A strangeness pervades the work of Samuel Beckett’s dramas that makes a reader feel like they’re floating in a dream or perhaps a nightmare. The dialogue and settings of his work have a surreal quality, while remaining grounded in a certain amount of realism. To explain further there is nothing fantastical that one might find in a dream, and theoretically all the events could happen in real life, but the way these plays unfold, the dialogue the characters engage in, and the bizarre behavior of the characters give these plays a dream-like quality. The plays belong to the tradition known as the Theater of the Absurd. This has its origins in Albert Camus’s Absurdist philosophy, which sees a conflict between our need for meaning in life and the difficulty in finding it, which often makes life an absurd experience. Work associated with this tradition is often described as tragicomedy. Indeed, Beckett’s most famous drama, Waiting for Godot, includes the description, “a Tragicomedy in Two Acts” as part of its title. While there is often a dark and tragic tone in these works, there are also light-hearted moments, silly behavior, and jokes, all of which subtly reveals further the tragedy and absurdity in life. When you can’t cry, sometimes you need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
Waiting for Godot
This two act play consists of two men named Estragon (known as Gogo) and Vladimir (known as Didi) waiting by a tree for an important person named Godot for a period of two days. Each act is a day. Gogo and Didi might be hobos, but the play never makes this clear. There are suggestions in the dialogue that in the past that they had seen better times in other parts of Europe, but this, too, is never made clear. They’re not really sure why they’re waiting for Godot, except that they believe he has something important to offer them that will change their lives. During this waiting, Estragon often threatens to leave, but each time they both agree to stop waiting and go somewhere else, both of them fail to move or go anywhere. Occasionally they discuss and debate religion and existence.
To break up this monotony, a rich landowner named Pozzo arrives with his servant, Lucky. Lucky has a rope tied around his neck (like an animal). Pozzo stops in his journey for lunch, smokes a cigar, and engages Gogo and Didi in conversation, as he mistreats his servant (basically a slave) who we find out is on his way to be sold (like a horse) because he has become too old and can no longer discharge his service properly.
Act 2 involves them still waiting for Godot to arrive. Pozzo even returns, blind and miserable, with Lucky leading him along. Act 2 basically recapitulates in varied form the events of Act 1.
Given that it’s a play where two guys mostly stand around talking and nothing really happens, it is quite engaging and entertaining. Its themes and experimental style (which is very different than traditional plot arcs found in drama) place this work within Modernism. However, the play lacks the difficulty found in some of the more intimidating Modernists, such as Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, etc.
By repeating the events of Act 1 and Act 2 in only slightly varied form, Beckett’s play forces us to consider the repetitiveness of life. These characters wait and wait for Godot, but this mysterious figure never comes. They believe Godot will offer them something important, but they have no idea what. We spend so much of our lives on existential quests, for deeper meaning, for the next big event that will give new meaning to our lives, but as the play tries to show this waiting and hoping is really absurd. We may be waiting for something that will never come. Vladimir who seems to be the strongest advocate for waiting for Godot also is the character who talks the most about religion, creating an association with waiting for the mysterious man and religious belief. Religious belief is itself an existential quest for deeper meaning and a promise of some great reward that will come later much like their waiting for Godot.
Various times in the play Gogo almost convinces Didi to stop waiting, but they never manage to leave. They say they’re going to, but just stand there, not moving. Again, this highlights the absurdity of life. One way to read this is that we often are reluctant to leave our existential quests for deeper meaning. What if we leave and then Godot actually does show up? However, Beckett might be taking this idea further and be saying that escape itself is impossible. Human existence is naturally absurd and you can’t escape your fate of living an absurd life.
