The month of December is a happy time in my life. Not only does it signal the bright new prospects of the coming year, it also brings together my entire family. My husband, daughter and I come down from Singapore, his brother and wife arrive from London, and we all get together in our ancestral home at Alappuzha, a cozy provincial town along the Kerala coastline. I always marvel at my luck in being married into a family that considers reading, independent opinions and thought-provoking discussions as crucial necessities for nurturing a great life. Indeed, it was during one such conversation that my father-in-law proposed an interesting question to us- the validity of Existentialism in the present world.
Our talk revolved around the issues of the superfast pace of life, cut-throat competition and expendable money available in today’s world. While we concluded that the idea of an existential crisis surely held steady as an undercurrent of social life, the discussion triggered in me the curiosity to analyse our present-day lives through the lens of the Theatre of the Absurd.
The term “Theatre of the Absurd” was coined by critic Martin Esslin as the title of his book on the subject in 1961. He believed that the works of playwrights Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco etc gave meaning to the philosophical ideas propounded by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus in his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus put forward the idea that life is inherently meaningless, and that any attempt to find a purpose to it is futile. Among the Absurdist writers, my favourite is Samuel Beckett, who created a revolution on the stage with his staggering work Waiting for Godot. In many ways, this play laid the corner stone for the development of Theatre of the Absurd genre; it challenged the established notions of character development, a fixed plot structure and dramatic traditions.
Nothing much happens in the play if viewed in terms of plot and storyline. Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, nicknamed Didi and Gogo respectively, wait beside a leafless tree on a dusty country road in the evening for the arrival of Godot. Godot never makes an appearance. The 1st and 2nd Acts of the play run similar to each other, with the entry and exit of characters Pozzo and his servant Lucky towards the end of each. Seemingly nonsensical conversation and action occur between Gogo and Didi, who lament about the futile yet onerous task of removing their boot and hat, random talk about turnips and carrots, and serious but random descriptions about the sky, time, suicide and the Bible. Never do they think about a choice to not wait for Godot, or leave the place of meeting and go their own separate ways. In spite of the Boy entering to announce that “Godot will not arrive today, but might come tomorrow”, Didi and Gogo continue to wait in hope for the absolutely indecisive arrival of Godot.
Aren’t our lives similar to those of Gogo and Didi? Echoing the famous lines from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players…”, we too have our entrances and exits, without any apparent meaning or purpose to our existence on this planet. Spiritual gurus and individualists might differ, but in truth aren’t we all merely acting out a charade designed and directed by the winds of power? We wait for success, money and pleasure, much like Gogo and Didi awaits Godot’s arrival. The many mundane actions and talk that they perform to while away their time is similar to the rat race that we get into, to achieve all that we consider dear in life. Do we have a choice to not strive? What if we don’t study that mind-numbing algebra in school? Are we willing to take the risk of failing high school? The play essentially points to the fact that in spite of the many choices available to the free-thinking man, we still stick to the rigorous and unpleasant rules of life because we don’t want to face the consequences of our “different” choices. Lucky never questions his master Pozzo for treating him inhumanely and reducing his position to nothing more than a load-bearing donkey. Similarly, the blue collar worker trudges through the backbreaking ordeals of menial labor without ever dreaming about rising above his station.
In the play, Beckett suggests a level of absurdity in the real world. Do Estragon and Vladimir recognize that their actions are absurd? Or does everything seem “normal” to them? Our everyday actions, much like those of Gogo and Didi, are full of absurdisms. Do we ever pay much attention to the acts of brushing our teeth, putting on a fresh dress, turning the car’s ignition key as symbols of human progress? Do we wonder about the life of our ancestors in caves and jungles filled with real dangers to life? “Habit is a great deadener”, says Didi. These actions of ours have been reduced to the level of mundane, because they have become a habit to us. Don’t we take part in absurd acts of clicking our champagne glasses and yelling “cheers!” to celebrate a joyous occasion? The lack of an objective truth leads to the sad plight of even time losing its meaning when the actions of one day have no relevance or certainty on the next.
The greatest fear in our lives today is uncertainty. Do we wait for Godot’s arrival, and in the meanwhile strive to pass time in the most efficient manner possible? Or do we not act on anything, and blindly trust fate to work out in our favour? What would happen if we work hard and plan thoroughly about every stage in our life? Would life play out exactly according to our blueprint? Whether or not our actions bear fruits, the many indecisive factors like world economy, job market, acts of terror and violence are all constantly in flux; threatening to destabilize our very lives and livelihoods. Even suicide becomes an uncertain task, in the play as well as in life. Our mortality is no longer an independent choice, but decided by medical science and society.
The barren setting of Waiting for Godot is proof that Vladimir and Estragon will never be able to break their cycle of inactive waiting; it negates the possibility of life or creation. Suffering is a necessary and constant state for all men in the world of Waiting for Godot. Competition has led us to believe that the purpose of life is to earn as much wealth and accolades as possible, and rest on our laurels once we have gained enough. But does human greed for power and ambition ever satiate? Are we doomed to perish on a planet which will soon lose its identity as the “greenest” in the Solar System?
Religion, much like the banal acts of taking off and putting on the boot, has been reduced to a series of offerings and prayers made to appease a power that guides and controls our lives. In the context of the growing religious apathy amongst youth in the present world, I feel that this play critically examines the vanity of religious and spiritual commercialism rampant in society.
Like life, the play Waiting for Godot is a tragicomedy. It is bleak and comic at the same time. Men waste away their lives waiting for the never arriving Godot, and unattainable riches. Our morning rituals are both immovable and mundane. Our lives are full of absurd talk and action, and our choice of radical personal freedom comes with the consequence of radical personal responsibility.