Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett: A Tragedy

In the tradition of tragedy there is always a profound understanding of suffering and helpless humanity. The tradition continues from the ancient Greeks to the modern playwrights - Luigi Pirandello, Arthur Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, to name only a few. It has been said that Beckett's plays are a poignant expression of boredom, despair, and pessimism.

Samuel Beckett

There are occasional silver linings of comicality and laughter, but they serve to thicken and deepen the clouds of life. We are faced with the ultimate truth that we are doomed to solitude, alienated from the universe. The characters remind us of robots and automata, who have no passion, conflict or emotion. They have no freedom of will, freedom of action, or freedom of movement. Waiting for Godot is a grand world of despair, where man is reduced to the reactions of a puppet, where the world is left behind. Waiting for Godot bars from the stage all forms of mobility and natural communication between characters, and, therefore, the result is crippled and monotonous.

The atmosphere in the play is tragic, and yet Waiting for Godot is not a tragedy in the conventional sense. Aristotle insists that a tragedy should have certain characteristics, namely plot; character, a complete action, an ideal tragic hero, and Catharsis. The ancient Greek tragedies are religious in impulsion, rhetorical in style, serene in action, and ironical in the plot. Judged from the Aristotelian as well as the Greek point of view, Waiting for Godot does not seem to be a tragedy. For in it there is no plot; the action, if any, is incomplete; there is no artistic embellishment in the language of the play; there is no tragic hero, who compels our admiration; there is no Catharsis either. In the tragedies of the twentieth century the heroes, the anti-heroes, are victims of circumstances rather than the architects of their own destiny. The social, political, and economic values have replaced the gods of ancient Greek tragedy.

Though the ancient criteria of tragedy are not found in Waiting for Godot, it is a tragedy. The heroes of the play, Vladimir and Estragon, have been together for fifty years. They were once on the top of the Eiffel tower, which is the symbol of happiness and prosperity. But they are two ill-clad tramps with no roof over their heads, hunger gnawing them at their entrails. They evoke pity and fear. They are shrouded in mystery, and yet the readers and the audience do not experience any Catharsis, which is not mere tragic relief but emotional equilibrium. We leave the auditorium in a state of despair. The two tramps wait, knowing full well that it is an exercise in futility.

There is hardly any action in the play. Throughout the play the two tramps wait in a state of helplessness and nurse no hope. They pass the time in the idle gossip, singing songs, playing eristic bouts, indulging in cross talks, doing physical exercises and playing the parts of Pozzo and Lucky. They have none of the heroic endurance or stoical fortitude of Prometheus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. "Nothing is to be done"- that is the keynote of the play. They have no urge for action, no lust for life. Out of sheer boredom they are ready to commit suicide. But that decision also falls through only because the branch of the tree they like to hang themselves from is too weak, nor is there a cord to hang themselves with.

They are Waiting for Godot, for Godot's arrival alone can terminate their helplessness, despair and inaction. But Godot does not come in spite of his unwritten message that he will. The boy brings a message, but that does not raise any hope. He presents an image of Godot - an image that is not cheering or heartening. For Godot, before coming, will have to "consult his family", "his friends", "his agents", "his bank account", "his correspondents", and even "his books".

Vladimir and Estragon are the representatives of the suffering humanity, travailing in a hostile universe. Pozzo and Lucky present similar picture of despair and helplessness. They deepen and heighten the tragedy of a man and suggest that helplessness is not the destiny of the two tramps alone, but of all beings. Lucky is treated by his master as an animal. Once graceful and beautiful, he has now fallen upon evil days. He has lost all human dignity. He is taken to the fair for sale, his neck tied with a string. Pozzo is so heartless that on seeing Lucky weeping bitterly, he simply says: "Old dogs have more dignity." The master is power-mad, and as if by an act of Nemesis, he becomes blind. The word 'blind' may be taken figuratively also. He is blind, for he has not the patience to appreciate the other man's point of view. But as he becomes blind, he is as helpless as the rest. Lucky becomes dumb, and is yet made to think on behalf of his master.

The tragic refrain of the two tramps is: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes; it's awful." Vladimir says: 'There's nothing we can do " And Estragon says: "All my lousy life I've crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery! You and your landscapes! Tell me about the worms!"

Pozzo, a little humanized by his blindness, says: "One day trim any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blued, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you ? They gave birth astride of a grave, the light gleams and instant, then it's night once more."

Waiting for Godot is a tragedy of the modern man. The hero is not one person, but the entire humanity, suffering and groaning with no hope of redress. And yet the play has its Catharsis. The greater the anxieties and the temptation to indulge in illusions, the more beneficial is this therapeutic effect.

Related Topics

Murphy (Fiction)

Endgame (Drama)

Biography of Samuel Beckett