Samuel Becket's "Waiting for Godot" and the Theater of the Absurd

„Nothing is certain“ – What makes Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play to one of the most authentic representatives of the Theater of the Absurd?

Term Paper 2011 22 Pages

Didactics - English - History of Literature, Eras



1 Introduction

2 The Theater of the Absurd
2.1 The term absurd
2.2 Formation of the Theater of the Absurd
2.3 Characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd
2.3.1 Language
2.3.2 Plot, Time and Place
2.3.3 Characters

3 Summary of the Play

4 Waiting for Godot – an absurdist Drama
4.1 Language
4.2 Abolition of Action, Time and Place
4.3 Characters
4.3.1 Vladimir and Estragon
4.3.2 Pozzo and Lucky
4.3.3 The Boy
4.3.4 Godot

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

6.1 Other Sources

1 Introduction

(Beckett, Waiting for Godot 11)

Waiting for Godot is not only one of the most famous works of Samuel Beckett; it is also one of the most popular creations of the genre of the Theater of the Absurd. Originally written in French, Beckett’s play was first performed in the Théâtre de Babylon in Paris in 1953 (cf. Beckett 128) and confronted its audience with the circumstance of the “nonappearance of the person awaited so faithfully by the two main protagonists”. (Astro 114)

The spectator shares this experience of waiting for someone who might not come with the characters which made it possible for Beckett to give his audience an understanding of the intentions of the absurdist drama. Waiting for Godot is not only completely detached from the conventions of the classic drama, namely the unity of time, place and action, this unity is instead substituted by illogical actions, absurd scenarios and dialogues that appear to be linked randomly. By some viewers perceived as boring and even mindless (cf. Beckett, The Critical Heritage 98), for others it is a work of genius with a profound statement. But what makes the two-act play to seem pointless and boring at first glance?

This paper intends to illustrate that Waiting for Godot – being an absurdist drama – is isolated from the classic drama and its conventions and deals with the structural elements Beckett used to convey the absurdity and illogicality that the play is based on.

After explaining the term absurd and outlining the formation of the Theater of the Absurd the paper focusses on structural elements of the absurdist drama in general. A short summary of Waiting for Godot is followed by the analysis of the play, concentrating on the connection of form and content especially by discussing characters and their actions, the time and place and the dialogues and language.

2 The Theater of the Absurd

2.1 The term absurd

To consider the characteristics and the essence of the Theater of the Absurd in the following part, one has to define the term absurd.

Eugéne Ionesco1 describes the absurd as follows:

“Absurd is something that has no aim […] When man is cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, he is lost. All his actions become senseless, absurd, useless, nipped in the bud.” (Killinger 272)

In a definition in the American Heritage Dictionary it says:

absurd, adj.

1. Ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable.
2. Of, relating to, or manifesting the view that there is no order or value in human life or in the universe.
3. Of or relating to absurdism or the absurd.

Consequently, absurd means as much as not consistent with the reality. Existing laws, such as the law of causality, therefore lose their validity.

2.2 Formation of the Theater of the Absurd

The term Theater of the Absurd defines a special dramatic form that came up in the 1950s in France and it reflects the hopeless futility of human existence. It was thus a collective term for dramas with grotesque and surreal scenes. Martin Esslin, a theater critic from Hungary, coined the term by writing a book on this very subject.2

This type of play presents the philosophy of the French philosopher Albert Camus. Camus wrote in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus about the meaninglessness of the human condition and that the world must be seen as absurd since it is not possible to explain the universe in a fully satisfying way. (cf. The Albert Camus Society of the UK)

Although the Theater of the Absurd had its prime in the 1950s and 1960s (cf. Theatre Database), one can trace its roots back to the time shortly after the rise of the Greek drama. As further precursors may be considered the morality plays of the middle Ages, that dealt with allegorical and even existential questions. These traditions were pursued in the allegorical plays of Baroque where the world was depicted in mythological archetypes. One of the most acknowledged predecessors of the Theater of the Absurd is a play written by Alfred Jarry at the end of the 19th century. Ubu Roi (1896) was celebrated by numerous surrealists and Dadaists and deals with a grotesque, mythical figure that is living in a world of archetypal images. (cf. Ubu Roi)

The intention of the 1920s and 1930s surrealists was to expand on Jarry’s experiments and to break with the convention of art being a mere imitation of the surface of reality. They demanded that art should be more real than reality and that one should focus on the essences rather than appearances. (cf. Theatre Database)

Furthermore, the silent film and comedy and the early sound films of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers contributed to the development of this new form of drama.

Nonetheless, a world event with disastrous effects would be needed to bring about the birth of this new type of play, such as World War II. Fascism, right-wing extremism and the resulting trauma from the war of living under threat of nuclear annihilation put special emphasis on the fragility of human existence. The absurdity experienced along the way became part of the everyday thinking of the average person. (cf. Theatre Database) The resulting form of theater from now on rebelled against existing theater conventions and Eugéne Ionesco even called it the “anti-theater” because it had no plot, was conflictless, illogical and surreal. (cf. Zur Geschichte des kritischen Denkens)

2.3 Characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd

The Theater of the Absurd wants its viewer to “draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. Though Theaters of the Absurd may be seen as nonsense, they have something to say and can be understood.” (Esslin 21)

2.3.1 Language

One of the most important components of a play is the language, because it is the foundation of communication and contributes to the plot – but not in the Theater of the Absurd. The functions of language, such as to inform or to communicate, are disrupted in this dramatic form. The dialogues are often written in a completely absurd logic. Besides that, what is said is sometimes shortened so that the recipient cannot recognize the content of what is said. This leads to a radical devaluation of language. (cf. Esslin 26)

The most important means of communication conveys no longer any coherence: The characters talk at cross purposes in pointless dialogues and monologues. It follows that the spectator does not focus on the dialogues but on what is happening on stage. The tragic-comic characters stagger like marionettes through the action on stage and speak and act in a trivial and aimless manner. In this way, the Theater of the Absurd approaches its aim: to reveal the desperate situation in which man finds himself.

