Waiting for Godot – At The Existential Bus Stop.

“There is no communication because there is no vehicle for communication” – Samuel Beckett.

We’ve all been there – late at night, waiting for the last bus. Have we missed it? Shall we give it another five minutes, and then start walking? Or shall we start walking now, and risk it driving past us? Some modern city bus stops even have electronic signs informing us of what is expected. But do we believe them? Are they right?

For a bus, we would only wait so long. No one in a right mind would still be there six hours later. But what about entities that have a much longer time frame, or exist as a belief rather than a physical body? How long can one depend on them when every available resource suggest that they are absent? Or when there is nothing else to replace it with?

Hamlet famously asks “to be or not to be?”, Waiting For Godot depicts what may happen when we continue to exist, deliberately ignoring our knowledge of the inevitable. One such consequence is the undermining of language as a means of communication. So urgent is the need not to alarm ourselves, or others, with the result of Hamlet’s question, that language becomes a toy, an elaborate fiction, to pass the time, and imitate a sense of control over our thoughts, and our environment. In Waiting For Godot we see how language, (our unique means of communication) has degraded to the state where it no longer seems capable of being used to express any clear thought, or real meaning. It is used as a deliberate curtailing of our capacity to express our thoughts, or even think them. Beckett provides no solutions, other than trying to make us aware of this state, via the very medium in question. A seemingly thankless task.

Why Vladimir, and Estragon?

At no point does Beckett describe Vladimir, and Estragon, as tramps. In fact he provides very little description of them at all, other than what we can glean from their physical tangles, emotional pre-occupations, and the thoughts of hanging themselves (where it is suggested that one may be heavier than the other). Yet it seems natural to see them this way, they spend all day outside waiting, seemingly with nothing to do, they don’t have any responsibilities or employment, and have clothing that is faulty, old, and seemingly not always their own (although once again, there is lots of confusion over whether some clothing, such as the boots, are actually the same pair as worn the previous day).

Things may well have changed in the prevalence and attitude to the homeless since the 1950s, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the homeless have had a constant meaning to other members of society. On one hand they are a warning about what could happen if an individual should have no money, or lose their income, or their status. They encourage people to continue with lives that they may not like, out of fear for what may happen.

On the other hand they have a more insidious role, for clearly one can continue to exist. Extreme privation does not necessarily result in death in advanced societies; a social death perhaps, but not a physical one. The presence of people who reject social pressures, who are not playing the game, is as much of a reason for general society to ignore them, for they pose very difficult questions.

It is the latter function that Vladimir, and Estragon, symbolise, and hence why we may see them as people on the fringes of society. They are people who seem acutely aware of the hopelessness of their situation, and yet they seem absolutely intent on finding ways to ignore this fact. The final minutes of the play serve as an example, where finally, the speech games, the co-support in ignoring the elephant in the room, break down. But instead of the usual silence, and panic, Vladimir produces a moment of clarity, that for once, seems to communicate the unsaid:

“Was I sleeping whilst the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? […] The air is full of our cries (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. […] I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

It isn’t clear if Vladimir fully realizes what he has said. It is the social equivalent of breaking the expectations of a brief social interaction. Expect he is speaking to himself. Is he appalled at vocalizing what he has spent so long avoiding? Is this the first time he has thought it, and so unsure of how it is going to affect him? Or is he panicked at breaking an unspoken agreement to avoid such issues, such morbidity? Once again, it isn’t clear, and the most poetic, moving, text in the play, typically produces no answers, just more doubt (and in the silence that greets “The air is full of our cries”, yet another piece of humour, undermining any attempt at gravitas).

Hierarchies of Language:

If we accept that this play demonstrates the unreliability of language as a means of communication, then it is hardly surprising that essays about the play become hard to follow. They commonly descend into a labyrinthine mixture of ever lengthening sentences filled with “existentials” and metaphysicals”. Using language to discuss the unreliability of language would seem an inherently flawed pursuit.

The use of more rarefied words, such as ‘existential’, could rightly be an attempt to utilise a specialised language, words with one specific meaning, that haven’t been sullied by common daily use. Yet, surely this is a damaging defense of language – to reduce it to binaries?

One of Vladimir and Estragon’s linguistic acts is to speak in a faux-sophisticated manner, using long words in clipped sentences:

V: Our movements.

E: Our elevations.

V: Our relaxations.

E: Our elongations.

V: Our relaxations.

This style of speaking makes no more sense than any of their other conversations. It too becomes repetitive (‘relaxations” is often repeated, referring to the real physical need to play these word games), and is reduced to another way to pass the time.

Lucky’s speech is technocratic language gone mad; full of clauses and cititions, but provided in a way that makes little sense. To a twentieth-century human it resembles a data-dump, a torrent of information from a computer, that can process and store information, but has no ability to understand it, or place it into a helpful context. The other characters become increasingly agitated with the speech until they physically force him to stop (the removal of Lucky’s hat, like the pulling of a power cord). Their agitation is similar to the anxiety that Vladimir and Estragon feel when alone, or when one refuses to reply and so continue their word games. Lucky’s speech makes them feel redundant as it doesn’t require a response to continue, and it’s lack of form, lack of context, lack of easy meaning, makes them scared that the one thing that passes the time, the one thing that makes them feel real – language – has failed. It also suggests the one thing worse than relying on another for a response, with all the frustrations and ambiguity it brings – to literally talk to oneself. Language limits the ability to communicate, becomes a prison for our thoughts.

Beckett of course is a dramatist. This can be forgotten, as his plays have very little directorial descriptions, sets are bare, and casts lists minimal. But unlike the essayist he can use non-linguistic devices to express meaning.

The barren environment that forms the play’s only scenery is typically seen as a metaphor for degradation; the state of Europe in the mid-twentieth century, and a reflection of the fallen state of the characters. To a twenty-first century viewer, the idea of spaces designed for waiting seems very natural.

The most obvious example is an airport; a sealed anonymous place that exists as a place between destinations. No one would choose to inhabit such a place, there is no sense of belonging, and there is often little clue to where in the world it may be.

Less obvious, is the amount of anonymous places in contemporary life. These have appeared in abundance since the play’s publication. Industrial estates, blank corridors, identical office spaces, motorways – all places that where one cannot stop, or where their anonymity is seen as an asset. They seem to be artificial spaces, as artificial as the fictional stage set.

Would I modern staging of the play be set in an empty car park, with a ticket machine for a tree? These are technocratic spaces, which like technical language, have a sole use, have a blank character. It’s almost as though people aren’t really meant to be there.

Beckett’s plays may be seen as bleak, or depressing, whilst the man himself was seemingly quite open to humour. This shouldn’t surprise us, given the humour in Waiting For Godot. The play is not meant to frighten, or bewilder, but to help us recognise problems common to our everyday life, and give us a means to approach them. Sometimes we have no choice – as Beckett’s one-time publisher recalls:

He recounted how he had once met an anxious Beckett getting off a flight at Heathrow airport. When the plane doors had closed on the runway in Paris, Beckett had heard the loudspeaker announcing: “Captain Godot welcomes you on board.”

“I wondered if my destiny had caught up with me at last.”

Written by Guest Author : Craig