ExistentialismAbsurdism: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

Who is Samuel Beckett?

Samuel Beckett is a well-known absurdist, playwright, novelist, and poet. He was born in Ireland on April 13, 1906 and later studied languages at Trinity College in Dublin. After school, Beckett moved to Paris to teach and it was there that he met some of his mentors, including James Joyce and Rene Descartes. Throughout the 1930’s, Beckett traveled throughout Europe and started writing many works. The novel that he is best known for is the series of three novels that are written in French known as The Trilogy. Beckett is famous for his pessimistic views of human nature that are reflected in many, if not all, of his writings. All of his writings posses a mysterious and gloomy style and there are many people that have tried to understand the deeper meaning in his works. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, a great achievement proving his talent at presenting his ideas. Beckett died on December 22, 1989 but is remembered at a great philosopher.

Absurdism and the Theater of the Absurd

Absurdism is defined in the Webster dictionary as “a philosophy based on the belief that the universe is irrational and meaningless and that the search for order brings the individual into conflict with the universe.” The philosophy and the theater of the absurd came around in the mists of World War II. “It took the basis of theatre, which presented a world which cannot be logically explained, life is in one word absurd” (Keys). The plots of absurd plays were often not of a typical plot and usually had the same pattern, ending the play the same way that it started, moving in a circle. These plays took awhile to catch on but once they did, they became well known in the Absurdist era.

Beckett is considered by some to be the most well known of the absurdist playwrights because of his play, Waiting for Godot. He is quoted for saying, “what do I know about man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.” Another famous playwright in the absurdist realm is Eugene Ionesco. Ionesco is known for writing plays that were considered “completely nonsensical” to many people (Keys). A theme from his plays is making his characters unable to control their own destiny. Some of his works include The Bald Soprano and Journeys to the Home of the Dead. Lastly, Harold Pinter is considered the leading English playwright in the theater of the absurd. He is known for never revealing an explanation for any play and, his works are considered more realistic than others in his field. He is well known for The Dumbwaiter and Mountain Language. Overall, this genre of playwrights has led people into a new way of thinking about the world, and maybe to the realization that there is no point in searching for a meaning that doesn’t exist.

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot is known as Beckett’s most famous play and was first published in 1952 in French. It first appeared on stage in 1953 at a small theater in Paris and later was translated into English in 1955. At first, the play was misunderstood and received bad reviews. Beckett’s point in the play Waiting for Godot appears to be that we all spend our lives waiting for something that may or may not come. The main characters, Estragon and Vladimir, spend days (days that they are not even keeping track of) waiting for someone who they don’t even know, and aren’t really even acquainted with. They don’t even know what Godot would look like if he passed. The two men spend their days contemplating what they should do to fill the empty space while they wait endlessly for Godot. There are many times when one asks the other what they should do to pass the time, as on page 18.

The characters never seem to complete one task or another. They contemplate suicide but decide that it may not be for the best because they might not both die and the other would be left alone.
For Beckett, the meaning of human life is that we wait for something to happen or for someone to come and show us the way. The way his characters waited, even when the boy came to tell them that Godot wouldn’t be coming that day, is parallel to the way that some people think about Jesus Christ coming back to Earth and the way Christians still have faith even when he hasn’t come yet. There are references in both acts, one on page 52, that Estragon and Vladimir both discuss leaving and not waiting any longer but neither makes the move to do so. It seems like he is saying that to find meaning, we have to take in our surroundings and talk to those who cross our path, as Pozzo and Lucky crossed Estragon’s and Vladimir. There are some that believe that maybe Beckett is suggesting that God is what we are waiting around for; such that Godot is God.

Different things in the play reflect Beckett’s belief in Absurdism. Beckett believed that a person could never know anything about man’s destiny. This is reflected in the overall theme of Waiting for Godot. Throughout the entirety of the play, the readers are left never knowing what is going to happen to Estragon and Vladimir. This is important to understand because it means that Beckett didn’t want a resolution because in his philosophies, there can’t be one. Beckett’s overall theme is that we can never really know what is meant for human beings and this is reflected throughout the play.

Criticisms of Absurdism

There were many people who have critiques of Absurdism and among this group is Gabriel Marcel. Marcel is a well-known existentialist of the 20th century. Throughout his life he developed what are known today as Marcellian concepts of his beliefs and explanations. Three of these concepts that are important in understanding Marcel’s beliefs are disposability, existence and the broken world. It was clear that there were many concepts of Absurdism that Marcel wouldn’t have agreed with. He is quoted for saying; “we must ask whether any philosopher is really qualified to pass the verdict on the universe, that the universe is absurd.” This shows that he may not even agree with philosophers trying to determine if whether or not the universe is absurd, as the question itself implies that it may indeed be true. Marcel believes more in the question of existence and the realization that we live in a truly broken world.

An Absurdist such as Beckett would have an argument to meet Marcel’s critiques. He would take the position that as people who do exist, we do have the qualifications to make the assumption that the world and our universe are absurd based on our research and studies. He might argue that based on the assumption that we live in a broken world, we could easily make the connection that we are in an absurd universe. A universe without meaning and that it would be wasteful it consider looking deeper into subjects such as disposability and existence because in the end it won’t matter anyway.

Overall, Absurdist pioneers such as Beckett wanted to convey the hidden meanings of this philosophy in their plays. They present ideas that can never be answer, which relates to so many questions that we have in everyday life. In the end, we will never know whether or not the universe is absurd, but it is the belief like Beckett’s that it would be a waste to look because of the possibility that it is absurd.

Works Cited
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. Philadelphia: New York, 1987.
Keys, Stephanie. “Theatre of the Absurd.” Web. 4 November 2010.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online.
3 November 2010 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hacker>