How does Ionesco and Beckett’s dramaturgy in ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘The Bald Soprano’ express the absurdist and existentialist view that life is essentially meaningless.
‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘The Bald Soprano’ are two of the most classic examples of why life is called the theatre of the absurd. The Theatre of the Absurd came about as a reaction to World War II. It took the basis of existential philosophy and combined it with dramatic elements to create a style of theatre which presented a universe which cannot be logically explained or defined; life is therefore meaningless and lacks purpose.
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The conventional qualities of traditional theatre: realistic characters and situations, comprehensible dialogues and a clear plot, were abandoned to convey this vision of absurdity. Instead, the characteristics which coincide with many of the plays in this modern absurdist theatre: broad comedy, tragic images, characters in hopeless situations, nonsensical dialogues full of clichés and wordplay; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive were adopted and replaced the concept of the “well-made play”.
Of these characteristics, this essay focuses on the dramaturgy, more specifically the ‘cyclical’ dramaturgy that Beckett and Ionesco adopted in their plays, and how this is effective in expressing the absurdist and existentialist vision that life is inherently without meaning or purpose.
As many Absurdist playwrights, Beckett and Ionesco did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre. Thus, ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘The Bald Soprano’ are often described as ‘anti plays’; they reject a coherent story-line, deviate from the traditional episodic structure, and seem to move in a circle, ending the same way they began. The plays have a beginning, but the beginning seems in a way arbitrary because what happened before the beginning does not seem important.
The plays have an end, but the end somewhat recalls the beginning and thus a sense of circularity is created replacing the sense of closure that conventional stories generally provide. John W. Fiero makes an interesting observation that the ‘Ouroboros’, a snake devouring its own tail, can serve as the new structural paradigm. It suggests an endless, tedious, and futile cycle.
Beckett’s and Ionesco’s plays both rely on repetition and ‘looping’: in ‘Waiting for Godot’ the protagonists decide to move and then do not move, over and over again; the two sets of families in ‘The Bald Soprano’ become interchangeable at the end of the play. This reinforces the absurdist and existentialist idea of life as having no clear purpose and of life being an interminable waiting for a sense of purpose or closure that is unlikely ever to arrive.
The seemingly endless waiting that Estragon and Vladimir undertake for the mysterious Godot reflects this idea and to effectively express it, Beckett abandons traditional plot development and creates a circular symmetrical movement throughout ‘Waiting for Godot.’ The second act parallels the first. Nothing new happens: Godot fails to appear in both acts, Vladimir and Estragon find themselves caught in these pointless routines and repetitive pantomimes, further emphasizing the ridiculous purposelessness of their lives.
In Act 2 the characters engage in ways that closely parallel the first act; the key difference seems to be an increased struggle in the second act to pass the time, which passed quickly in the first act because of Pozzo and Lucky, whose appearance is briefer in the second act. This pointless waiting and boredom makes Estragon more desperate to leave and Vladimir continually reminds him why they mustn’t leave because they’re waiting for Godot:
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON: (despairingly) Ah! (Pause.)
You’re sure it was here?
Here we are given information that these two men are waiting for someone called Godot and Estragon’s tone suggests the possibility that it is not the first time and that they have done it before and been disappointed. This adds to the effect that there is no real beginning and their present situation is somewhat static. The characters want to go but feel stuck waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON: What about hanging ourselves?
ESTRAGON: Don’t let’s do anything.
VLADIMIR: Let’s wait and see what he says.
They want to commit suicide, but have grown either too lethargic or too helpless to act on their desires, they are too caught up in their routines and habits. In their presence, even Pozzo catches on to this feeling, at the moment of his departure, they have an absurdly repetitive dialogue and Pozzo finds himself unable to leave:
POZZO: And thank you.
VLADIMIR: Thank you
POZZO: Not at all
ESTRAGON: Yes yes
POZZO: No no.
POZZO: I seem to be unable…[Long hesitation]…to depart.
ESTRAGON: Such is life.
