Samuel Beckett’s vision of two lowly tramps in the middle of a derelict environment can be placed in direct contrast to the claustrophobic and eternal nightmare presented by Jean-Paul Sartre , but each playwright possessed objectives for their respective audiences and each shared a valued opinion on the theories of existentialism which can be established in the plays Waiting for Godot and No Exit. Beckett introduces the audience into a world of questioning and surrealist virtues and encourages the spectator to actually discuss the play and find the answer within.
Sartre, however, presents his play as a placard for the virtues of existentialism and attempts to prove that “hell is other people”. When being asked about the sources for his ideas or advocating him as a pioneer for the Theatre of the Absurd, Beckett’s replies were often curt or dismissive. The Theatre of the Absurd was a term conceived by the critic Martin Esslin to describe the various playwrights who gave their artistic interpretations believing that human existence is futile and without meaning. According to Beckett himself the Theatre of the Absurd was too ‘judgemental’, too self-assuredly pessimistic:
I have never accepted the notion of a theatre of the absurd, a concept that implies a judgement of value. It’s not even possible to talk about truth. That’s the part of the anguish. Sartre, however made his existentialist philosophies quite apparent. With his own theories he collaborated with the Dadaists and Surrealists after the Second World War and achieved to create his own ‘humanist’ way of thinking but with a prominent atheistic outlook. Sartre quoted rather proudly “L’homme est condamne a etre libre…l’homme est liberte. ” Loosely translated he proclaims that “Man is condemned to be free…man is freedom.
” Sartre firmly believed that man is nothing except his life and that consequently he is fully responsible for his actions. In Sartre’s existentialist world, man is committed to choose his own destiny without the help of any religion whether he wants to or not and he made this philosophy apparent in all of his works, unlike Beckett who used a more cryptic or absurd stance in his plays. With or without the use of absurdist ideals and other forms of the genre Beckett certainly portrayed the human values in his characters and considered the ideas of social conditioning and the existentialist notion of absolute freedom.
Of all the ideologies written or philosophised over , existentialism seems to lend a lot of its virtues to Waiting for Godot. Ronan McDonald argues that absurdity and existence are fundamental to Beckett‘s work: There may be more affinity with another association of existentialism and Beckett’s beliefs, namely the idea of ‘absurdity’, though here (too) caution is advised. Without any grounding, without any reason for our being in the world, a certain strand of existentialist thought concludes that life is absurd, disordered and meaningless.
The ‘absurd, disordered and meaningless’ which McDonald mentions is evident in the dialogue used in Waiting for Godot. Conversations between the two main characters of Estragon and Vladimir are often erratic and pointless and never seem to resolve at a natural climax. They bounce off each other instigating a retort which is unexpected and prompts an audience to laugh at the scenario with confusing intrigue. The dialogue in No Exit, on the other hand is logical and justified as it relates to the actual settings and situations of the characters.
Beckett’s erratic streams of consciousness that materializes from his characters sometimes make no sense and compared to the confronting and direct speech in Sartre’s work, can sometimes be slightly confusing. Sartre’s characters all have a back story which can be deduced and discovered by the dialogue as opposed to the lack of any character history in Waiting for Godot. The audience can conclude that Estragon, Vladimir and Pozzo, although having different character traits, are all just waiting for Godot but do not know for how long or for what reason.
Garcin, Estelle, and Inez in No Exit all have different traits, as does Beckett’s characters, but their characters are shaped from past despairs, sexuality or previous happenings in their lives which have evidently placed them in the hellish scenario in which they find themselves. Because of the situation in Sartre’s play, the audience can relate themselves to the characters on an empathetic level and create stronger opinions and less questionable virtues than that of Beckett’s enigmatic trio.
