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Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot is a play both funny to watch and to read. Yet, the feeling that one walks away with in the end is not one of amusement, but that of slight discomfort. Upon closer inspection, one begins to notice tragic qualities neatly hidden but subconsciously blatant. One also sees the play labelled as a tragicomedy. In an attempt to further explore this issue, I explored the research question:
Is Waiting for Godot a tragedy or comedy? To what end do these elements contribute to the play?
In order to answer this research question, an in-depth analysis of the various themes present in the play was carried out. Aspects of the play that contributed to each theme were singled out and their respective comedic and tragic elements compared by examining their roles and contribution to the theme. The investigation also extends itself into interpreting the author’s beliefs and purposes, namely Lucky’s speech, to study the tragic or comedic notes. Through my investigation I concluded that there are more tragic than comedic elements in Waiting for Godot, but more accurately, Beckett veils the tragedy of his play behind humour, and uses the comedy to heighten the tragic elements.
In Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy in two acts by Samuel Beckett, two characters unconsciously express the sombre emptiness in life by comical means. At face value it is funny and light-hearted, yet a second glance at the hidden metaphoric and symbolic devices reveals a forbidden garden blooming with tragedy. The two genres complement one another, humour creating tragedy, tragedy creating humour. Indeed, it is this peculiar pairing that qualifies the play both in essence and as a pun: a tragicomedy. At a superficial glance, the play seems full of un-humanlike action and harbours an inane sense of humour. The intended message of the motif is unclear and many of the characters are left hidden in darkness amidst a vast complexion of dialect that is comical at the surface. This hints at the notion that a thin blanket of obvious comedy is utilised to disguise the ultimate tragedy present at heart. This tragedy is carried forth via a splattering of motifs, such as time, meaning and existence, and God. By exploring this relationship, a cohesive understanding of the comical and tragic elements becomes possible, allowing us to decipher the roles they play in the play. As such, will elucidate that Waiting for Godot does contain more elements of tragedy, and their significance and meaning are far greater than any of this play’s comedic value.
In order to investigate both the comedic and tragic elements, an understanding of how they are used in conjunction is necessary. In other words, we must first understand what a tragicomedy entails. By definition, a tragicomedy is a dramatic work incorporating both tragic and comic elements. However, this denotation does little more than restate what we already know. In actuality, the meaning of a tragicomedy has morphed over time. It was initially coin by Plautus, a Roman dramatist in the 2nd century B.C.E. as a play in which gods and men, masters and slaves reverse the roles traditionally assigned to them, gods and heroes acting in comic burlesque and slaves adopting tragic dignity. Then during the Renaissance, tragicomedy became a genre of play that mixed tragic elements into drama that was mainly comic. With the advent of realism later in the 19th century, tragicomedy underwent yet another revision. Whilst still mixing the two elements, comic interludes now highlighted the ironic counterpoints inherent in a play, making the tragedy seem even more devastating. In this way, it can be said tragicomedy is a more meaningful and serious existence than traditional tragedy. Lastly, modern tragicomedy is sometimes used synonymously with Absurdist drama, which suggest that laughter is the only response left to man when he is faced with the tragic emptiness and meaninglessness of existence.
The last two classifications are the most relevant explanations and I believe them to be identical to Beckett’s understanding of tragicomedy when he labelled his play as such during his translation. Certainly, there is comic interlude such as the discussion that occurs between Vladimir and Estragon in Act II during Pozzo’s cries for help “We should ask him for the bone first. Then if he refuses we’ll leave him there” (p89), which highlights the tragic state that Pozzo is in through their comically serious bout about whether or not to help him and certainly there too is an exploration of the emptiness and meaninglessness of existence, which is fundamentally the underlying theme of the entire play.
A bleak and tragic tone permeates the atmosphere at the beginning of the play. The stage is empty aside from a bare tree and two ragged tramps, Estragon and Vladimir. The very start of the play begins with the narrative, “Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before.” (p2). Immediately after, Estragon, who gives up yet again, speaks the famous words “Nothing to be done”, arguably the defining mode of the entire play. The surrounding circumstances of the characters emanate an alien disconnection to the world and leave the audience utterly perplexed and bewildered by the seemingly nonexistent motive of the characters. The tragic elements are seen in the circumstances of the characters, their physical disabilities, their lost sense of time and utmost futility, their doomed existence where ââ‚¬Å“Nothing happens and nothing can be done,ââ‚¬Â and the empty stage while the comic elements revolve around the games the characters invent, their interactions with each other, and the vaudevillian routines.
