Jean-Paul Sartre (1957) once said "Man is condemned to be free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." (23) Whether this is good or bad is not an issue, whereas the implications derived from this are profound. Life, in this case, has no fixed purpose, and we are free to give it one; perhaps it is more appropriate to say that we are condemned to give it one, instead. One look at today's western modernized society makes it seem as if we strive to learn about everything and invent the ultimate tool to carry out all conceivable tasks for us (however artificial the task may be.) Writers, like Albert Camus, describe how waiting, or more generally, boredom, causes the individual to put serious effort into thought of questions regarding one's identity. It is easily seen, thus, that with the way our society has developed, it was inevitable that things like the existential philosophical movement and the literary absurdist movement would emerge from an era of modernism.
Perhaps one of the more famous absurdists was the 1969 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Samuel Beckett. His most popular play, 'Waiting For Godot,' is easily classified as an absurdist work by its properties, or lack thereof, as pointed out in a 1955 review of the play:
"Beckett defies every known law of playwriting, his play is about nothing... Each Act is interrupted by a big bully and a fool he keeps on a chain... That is all. There is no climax, no sense of anticipation and the situation becomes obvious in the first five minutes." (Barker, qtd. In Butler 22)
This reviewer naively added "I think that people are wrong in trying to read a philosophy into this odd mass of nonsense," then illustrated his simple-mindedness when he followed that with "It should be remembered that the author is an Irishman and full of leg pulls." Although Barker was quick to realize the lack of flow, cohesion and comprehension in the play, he quickly dismissed it as meaningless play. Naturally, a play is created to convey some meaning, despite it being hard to find. One of the more incomprehensible parts to the play is the speech given by the character Lucky in the first Act. It has been documented that when Beckett rehearsed his own production of the play, he began with Lucky's speech, signifying that it is, indeed, a crucial part to the understanding of the production (Jeffares and Bushrui 25). The part is a lengthy tirade by the slave, manuscripted without punctuation of any kind, inhibiting sentence structure and inducing verbal stuttering. The meaning attributed to parts of the speech will be investigated here, while relating segments of the speech to other ideas portrayed in the play.
The first thing one notices when Lucky's speech is inspected, as a whole, is that it lacks structure and literal meaning, much as the entire play does, when viewed in its entirety. This deficiency of shape represents the dissolution of form in life, which is what drives the absurdity, depicting the disorientation and deterioration of the world. Lucky's tirade is a rant and rave presented as a monologue, while the play is repetitious and takes a listing form.
As for the content of the tirade, coherent fragments can be spliced together to form:
"Given the existence... of a personal God... with white beard... outside time without extension who... loves us dearly with some exceptions... and suffers... with those who... are plunged in torment... in fire (28)."
This seems to take the form of the initial line to an argument, stating his premise of the existence of a 'personal God,' who satisfies the archetypical image we have formed of It. Lucky seems to construct a reductio ad absurdum argument, or 'proof by contradiction,' in which it is shown that the assumption of some given statement leads to contradictions, invalidating the original assumption. The added description of "divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia" identifies this God as a being who does not care, who is imperturbable, and who is speechless. Of the care exhibited by the God, if any, Lucky proclaims that a large portion is exempt from it, and that they are left to suffer, "plunged in torment," as if Earth was Damnation. With the analogy between Godot and God, these characteristics are illustrated throughout the play in his absence and lack of communication with the people.
Lucky discusses the state of civilization and the direction it is heading while in the absence of God, in spite of man's "strides of alimentation and defecation." Man is seen to 'waste and pine' away. This representation of man is not ignored in the portrayal of the characters throughout the play. The characters are seen in the process of deterioration: Vladimir's frequent exists off the stage to relieve himself (23) indicate a prostate problem, and his claim that the garlic he stinks of is for his kidneys (12) suggests other internal problems; Estragon complains of a weak lung (27) and is often bothered by one of his feet; Pozzo loses his possessions continuously and eventually goes blind, and Lucky deters into a dumb mute. All the characters, and thus all humanity, are forgotten and left behind to corrode into a wasteland. On a relevant excursion, it is noted that Lucky's neck is covered in bruises and scratches, caused by the rope held by Pozzo, and similarly, Estragon injures one of his legs due to a kick from Lucky in the first Act. If, indeed, these physical ailments comprise man's suffering on the Earth and define the Hell the live in, then this is exactly depicted by Sartre's play, No Exit (1946), where Sartre allegorizes Hell to be a place in which other people are always around.