The despair and degradation towards many civilians during the Second World War became an established influence in both Sartre and Beckett’s works during their most prolific period of writing after the conflict. The persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi’s occupying Paris and Beckett’s personal actions within the French Resistance seemed to have spawned a firm principle and an underlying subtext within his plays. McDonald makes this apparent when he says:
In his post-war career, though his work became ever less connected to a recognisable world, one could say, paradoxically, that it became more political, more shaped by exploitive power relations, edicts handed down from above, secrecy and inscrutability and descriptions of human torment. Many of these influences are indisputable in the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky throughout the first act in Waiting for Godot. During Act I of the play the abhorrent abuse Pozzo extends towards Lucky and the dismissive way in which he converses with the two slightly passive tramps creates a clear power divide between the characters.
Beckett reverses the divide when in Act II Pozzo finds himself in distress and the power is redirected to the two tramps. As Pozzo is struggling helplessly on the floor like an up-ended beetle the two tramps, reminded of the chicken bone they received from him the day before, explain: VLADIMIR: He wants to get up. ESTRAGON:Then let him get up. VLADIMIR:He can’t. ESTRAGON:Why not? VLADIMIR:I don’t know. [POZZO writhes, groans, beats the ground with his fists. ] ESTRAGON:We should ask him for the bone first. Then if he refuses we’ll leave him there. VLADIMIR:You mean we have him at our mercy?
By using Pozzo as the one in need and the two tramps as the one’s who can help, Beckett creates a pessimistic vision of human needs in a deliciously black pratfall. McDonald agrees when he says: Beckett’s work is notorious for it’s intense preoccupation with pessimism and human suffering, notwithstanding its bleak beauty and darkly acid comedy. Power and conflict can be found aplenty in Sartre’s hellish hotel room as all three characters seem to find themselves guilty of contraventions which have rendered them no better or worse for conscience in the eyes of the audience.
Whereas Estragon and Vladimir use repetition and slapstick to form the basis of comic moments, Sartre’s characters use no such implements and keep the play solemn throughout. Garcin is the forlorn sadist, Estelle shrugs off her murderous past by being the conceited love-starved damsel and Inez stalks the room as the inert lesbian. Each character submits their own tales of woe and it is evident that none of them has the patience or understanding to cope with the others because as soon as a bond occurs between two characters, the third intervenes.
Having one man and two women in the room (one of them being a lesbian with a keen eye on the other) sexual frustrations boil over to create various power struggles and along with the inept attempts to befriend or belittle and vexed attitudes on their morbid incarceration, the atmosphere becomes a tense hot-bed of conflict with each character in turn venting their grievance towards another. In Frederick Lumley’s New Trends In 20th Century Drama, he states; No love is possible in the presence of the third, no end is possible since the three must be together for eternity , “neither the knife, poison, rope” can enable them to escape this fact.
With this fact constantly put forward by Sartre; the trio’s future looks bleakly endless and this inevitable outcome contributes to the rise in tension and conflict. Lumley continues; The play presents an endless repetition, a study in monotony which, far from being monotonous, is in fact intensely dramatic and most seducing. Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot all have their own motives and opinions but all seem to be quashed by the ever present threat of Godot appearing. The characters’ vivid streams of consciousness and erratic conversations take the audience along a confusing and often pointless
narrative but Beckett seems to relish this as it makes the spectator question the morals and whole raison d’etre for the piece. Is Godot some sort of religious deity? Are the characters dead and living a life in endless purgatory? Is the story a tale of class and the power struggle that ensues from it? Beckett’s aims can be discussed and divulged for years to come and I believe that there is no one conclusive answer, but Eric P. Levy sums up his plays excellently when he says: “Beckett explores human experience as he finds it today: denied any explanations but desperately needing them.
” I believe this to be the perfect description of what Beckett‘s aims were for the audience; being denied any explanation from Beckett himself and desperately wanting to know who or what Godot is. In stark contrast to Beckett’s surreal settings and arbitrary dialogue, Jean-Paul Sartre holds no blows when delivering his existentialist piece No Exit. The set itself is more representative of the hellish circumstances in which he has placed his characters as opposed to the stark emptiness of Beckett’s setting.