Vladimir and Estragon are portrayed as homeless tramps devoid of purpose, as strongly supported by their paralysis, “Well, shall we go? Yes, let’s go. They do not move.” In much the same way, other characters, such as Pozzo and Lucky, are characterized too as directionless pairs, symbolized by their deafness and muteness in Act II “…Pozzo is blind…”(p87). From simply examining the characters, we can see that they, like all human beings, have the potential to become “better” characters with “better” common sense. Our definition of normal and expected human behaviour may just as well be non-applicable to the setting of the play, hence the usage of “better” is questionable. Our expected definition of tragedy may be a derivation of our own experiences. When someone falls into a situation that, as a result of societal conformation, causes us to develop certain emotions, we feel for their loss or misfortune. However, the context of “Waiting for Godot” places us in a realm so undesirable, because underneath the initial intentional comedy lies a dimension of tragedy that we cannot clearly relate to, defining itself as delusional even to the point of becoming disturbing. The inane dialogue and personalities of the play’s subjects sets a situation so capricious that the limits of analysis must be broadened to accept such ideas of human behaviour before it is possible to understand Beckett’s message and embrace the idea that one can be so unresponsive to an apparently interminable wait. By capitalizing on the fixed perspectives of the audience, their actions become an absurd comedy that contributes to the tragic tone of the entire play.
The unchanging “Nothing to be done” (p2) reinforces helplessness and utter desperation in lieu of the protagonists. Their physical disabilities are the tragic circumstances that baffles the audience and while making us laugh, shows us the meaninglessness of their existence , such as Vladimir’s bladder problems, hinted at when “advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart” (p2), and Estragon’s struggles with his feet, disturbed rest, and abuse by individuals he has no memory of, spending the night “in a ditch” and claims that ” ‘they’ beat me”, where ‘they’ is never identified Such dialogue can be labelled as tragic as their own distinct personalities and personal problems lead to the original, main point that comedy merely shrouds the tragedy.
An excellent example of such a scenario can be seen on (p85) when Vladimir and Estragon spontaneously break out into unanimous, unprecedented argument and mark each other with insults such as “Ceremonious ape!” and “Punctilious Pig!” After the banter, “They embrace. They separate.” (p86). While at the surface this scene may be deemed comedic due to the spontaneous outburst, if we bring ourselves to look past this, we see that it is tragic when they reconcile. The tragedy exists in their relationship. They both agree that each would be better off alone, as Estragon says “You piss better when I’m not there.” (p64) and Vladimir replies, “I missed you…and at the same time I was happy.” (p64). Despite this, they continue to stay together, not knowing why. Because of this, it can be said that it is tragic how Vladimir and Estragon have no control over themselves nor the external factors affecting them. What is even more tragic is the futility of their wait. The fact that Godot does not ever arrive and that nothing is achieved with the evident passing of time as symbolized on (p62) by the statement that “The tree has four or five leaves” define the seemingly meaninglessness of their “goal”. This idea of eternally unproductive progress proves to display a tragic image in the minds of the audience.
Right after this scene is another just as tragic at heart. Estragon begins by questioning, “What do we do now?” (p86) to which Vladimir responds “We could do our exercises” (p86). This is followed by a series of exaggerated actions and comically tires Estragon out after a simple hop “That’s enough, I’m tired.” (p86). This once again shows their inability to do what they want, an idea that is visited once more at the end of the play on (p109) when Vladimir questions, “Well? Shall we go?” to which Estragon responds, “Yes, let’s go.” but both do not move. This inability to accomplish such simple actions can be deemed tragic , and questions the purpose of their existence. “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” (p77). Note that Estragon uses the word impression, implying that they are aware of the meaninglessness and futility of their wait. Something must happen yet nothing must happen when waiting and Beckett skilfully achieves this balance. It is not only the general act of waiting that is tragic, but also the things Estragon and Vladimir do during their wait that is tragic. True to the essence of the play, many of the comical actions are paired with tragedy. The two insult each other and then reconcile. “Vermin! Abortion!…Now let’s make up!…”(p85) and is quite amusing, except that we once again overlook the tragedy: throwing insults at each other because they have nothing to do. Vladimir loses his sense of time, a recurring motif, after having regained a bit of it “You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!” (p106) and “Was I long asleep? I don’t know.” (p107). His uncertainty is humorous, but the same uncertainty creates a sense of disarray. What this multitude of examples signify is mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning, to which Beckett believes leads nowhere but tragedy, and that comedy, imbued with tragedy, is tragedy itself. Through this, human life, its meaning and existence, as displayed in Waiting for Godot, concludes in tragedy.
