Samuel Beckett And The Theatre Of The Absurd

2690 words - 11 pages

To understand Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd we must first go back to Beckett's roots in Irish theatre. It was Martin Esslin who coined the phrase 'The Theatre of the Absurd.' Esslin attributed this form of drama to the moment when 'the certitudes and unshakeable assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been found wanting... The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being - that is, in terms of concrete stage images' (Harrington, 2004). It was a revelation in his home country of Ireland that led Beckett to explore this method of drama, a revelation immortalised in his short play, Krapp's last tape. He saw a pointedly nihilistic vision of every organising philosophic principle in our life. He saw them all as archaic and therefore leading us down a road that would not only fail to fulfil our potential, but lead us into ignominy, failure and depression. This was the beginning of his deconstruction of all the traditional aspects of theatre, including staging, characterisation and even the resolution of plays.This new form of theatre, minimalist in its physicality but grand in its scope, ironically has its roots in the mythic style of the Irish national theatre, a theatre that had almost exclusively been born in the Abbey theatre; a theatre where large characters debated even larger themes. 'The Irish play' had become one designed along specific themes of rebellion and unity. Ultimately however it became a caricature of itself, tying down artists instead of allowing them to express themselves fully. However much is owed to this theatre in terms of Irish literary heritage, there needed to be a new voice, a new approach. Sadly Beckett had to go to France to find it.The significance of this move is that Beckett (already needing new inspirations) began to become under the influence of great writers such as Artaud, Sartre and in particular Joyce. Also writing in French allowed, he said, to write without style. Composition in a second language would serve as a corrective to literary confidence and prevent polished performances of essentially bankrupt eloquence like, he evidently thought, his earlier work (Harrington, 2004). Writing Godot in post-war France must have also influenced his thinking. The initial wave of optimism brought on by the end of the war had turned to the pessimism when the dreadful conditions due to the vast destruction of great swaths of Europe became prevalent, no doubt enforcing Beckett's gloomy and nihilistic outlook.'If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterisation and motivation, these are often unrecognisable character... almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning nor an end.'' This is how in his book of the same title Martin Ellsin described the Theatre of the Absurd. Waiting for Godot is not merely a part of this theatre, it defines it. It explores the depths of what, up until that point, had been certain assumptions. It swept these away and ushered us from the rational thinking they had dominated Western thought and its theatre up until then. If Descartes steered us into the age of reason, then Beckett could be said to have brought us into the age of uncertainty. By shattering these illusions of certainty Beckett allowed us to question our assumptions and then built upon those foundations, more secure than before. Albert Camus in his work 'The Myth of Sisyphus' wrote 'a world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a Universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger... this divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of absurdity'. So how does Beckett portray this feeling of absurdity in Waiting for Godot? The characterisation in Beckett and the mechanics of the stage are key to this.Much has been made of Vladimir and Estragon's relationship but it is in the interaction between Pozzo and Lucky that reveals one of the most interesting aspects of Becketts work; that of the relationship between the mental and physical facets that make up an individual. It is also the one of the most common themes in The Theatre of the Absurd, once stripped of all rational assumptions. Becketts work is infused with this contradiction and balance, the ultimate paradoxical union in man. Pozzo and Lucky represent the relationship between body and mind, the material and spiritual sides of man, with the intellect subordinate to the appetites of the body (Ellsin, 1961). All the characters in Godot are examples of Beckett's anti-hero, which were becoming more and more prevalent, but were never brought to such extremes that Beckett brought them to, so stripped of virtue. This lack of virtue is complimented by two aspects of the characters; one, their fall from grace (the bowler hats being the last vestiges of civilised beings) and the physical defects the characters have (the sore foot for example). This complimentary yet contrasting physical and mental dialectic is one of the most interesting features of Godot. All through his work Beckett set out to show a universal representation of humanity, culminating in Godot. Yet this belied one of the central questions of Becketts work; how can you create a universal representation of humanity if you can't even reconcile the mental and physical processes of one individual?In Godot he attempted to describe the mind through the physical processes. In the act of waiting Estragon and Vladimir pass the time with various games in order for time to move more rapidly:Vladimir: That passed the time.Estragon: It would have passed in any case.Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidlyMany theorists say Beckett represents the body as the enemy, which can be seen in his characters constant discomfort, yet many of the insights we gain from his work come from thoughts and ideas that arise from the physical pain. Was Becketts constant illusion to the physical nature of our being an attempt to prescribe an answer to the disembodiment he felt - only a return to the physical can allow us simple happiness rather than the endless torment of the mind (the mind he wrote in his own style).The fact that they have so fallen from grace into the world, which is reduced to simple need and satisfaction, Beckett is able to make profound insights into our world, indeed almost universal truths. This disconnection with the world also lets Beckett give free reign to his nihilism. The two main characters, Estragon and Vladimir, are completely devoid of any ambition; either in the traditional meaning of the word, or in the sense that they want to improve themselves individually. Vladimir says he was once a poet, pointing to his tattered clothes to prove it, and in the giving them bowler hats Beckett is showing us this fall from grace and society, yet neither character wishes to return. Of course this could be Becketts wish that society is not good enough to enter. The only character to show ambition is Pozzo and his is a nasty deed, wanting to sell Lucky when his usefulness has run its course.Many writers and critics have tried to disentangle the meaning of whom or what is Godot. The theories range from it being a take on Balzac's play 'Mercadet' where a stock exchange speculator of the same name constantly refers to his absent