How does ‘Waiting for Godot’ conform to or challenge ideas of dramatic comedy?
Beckett challenged the traditional structure of comedy developed by the Greeks which was order, disorder, new restored order. Living in a post war generation and a time where modernism was evolving literature he utilised certain elements to reform traditional comedies. He incorporated elements of Vaudeville and Absurdity to transform the repetitive and comparable nature of the comedies that preceded Waiting for Godot.
Waiting for Godot contains two identical acts in which ‘nothing happens…twice’ however the literary devices that Beckett uses often creates drama and excitement within the dialogue and stage directions rather than the action itself. He writes using a long stream of consciousness causing the language to lack any real sense of coherent structure when it is first read.
However on second glance it does contain a beginning, middle and end however not necessarily in the linear order. The ‘directly putting your thoughts onto paper as you think them’ technique that Beckett adopted gives Waiting for Godot a sense of reality and depth. This is most evident in Lucky’s speech which sounds like a rant. This combined with the rapid recitation of the dialogue creates confusion and estranges the audience as it is too fast for them to process and comprehend, which forces them to sit through a speech in which they have no understanding of what is being said, nor what is going on.
This alludes to the idea that just as the audience is alienated to certain parts of the play, for instance Lucky’s speech, the characters are alienated by God. This is possibly depicted in the wasteland or limbo backdrop that Beckett used to set the scene. This could underline the fact that there is no green world for the characters in Godot- “nothing to be done”.
This might be as a direct result of the post war feeling that God does not exist. It is unlike most comedy plays to make the audience feel uncomfortable or confused however, Beckett does it in such a way that the confusion that the audience are feeling is to echo broader themes that the Waiting for Godot is trying to convey.
The stichomythic exchange between Vladimir and Estragon is unlike most comedies as it has a staccato rhythm that alternates briskly between the characters, and leaves the audience little room to be lethargic or apathetic as they need to keep up with the fast pace of the character’s speech. Often the dialogue is repetitive and meaningless and used as a distraction to make the time in which they wait for Godot less enduring.
It also distracts the audience from the reality that nothing is actually happening however the dramatic and fast paced nature of their conversation creates the illusion that action is taking place on stage. This differs from most comedies as stichomythia is a tool used in dramas and very few comedies use this device however Beckett utilises it to highlight the tragic elements in Waiting for Godot.
Beckett asks some big questions regarding the existence of God. Religion is a pivotal theme and through the use of imagery it is reflected in the play. The use of religious imagery has a connation with Christianity and Vladimir references the “two thieves” as well as the tree which may represent the crucifixion, or the tree of knowledge.
Unlike some comedies that address religion, Beckett refuses to conform to the status quo and accept God and religion as being true. Rather, he expresses his unpopular opinion regarding the existence of God and the purpose of human existence and challenges the socially acceptable view that God is omnipotent and omni-benevolent but continues allows suffering to take place and fails to give aid and relief to those who need him most.
This belief could be a consequence of the war which left many people disillusioned with God. The religious imagery hints at eschatology and that the world is ending. One interpretation could be that the world has already ended and they are what’s left and forced to construct meaning in a meaningless life.
In addition to this, violent imagery is created when the characters casually converse about hanging themselves may have given the audience the impression that their lives are full of suffering that they are delighted by the idea of suicide as it will grant them the short term happiness that they will no longer be in pain anymore but also the long term pleasure that they will no longer have to go through the long days of doing nothing.
In other comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is no real danger of a violent outbreak. This is prevented by Puck and the male characters that prevent any real or consequential violence from occurring. Contrastingly, Waiting for Godot captures brutal violence as Vladimir and Estragon mention the anonymous “they” who beat Estragon up which makes the audience suspicious of the unknown offender. Physical violence is very apparent in the play and at times it could be interpreted as either comical or tragic.
Some of the central themes of the play are humour and the absurd, existentialism, companionship and time. Traditional comedies often focus on love, marriage and other aspects which highlights that Waiting for Godot is a darker comedy of sorts as it also encompasses tragedy as well, thus being known as tragicomedy. The unnatural merge of comedy and tragedy balances the playfulness and the serious undertones as well as giving a good juxtaposition throughout the play.
The audience is always in position of doubt as to whether or not to laugh or be concerned for the characters. Moreover the use of vaudeville, a collection of back to back comedy sketches, shines a light on the comedy aspects of Waiting for Godot. Also, the speed of the sketches makes it so that the new sketch outshines the one that preceded it causing the audience to forget the previous one. This may be alluding to the futility of memory and that there is no sense of time. This is unlike most comedies which often occur in chronological order and have a clear time frame.
Overall, it can be seen that Waiting for Godot challenges dramatic comedy rather than conforming to it. Beckett was able to help change the face of tradition comedy by disassociating this play from it comedic predecessors and using characteristics of modernist writing and absurdity to push the boundaries of what a comedy play could potentially evolve into.
By Libin F