Vladimir and Estragon are not the only characters used to express tragedy. Another pair exists, and they play just as crucial a role as the others. Pozzo and Lucky are portrayed in such a way that it is hard to imagine that Lucky was once Pozzo’s mentor, and is now treated like a slave. Masters and slave reversed the roles traditionally assigned to them. He is depicted as the most intellectually vacuous character, yet it is suggested that he has a past which hints at the fact that Lucky can think, recite, and sing, strongly reinforced by his lengthy, confusing, and almost nonsensical speech: “Given the existence…unfinished…” (p45-47). However, I find it doubtful that Beckett would dedicate so much text into a speech if its sole purpose was to confuse. Lucky’s speech reveals that he must have spent many hours exploring the deplorable human situation. By meticulously breaking down Lucky’s outburst, one will see that, just as Beckett has hidden tragedy inside comedy, there is a deeper meaning concealed within the speech and its purpose is not solely comedic.
Reasonably speaking, Lucky’s speech during the play appears completely disoriented, a chaotic mass of incoherent language, given the short amount of time the audience has to process each clause. But going past this comical veil of nonsense, a spectacular construction put together as meticulously as the play itself materializes. The speech has three distinct parts. The first part of the monologue begins by assuming the existence of a God as a given and then describing him. Removing extra phrases, we get roughly “…with white beard…outside time without extension who…loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown…are plunged in torment…in fire…whose fire…will fire firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm…” (p45) God is described as a paradoxical fatherly figure always present regardless of time, whom may be affectionate, but at the same time states that if it is, many are excluded. That those beings are sent into hell, symbolizing earth, into fire, whose fire will destroy the blue and calm vault of the sky (firmament), which is a contrast between peace and human suffering. Then there too is the mention of divine apathia, divine athambia, and divine aphasia. Divine refers to God. Apathia is apathy and means the absence of passion, emotion, or excitement. Athambia is imperturbability, to be incapable of being upset or agitated and not easily excited, and aphasia is an inability to vocalize. These three Greek words serve three purposes. The first is that they have characterized the impuissance of Christianity as a modern religion. God is apathetic: he does not intervene. God is imperturbable: he has never been reached by living humans. And God is aphasic: he has never spoken, even to prove his very own existence. In this sense, Lucky, who in this case represents the literary embodiment of Beckett, is rejecting the existence of a God, by stating that even if he did exist, he has abandoned us, leaving only despair.
The three words also serve as Beckett’s view on what the direction society as a whole is headed towards. That we are gradually becoming wrapped in apathy: we do not seek out others; wrapped in athambia: others are unable to reach us; and wrapped in aphasia: there is no more voice, with the advent of Internet and social communications/networking. Finally, the three words describe Lucky’s deterioration. It expresses, in turn, his lack of emotion, followed by an oblivious awareness of his surroundings, and lastly, when we next meet him, his voice. This perhaps, serves as a metaphor for the decline in the human quality, alarming and appalling. It would appear then, that this first part of Lucky’s speech hides a dreary and tragic tone underneath the torrent of disorientated words.
The second part of his speech becomes increasingly difficult to decipher. There are many more interruptions and repetition of phrasing, obscuring the message. This perhaps may be on purpose, as Beckett could be expressing the repetitiveness of life and its lack of meaning. Condensing recurring phrases and removing interruptions, I get “and considering what is more that as a result of the labours left unfinished…the labours of men…established beyond all doubt…that man…wastes and pines…in spite of..the practice of sports…of all sorts…concurrently…time will tell…fades away…the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per head…no matter what…the facts are there” (p45-46) The message here says that, to add onto the absence of God as previously stated (hence labours unfinished), it is confirmed, without a doubt, that man is in a state of decline, despite technological advancements (labours of men) and physical exercise (practice of sports). Bishop Berkeley’s death marked the beginning of this fall. With all this happening at once, only time will tell when we will eventually fade away. Lucky attempts in his speech to bring back Berkeley’s harmonization of God and science, but ends up doing the opposite. By associating each head with “one inch four ounce”, it quantifies life and hence devalues humans, slowly reducing us to an execrable state. It becomes apparent that the comedy of Lucky’s speed is only a cover up, the real message is an appalling and tragic commentary on human progress.
The increased entropy in Lucky’s speech is reflective of his life. He was once very intellectual and had great mental capacity, but just like man, has degraded. This third and final part of his speech can only be described as chaotic and anxious, building up towards a climax. “and considering what is much more grave that in the light of the labours lost…in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers…running fire…the great cold the great dark…the earth abode of stones…I resume the skull fading… the flames the tears the stones…the skull the skull the skull the skull…alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull…the stones…so calm…unfinished…” (p46-47) These ideas explain that as a result of this decline (labours lost), grave consequences appear, in the plains, mountains, seas, and rivers. Running fire symbolizes widespread chaos, followed by cold desolate despair, alone. The earth becomes reduced to stones, and skulls, representing the death of men, wastes away. Chaos tears through the earth, and death is rampant. As God has abandoned men, left them unfinished, death continues on earth, and there is calm because – unfinished. He is cut off with “unfinished” as his last word, referring to the incomplete speech and shrinking of mankind. With the conclusion of the final part of Lucky’s speech, it becomes apparent that while it indeed fulfills its role as amusing humour, the true meaning is cataclysmic, and the fact that we are laughing at it is dramatically ironic.
