VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (59, 109)
Thus ends each act in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play, Waiting for Godot, a play that introduced the medium of absurdist theatre. This could, of course, be considered a good thing and a bad thing. Absurdist theatre, notoriously, is comprised of plays, one-acts, etc., that essentially have no “point,” in an art form that is made up of cliché morals, and repetitious stories. Rules for living our lives. How many times have we seen the story of Romeo and Juliet repeated? Or The Taming of the Shrew? There are laws that seem to be based on the story of “The Boy who Cried Wolf,” that prevent us from pulling fire alarms, calling 911, etc., when these services aren’t needed. Waiting for Godot shreds all concept of a single underlining theme, moral, or point. Which is, exactly, the point.
There is in theatre a technique known as “breaking the third wall.” The third wall refers to the invisible line at the end of the stage that separates the audience from the actors. Breaking that wall, refers to the practice of getting the audience directly involved in the play, by doing things like talking to them, or even starting a scene with the actors in the audience. Some directors use this technique to get the audience more directly involved in the play. Alternately, some directors abhor this practice and consider it very untheatrical and unprofessional. Burlesque performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, thrive on this practice, to an extent that the audience is shouting lines—both rehearsed and improvisational—back at the movie and the actors in front of the screen, and many people believe that the movie is nothing without the element of audience “par-ti-ci…..pation.” Plays that use this technique remind the audience that what they’re watching doesn’t really exist in reality, per se, while simultaneously making the play more visceral, more “realistic,” more honest by acknowledging the reality/unreality of itself. While Waiting for Godot doesn’t specifically call for the technique of breaking the third wall, The wall is inherently there anyway, acting, instead of a window, as a reflection of our own lives, our own reality.
Waiting for Godot is a play that calls attention to its medium. Intrinsically, as audience members, we know that Vladimir, Estragon, Godot, Lucky, Pozzo and the boy don’t actually exist, but we allow them to exist in our paradigm of reality for 2 hours as we watch the show, and watch how they exist in their paradigm of reality which is entirely separate from ours, yet somehow allows us to witness. The difference, between this play and others is the fact that I think Beckett wrote this play with the intention of making it exist in a reality that walks the line between the play’s reality and our own. The actors are not their characters. The tree is not a “real” tree. The mound is not a “real” mound. If I were to put on this play, I would call as much attention to the latter two things as possible, making the tree an abstract cut-out of a tree, and the same for the mound. Reiterating the fact that this is a play, it doesn’t exist in reality other than a visual representation of something someone wrote. It is not “real life.” I believe that the characters with “memory problems” inherently know what we do, in a roundabout way—that they do not actually exist in any reality other than a fictitious one, that the mound is not a mound, the tree is not a tree, they are not themselves. Therefore, when the boy, Estragon, and Pozzo say that they do not remember things from the previous day, they are, as actors, speaking the truth. There’s every probability that the actors were not exactly there the day before, they could have been eating dinner, at a bar or a club, even rehearsing. In that sense, the characters are aware of their non-existence—they weren’t on a country road the day before, they weren’t even on a country road in Act One. They were on a stage set to appear like a country road, and even that is a stretch—there’s only a suggestion of any kind of set, all props relating to space are minimal, to emphasize the fact that none of this exists in reality.
Husserl’s phenomenology states that objects have no properties of their own outside of the ideas we give to them—e.g. a tree is nothing if not the culmination of what we perceive, and what we associate to mean tree. If these ideas are taken away, the tree doesn’t really exist. In Waiting for Godot, there’s only the faintest suggestion of a tree, yet we, as an audience, take that to mean that there is a tree, that the tree exists, and will continue to exist as a tree for the rest of the play, when in fact the tree is just a piece of plywood cut out and painted to look vaguely tree-like. Objects, as defined as those things we believe to physically exist in reality, are just as real/unreal as abstract ideas, images, and metaphors. The tree in Waiting for Godot never existed in a scientific way as a tree, and yet, it exists as a tree for us as we watch the play. The players on the stage are not actually named Vladimir and Estragon, yet that is what we know them as—a common trend and misperception. Actors all the time are being confronted by fans who call them names of characters they once played. There is very little distinction in some people’s minds between fiction and reality, between Objects and objects.
