Review of “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett

In Literature on 02/18/2012 at 23:47

“The only fertile research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent. The artist is active, but negatively, shrinking from the nullity of extracircumferential phenomena, drawn into the core of the eddy.” – Beckett

Beckett’s play is, in its own words, “really most extraordinarily interesting” inspite of the fact that nothing actually happens. What the audience is treated to, rather, is a devastatingly banal repetition. The literary success of this play lies Beckett’s ability to forcefully characterize this repetition, in all its hat-switching, boot-pulling, circumlocutory dialogue, all of which is liable to be forgotten by the characters and then painfully re-enacted throught the play’s two acts. As one commentator cleverly put it: “Nothing happens, twice.” In “Waiting For Godot” none of the reneweal-through-sacrifice of tragedy, or the renewel-through-union of comedy, is achieved. And this could be why Beckett accounted for the play by offering a new mode of drama entirely, the “tragicomedy”, a mode that is subversive of the very idea that renewel can be achieved in the brief span of a human life, which the play describes as a time in which: “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

A play like this needed to be written at least once in the development of our literary tradition. “Waiting For Godot” is thus in a sense like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”. The readymade sculpure of a urinal, transplated into a gallery and given an incongrous name, relied for its aesthetic effect on its never having been done before. It was what Badiou describes as an “event”. As such it can’t be repeated without becoming trivial and kitsch. “Waiting For Godot” was the same kind of movement taking place in the medium of words. And yet to demonstrate on stage the point that there really is no point, that life & art & every endeavor is so much pounding of one’s head against the wall, seems tautological. Now we come to the reason why Beckett and only Beckett, though perhaps Joyce if he’d done plays, could have written “Waiting for Godot”. If the meaning of a work of art is that there is no meaning, then the statement is going to have to be made in an extremely interesting way in order to be worth attending to. That is to say language is going to have to take the foreground. And Beckett was the master of memorable language. Only he could have had a Lucky speak such brilliant inanity, when Pozzo has him perform a feat of thinking for Vladimir and Estragon:

 “Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann 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 with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labors of men that as a result of the labors unfinished of Testew and Cunnard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann it is established beyond all doubt that in view of the labors of Fartov and Belcher left unfinished for reasons unknown…”

Why was it necessary for this play to be written? Why could this play not have been written at any point in hisory? The feeling of futility is, afterall, not entirely a modern one. We can find examples of what Tillich describes of “the anxiety of meaninglessness” in the poetry of earlier era. Horace’s “Odes” contain good examples. Ovid’s “Tristia” might be another. And yet as Tillich goes on to explain, each era can be understood as suffering from a particular kind of anxiety, as a society as a whole. Our preoccupation, and the immense success of “Waiting For Godot” supports this, is with meaning. Therefore, Beckett’s product is a unique product of the spirit of our time. A little more interpretation is needed to explicate how this is so.

Vladimir and Estragon are faced with an existence whose very essence seems to be that of an impasse. Their lives consist of a series of tedious non-events, punctuated by physical discomfort and dread. Their talk goes around in circles. Yet they can’t leave, and they can’t kill themselves because of an obligation they have to meet Godot. To ask who Godot is, or why they must meet him is missing the point. The appointment is a free-floating sense of obligation in itself – distilled down and separated from any rational purpose. Their position is much like that of the man who waits outside the door of The Law in Kafka’s “The Trial”. Their sense of duty persists even in the face of the impossibility of being fulfilled. This duty has an uncompromising character, and as despairing as it might make its subjects, there is an awareness that (again to draw on Tillich) even the act of suicide won’t be able to resolve it, insofar that taking of one’s life is a finite movement, whereas the duty to meet Godot or gain access to The Law is a demand that has an infinite quality. Yet because either Godot isn’t real, and The Law isn’t real, or else the protagonists are not up to the heroism of attaining their ends, they can only wait and squirm under the discomfiture of their waiting.

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