2.3.2 Plot, Time and Place

Since one main function of language is disturbed in the Theater of the Absurd, namely to push on the action, the question arises whether there is a plot after all, especially if we see the plot as the events that make up a story. These events usually relate to one another, a development is recognizable and the end should be a logical conclusion to what has happened before. As a consequence, an action is non-existent in the Theater of the Absurd, according to the preceding definition.

The world that is presented on stage of the Theater of the Absurd shows no logical sequence of actions. What is performed is absurd in itself and has nothing in common with the Aristotelian structure of drama: The units of action, time and place are abolished and what is presented as the plot becomes a permanent condition.

Despite the fact that there is no plot in a strict sense, one can perceive a certain sequence in what is displayed on stage. A special feature at this is that the scenes could be interchanged in their order without the spectator losing the impression that what is presented on stage is a complete story. In addition, many plays of absurdist drama have a circular course of action and end up where they have started.

This is in contrast to other dramatic forms of theater, where a situation or conflict is given and where it comes to an increase of this conflict, including the buildup of suspense.

Whereas traditional forms of theater try to represent life as realistic as one sees it, the Theater of the Absurd attempts to create a vision that is closely related to the world of dreams. This vision seems mythological, archetypal and allegoric and focuses on the already mentioned fundamental bewilderment and confusion of mankind that are originated in the fact that man has no answers to the existential questions like why he was alive or why he had to die. (cf. Theatre Database)

2.3.3 Characters

In the Theater of the Absurd no heroes are constructed whose fate will then be displayed on stage. There are no antagonistic characters, whose conflicts are decided. Instead, basic situations of the individual are presented on stage and carried out with the so-called alienation effect3. The characters on stage act in a way that is mostly unintelligible for the audience, because they are lost in an incomprehensible world. The aim is that the viewer cannot identify with the characters on stage, because only then he is able to see the whole play from a critical perspective.

Furthermore, the plots of many absurdist plays present characters in interdependent pairs and one character may even be clearly dominant and torture the passive character.

3 Summary of the Play

Even the attempt to reproduce the content of the play lets one assume that Waiting for Godot is very special. It is difficult to summarize a play that has hardly any plot or progression of an action. Nevertheless, the analysis should be preceded by a brief summary of what happens on stage to facilitate the understanding.

At the beginning of the first act the spectator sees two men, Estragon and Vladimir, in ragged clothes on a country road. There is a bald tree and one of them is sitting on a mound. From their conversation it becomes clear that they believe to have an appointment with a certain Godot, even though they are not sure about that.

In the meantime, two other characters walk by. Pozzo leads his servant Lucky on a leash and makes him carry all his baggage. Pozzo gets into a conversation with Estragon and Vladimir and makes Lucky – to their amusement – dance and think. Then, Pozzo and Lucky move on but Estragon and Vladimir stay there. A boy appears and tells them that Godot will not come today, but that he will surely come the next day. Vladimir and Estragon decide to go, as it is already night, but they do not move.

When the second act starts, the tree is slightly leaved. Vladimir and Estragon appear. Again they are waiting for a person called Godot. As they talk about the past, their memories are very sketchy. To pass the time they think up games. Again, Pozzo and Lucky walk by, but this time, Pozzo is blind and his servant it dumb. Estragon and Vladimir tell them that they are still waiting for Godot but Pozzo cannot remember that they had met the day before. Lucky and Pozzo move on and again the boy appears to tell them that Godot will not come today but certainly tomorrow. As the night before, the two men decide to go but do not move as the curtain falls.

4 Waiting for Godot – an absurdist Drama

(Beckett, Waiting for Godot 64)

It is not only the action that does not make any progress which makes it difficult to figure out the content of Waiting for Godot. Because of this “dramatic vacuum” (Beckett, The Critical Heritage 95), it seems nearly impossible to comment on the characters, the time and the place. Everything is vague. Almost nothing can be said with certainty. What makes it so difficult for the viewer or the reader to understand the play, is one of the essentials of Waiting for Godot: The Vagueness. (Bechert 46)

Moreover, Beckett uses the process of the so-called theatrical reduction. This means that, although the format meets the usual expectations of the viewer4, Beckett makes use of the minimization of time, space, of dialogues and the status of his characters. (Beckett, Waiting for Godot 129)

In this regard, the language, action, time and place and the dramatic characters will be considered.


1 Eugène Ionesco: French playwright of Romanian origin and one of the most popular representatives of the early phase Theater of the Absurd.

2 Martin Esslin (1918-2002), critic from Hungary, wrote the book The Theatre of the Absurd in 1962.

3 Alienation: in the broader sense, the deliberate deviation from the expected and familiar, the deformation and reshaping of the actuality by shifting the levels of action, the perspective and motives; in the narrow sense, the by B. Brecht (writer, 1898-1956) required and designed alienation effect of the epic theater that should disillusion and distance the spectator from the action on stage in order to induce him to critical thinking. As an alienation effect appear, e.g. the plot interrupting and explanatory announcements, songs, etc. (Wissen.de)

4 The play is composed of two acts and five actors perform.


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Title: Samuel Becket's "Waiting for Godot" and the Theater of the Absurd