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It is tempting to view Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ as a play of nothingness, with no value or meaning but that of two men waiting for something or someone to arrive. However, the companionship that the two protagonist characters portray underneath the humour and bleakness of Beckett’s two part tragi-comedy, clearly offers us something elevating amongst the emptiness of the bleak world that the characters are staged within. As the play progresses and we begin to learn about these two character’s lives, it becomes clear that they share a companionship, caring deeply for one another and in many ways a need for each other in order to survive the hostile place in which they are living in.
From the very start of the play we become aware of the companionship of Vladimir and Estragon. As the play opens we witness Estragon sitting alone upon a rock, trying to remove his boot and repeatedly failing to do so. As Vladimir enters and replies to Estragon’s spoken thoughts, as if he had been present all along, we see their friendship for the first time. We are aware that the two characters have been separated overnight, yet at this early point within the play we are unaware as to how they know each other and most importantly how long they have known each other. Now that Vladimir is present Estragon’s shoe slips off with effortlessness, almost as if to say that he cannot remove it without the company of Vladimir. The ease in which they are reunited gives us, as an audience, an insight, and allows us to become aware of the fact that we are not witnessing two strangers on stage, we are witnessing two friends. This opening is continued as Vladimir states to Estragon ‘I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.’ (Beckett, 2006:11) This direct line implies that by Estragon leaving it would create a sense of sadness for Vladimir, and the word ‘glad’ reinforces any doubts that the audience have at this point as to whether or not they share a companionship in one another.
In the Royal Court Theatre revival of 1964, Anthony page staged Godot with Beckett’s presence. Page states that Beckett forever implied that ‘Godot is very much about relationships between human beings.’ (McMillan,1990:85) Beckett continued to express to Page that moments of the play should be a tender moment ‘of complete understanding between the two characters.’ (McMillan, 1990:85) And at an instant this made the line work. It is clear from this that Beckett meant for the two characters to share a relationship with one another and when one of the actors decides to set up a hierarchy for the two characters, the force between them becomes unbalanced. ‘When Bert Lahr in the American production insisted that he was ‘top banana’ and warned Tom Ewell as Vladimir ‘Don’t crowd me’ the balance of the play was disturbed.’ (McMillan, 1990:62) This implies that they need one another in order for the play to work; that the companionship they portray seeks to be a poignant theme and that altering this in anyway will upset the dynamics of the duo.
David Smith for The Observer says of the play, ‘(Waiting for Godot) reveals humanity’s talents for stoicism, companionship and keeping going.’ (Smith, 2009) The pair seem to mirror the society of modern day and it is important to remember their loneliness, their continuous waiting for Godot and I find myself asking whether this has resulted in their strong attachment for one another. Like any companionship they fight and then they make up, yet Vladimir and Estragon certainly share the strongest want for each other’s companionship.
Vladimir: Your hand!
Estragon: Take it!
Vladimir: Come to my arms!
Estragon: Your arms?
Vladimir: My breast!
[They embrace. They separate. Silence.] (Beckett, 2006:70)
This passage in Act II portrays the journey of their relationship throughout the play. They question each other’s actions and the boredom in which they are isolated within may well be responsible for the bickering they sustain, yet no matter what happens they return to each other, embracing each other. Another point which struck me about this passage is the humour in which this is to be performed. Almost as if they are mocking their own friendship they embrace but yet at once they separate again. It is important to realise that they do not always want to be each other’s friend, and that making up with one another is merely because one wouldn’t survive without the other. Their playful nature portrays the humour that Beckett intended for their companionship to have, and makes an audience question the realism of the pair as friends.
It is however, these tender moments within the play that I begin to question whether the two characters hold only a friendship, yet this adds to Beckett’s notion of not giving too much away. The fighting and the making up, the embracing and the separating all hold connotations to that of a married couple. By the end of Act I we, as an audience, become aware of just how long Vladimir and Estragon have known each other ‘Fifty years perhaps’ (Beckett, 2006: 51) and as Act II begins Vladimir starts to sing and this could parallel the fact that he is aware that Estragon is still around. In the 2001 Michael Lindsay-Hogg of ‘Waiting for Godot’ for Beckett on film, this moment is played with sheer happiness. The expression on Vladimir’s face turns from that of confusion to delight as he realises the pair of boots greeting him as he enters the scene are in fact Estragon’s. I believe that Vladimir feels as though their companionship may perhaps give his life its greatest sense of meaning.
Within their relationship, whether this is just friendship or one of something more, it is easy to pinpoint a two gender relationship within the one sex partnership. The National Theatre in London’s 1987 production of Waiting for Godot with Alec McCowen as Vladimir showed ‘the tender relationship between them fitted easily into the scheme of things, including the touch of nursemaid in Alec McCowen’s soothing attitude to his partner.’ (Worth, 1990:79) This nursemaid approach is further highlighted during Act I when Estragon violently says ‘I’m hungry’. (Beckett, 2006:21) Vladimir cheerfully responds, as if feeding Estragon is his most interesting responsibility, making his life appear worthwhile. This situation plays Estragon as the male, placing Vladimir in the female role, holding connotations that their partnership is portraying that of a married couple. Vladimir is copiously feeding his wife and Estragon is the irresponsible husband, with Vladimir always coming to his aide. Their wants and needs match each other perfectly and it could be for this reasoning that Beckett described them himself as a ‘pseudo couple’; they don’t necessarily always want to be in each other’s company, yet they recognise each other as a necessary person in order to survive.
