Unconventional Tragedy: Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot is a two-act tragic comedy by Samuel Beckett in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, encounter and engage in discussions while waiting for the titular Godot. Beckett composed the original text in 1952, and it was directed in 1953 for the first time at Theatre de Babylone in Paris. Despite including comic elements borrowed from the circus and amusing crosstalk, it remains a tragic play.

Waiting for Godot directed by Otomar Krejca. Avignon Festival, 1978. Photographs by Fernand Michaud.

Consisting of only two acts, Waiting for Godot opens with Vladimir and Estragon waiting by a leafless tree to meet with a man named Godot; however, both are unsure if they have ever met Godot before and if he is going to turn up. Then, a traveler named Pozzo and his slave Lucky appear onstage. Their conversations and behaviors are full of pure nonsense. After their departure, a messenger shows up to announce that Godot will arrive tomorrow. Vladimir and Estragon continue their wait under the leafless tree.

In the second act, the tree has grown some leaves suggesting that the duo may have waited a long time for Godot. Pozzo and Lucky reappear on the stage, only this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is mute. Not remembering Vladimir and Estragon, they soon exit the stage and the messenger reappears shortly after to report that Godot will not be coming. Outraged, Vladimir and Estragon decide to commit suicide but they do not have any rope to hang themselves with. They decide to grab a rope and come back tomorrow to end their lives. As the scene fades to black, they remain motionless.

Estragon (Rufus) and Vladimir (Georges Wilson). Avignon Festival, 1978. Photographs by Fernand Michaud.

Essentially, nothing happens in the play; no development, no beginning, and no end. There are also no female characters. But what's most important is that the spectator and the reader experience the same despair as Vladimir and Estragon: the wait for something to happen, yet a situation or a solution never arrives. Even when Vladimir finds an opportunity to be useful after Pozzo seeks his help, he says he does not want to waste his time with idle discourse. All the play offers is doing nothing. Beckett denies satisfaction to his audience and in doing so, offers despair.

Waiting for Godot is far from Aristotle's concept of tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy; the play does not have tragic elements according to Aristotle's concept, or have an inspiring effect on the audience like Shakespearean tragedy would do in terms of tragic essence and the tragic hero. It is an unconventional tragedy in the sense that it makes the audience aware of human misery, igniting feelings of mystery, fear, and pity as life is presented as hopeless and heartbreaking. The play dramatizes the themes of boredom, routine, and the suffering of being. Vladimir and Estragon tell stories, play verbal games, sing songs, mock Pozzo and Lucky, and do physical exercises to pass the time. Here, the audience understands the very essence of boredom. Its tragic essence, consisting of boredom and helplessness, ignorance, and sadness, differentiates the play from the traditional concept of tragedy. "This lack of plot of action is all-important in excluding Godot from conventional tragedy…no possibility of a play-off between events and character (no peripeteia), no possibility of an outcome (no dénouement), no tragic recognition, and no transcendence" (Cormier et al., 1971, p. 46).

Waiting for Godot set at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, 2009.

Tragic heroes like Hamlet, Oedipus, or Antigone offer an edifying spectacle of human suffering, human dignity, and human endurance, yet the characters in Waiting for Godot are pathetic, timid, forgetful, and only determined to wait. The entire behavior of these characters is either disgusting or funny, and the audience feels no admiration for them. Hence, there is no tragic conflict or tragic flaw. The tragic effect instead arises from the utterances of the characters. For example, the most, likely, tragic words in the play are said by Pozzo: "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 were born, one day we shall die…They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more" (Beckett, 1952, as cited in Graver, 2004, p. 63). These remarks deepen and intensify the tragic quality of the play without forming a traditional tragic hero.

Consequently, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is an unconventional tragedy play in which two characters named Vladimir and Estragon have nothing to do except to wait for a man named Godot with no knowledge of purpose or reason. Even if it is controversial to make a conclusion about what the play deals with, as many critics analyze the text under Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, or nihilist lenses, it can be argued that the play does not carry the essence of traditional tragedy in terms of context and the tragic hero character. It also inspires feelings of pity and boredom in the audience without amusing them with tragic elements like Greek or Shakespearean tragedies do. Hence, it is reasonable to consider Waiting for Godot" as a dramatic version of art which is a stream of consciousness, and ambiguous images, and aims at precision about contradictions, especially about the conditions of the heroic and ordinary life in the present" (Kruse, 1975, p. 81).

Bibliographical References

Cormier, R., & Pallister, J. L. (1971). En attendant Godot: Tragedy or Comedy? L’Esprit Créateur, 11(3), 44–54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26279512

Esslin, M. (1960). The Theatre of the Absurd. The Tulane Drama Review, 4(4), 3–15. https://doi.org/10.2307/1124873

Graver, L. (2004). Beckett: Waiting for Godot (2nd ed., Landmarks of World Literature (New). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi:10.1017/CBO9780511802492. Retrieved from https://silo.pub/beckett-waiting-for-godot-landmarks-of-world-literature-new.html

Keller, J. R. (2002). A strange situation: self-entrapment in Waiting for Godot. In Samuel Beckett and the primacy of love (pp. 133–171). Manchester University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt155jffd.9

Kern, E. (1954). Drama Stripped for Inaction: Beckett’s Godot. Yale French Studies, 14, 41–47. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928960

Kruse, A. (1975). Tragicomedy and tragic burlesque: Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Sydney Studies in English, 1. Retrieved from https://openjournals.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/SSE/article/view/317/289

Kubiak, A. D. (2008). GODOT: THE NON-NEGATIVE NOTHINGNESS. Romance Notes, 48(3), 395–405. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43803087

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Melis Güven

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