J. L. Styan remarks: "Nevertheless, interest in so unusual a play transcended the critics, and the play was produced successfully by students and amateurs all over the country, with the circus element growing more prominent" (1985:130). In America the play was directed by Alan Schneider and produced at the Miami Playhouse on 3 January 1956. In this performance Estragon's role was played by Bert Lahr, a professional vaudeville comedian. Although it was billed in advance as 'the laugh sensation of two continents', the production failed to fulfil the expectations of the audience. However, the performance was given warm reception by the audience and the critics when it finally reached Broadway. Within a few years of its first production at the Theatre de Babylone on 5 January 1953 where it ran for four hundred performances, Waiting for Godot was soon translated into many languages and performed in many parts of the world. The BBC has made a documentary on the first London production of Waiting for Godot and its subsequent provincial tour. In fact, this play has received unusual reception as a post-war drama in which nothing happens and the dramatist deliberately violates the conventions of traditional drama. The way the playwright has responded to his sense of the human condition is unique in its appeal. Referring to its pioneering role J. L. Styan comments: "It was this play which threw the new absurdist drama into immediate prominence, and spurred lesser playwrights everywhere to try their hands" (1985:129).

In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon appear as character-types rather than fully-developed characters. They make a symbiotic pairing and talk of physical pain and suffering, likes and dislikes. While they remain engaged in cross-talk as a pair of circus-clown, they also speak in impersonal vein now and then forgetting their specific situation. On the other hand, Pozzo and Lucky relationship is grounded on a more primitive level. They remain tied to each other throughout the play as master and slave. Lucky obeys Pozzo as an obedient servant and does all the menial work for him. Pozzo makes his entry on the scene with his cracking whip, loud voice and the authority of a dictator. He is rich and powerful. He is quite unmoved by the tears of the people: "The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops" (p.33). But he too sometimes speaks in an impersonal tone. Pozzo's speech at the end of the second act is very significant:
One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any, other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we're born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more. (He jerks the rope.) On. (P-83)

Pozzo, the most confident and dominating of the four characters in the play, goes blind in the second act. He fails to differentiate between one moment from the next and for him the connection between two particular days remain arbitrary. He even shortens the complete cycle of life into a single second ('They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more'). In an impersonal voice, he proclaims the human condition on this earth very aptly. Vladimir also locates the birth and death at the gravesite by extending the single moment into a larger period of time. He expresses his view of the human condition in the same impersonal vein:
Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries, (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (p.84)

In the second act when blind Pozzo cries for help, Vladimir shouts; "Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed.... But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not" (p.74). This passionate call for help and his identification with 'all mankind' take on a deeper significance and transcend the specific situation he is involved in. Beckett has given a wider identity to his characters as well. Estragon is French; Vladimir is Russian; Pozzo is Italian; and Lucky English. In spite of his compassionate awareness of contemporary political situations, Beckett maintains his impersonal tone in his writings. Christopher Innes writes: " Even when Beckett turns to specific political themes in his last two playlets, Catastrophe (1982) written for an international programme protesting Vaclav Havel's imprisonment, and What Where (1983) which deals with torture and the totalitarian state, the focus is so generalised that their relevance depends solely on the audience's prior knowledge" (1992:429).

Drawing on the form and content of the music hall, the circus and the pantomime, Beckett has invested Waiting for Godot with a popular appeal that testifies its hallmark. Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky are modeled on the characters of circus or music hall. They engage in cross-talk, play tricks with their hats, try to sleep, eat, attempt suicide and wait for Godot. As a pair of clowns, they divert themselves as well as their audience. Vladimir and Estragon make explicit reference to the circus and the music hall in their dialogue:
Vladimir: Charming evening we're having.
Estragon: Unforgettable.
Vladimir: And it's not over.
Estragon: Apparently not.
Vladimir: It's only beginning.
Estragon: It's awful.
Vladimir: Worse than the pantomime.
Estragon: The circus.
Vladimir: The music hall.
Estragon: The circus.                
(P.34-35)

Waiting for Godot owes a great deal to the circus. Pozzo with his whip resembles the ring-master of a circus. Estragon's dropping of trousers (p.88) at the end of the play provides an occasion for crude physical humour. By this incident of pure clowning, the writer sharply focuses on the loss of dignity of the human race. Beckett's skilful incorporation of many popular forms of entertainment has given the play a wider dimension. Beryl S. Fletcher writes: "The silent film comedy, which so delighted Beckett's generation, has bequeathed its bowler hats to the actors: that Laurel and Hardy lie to some extent behind Vladimir and Estragon is certain" (1985:49).