The setting is just one room with no windows so characters and spectators alike have no sense of what time of day it is and a claustrophobic awareness is supported further by keeping the whole play within one act. In Waiting for Godot we observe all of the action in a sparse wilderness with just one solitary foliage-free tree as a visual representation of the outside world. The only hint of time passing is when the characters mention the previous days events or when the tree shows a mere sprouting of greenery in the second act of the piece.
Along with the scenery the title of the play, No Exit, precedes dialogue and induces drama by giving a sense of inescapability and hopeless struggle to the play. Frederick Lumley describes the set beautifully in saying; …with it’s barren walls, it’s bricked up windows excluding daylight so that night and day are alike, the space where a mirror once hung (for in eternity one must look at others, not oneself anymore), is all part of a masochistic nightmare where continuity becomes an endless symphony of torture worse than any physical torture.
With these points in mind it is evident that Sartre relied more on the situation in which his characters were based rather than the frivolities of Beckett’s characters and his absurdist approach. Although Beckett and Sartre shared the same philosophical outlooks on existentialism and the nature of human behaviour, Sartre used the theatre as his soap-box to create and present his philosophical views and tended to show the drama in the situation rather than the character based approach which Beckett utilized in most of his plays.
Sartre himself states; As a successor to the theatre of characters we want to have a theatre of situation. The people in our plays will be distinct from one another – not as a coward is from a miser or a miser from a brave man, but rather as actions are divergent or clashing, as right may conflict with right. Sartre uses the situation in No Exit to create the dramatic conflict and tense atmosphere whereas Beckett uses the theatre of absurdity with sparse and stunning dialogue to create some form of dramatic tension in Waiting for Godot.
Conclusively this makes Beckett’s play very much more ambiguous compared to the out and out existentialist views portrayed in No Exit. The characters in Sartre’s piece all seem familiar to an audience who after witnessing the play have no quandary in deciding where the play leads or where it leads from and the content from it’s start to it‘s twisted and violent conclusion definitely advocates Sartre‘s theory; “Hell is other people.
” Waiting for Godot, however, leaves the audience perplexed at the outcome and offers various questions as to the origin of it’s characters along with their motivations and mundane existence. With the erratic lines of action and the surreal and often pointless conversation, the audience can derive that the whole point of Waiting for Godot is; there is no point. But is this correct? Only Samuel Beckett could have revealed that answer. Bibliography Beckett. S. Waiting For Godot. Chatham: Faber & Faber. 2006 ed. Sartre. J.
P No Exit and three other plays. Vintage International. 1996 ed. McDonald. R. The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett. Cambridge: CUP. 2006. Levy. E. P. Beckett And The Voice Of The Species. Dublin: Macmillan. 1980 Knowlson. J & McMillan (eds. ) The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, vol I: Waiting for Godot. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. Unwin. S & Woddis. C. A Pocket Guide To 20th Century Drama. London: Faber & Faber. 2001. Lumley. F. New Trends In 20th Century Drama. London: Barrie & Jenkins Ltd. 1972 ed. References Styan. J.
L Modern Drama in Theory and Practice2 (Symbolism, Surrealism and the Absurd) Cambridge: CUP 1998 Lenny Love 2007 ——————————————– [ 2 ]. Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 178. [ 3 ]. New Trends In 20th Century Drama, Ch10 p139 [ 4 ]. Cambridge Intro to S. Beckett [ 5 ]. Cambridge Intro to S. Beckett Ch2, p22 [ 6 ]. Cambridge Intro to S. Beckett ch2, p23 [ 7 ]. Levy. E. P. Beckett & the Voice of Species. p. 3. [ 8 ]. New Trends In 20th Century Drama. Ch10, p150 [ 9 ]. New Trends in 20th Century Drama. Ch10, p141.
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