Waiting for Godot as a Theatre of the Absurd

Martin Esslin, the critic responsible for coining the term “Theatre of the Absurd,” defines absurdity as “that which has no purpose, goal, or objective”. The movement emerged in France after the horrors of World War II as a rebellion against the basic beliefs and values in traditional culture and literature. Almost all of the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd share the existentialist philosophy of absurdity and nothingness. This theater, however, "has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being — that is, in terms of concrete stage images of the absurdity of existence." These writers flout all standards by which drama has been judged for many centuries. In their plays there is no particular attention spent developing a recognizable plot, no detailed characterization, and no readily definable theme. This bizarre rejection of any recognizable pattern or development gave birth to the term Literature of the Absurd.

Against the backdrop of conventional theatre, Waiting for Godot represents irony in extremes. Unlike conventional forms in which everything on the stage exists for a larger purpose, the world of Godot is a world without meaning: bare in both matter and form. With its extreme paucity of action, Godot confronts the theatre-goer with an experience of failed expectations: nothing happens, Godot never comes. In this sense, Godot presents a brilliant simulacrum of real life in which desire is continually frustrated by the boring facts of the everyday.

The haunting image of despairing bumpkins hobnobbing around a stage barren except for the lone, skeleton-like tree, creates a situation of powerful metaphorical significance. The characters are so featureless, so context-less, that it is nearly impossible to view them as representations of empirical entities; rather, they appear almost as symbolic abstractions. In his seminal essay on the subject, Esslin argues that the Theatre of the Absurd shares a kinship with the mystery plays of medieval Europe for this very reason— because these plays often portray characters and situations too vague and generalized to signify any particular thing. Rather, the complete impotence of Vladimir and Estragon is suggestive of the failure of human thought, in the macrocosm of human existence at large, as well as in the individual mind.

Without any plot development or sense of contingency, the play is comprised of discrete activities—walking, talking, falling down—that fail to resolve into a coherent drama.  Vladimir and Estragon exist perpetually in the moment. Although they have some knowledge of things outside their immediate experience—they can recite songs and reference the Bible—this is all timeless, abstract data. When it comes to relating events to their present situation they are at a loss. References to past experiences like climbing the Eiffel Tower and picking grapes along the Rhone seem impossibly distant from the subtracted world in which they appear; it seems more likely that these memories are not even their own, or from another life. Thus, only dimly aware of their relation to yesterday and tomorrow, Vladimir and Estragon inhabit a world of inscrutable repetitiveness; and they pass the time like everyone else: walking, talking, and falling down.

Waiting for Godot” is an absurd play for not only its plot is loose but its characters are also just mechanical puppets with their incoherent colloquy. And above than all, its theme is unexplained. It is devoid of characterization and motivation. So far as its dialogue technique is concerned, it is purely absurd as there is no witty repartee and pointed dialogue. What a reader or spectator hears is simply the incoherent babbling which does not have any clear and meaningful ideas. Nothing special happens in the play, nor do we observe any significant change in setting. The situation almost remains unchanged and an enigmatic vein runs throughout the play. “Nothing happens, nobody comes … nobody goes, it’s awful!”

Godot remains a mystery and curiosity still holds a sway. The wait continues; the human contacts remain unsolved; the problem of existence remains meaningless, futile and purposeless. All this makes it an absurd play.

Last modified: Monday, 26 June 2017, 4:10 PM