Waiting for Godot as an Existentialist Play

Existentialism is an extremely diverse and varied philosophy. But, there are some themes that can be found in all its forms. (1) Existence precedes essence, in other words, you need existence to have essence. There is no predetermined “true” thing. It has to already exist in order to become what it is. (2) Anxiety and anguish. The fear or dread which is not directed at any specific object, it’s just there. Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of human existence, the meaningless of it. According to Kierkegaard, anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of man’s existence. 3) Absurdity. “Granted I am my own existence, but this existence is absurd. ” Everybody is here, everybody exists, but there is no reason as to why. We’re just here, that’s it, no excuses. ” (4) Nothingness. There is nothing that structures this world’s existence, man’s existence, or the existence of my computer. There is no essence that these things are drawn from, since existence precedes essence, then that means there is nothing. (5) Death. The theme of death follows along with the theme of nothingness. Death is always there, there is no escaping from it.

To think of death, as everybody does sooner or later, causes anxiety. The only sure way to end anxiety once and for all is death. The one fundamental behind all of Beckett’s work is this existentialist knowledge of man’s solitude, imprisonment, and pain in an intolerable universe which is indifferent to his suffering. The world in which Becket begins to write is one without unity, clarity, rationality, or hope, and where man feels himself alone and a stranger in a place which itself will one day cease to exist.

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From this confrontation between the unreasonable silence of the universe and the human need to be, there arises that futile revolt against existence; the painful rebellion of the spirit against three necessities – the abject necessity of being born, the hard necessity of living, and the sharp necessity of dying – which is constant throughout Beckett’s works. Consequently, the dramatist is seen as a philosopher, as in fact a thinly disguised existentialist who can only be understood in the context of Sartre and Camus.

The prolegomena to Waiting for Godot on this view are Being and Nothingness, The Myth of Sisyphus and Nausea. Thus F. J. Hoffmann can say that it is “an existentialist play [arguing] against the assumption of an image that drains off the energy of stark human responsibility”, and Martin Esslin discussing Beckett in the context of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre says “Beckett’s writings . . . are more than mere illustrations of the point-of-view of existentialist philosophers . . . they constitute the culmination of existential thought itself. Esslin does argue the success with which Beckett transmutes these philosophical ideas into dramatic and theatrical terms. Beckett himself has said in 1961, “If the subject of my novels could be expressed in philosophical terms, there would have been no reason for my writing them”, and the remark applies with even more force to the play. In the first place, then, behind Beckett’s Waiting for Godot lies something much broader than is suggested by linking it to existentialist philosophy.

It is something in the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) of the gloomy war-torn century: more specifically, the Nietzschean formulation that God is dead, which colours much more than a good deal of modern literature. This feeling deprives man of the sense of a transcendental purpose in life, it inculcates a sense of the futility of life whose only object seems to be death, and it hurls man back on his own puny resources to attempt to give significance to the void left by the disappearance of God.

This is the essence of the Sisyphean myth: the sense of life as a pointless (and repetitive) task, which is felt as punishment. The waiting for Godot by the two tramps epitomizes the strong current of futility that flows beneath their seemingly tranquil world. Vladimir and Estragon are blissfully and painfully oblivious to their own condition. They go about repeating their actions every day unmindful of the monotony and captivity. They also do not activate their mind to question or brood over their own actions and the motives underlying their actions. The “compressed vacuum” in their lives is constantly disregarded.

Clearly there is a structure of feeling which in many ways anticipates something of what is to be found in Waiting for Godot – the sense of the horror of death not only or mainly in its pain but in its inevitability (in Beckett’s terms, the horror latent in the consciousness of the void), an inevitability which makes the daily rituals of life become grotesquely meaningless, and which causes us to erect mental screens to block it out. To the extent that each of us is intensely aware of his death, to that extent he asks himself whether ‘it alone is true’.

And if the answer is a secular, non-transcendental one, to that extent he may feel his life to be as that of Sisyphus, rolling the meaningless stone up the arbitrary hill in a futile see-saw of misery. Edith Kern A Times correspondent writes (13 April 1956) that “the play, though Christian in its imagery, was not in the least Christian in its theme. It was rather an atheist-existentialist play, insisting on the impossibility of the individual’s shifting his burdens to any pair of shoulders other than his own: its moral was, ‘If this is where waiting for Godot gets us, why wait for Godot’? Waiting for Godot carries the strain of existentialist implication on the day today’s world. The proliferation of words in the modern world does not necessarily imply communication between people. Often the so-called dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon degenerates into two monologues. Our surface etiquette and professed respect for others is met in Godot by the verbal and physical brutality of Pozzo toward Lucky. Estragon comments on the depth of our religious beliefs when he says, as Vladimir brings up the subject of salvation and damnation, “I’m going”.

The myth of progress falls in Lucky’s speech, in which we learn that man, in spite of vitamins, sanitation, penicillin, and physical education, is in the process of shrinking. It is quite significant that this shrinking dates from the time of Voltaire who stands, here, for the century that believed too naively in the dream of human progress and probably, as well, for a time of surfaces, surfaces that Beckett is out to destroy. He reduces our gourmet delicacies to carrots, black radishes, and that staple of the starvation time under the German occupation, the lowly turnip.

Our sex life leads to venereal disease; our laughter is silenced in pain; our fashionable clothes turn into rags, our lithe youth into stumbling old age, and our busy lives into a solitary waiting for death. We are not free but bound to each other and Godot; we are not equal but exist in a series of compartments in the social hierarchy; even our feelings of charity and fraternity are hesitant and fearful and inspired chiefly by our own selfish needs. As for our cult of sympathy, a quality that does little to remedy human suffering, Lucky’s angry kick is the best commentary.

The idea that God or fate or some Supreme Being with control toys with the lives of men is startlingly clear. Every moment of every day, mankind waits for some sign from God that his suffering will end. And every day, God does not arrive. The parallel between God and Godot is not simply verbal (in the spelling and pronunciation of names), but also in the references to long white beards, shepherds, and supremacy. Godot has saving power; Godot has all the answers to questions that have not been asked. Godot is selective in his punishments and rewards, as God was with Cain and Abel.

In connection with this theme is the virtual impossibility of man’s ever having an understanding of or relationship with God. It seems impossible. This is the the existentialist concept of God. Beckett therefore implies that there is no Godot to give purpose and point to the ‘immense confusion’, or that if there is, he is as malevolent and cruel and as ultimately futile as Pozzo and has the same amount of transcendental value as Pozzo which is nil. Therefore waiting for Godot is an empty and sterile ‘activity’, the main purpose of which would seem to be to disguise from the tramps the void, the nothingness.

Waiting for Godot is distinctively marked by existentialism but it also has its own point of distinction from it. For instance, existentialism’s assertion that there is a way to live life creatively in order to transcend the limitations of time and space does not actually come to a realization in the play. The two tramps continue their indeterminate wait for Godot totally neglecting the possibility of living a more creative life outside the waiting. They even consider it an honour to cling to their perennial act of clinging to ‘bad faith’.

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