Ever wonder why we have the term “free will” or where it originated? People believe that an individual can discover themselves as a person and choose how to live by the decisions they make; well this is where the word existentialism comes into play. Existentialism has been around since the early nineteenth century with Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophical and theological writings which, in the twentieth century, would be recognized as existentialism.
The term was first coined by Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher and later adopted by Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche and other philosophers for whom human existence were key philosophical topics; but Kierkegaard is known as the “Father of Existentialism”. Existentialism proposes that man is full of anxiety and despair with no meaning in his life, simply existing, until he made a decisive choice about the future. That is the way to achieve dignity as a human being. Existentialists felt that adopting a social or political cause was one way of giving purpose to life.
Since then, existentialism has been used by writers such as Hamlet, Voltaire, Henry David Thoreau, in Buddha’s teachings, and more. Throughout the years, existentialism has been viewed from various lenses to express different ideas, emotions, as well as to expand the thought process of readers, movie go’ers, and theater lovers everywhere and has been excessively used in Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five, Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, and in the movie Inception. Existentialism is a concept that became popular during the Second World War in France, and just after it.
French playwrights have often used the stage to express their views about anything going on in the world. There were “hidden meanings” that were common throughout the period so that plays would be able to pass without being banned or censored. One who wrote best-selling novels, plays and widely read journalism as well as theoretical texts during this period was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre had been imprisoned in Germany in 1940 but managed to escape and become one of the leaders of the Existential movement in France.
Sartre dealt with existentialist themes in his 1938 novel Nausea and the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall, and had published his treatise on existentialism, Being and Nothingness in 1943, but it was in the two years following the liberation of Paris from the German occupying forces that he and his close associate became internationally famous as the leading figures of a movement known as existentialism. A major theme throughout his writings was freedom and responsibility.
One other extremely popular writer and playwright during the same time as Sartre, as well as a close friend, was Albert Camus. In a short amount of time, Camus and Sartre became the leading public intellectuals of post-war France achieving, by the end of 1945, “a fame that reached across all audiences. ” (Existential Primer: Albert Camus) Camus rejected the existentialist label and considered his works to be concerned with facing the absurd. In the Titular book, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus to demonstrate the futility of existence.
In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity by the gods to roll a rock up a hill; when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless yet Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it. For Camus, this related heavily to everyday life, and he saw Sisyphus an “absurd” hero, with a pointless existence. Camus felt that it was necessary to wonder what the meaning of life was and that the human being longed for some sense of clarity in the world, since “if the world were clear, art would not exist.
” (Existential Primer: Albert Camus) “The Myth of Sisyphus” became a prototype for existentialism in the theatre and eventually inspired Beckett to write Waiting for Godot. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, existentialism manifests itself in a few ways; the frustration of trying to understand the meaning in life, the continued repetition seen throughout the play, and the inability to act. What remains archetypal in Waiting for Godot, concerning the absurdist metaphor is the way in which each character relies on the other for comfort, support, and most of all, meaning.
Vladimir and Estragon desperately need one another in order to avoid living a lonely and meaningless life. The two together functions as a metaphor for survival, like the characters that proceed and follow them, they feel compelled to leave one another, but at the same time compelled to stay together. They consider parting, but, in the end, never actually part. Andrew Kennedy explains these rituals of parting saying, “each is like a rehearsed ceremony, acted out to lessen the distance between time present and the ending of the relationship, which is both dreaded and desired”(57).
Therefore, Vladimir and Estragon’s inability to leave each other is just another example of the uncertainty and frustration they feel as they wait for an explanation of their existence. One of the most prevalent themes in Waiting for Godot is Estragon and Vladimir’s inability to act. When Estragon says “Let’s go”, Vladimir says “We can’t… We’re waiting for Godot” (page 7). They are not even sure that Godot will come, or that they are waiting at the right place. Even if he doesn’t come, they plan to wait indefinitely. Even if he doesn’t come, they plan to wait indefinitely.
After witnessing Pozzo’s cruelty to Lucky, Vladimir and Estragon are outraged. Yet they are still unable to do anything to improve Lucky’s situation. Pozzo lets Estragon and Vladimir know that they do not have control over their immediate future or even their distant future. When talking about the mysterious twilight, Estragon and Vladimir relate to waiting for Godot. So long as they know what to expect, waiting is their only course of action. Since Estragon and Vladimir can never make a decisive choice about what they want to do or about their future, their life seems to have no meaning.