The theme of the play is universal in nature. This is one of the reasons of its popularity with the members of the prison communities. On the other hand, it lies open to many modes of interpretation. References to Christian themes abound in Waiting for Godot. It visualises a world in which man waits and hopes for something to give a meaning to his life. Vladimir boastfully proclaims by posing a question: "We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?" (p.74) The appearance of the 'Godot's messenger' (the Boy), 'the tree', and the reference to 'thieves on the cross' definitely evoke some images of religious elements in the play. Throughout the play the promise of salvation is kept alive in an ambivalent tone. The presence of religious elements in the play, however, does not make it a religious play. Beckett is a playwright who refuses to convey any message to the people—be it political or religious. He once remarked: "Christianity is a mythology with which I am familiar, so I naturally use it" (quoted in Fletcher, 1985:36). When Beckett was asked about the theme of the Waiting for Godot, he referred to St. Augustine's statement on the two thieves: "Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned", and added: "That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters" (quoted in Kennedy, 1975:134). Beckett has incorporated St. Augustine's statement in the play very ingeniously and this has added a symbolic shape to the play. Like the example of the two thieves on the cross, it shows the two polar responses of despair and presumption that pervade the Christian minds. It questions the existence of a divine grace that discriminates between the saved and the damned. Lucky's tirade in the first act is also very significant and it adds special dimension to the shape of the play. Lucky delivers a long speech in the form of a theological address at the command of his master, Pozzo. Apparently this speech is a jumble of words containing no meaning or purpose. Lucky's repetition of the words like qua (Latin term, meaning 'as') and caca (French word, meaning excrement) in 'Acacacacademy' adds derisive tone to this speech:
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattman of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda (p.42).

He identifies the presence of a personal God who suffers from 'divine apathia, divine athambia, divine aphasia' (p.42), in spite of all the benefits of sports and modern medicine. Lucky tries to give some significance to his speech by making reference to 'divine Miranda', 'Bishop Berkeley', 'Steinweg', and 'Peterman'. Jeffrey Nealon comments: "The text of Lucky's speech is akin to the product of taking all the great works of Western thought, putting them through a paper shredder, and pasting them back together at random" (1988:523). But many of these cant phrases, which once were invested with great significance, have lost their relevance and meaning. It echoes the sense of a cosmic run-down and the loss of the human sense of the divine.

Beckett is widely recognised for his originality as a playwright. In Waiting for Godot, he does not provide a firm network of social, political and biological references to his characters to fix them at a specific time and place. The landscape of the play does not give any specific detail to invest Vladimir and Estragon with a personal connection to the location. There is no plot, no characterization and no development of action in the conventional dramatic sense. He, in fact, dramatizes a state of mind by choosing an apt metaphor for expressing the existential condition of modern men. The form and content of his plays remain inseparable. Any artistic expression is inseparably linked with the manner in which it is given. For Beckett "the work of art as a whole is its meaning" (quoted in Esslin, 1980:44). His innovative techniques provided models for many young playwrights of home and abroad. Considering his popularity among the contemporary dramatists, Beryl S. Fletcher writes: "It would be difficult to name a single important playwright of the younger generation— from Albee to Stoppard— be it in Britain, America, France or Germany, who has not been deeply affected by Beckett's example or influenced by his practice" (1985:22).

The structures of Beckett's plays are unique for their organisational shape. Harold Pinter has remarked; "I admire Beckett's work so much so that something of its texture might appear in my own" (quoted in Dukore, 1982:117). Waiting for Godot follows a circular structure and coils on itself. The structural cohesion of the play totally depends on the return of some leitmotifs that work throughout the play. Of these, the most significant one is 'We're waiting for Godot' and this phrase recurs several times in modified forms. Another frequently used leitmotif is 'Nothing to be done'. These leitmotifs determine the range of the world of Vladimir and Estragon and they cannot go beyond the limits imposed by these leitmotifs. While they engage in cross-talk, contemplate the possibility of suicide, eat carrot, talk with Pozzo and listen to lucky, they always come back to their oft-repeated verbal routine:
Estragon: Let's go,
Vladimir: We can't,
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We're waiting for Godot.      
(p.78)