I think Beckett purposefully put elements into the play to confuse and confound the audience, albeit not specifically with a malicious intent. I believe he did it to remind us that what we are watching is nothing other than a play. I remember reading, and seeing performed, Death of a Salesman. It’s a terribly depressing and moving story. Both the first time I read it, and the time I saw it performed, I cried at the end of it. Why? No one actually died. The story isn’t even a true one. It’s a metaphor Arthur Miller conjured up one night. In the performance I saw, again, there was only the faintest suggestion of a house. All the walls were transparent to us, the audience, yet the characters moved as if solid walls existed, and when they didn’t, it was a dramatic element put there to tell us, the audience, that something weird was happening, that Willy was in a kind of fantasy dreamworld, that these events weren’t “really” happening. But none of this is happening. None of it exists. It’s a play.
If we can get so caught up in a work of fiction like a play, a soap opera, a book, why is it difficult for us to acknowledge Husserl’s theory that all of these “fictions” are just as real as those things we experience in “reality,” or outside our head? I can experience a loss by watching Death of a Salesman, a play, something that exists only as words on a page and actions being performed on a stage. Written texts, even, are nothing more than a series of words. Words themselves are nothing more than symbols, visual representations of sounds that often don’t correspond all that accurately. Nothing actually exists, there’s merely representations of other things.
If this is true, if we live in a reality where nothing actually exists, and everything we perceive are just representations, we take all these things for granted. What’s the crime in that? Why do we need to be reminded that everything we see isn’t actually there, that the play is not real, that your bed is not a bed, that home is not a home, that mother and father are representations of ideals? I was doing just fine in my bubble of reality. Isn’t all this excess philosophizing just gratuitous and done only for the sake of itself? I don’t think I agree with Husserl when he says that this kind of philosophizing should be the only kind, and that this can and should help science. I tend to think science is doing just fine, thank you, and doesn’t need our help. I tend to think that philosophers should stick to answering the standard Eternal Questions, the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. However, Waiting for Godot is works as a play because it throws this concept in our face in a space where we probably aren’t expecting it.
The religious undertones are things that can’t be ignored, either. However, I don’t think that they should be paid attention to any more than anything else. The inclusion of the religious subtext is there to emphasize the pointlessness of religious orthodoxy, the absurdity of religions, which, of course, is exactly why Kierkegaard believed we should be religious. The double metaphorical meaning of waiting for Godot as waiting for God simply represents us as humankind, constantly waiting for some proof of God’s existence, some insight into the Ultimate Question (Life, the Universe, and Everything), some proof that we have a purpose for being here. But the absurdist and existentialist truth is that there is no reason why we’re here, there’s nothing. There is no God, there is no Devil, there is no afterlife. These are merely manmade distractions to keep us occupied through our lives until we die and it doesn’t matter anymore. Something to give us hope and faith and keep us from killing ourselves right off the bat.
The inclusion of religion in the context of the play is like the inclusion of religion in the context of life; it’s there, it exists, but it is merely a distraction. There is no point to life other than the small points that make it up. Each moment, each event, each experience, that’s the point, that’s the only “secret” of Life. Religions distract us from this truth. Waiting for Godothas no “point,” per se, outside the events that make it up, and in that way, religion has no reason to be there, except in the sense that if the play is a metaphor for our life, our reality, such a thing could not be ignored, and must be included. If the play is there to smack us around and point out the fact that nothing really exists, religion must be there to remind us how absurd the practice is.
Beckett called his play a “tragicomedy,” and I like this definition. I think “tragicomedy” is the only thing the play could be classified as. It is neither tragedy nor comedy, yet it has elements of both and none. Life is neither comedy nor tragedy. Life has no point, no underlining moral. Samuel Beckett, for the first time, is trying to bring that essence to the stage, using the stage as his metaphor, and in that way, making a metaphor think, talk, breathe, move.