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Literatures in English II: Drama
Chan Kwan Lung
Esslin (1960) describes his view of the theatre of the absurd as follows:
…while the happenings on the stage are absurd, they yet remain recognizable as somehow related to real life with its absurdity, so that eventually the spectators are brought face to face with the irrational side of their existence. (p.5)
In the real life, there are many irrational happenings that the previous theatres have not focused on, among these ambiguity in meaning and failure of communication are the most prominent (Esslin, 1960; Scott, 2013). This essay will use a famous play Waiting for Godot to illustrate how each of the above absurdist characteristics are used in the theatre of the absurd, how each of these absurdist characteristics are related to the audience in real life, as well as the meanings behind each of these absurdist characteristics that the theatre of the absurd wants to convey, thus in turn proving the above saying of Esslin as appropriate.
Ambiguity in meaning is probably the most prominent feature of the theatre of the absurd. Such ambiguity can be expressed through a lack of reason why a certain thing happened (lack of why) or a lack of essential information (lack of what), such as the identity of the characters, the place where the story takes place or even the plot. Scott (2013) claims that “there is no clear sense [in Waiting for Godot] of where it is going or what it intends to convey” (p.448). As the characters in the play hardly know who Godot is besides its name, and that Godot never arrives in the play, the waiting seems to be pointless, despite the fact that it is the centre of the play, as its name suggests. The lack of information on what Godot is rendered the question why waiting for Godot unanswered. In other words, the lack of why in the play is caused by the lack of what. Not only is the central plot ambiguous, but also the characters. Scott (2013) claims that “Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky are strangers to the audience” (p.448). The cast information provided is minimal, only with their names and no further relationship descriptions between characters are provided: “Estragon/Vladimir/Lucky/Pozzo/A Boy” (p.0). The stage directions are also in a minimalist style as there is only very little information that readers can get from. The act one opening description is “A Country road. A tree. Evening” (p.1) and the act two opening description is “Next day. Same time. Same place.” (p.48). Both of them only consists of six words. The number six, in Christianity, which is a topic that the play has mentioned, means incompleteness (Kelley, 2007, p.128). Samuel Beckett, through refraining from giving a clear picture to the audience, gives the audience a picture of the ambiguous real life.
Providing ambiguous theatre experience by not trying to explain and give information, the theatre of the absurd let the audience to reflect on the ambiguity of real life. In the real life, we are not experts of all knowledge. There is always something we do not know and is ambiguous to us. Even we are an expert in a certain expertise, we normally only see that from a specific angle. That is why scientific researches can be rebutted and literary essays can be refined by later scholars. This is similar to the feeling that the audience might have on Waiting for Godot, that they can never fully understand the play. In the play, we can know every single bit of the action and words by looking at the stage and the script, but when put together we can hardly decode the picture from the macro-perspective. One typical example to illustrate this is Lucky’s monologue (p.36-38). We can read the monologue out as we know the words and the phonology, but if we are asked to give a summary of the monologue it would be a very difficult task. When we attempt to get a full picture of an event, we tend to look at the bits of the event one by one, before trying to summarise all the bits and process it in the macro-perspective. We often put an eye on the meaningful whole, however, and forget about the scattered bits once we master something. The theatre of the absurd, by making the play irrationally ambiguous and vague, tries to get the audience to focus back on the scattered bits, which is the only thing they can comprehend. Scholars such as Maiocchi (2008, p.18), who try to make up a summary by analyzing analogical connections, may have done something deviated from Beckett’s original intention, as he said: ‘If I knew [what it meant], I would have said so in the play’ (as cited in Berlin, 1999).
Failure of communication is another prominent feature in the theatre of the absurd. In Waiting for Godot, this is achieved by repetition and the loss of memory among characters. Take the question ‘Why doesn't he put down his bags?’ as an example. It has been questioned by Estragon five times and Vladimir once, but has experienced communication failure each time despite it is repeatedly asked (p.18, p.22-23, p.34). The question is rendered useless by different reasons each time. For the first time, no utterance can be heard from Pozzo, the intended answerer. This leads to Estragon and Vladimir's attempt to try to find the answer themselves:
ESTRAGON: Why doesn't he put down his bags?
VLADIMIR: How do I know? (They close in on him.) Careful!
ESTRAGON: Say something to him.
VLADIMIR: Look! (p.18)
For the second time the answerer is not aware he is being asked a question, as the answerer is mentioning about his happiness on meeting Godot:
ESTRAGON: Why doesn't he put down his bags?
POZZO: I too would be happy to meet him. The more people I meet the happier I become. From the meanest creature one departs wiser, richer, more conscious of one's blessings. Even you . . . (he looks at them ostentatiously in turn to make it clear they are both meant) . . . even you, who knows, will have added to my store. (p.22)
For the third time, the questioners are not aware that they are being answered the answer to the question, that Pozzo is the master of Lucky, so that if Lucky puts down his bags and fails to listen to Pozzo’s orders it would surprise Pozzo:
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