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Comparing Absurdist Plays. Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" and Tom Stoppard’s "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"

Hausarbeit 2013 14 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

I. Introduction 3

II. Comparing Absurdist Plays: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
1. Characteristics of Absurd Theatre
2. Comparison of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
2.1. Characters
2.2. Communicational Devices
2.3. Absurd Elements
2.4. Structure
2.5. Ideas and Topics

III. Stoppard’s Further Focus on Social Determinism

IV. Bibliography


“We are only puppets; our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.” (cf. Büchner 37) This quotation shows Georg Büchner’s idea on social determinism. Büchner stated that it is not up to a human being to decide his fate. People are determined by their birth and environment and they can do nothing to change this predestined life. The notion of social determinism occupied many writers. Especially Postmodern writers depicted the disorientated human being, who is lost and determined by unknown forces or society. Samuel Beckett is one of these authors, who depicted the absurd world in his play Waiting for Godot, where two tramps are determined by the arrival of a superior instance called Godot. In Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead the superior instance, which the protagonists are following, is the plot of the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s drama the two courtiers are only minor characters, who die in the end. Stoppard used them to show how people are often caught in plots they do not understand and how they can do nothing to change their fate. He furthers Beckett’s idea of the two disoriented tramps by setting them into society and showing how people are determined by social structures. The focus of the comparison of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is on the depiction of the characters, communicational devices, structure, absurd elements in both plays and their ideas and motifs. Before analysing the two absurd dramas a short introduction to the term Theatre of the Absurd is given.

Comparing Absurdist Plays: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Characteristics of Absurd Theatre

In order to analyse the two plays the term absurd theatre has to be defined to fully comprehend the actions and ideas in these plays. The term absurd once was just a term in musical context with the meaning of disharmony. (cf. Esslin 16) Today it means “completely ridiculous; not logical and sensible.” (Wehmeier 6) The meaning of absurd as we use it today derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus, who coined it as the “modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value.” (Baldick 1) There is a narrow connection between the terms absurd and farce. Farce is a “kind of comedy that inspires hilarity mixed with panic and cruelty in its audience through an increasingly rapid and improbable series of ludicrous confusion, physical disasters, and sexual innuendos among its stock characters.” (Baldick 126) The theatre of the absurd was developed in France after 1945 and this kind of theatre illustrated the absurdity of human existence in a world without transcendence and a world of atrophy and alienation. The senselessness and hopelessness in these plays is depicted in structure and language. (cf. Becker 767) “The critic Martin Esslin coined the phrase theatre of the absurd in 1961 to refer to a number of dramatists of the 1950s (led by Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco) whose works evoke the absurd by abandoning logical form, character, and dialogue together with realistic illusion.” (Baldick 1) Absurd plays have no purpose and no moral issue. Furthermore there is no plot, no beginning and no end. The characters in these plays rather seem to be puppets, who lead no real conversations but incoherent dialogues, (cf. Esslin 13-14) and this illustrates for example the fact that people are socially determined by the moment of their birth and that they have to act in certain ways due to their social status. (cf. Esslin 416) Another common characteristic of an absurd play is that certainties and doctrines are revealed as illusions (cf. Esslin 15) and the fact that human beings lack religious values and as a result lack security in modern society. (cf. Esslin 415) However, the theatre of the absurd does not discuss the absurdity of the world but rather depict it (cf. Esslin 18) with the tool of the objective illustration of psychological conditions. (cf. Esslin 359) Absurd plays try to express things in theatre which cannot be described by words (cf. Esslin 399) and they confront people’s own reality by destroying the human complacency. (cf. Esslin 414) This fact reminds of the In-yer-face writing, which has similar aspects and tools to enter the human safety space. Also absurd theatre is comparable to poetry because of the agglomeration and consolidation of words. (cf. Esslin 418) Important examples for absurd writing are Franz Kafka’s Stories of Mr. K. They illustrate that humans are without orientation and troubled by feelings of anxiety and guilt. There are people like Mr. K., who cannot cope with social conventions and routine because they have lost their thread to reality. (cf. Esslin 365- 366) The knowledge on absurd theatre should be the basis for the further analysis of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for both plays are absurd dramas and reveal similar aspects of this notion.