partner as an excuse to his creditors, and whom's return of embezzled funds would result in his ability to pay. His former partner's name is Godeau. Another popular theory is that Godot is an altered version of God; a theory that conveniently leads to more answers or questions, depending on the proponent of the theory. There is even a theory that it is a French pun on the word 'boot' or that is in reference to one of the French cyclists Beckett watched in Paris.More probably Beckett had none of these in mind, at least not as exactly defined, except with maybe the express intention to cause more confusion in the audiences mind. The only thing we know for definite is that Beckett certainly wanted to keep it a mystery, maybe not even knowing exactly what Godot is himself. When Vladimir questions the boy, he never even receives confirmation that Godot is a man. When Alan Schneider, who was to direct the first American production of Waiting for Godot, asked Beckett who or what was meant by Godot, he received the answer 'if I knew, I would have said so in the play'. However the play cannot be dismissed of its religious implications, particularly in relation to salvation by Gods graces. The reference to the two thieves on the cross and the arbitrary nature of whether they are saved or damned is at the heart of the idea's that drove the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett is not saying God is absurd (the true meaning of the word absurd in relation to this theatre), but our relationship and expectations of him are. The illustration of the story of Can and Abel is a further example of the recklessness and injustice of the punishments meted out by the universe.In truth, Godot is a representation of what we are all waiting for, whatever that is. For this is what the play is about; the series of distractions we go through before we die. It is in the act of waiting that we are confronted with the passage of time, a dangerous folly for any mortal being. Godot is also another expression of a Beckett thought; to do nothing about everything, for to do anything is pointless and utterly futile. This is because we only remain active to pass the time more quickly, ironically hastening our death.An example of this is in Godot is the final lines of the two acts:Estragon: Well, shall we go?Vladimir: Yes, Lets go.[They do not move]This is repeated in the next act with the lines reversed. This is also apparent in Molloy, a work he wrote in the same period of Godot, where the character is forever travelling but never strays more than 'ten or fifteen miles from home'. The fact that the characters do not recognise each other on the second day is symptomatic of this endless cycle. Waiting is to experience the action of time, which is constant change. And yet, as nothing real ever happens, that change is in itself an illusion (Esslin, 1961). One of the strongest example of this endless cycle in Becket is in his work 'Play' in which a man and his mistress are involved in all too familiar scenes. At the end of the play Beckett writes as an instruction - Repeat. Exactly. This is where the Theatre of the Absurd is invented. Beckett set out not only to strip characters of expected emotions, but also to strip literature of the same curse; namely to subvert conventional literary ideas of structure and narrative. The hero does not always prevail and if they do, they do so at the behest of outside influences, not by a spiritual revelation. Characters do not span an arc of emotion; rather they travel through the world and react to it. They are often the same at the end of the play as they were at the start. He does not tell the reader how the world can be a better place, he tells them how it is, and ironically he does this often through caricatures. In Godot, Beckett could be said to be showing us the four sides of the human psyche. Pozzo and Lucky are the relationship between the mind and the body while Vladimir and Estragon are the minds competing facets, so similar yet never in agreement, and their situation represents our struggle and the hopelessness of this struggle.A direct result of this hopelessness is the daily struggle of how to pass the time. Most of the play tells about their efforts, which will help them pass the time. This explains why they stay together. Both Vladimir and Estragon admit to being happier when they apart so the main reason why they continue their relationship is because they need one another to pass the time. Since passing the time is their mutual occupation, they try to find games to help them achieve their goal. As a result, they engage in insulting one another and in asking each other question. Conversation to both is a game to pass the time until Godot comes. There were also times when they consider suicide as another way of escaping their hopelessness. Estragon wants them to hang themselves, but they find it would be too risky.However, the main part of repetitious actions in this play is the act of waiting itself. It is never over and starts up again each day. The action, in the same way, illustrates a circle. Each day is the return to the beginning. The presentation of the same action twice in the two acts is the most important form of repetition in the play. More than one act is necessary to show the repetition of actions in the play. Two acts represent two cycles of endlessly time.Thousands of people - billions as Estragon would say - will unhesitatingly identify him as the author of Waiting for Godot, and, although they know nothing else of him or of his writing, they yet have a clear, insistent image of him as a gloomy, clear, insistent image of him as a gloomy, arrogant, desiccated egghead, the dramatist of dustbins, cripples, and cosmic despair, comprehensible, if at all, only to the highest of highbrows (Reid, 1968). However Beckett is one of the few authors that can bring this cosmic despair down to a human level. The audience's that see it has highbrow have, unfortunately, been prone to misunderstand this message due to the structure and narrative, or lack thereof that Beckett brought to the theatre. No longer did the narrative structure overwrite the content, ordering it into a convenient package. Beckett brought the chaos of the outside world into the structure of his plays; no beginning, no end, no past, no future, only an endless now, punctuated by death. In Waiting for Godot, and indeed all plays within the Theatre of the Absurd, the feeling of uncertainty it produces, the ebb and flow of this uncertainty, from the hope of discovering the identity of Godot to its repeated disappointment, are themselves the essence of Beckett and his message.Referances:Reid, Alec. Krapp's Last Tape - taken from An Approach to the Plays of Samuel Beckett. New York Grove Press, Published in 1968.Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Published by Methuen Publishing Limited, 1961.Harrington, John P. Samuel Beckett and the Countertradition- taken from Twentieth Century Irish Drama, Edited by Shaun Richard. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2004.Bibliography:Gordon, Luis. Reading Godot. Published Vail-Ballou Press, 2002.Graver, Lawrence, and Raymond Federman. Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage. Published by Kegan Paul, 1979.


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