The next issue Lucky raises is the fact that man still continues to waste and pine 'in spite of the stride of physical culture.' Physical culture is usually regarded as being a strengthener, a pastime to help people grow, and he states that mankind continues to wither despite this progression. He lists off over a dozen sports and variants, each of which could also be thought of as describing a way of artificially assigning one's self a task, but to no avail as we persist to become more insignificant. Even so, these sports are played to escape from the monotony and labour of daily life, and Lucky's job is to carry his heavy bags in which Pozzo says is sand (57). The uselessness of such a chore exemplifies the emptiness in the jobs that people have themselves. It is recurrently illustrated in the play that Vladimir and Estragon attempt to busy themselves with synthetic purposes, but to the point that Vladimir blatantly states, "This is becoming really insignificant," after a trivial discussion about turnips and radishes (44).
Lucky acknowledges the enlightenment period with reference to Bishop Berkeley (1684-1753), who had denied the existence of matter, arguing that it existed only from the perception by others. This notion is widely held by the characters in the play, as in the instances of Pozzo saying: "Is everybody looking at me? Will you look at me, pig!" (20), and Vladimir demanding of the boy:
"Tell [Godot] you saw me and that that you saw me. You're sure you saw me, you won't come and tell me to-morrow that you never saw me! (59)"
Clearly, the characters feel the need to be perceived by anyone. As Estragon points out, "We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?" (44) It was during the enlightenment period in which people began the "rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and emphasi[zed] on rationalism" (Webster). So, with the possibility of a singleton to not be observed by an overseer, man's existence grew more insignificant.
The ending to Lucky's speech intermingles the images of "great cold," "great dark" and then stones and skulls, "in spite of the tennis." This seems to be a prophecy of how the Earth will turn out, describing broken structures and lifeless bodily remains. The speaking becomes more repetitive and more distorted before he is silenced, as he claims human society will, as well. His last few utterances include instances of 'abandoned' and 'unfinished,' with the latter as his final word.
The issue of abandonment seems to reoccur in Beckett's work. Here, it is asserted that God has abandoned the people, his children, and left them to decay on an accursed Earth. In his short story Premier Amour (1946 [First Love-1972]), the first person narrator leaves his mistress while she is in labour with his assumed child. In the play Endgame (1958), Hamm, in his final moments says:
"If he could have his child with him... It was the moment I was waiting for. You don't want to abandon him? You want him to bloom while you are withering? Be there to solace your last million last moments? He doesn't realize, all he knows is hunger, and cold, and death to crown it all. But you! You ought to know what the earth is like, nowadays... Clov! No? Good. Since that's the way we're playing it... let's play it that way... and speak no more about it... speak no more. Old stancher! You... remain."
This seems to give more of an explanation to the common theme of abandonment; Beckett seems almost disturbed that a child would prevail over its creator ("You want him to bloom") and discredits a child as an unintelligent, uncompassionate entity ("He doesn't realize"). His last words: "Old stancher! You remain," make him seem almost bitter and resentful of the life he left behind.
Lucky began his speech with the statement: "Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God" The works in which the existence of God is uttered is the Bible, which he labels as "the public works of Puncher and Wattmann." Alan Astro, in his book Understanding Samuel Beckett (1990), points out that these experts who assert the existence of God are not authorities. The word 'Wattman' is, what Astro claims to be, the word that the French believe to mean 'streetcar driver.' We see Beckett drawing interlingual witticism elsewhere in the play, like "Tray bong" (25), so this is fathomable. With this assigned meaning to 'Wattmann,' 'Puncher' would correspondingly represent the instructor responsible for 'punching,' or validating streetcar tickets. In this light, it would seem that Lucky claims that the existence of God was proposed by two minor individuals, as opposed to divine righteous saints.
Waiting For Godot has many themes written within its words, but with respect to the connection between the play and Lucky's speech, it seems that the central idea is that God is not present to observe man making us feel less crucial to the Divine Purpose, if there ever had been one. This loss removes our perspective from the centre of nature, and casts us aside, making us feel homeless and alienated no matter where we are or try to go, "For reasons unknown."
- Astro, Alan (1990). Understanding Samuel Beckett. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Beckett, Samuel (1954). Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press.
- Beckett, Samuel (1958). Endgame. New York: Grove Press.
- Beckett, Samuel (1974). First Love and Other Shorts. New York: Grove Press.
- Butler, L. St. J. (ed.) (1993) Critical Essays on Samuel Beckett. Brookfield: Scolar Press.
- Jeffares, A. N., & Bushrui, S (Eds.). (1981) York Notes on Waiting for Godot. London: York Press.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul (1957). Existentialism and Human Emotions. New Jersey: Citadel Press, Inc.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul (1946). No Exit and Three Other Plays (Vintage 1989)
- Webster Online Dictionary, (1986) Formatted 1994.