This idea is highlighted even further with Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo is a terrible human being. He has literally enslaved Lucky and when Gogo and Didi are horrified by this and challenge him, he hems and haws, defending Lucky’s state in life much like the Southern Slave Owners in America would argue it was for the slave’s own benefit. When he converses with Gogo and Didi, he attempts to hide his inhumanity behind social decorum and we see he thinks of himself as a kind of refined gentlemen. There is a sense that he thinks of himself as a good human being because of his etiquette and his wealth. When it is precisely these things that in fact make him a worse human being. The play also suggests in many ways that Lucky, the servant of Pozzo, is complicit in his own servitude. He accepts his fate that he is to be sold like chattel. Even when his master his blind and weakened in Act II, he doesn’t abandon him. This event in Act II is reminiscent of Oedipus’ blinding and seems to be Beckett playing with the well-tread theme of the Ancient World about the capriciousness of fate. However, it is being recast in the light of absurdist philosophy. Literal fortunes (i. e. wealth) cannot protect Pozzo from the misfortune of losing his sight in an absurd world. Whereas in the first half he was blind to his own inhumanity, now he is physically blind.
Gogo and Didi who at first seemed horrified by Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky remember them somewhat fondly at the beginning of Act II. This relates to the allusions they make to better times in the past throughout the play. Were these events just a dream? Were they really better than the present events? Beckett seems to be suggesting that we romanticize and imagine the past better than it probably was.
Krapp’s Last Tape
This is a one act play (no longer than 10 pages). A miserable man named Krapp wanders about alone in his apartment, eating bananas, and listening to recorded tapes of himself at younger ages. He decides to listen to himself at thirty-nine. We hear this thirty-nine year old talk about their dying mother and breaking off a relationship with a woman he loved. The older Krapp mocks the youthful hope and idealism of the younger Krapp, ending with him making a new recording in which he describes his young self as “that stupid bastard” and “hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.” But then we see him pondering if he could’ve been happy with the woman he broke it off with.
The older Krapp might mock his younger self, but we get the sense that he is full of regret and wishes his life turned out differently. At this older age, he takes his pleasure from the sound and meaning of words like “spool” and “viduity.” The word, “viduity” comes up in the context of listening to his younger self report on their mother’s death. First, that Krapp must look it up in a dictionary is symbolic for his disconnect from the past. After all, his younger self knew the meaning of this word. Second, Krapp focuses on the superficial, the meaning of a word rather than the deeper emotional content (his mother’s death). All of this suggests the older Krapp is dealing with the failures of his life and emotional pains of the past through a coping mechanism. He attempts to delegitimize the emotional stuff of his past by focusing on the superficial as a way of deflecting the regret and sadness that is secretly underneath it all. By having Krapp evaluate his younger self in tape form (literally his memories and reflections of life at the time recorded), the play also shows how different our perceptions can be at different ages. My 60 year old self will likely think differently and perceive the world differently than my thirty year old self who sees the world differently than my twenty year old self.
Clov is a servant of a disabled man named Hamm. He wants to escape from his repetitive, meaningless, and sometimes abusive life with the invalid. Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, also live with them inside dustbins. Clov feels obligated to Hamm for bringing him in from the street and raising him, but at the same time, Hamm is abusive and controlling. Both characters feel lonely and isolated. Clov wants to escape this place and see the larger world, while Hamm secretly wishes that Clov loved him.
Again, in this story, we have the boring repetitiveness of life as a major theme. The characters are stuck living the same terrible, meaningless, boring, and abusive lives each day; there is a desire for change. Nagg and Nelll are barely in the play and in some ways are expendable, but they add an important dimension to the aforementioned themes. Nagg and Nell, trapped in their bins, retell the same story about their love, making their experience repetitive as well. We also see them reduced to a childlike state of dependence, wanting various foods to comfort them like children. In their old age, they no longer have the option of change; they are left in a state childishness and repetitiveness. Given Hamm’s disabled state and Clov’s threat to leave him, the elderly parents serve as a symbol for the inevitable fate of Hamm. The fact that they live inside dustbins (garbage bins) not only adds a weirdness to Beckett’s play that I described earlier, but also symbolizes that Hamm has discarded his parents in the trash, barely remembering their existence.