Comparison of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead


When it comes to the comparison of the two plays the examination of the characters Vladimir and Estragon and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are crucial. One thing they all have in common is that they “offer us no clear indication of their past.” (Batty 22) There are only a few hints at their identity like when the boy calls Vladimir "Mr. Albert" (Beckett 62) and Estragon mentions that he has once been a poet. (cf. Beckett 9) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters of the Hamlet play and they tend to confuse their names; so it seems that they have no real identity. Estragon represents the earth and the bodily part, which the telling-name “Gogo” describes. Vladimir is marked by reflection and philosophy and his telling-name is Didi, which is the French “dis dis” and means “say say” (cf. Batty 23) In the actions of the characters this attributions become clear. Gogo explains, for example, the risks from hanging, whereas Didi reflects on the Bible. (cf. Beckett 9, 17) These telling names also seem like clown names and diminutives. (cf. Batty 23) The connection to Stoppard’s characters is that “Guil is meant to be instantly recognizable as the Vladimir character. They both have the same memory of the past, intellectual pretentions and the ability to nursemaid their companions. Ros is meant to be instantly recognizable as the Estragon character. They are both relatively untouched by the past, concerned primarily with the physical and practical aspects of existence and the need to be looked after by their companions.” (Sales 141) Vladimir and Estragon cannot live without each other (cf. Beckett 5, 6, 14, 17, 19) and they seem interdependent and inseparable like the mind and the body of one human being. (cf. Cormier 14) Applying the Freudian theory adds that Vladimir, like Guildenstern is the unconscious element of the human psyche with memories and emotions, whereas Estragon, like Rosencrantz represents the conscious part and is concerned with the external reality. They both are a unit and separate characters at the same time. (cf. Batty 23) Another approach to this idea is that Vladimir and Estragon together are only one character in the play Waiting for Godot and the fact that they are separated shows how people separate their thoughts from their actions in modern society. This clash of mind and body might be an occurrence of a multiple personality disorder. This approach, however, does not fit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are recognized by several other characters in the play. Vladimir and Estragon might only think they met Pozzo, Lucky and the Boy out of a hallucination within a multiple personality mentioned before. Another thing the characters have in common is that they are all rather objects than subjects in the plays. (cf. de Voz 257) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are limited by the plot of the Hamlet play, whereas Vladimir and Estragon suffer different diseases, (cf. Beckett 7) which limit their actions. Also they have to wait for Godot, which seems to be a higher order to them, like the King’s arrival for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, “Didi and Gogo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are all representatives of humanity, and feel uncertain, frustrated, and powerless to change their situation. Didi and Gogo are desperate, but always wait for some resolution and explanation tomorrow. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bewildered by fast-moving developments – the Hamlet pattern, the revelation of the “they” who had it in for them, and their approaching deaths.” (Duncan 68-69) This dependence from superior powers marks both plays and might represent the social determinism people have to face in society. (cf. Fleming 59) Georg Büchner expressed this notion of the social determinism through Danton. Just like Danton the four tramps are forced to do things which are out of their control and they seem to have no free will.

Communicational Devices

Narrowly connected with the depiction of the characters is the use of communicational devices and patterns in both plays. “The beginning of the play mimics the clowning of Vladimir and Estragon, with Vladimir’s philosophical ambiguities and Estragon’s struggle with his boot turned into Rosencrantz extraordinarily luck with coins, and Guildenstern’s articulate philosophic nonsense about six monkeys thrown up in the air.” (Kruse 88) Here the first hint at the absurdity of the following conversations is given. The spectator witnesses in both plays two tramps, who seem to be confused and lunatic. The first conversation between Vladimir and Estragon proves that there is something absurd going on in the play: “So you are here again?” - “Am I?” (Beckett 6) All the things happening in the play are connected to the notion of “Nothing to be done” (Beckett 5, 7, 21, 79, 87) and the order that they have to wait for Godot (cf. Beckett 11, 57, 79, 82, 91, 100, 110), which Estragon all the time seems to forget so Vladimir has to remind him again and again. Another striking aspect is that the Boy tells Vladimir that Godot also does “nothing.” (Beckett 109) This shows that in our world there is nothing to do for anyone and living, talking and being on earth seems pointless and absurd. “The tension between sound and silence, which appears at the beginning of the play and becomes more and more pronounced by the end, reflects two basic paradoxical aspects of man’s metaphysical or essential nature – his compulsion to speak, which is social, and his condemnation to silence, which is a manifestation of his solitude.” (Cormier 78-79) In Stoppard’s play language and speech is also a crucial tool to reflect the absurdity of the world. “Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Vladimir and Estragon attempt to fill these empty theatrical spaces with improvising conversations, which ultimately turn into conversations about conversation.” (Sales 145) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reflect absurdity when during the flipping of the coin they say: “I’m afraid.” – “So am I.” – “I’m afraid it isn’t your day.” – “I’m afraid it is.” (Stoppard 11) They talk about how the fingernails and the beard grow when a person is dead and reflect about death and the similarities to being born. (cf. Stoppard 15-16) These conversations show that they don’t know what to talk about and so they are forced to talk about nonsense. Also they use language and talking to pass time like Vladimir and Estragon. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern several times deliberately play “question and answer” games (cf. Stoppard 46-47) which induce them to ask questions about their identities.” (de Voz 154) Both pairs of tramps are several times engaged with the problem that they cannot use language to express their intentions because “speech, like the body and the mind (especially the rational processes and memory), is a faulty and inadequate tool.” (Cormier 53) When Estragon wants to describe the danger of hanging themselves to Vladimir (cf. Beckett 17) he struggles to find words because Vladimir is not able to comprehend the words. (cf. Cormier 55) This shows that language as such with its two sides of signifier and signified is not enough to comprehend thoughts of other human beings. Stoppard uses the almost interchangeable expression “of course/off course” (109) in his play, which also “heightens the impression of a totally absurd world.” (de Voz 155) This illustrates that you just have to confuse pronunciation to have a completely other meaning of the words. “One of the major causes of misunderstanding among the characters proceeds from faulty communications due to types of imprecision such as ambiguity, misconstruing a question, confusion of sounds, ect.” (Cormier 57) Both plays show how words struggle to find meaning nowadays because they are used too much. Words have on one hand lost their meaning because they are not enough to describe the things in the world and on the other hand they cannot express what is going on in the human mind. So they seem to be an absurd tool to convey meaning to an absurd world.



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comparing absurdist plays samuel beckett’s waiting godot stoppard’s rosencrantz guildenstern dead




Titel: Comparing Absurdist Plays. Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" and Tom Stoppard’s "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"