In order to think about this further, the passage in Act II where they embrace, Vladimir refers to Estragon to embrace his breasts. Again, this holds feminine connotations and is another reason for thinking of the companions as a mixed gender partnership of husband and wife. Smith reiterates this idea further, ‘Estragon and Vladimir are like a married couple who’ve been together too long, they grow old day by day.’ (Smith, 2009) As Smith states it appears that Vladimir and Estragon have been together for so long that they no longer see themselves as individuals, they have become one person and therefore if one leaves, so does the other. This enhances Beckett’s choice of the repeated line ‘I’m going’, yet neither of them moves, they have physically grown to rely on one another. Vladimir speaks repeatedly of Estragon’s dependence of him and this not only mirrors the idea of Vladimir taking on the role of the nursemaid as Worth stated, but that although this seems warranted at times, at other times it seems as though it isn’t the friendship that they are seeking, but simply the need to be emotionally dependent on the presence of another.
When looking at Beckett’s one act theatrical sketch ‘Rough for Theatre I’, it is this that allows us to take it and use it to understand the companionship of Vladimir and Estragon further. ‘Rough for Theatre I’ sees two characters confined on a derelict street corner where everything is in ruins. Much like ‘Waiting for Godot’ they find themselves alone, with only each other for company. One portrays a blind man, whilst the other remains immobile, stuck within a wheelchair. Just like that of Vladimir and Estragon they find themselves bickering, yet find a common ground through their disabilities. We can begin to look at this is order to help us understand Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship concerning the fact that the characters named ‘A’ and ‘B’ need the other in order to survive – one can see and one can walk. In ‘Waiting for Godot’ the personalities of the characters complement each other, one being absent-minded and forgetful with Estragon asking every so often throughout the play ‘why are we here?’ and Vladimir simply replies with ‘We’re waiting for Godot’. This once again shows the interdependence within their relationship and I find myself asking: what would Estragon do without Vladimir? And vice versa.
When thinking of ‘Waiting for Godot’ in terms of rehearsal it is helpful to use ‘Rough for Theatre I’ to understand the frame of mind the characters are in. It is clear that they do not necessarily want to be there, waiting, and ‘Rough for Theatre I’ allows us to take the notion of need rather than want and apply this when performing the roles of Vladimir and Estragon. Sir Ian McKellen states in his diary whilst working towards performing the production ‘In Godot, Didi, Roger’s character, is the provider, the guardian, the one who is trying to work out the plan.’ (McKellen, 2001) When looking at rehearsing and performing the embracing passage within Act II McKellen’s words direct us on the roles we should be taking, yet with great care as to not disturb the balance of equality that Vladimir and Estragon uphold. ‘[They embrace. They separate. Silence.] I believe the embrace is to be performed as a quick hold of each other, a reassurance that they are still there for each other yet at once they separate, as if to imply that they do not need to be friends the entire time and that by just knowing that one another are there for each other is enough to keep them going; enough to keep them waiting for Godot.
In Lindsay-Hogg’s film version the embrace is adapted to become a dance. In a mocking way they take hold of each other and dance around in circles, humming a simple tune. I believe that this shows the friendship to their companionship; they are sharing laughter not love, and it is this laughter beyond the dullness of nothing to do that keeps them surviving.
Vladimir and Estragon are both characters that are forced to live in a inimical world bearing no material values just the company of one another to pass the time, so it is no wonder that they fight and bicker at times and they often threaten that ‘maybe they are better off apart’. However, when the idea of suicide faces them they cannot go ahead with it, they make false statements yet as the day draws to an end they are still by one another’s side. As Vladimir answers Estragon’s want to hang themselves with ‘I remain in the dark’, (Beckett, 2006:18) Vladimir stresses his concerns to the options surrounding the outcome of the situation; what if he goes first? What if Estragon hangs himself and then the bough breaks as Vladimir is about to do so, then he is left alone and, in some senses, in the dark. The isolation of being alone for Vladimir would be a more fatal outcome than Estragon’s, that of death. As Michael Billington states for The Guardian ‘Beckett’s play becomes a compassionate metaphor for the human predicament: confronted by a senseless world, the least we can hope for is the solace of companionship.’ (Billington, 2006) Vladimir and Estragon are not characters looking for friendship, although at times throughout the play we see this blossoming and then they have another argument and they wish to be anywhere but in each other’s company. ‘Waiting for Godot’ is exploring human relationships and the play seems to reflect the friendships in society today; Beckett’s play touches everyone. Yet being together within a static place for ‘fifty years perhaps’ (Beckett, 2006: 51) has allowed for the two characters to create such a friendship, of being there for someone when they need you most. Vladimir’s character shows this as he places his coat over the shoulders of a sleeping Estragon, and at the same time they have created a companionship that has meant that these two characters are really to be thought of as pieces of one personality, they fit together as one. When they reach the points in life where they feel ‘I can’t go on like this’ (Beckett, 2006: 87) the irony of Beckett’s play is that they do. ‘And there is something inexpressibly moving about the final image of their shared immobility as they confront an endless series of futile tomorrows,’ (Billington, 2006) together, as companions.
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