In his essay on Sisyphus, Camus holds that if life is essentially absurd, so is death. Indeed, Vladimir and Estragon

Home, - Waiting for Godot and the Theatre of the Absurd


The expression ‘Theatre of the Absurd’  was introduced by the Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin to refer to the works of a group of European and American dramatists of the mid-twentieth century who believed in Albert Camus’ assessment of human existence in his seminal essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (Bennett, 2011). In his essay, Camus argued that human existence in the universe is devoid of any inherent purpose. It is important to note that there was no formal Absurdist Movement in Western theatre. Dramatists such as Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Arthur Adamov and most importantly Samuel Beckett, who hailed from diverse backgrounds, were called absurdist dramatists as they shared a common pessimistic view of our existence. In their plays, humanity struggles vainly to find a sense of harmony in its existence. The characters often find themselves perplexed, anxious and rudderless. ‘Waiting for Godot’ ,Samuel Beckett's unique play, was arguably the greatest innovation in the  history of the theatre and is widely considered the first absurdist play that achieved theatrical success.  The play was initially written in French and later translated into English by the author himself. The play had an undeniable influence on later playwrights such as Tom Stoppard.  An examination of the features of the play can enlighten us as to why the play has become almost synonymous with the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’.

            The central idea of any absurdist play is the inherent meaninglessness of our existence in the universe and the resultant futility of communication. This idea also dictates the structure of these plays which do not have the strictly logical structure of traditional drama. ‘Waiting for Godot’, in this sense, is a typical absurdist play for it lacks plot, character development and most importantly, a setting. A comparison of the stage direction of the play with that of any other contemporary play reveals that Beckett has provided very few details about the setting. It simply states:  - A country road, a tree, evening.


The scantiness of the setting is indicative of the insignificance of absolute locations in space. The place could be anywhere and hence, nowhere in particular. In the second act, the tree has four or five leaves. This development however thwarts the conventional expectations of readers and spectators by not bringing about any kind of renewal in the plot.

There is little dramatic action from the traditional perspective. The characters perform ceaselessly but this activity serves to emphasize the fact that nothing happens that can infuse life with an intrinsic meaning. Throughout the play, the characters lament that there is “nothing to be done”. Although there is a dearth of conventional theatrical action, there is plenty of random physical action. Vladimir and Estragon fidget with boots and hats, beat up and get beaten, exchange hats and engage in music hall cross-talk. However, these random activities do not drive the characters towards any definite end (Taylor-Batty and Taylor-Batty, 2008). The meaningless babble and repetitive action induce in the audience a feeling of   existing in a world that doesn’t cohere.                       

Another important feature of the play is the incoherence of dialogue. Speech, in true absurdist fashion, is often disjointed, dislocated, repetitious and full of fallacies. This ridiculous, purposeless behavior gives the plays a comic appearance, but there is metaphysical angst deep within. Logic and arguments give way to meaningless babble and to its ultimate conclusion, silence. The dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon is a kind of ‘game’ to evade the horrors of silence. When the tramps find nothing to converse about, they desperately attempt to fill the silence.

            When ordered by Pozzo to ‘think’, Lucky blurts out an apparently nonsensical rant. In his monologue, there is a complete disintegration of logic and syntax (Worth 18). Like his creator Samuel Beckett, the character of Lucky is unable to discover “any trace of any system anywhere”. The audience, like the characters, confronts the ‘absurd’. Lucy’s speech suggests uncertainty about almost everything besides death and decay. Lucky has no fixed beliefs and his monologue mocks various religious and scientific ways of explaining the world.

            While watching the play, the spectator moves from textual questions pertaining to the identity of Godot to existential questions such as what he/she is doing in the theatre and why? It is impossible to connect with the characters one does not understand. Hence, the lack of communication among the characters is extended to the audience as well. Beckett has shown us that Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect is indeed more suited to absurdist theatre (Hutchings, 2005).

            Since human existence in an absurd universe isn’t governed by an overarching essence, there is complete detachment from religious faith. The characters in the play frequently allude to the Bible and Christ, but with unexpected laxity. Estragon considers the Bible a kind of picture book. The frequent invocations of “qua” in Lucky’s speech make it a parody of a religious sermon (Crowe, 2013).

            The human inability to find a meaning in an absurd universe inevitably brings time to a standstill. If nothing matters in the world, time signals nothing but approaching death. One day cannot be distinguished from the other. Vladimir and Estragon are not certain about when and where Godot has promised to meet them. In the second act, Estragon cannot remember if they were at the same place the previous day and later, the two tramps cannot even agree on the time of the day. In an absurd world where no event has a significance that transcends the commonplace, memory is a storehouse of repetitive events and time is of no value at all (Kaur & Aggarwal, 2015).

            In his essay on Sisyphus, Camus holds that if life is essentially absurd, so is death. Indeed, Vladimir and Estragon converse about suicide with a surprising lack of seriousness. The audience is uncertain of how to respond to this absurd tragicomedy. Vladimir echoes the sentiments of the audience when he says, “one daren’t even laugh anymore”. In an absurd world, it doesn’t make any sense to view anything as good or bad, comic or tragic. Beckett has presented to us a play that sits right on the dividing line between the comic and the tragic and this region can appropriately be called the ‘absurd’.


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