Paralysed, immobilised, forced to remain stationary, they must remain passive as well. Unable to act, they are capable only of waiting, waiting for the end they know will never come. But they remain still, in constant hope of being acted upon and remain in the same situation throughout the play, just as nothing really begun, nothing ever finishes.
This structure of the play serves to reinforce the timelessness of their situation, thus emphasising on the pointlessness of their lives, that time passes by and nothing changes, but they remain in this static situation helplessly waiting for something, a reason or purpose to live, that they subconsciously know will never come to them.
This similar cyclical, repetitive and absurd structure, ending where it first began, is adopted in Ionesco’s ‘Bald Soprano’. In fact the “Bald Soprano” itself was inspired by the inane sentences Ionesco read again and again in the textbook he used to learn English. Already, Ionesco had acquired this sense of repetition and practical cyclical movement through his learning of a language.
‘The Bald Soprano’s’ cyclical structure suggests that an infinite and tedious replay is possible but is aborted, not because there has to be an ending, but simply for practical necessity. Ionesco had to find a way to bring his play to closure; His first working solution was to end the action abruptly, using a sort of ‘deus ex machina’ device in which the performance was closed down by the Superintendent of Police and his men, who open fire at the rebellious audience and simply order the theatre vacated.
Other possibilities were considered but they were rejected as too problematic. Eventually, it was decided that the play should simply begin again, giving the work its cyclical structure. The final structural refinement was to substitute the Martins for the Smiths in the repeated opening. So the story begins again at the ‘end’, but the characters now play new roles. The actor that first played Mrs. Smith now plays Mrs. Martin; the former maid becomes the fire chief; and so on.
[The play begins again with the Martins, who say exactly the same lines as the Smiths in the first scene, while the curtain softly falls]
In ‘The Bald Soprano’, the repetitive structure also parallels the language, one of the main themes in the play. Repetition is the perfect example of the freezing of language; the discussion between Mr. and Mrs. Smith for example. Following a long series of coincidences, told in exhaustive detail and in an irritating repetitive pattern (the same sentence structure, even the same sentences are repeated: “How curious! How bizarre! What a coincidence!”) The two come to the conclusion that they are married.
Similarly to the characters in ‘Waiting for Godot’, the characters in ‘The Bald Soprano’ find themselves caught up in a ridiculous, vicious cycle of repetition, nonsensical yet logically thought through. This also expresses an absurdist and existentialist view on society and its meaningless conversation between people, words are used to express the most banal facts, but essentially they mean nothing, they express nothing but emptiness. This therefore reflects the meaninglessness of life in general.
Also, there is a parallel symbolism between the circular structure of the play and the eminent presence of the clock. Both are a representation of time; Time is not linear, on the contrary it is circular, much like a clock, whose hands constantly turn in a circular motion. In ‘Waiting for Godot’, the moon plays a similar role as a symbol which intensifies the passing of time and as an image of circularity.
This repetitive cyclical structure also serves as a representation of memory (or lack thereof), a theme expressed in both ‘The Bald Soprano’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’; life is happening to Vladimir and Estragon but they recall little of what is past and Mr and Mrs Smith only find out through a long conversational process that they are in fact married.
In ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘The Bald Soprano’ we see that the [absurdist and existentialist] ideas that inform the plays also dictate their dramaturgy. In both plays there is little dramatic action (in the conventional sense); however the repetitive actions and dialogues serve to highlight that no matter how they try to fill time, nothing happens to change their existence.
In Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, plot is eliminated, and a timeless, circular quality emerges as Estragon and Vladimir spend their days waiting (but without any certainty of whom they are waiting for and whether he, or it, will ever come) In ‘The Bald Soprano’ this quality parallels language; The characters in ‘The Bald Soprano’ sit and talk, repeating the obvious until it sounds like nonsense, thus revealing the inadequacies and futility of verbal communication and conversation. The ridiculous, repetitive and purposeless behaviour and talk give the plays a sometimes comic surface, but there is an underlying philosophical message, the absurdist and existentialist view that life is essentially without meaning or purpose.
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