This is a static situation to which both the tramps return back on many occasions throughout the play when they exhaust themselves with their physical actions and verbal exchanges. This structure of the play reflects the reality of the human condition by making an art of waiting as a self-nullifying activity where the chances of arrival of the waited for (Godot) remain endlessly uncertain. Obsessed by the hope of salvation, the human beings like the two tramps fail to come to terms with the nothingness at the root of their being.
Because of its universal appeal, Waiting for Godot has been able to draw attention of the people of many prison communities. When this play was performed before an audience of fourteen hundred convicts at the San Quentin penitentiary on 19 November 1957, the actors and Herbert Blau, the director, were very apprehensive. It was a great challenge for them to face an audience of convicts with a highly intellectual play where there was no woman in the cast. But quite surprisingly every one of them responded to the play enthusiastically. It provided a meaning for them with their own experience of waiting, hope and salvation. The following extract from San Quentin, the prison paper, records the impact of the play on the minds of the prisoners very strikingly:
It was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatic moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope. .. . We're still waiting for Godot, and still continue to wait. When the scenery gets too drab and action too slow, we'll call other names and swear to part forever — but then, there's no place to go! (Quoted in Pinter, Theatre of the Absurd, 1980:20)

In this play Beckett has been radical in its theme and style. The theme of the play as a vision of nothingness is a very arresting one. The playwright enacts an ongoing life cycle of vegetation serving as backdrop to human decay, hope, and ignorance. By reducing action and setting to the bone and throwing aside all the paraphernalia of realism, he has brought a revolution in the conventions of modern theatre. The two tramps, in fact, are seen as representatives of all humanity. His innovative technique deserves merit in its capacity to make the audience confront the human condition at its most appalling shape. Above all, the play's concern about time and religion has added a very significant dimension to its total impact. Human beings are seen to be completely helpless in the grip of time. Pozzo's cry of "Then we can go on. On!" (p.82) truly reflects the very tragic fate of the humans in the world. Richard Coe remarks: "Waiting for Godot, then, is the angoisse of man at grips with time, the finite clutching at the infinite" (1964:92). Time creates and destroys us without letting any chance to give our own options. This treatment of time in the play as a controlling agent of human destiny is very appealing indeed.
On the other hand, the religious dimension of the play is significantly thought-provoking. Waiting for Godot abounds in Biblical allusions:
Vladimir: Ah yes, the two thieves. Do you remember the story?
Estragon: No.
Vladimir: Shall I tell it to you?
Estragon: No.
Vladimir: It'll pass the time.
(Pause.) It was two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One-
Estragon: Our what?
(p.14)

The tramps discuss of a sacred topic like the crucifixion in a comic vein. But beneath its surface frivolity lies the grim reality. It is very tempting to see Godot's role as being unpredictable in bestowing kindness and punishment. Martin Esslin writes: "The theme of the two thieves on the cross, the theme of the uncertainty of the hope of salvation and the fortuitousness of the bestowal of grace, does indeed pervade the whole play" (p.53). Despite all their sufferings, both Estragon and Vladimir wait for Godot believing that He will give meaning to their life. They are almost seen to be haunted and tortured of the idea of God:
Estragon: Do you think God sees me?
Vladimir: You must close your eyes.
Estragon: God have pity on me!
Vladimir: And me?
Estragon: On me! On me! Pity! On me!
(p.70)

Waiting for Godot, a profoundly original work, lies open to any number of interpretations. It stimulates thought on a wide range of issues. As a very provocative dramatic work, it has received critical reception all over the world since its production. Referring to its huge critical reception, Robert Cohen remarks: "Waiting for Godot has already generated a veritable library of brilliantly evocative discussions, and few plays from any era have been so variously analysed, interpreted, and explored for symbolic meaning and content" (p. 195).

Note:
All textual references are to Samuel Beckett's The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, I990).

Works Cited:
Coe, R. 1964; Beckett. London: Oliver and Boyd Ltd.
Cohen, R. 1981; Theatre. California: Mayfield Publishing Co.
Cohn, R. (ed). 1987: Samuel Beckett's Wailing for Godot, A Casebook.   London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.
Dukore, B. 1985: Harold Pinter. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Button, R. 1986: Modern Tragicomedy and the British Tradition. Sussex: The Harvester Press Ltd.
Esslin, M. 1980:7Vie Theatre of the Absurd. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
Fletcher, B. S. and John Fletcher. 1985: A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett. London: Faber and Faber.
Innes, C. 1992: Modem British Drama 1890-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kennedy, A. K. 1991: Samuel Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lyons, C. R. 1988: Samuel Beckett. London: Macmillan Education Ltd.
Styan, J. L. 1985: Modem Drama in Theory and Practice, vol-2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nealon, J. 1988. 'Samuel Beckett and the Post-modern: Language Games, Play and Waiting for Godot' in Modern Drama, vol. xxxi, no. 4.

Source: The Chittagong University Journal of Arts and Humanities, Vol. XVI, June 2000

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