Happy Birthday, Beckett! Celebrate the (Absurd) “Waiting for Godot” Author

Samuel Beckett was a most interesting man—a fact that can be immediately confirmed by the author’s influential contributions to the Absurdist Movement (but we’ll get to what that is in a moment).

Though born and raised in Ireland, Beckett fell in love with Paris in his 20s after graduating from Trinity College with a B.A. in modern languages and setting out on a cycling tour of France. There the young author befriended and made a pseudo-father-figure of fellow author and Irishman James Joyce, who provided a great deal of encouragement and assistance to Beckett and his work.

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Throughout his life, Beckett suffered from bouts of severe depression and associated alcoholism, both of which took a toll on his writing until the midpoint of his career. Beckett began to use his pain and his experience in studying philosophy to begin working in the style of “the absurd.” The Absurdist movement was centered on the concept that humanity’s efforts to find or define the inherent meaning of anything (say, human experience) are absurd because the qualities of communicable information in relation to reality make any such certainty impossible. Was that confusing? Yes, yes it was. More simply stated, Absurdism was founded on the belief that nothing can be truly confirmed, be it experience or relationships, and therefore who is to say what is real when what has happened cannot be proven? Okay, that was a little confusing, too, but when we say that Samuel Beckett was a smart man, believe us—this fella not only understood Absurdism, but helped to establish it as a literary and philosophical movement.

Speaking of the Absurdist movement, we would like to (primarily) focus this Beckett b-day post on one of his most famous works, Waiting for Godot. Sometimes referred to as one of the most significant English plays of the 20th century, this drama was and remains a highly influential piece. Arguably one of the most interesting elements of Waiting for Godot is, for lack of more eloquent phrase, how very weird it is. Readers/viewers of this play are often struck by how nonsensical yet meaningful the play is, in addition to the notion that the play itself has no meaning… And yet it must.

The description of this play is becoming as confusing as the above attempt at defining “the absurd.” For this reason, we shall now delve into detailing aspects of the drama/comedy itself, in hopes that piece by piece this moving work will become a more cohesive whole.

What is Waiting for Godot REALLY about?

Arguably, the basis of the play is desire for a purpose. This aim of having a purpose could be further extrapolated to the human condition and the desire to understand the meaning of life. Absurdism directly deals with the impossible conclusion to this existential question, and it makes sense that Beckett would take this painful construction to bat in his works.

How would you categorize this play?

There are two basic genre categories into we can place a given play: comedy and tragedy. A tragedy can be described as a work with the philosophical view that life is tragic because it is filled with pain and suffering, and ultimately ends in death. Alternatively, a comedy takes the view that life is ridiculous because people are foolish and harbor unrealistic expectations.

It makes sense that an absurdist work such as Waiting for Godot takes bits and pieces from both of these genres. As an experimental play belonging to the Absurdist movement, it works to self-consciously break down and challenge the traditional generic conventions.

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What Are the Play’s Themes?

Any work of literature is going to feature at least one theme (and usually more). A theme is very basically an ongoing subject/topic. You can see themes in thoughts, literary works, art exhibitions, etc.

Waiting for Godot is a rather complex play, and since the work is itself quite cyclical it can be argued that anything recurring is in some way a theme. In spite of this defensible stance, we are going to outline two major themes in the play: memory and time. Tied in with the themes of memory and time is the theme of uncertainty. Everything is uncertain in the play, and this is what makes it appear absurd. In watching/reading the play, the viewers and/or readers are often left as confused as the characters as to what is happening, when it happened, or if it happened at all. Literary analysis is enough to make your head spin sometimes, but that’s why we’re here!

What Methods Did Beckett Use to Create The Play?

When we say “methods,” we mean “what an author did to convey a desired message.” In many cases, this methodology includes word choice, syntax, use of rhetoric, and more. By focusing on particular techniques/methodology, an author can decidedly skew a story in one direction or another, inflicting a particular interpretation or mood onto his or her audience.

In Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s involvement in the theater becomes increasingly more apparent. Unlike his novels and short stories, Beckett’s plays are more definitely focused on theatrical outcome than literary objectives; instead of focusing on elements like grammatical structure to keep the story flowing, Beckett puts more emphasis into the action of what is occurring onstage rather than the behind-the-scenes drivers of the story (i.e. action over narration,) though he does stake a lot on the dialogue between characters.

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So, What Was the Meaning of the Play?

We’ve talked about what happens in the play, we’ve talked about its potential inspirations, and we’ve discussed how Beckett may have gone about the writing of the work, but what is Waiting for Godot trying to tell us?

To put it frankly, the play is pretty bleak. The whole piece details the story of two men waiting for someone or something that will potentially never arrive. This waiting for an event that may never occur may be extrapolated to a commentary on the human condition—common in both existentialism and absurdism (though believers of one or the other would never agree to any similarities between these movements). Absurdism questions the motivations behind the human experience: if nothing can be explained or proven, then everything we do is arguably absurd. It can be argued, therefore, that the seemingly endless and repetitive waiting of the two main characters can be a metaphor for humanity as a whole and how we are always, perhaps senselessly, awaiting something.

More on the play’s meaning.

Everybody’s a Critic…

If you’ve ever read or written anything (and since you’re on the eNotes blog we can assume you have at least some interest in the written word), you will know all about literary criticism—it’s just about everywhere. Back in the day, the only reputable source of literary criticism could be found in the work of scholars who had done targeted analysis on a particular piece. Nowadays, however, you can type in the name of any work and be taken to countless links to opinions (or tweets).

A piece like Waiting for Godot has been reviewed and criticized (and praised) a number of times from varying viewpoints with basis in all varieties of philosophical thought. One could wonder though… what are the critics themselves waiting for?

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