Lucky’s speech has much to do with time, with good reason. The play contains a series of events where time seems to be moving at a crawl, if at all. It is something much more complicated than it may seem. On the surface, time is a numerical in which growth is measured. On a much deeper level, time can be very difficult to define. Throughout the play, the main concept of what time really is, is examined.
In the context of what has happened or what will happen, time can be classified as good or bad. In Waiting for Godot, the stress of waiting makes time drag. If time is what growth is measured by, if nothing changes, did time really pass? Within the play, we await change, waiting for Godot. However in reality, things change as a constant, where we do not realize we are waiting. It is only when change is slow to come when we realize that we are in a state of inaction. It is during this realization that brings a source of pain to the individual. Vladimir and Estragon constantly strive to be spontaneous and dynamic in order to ensure change, but always come to the inevitable realization that they were waiting. Characteristic of the play, we often hear them say “Let’s go. We can’t. Why not? We’re waiting for Godot.” It is comical how Estragon seems to forget their purpose, and is constantly reminded, but more importantly, this shows their sudden realization of their anticipation of change. Yet Godot himself never appears in the play. His identity is irrelevant, what is important is the act of waiting for someone or something that never arrives. He is the essence of change and a final solution. The repetition of his name impresses upon the audience the same feeling of anticipation. It is tragic as the play concludes that Godot never does show up, demonstrating that the two acts are but a slice of a cycle, or of two mirrors reflecting endlessly. The end of the play can be matched to the beginning. Nothing has changed, little character development is made and what little changes that have occurred have reverted back to original, such as Vladimir’s epiphany in which he proclaims: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!…” p(91) and coerces the audience into thinking that perhaps, finally, some semblance of development will appear. Alas, the powerful soliloquy reaches an anticlimax, interrupted by the constant change of topic inherent in the play. Time appears to be circular, as opposed to linear. The latter has broken down, because events do not develop into progress and change. The boy returns bearing identical messages, Godot never comes and tomorrow never seems to arrive. Vladimir mentions that “time has stopped” (p37).
Estragon and Vladimir, during their finite existence, are moving relentlessly towards a presumably unobtainable event. It is like an asymptotic curve, always getting closer to a value, but never reaching it. Estragon expresses this tragic fate of uneventful repetitive existence as he exclaims, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” (p43). The realization that there will never be an end to the waiting is evidence for their contemplation of suicide, as Estragon says, “What about hanging ourselves?” (p12). Once the audience has grasped this, a plethora of ideas emerge. Some are linked to other themes in the play, such as the meaningless in waiting, because it stops time and progress, whilst the repetition of the setting emphasizes the repetition of life. Thus as we have seen, while the play maintains a humorous shell, as it progresses, the audience begins to feel sympathetic. The time that Vladimir and Estragon spent together was comedic, but after peeling apart this shell and revealing to us their consciousness, devoid of time, we will find naught but woeful anguish.
The comedy present in Waiting for Godot turns into tragedy at the instance the audience understands the helplessness of Vladimir and Estragon. Unhappiness is one of the funniest things we as humans see, but at the same time, it is despairing. The way Pozzo treats Lucky is hilarious, to both the reader and audience. Lucky is constantly jerked around by his rope and this exaggerated action creates humour, but at the same time, we overlook the cruelty that is so obviously implied. It is tragic how we so readily accepted this treatment, and as the play continues, laugh at it even more. This signifies a part of Beckett’s view of human nature, that it is not until it becomes personal do we start caring about the tragic tones and implications.
Comedy has been suppressed by the tragic elements. The play becomes a tragedy imbued with tragedies. The small, easily noticed tragic happenings contribute to a greater, deeper despair. Such as Estragon suggesting death as an escape. It is sad to see one suggest such a thing, yet it is also funny because of the nonchalant light-hearted way he suggests it, as well as the conversation that ensues. The two tramps engage in meaningless, pointless activity to pass the time, waiting for something that never comes. This absurdity is a fundamental source of tragedy. However, what is really tragic is that in the end, they are unable to make a decision, to live or die and as a result of this hesitation, are forever frozen in progress. This essentially shows their paralysis of time and continuity. Didi and Gogo are stuck, day in day out, waiting for Godot to no avail. This act of waiting is the very thing Beckett is trying to portray. It is only during lapses in action, where we are waiting, that we begin to realize the meaninglessness of what we are doing. An overwhelming sense of despair washes over the audience in this moment of realization, and all sense of humour is gone. All that is left is a mixture of anxiety, confusion, and hopelessness.
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