Waiting for Godot is indeed a traditional farce and burlesque. Burlesque by definition is “A literary or dramatic work that ridicules a subject either by presenting a solemn subject in an undignified style or an inconsequential subject in a dignified style” and it is marvelously depicted in waiting for Godot. Farce is such dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters and often slapstick elements are utilized to create humor and mocking themes. Throughout waiting for Godot we witness these structural associations which reflect “theater of absurd”.
Samuel Beckett’s plays contain many comic features but are not comedies in the usual sense, and it is unlikely that an audience would actually laugh at them. Often our laughter at a comedy involves a feeling of release in response to the transgression of some rule of social conduct acted out by the performer. This is not the kind of response Beckett tries to elicit. The norms of social conduct dealt with in the comedy of manners for example, or the mistaken identities and misunderstandings of farce do not occur in Beckett’s world because they are grounded in the individual’s involvement in society. Aspirations, financial, social, or psychological are conditioned by the social group, and this perspective is not relevant to Beckett’s subject matter. He is concerned at a more basic level with man as a rational animal, or with an individual’s isolated existence in time.
Yet Beckett’s plays have many elements which are in effect, or by traditional association, comic. These elements, such as clown-like characters, slapstick action and cross-talk are a basic part of many of Beckett’s plays. In considering why he uses them we must look at the effect they have on the audience, and the contribution they make to the play as a whole.
A dualism is apparent in the dialogue of Beckett’s plays as well as in the nature of the characters. Many interchanges have an amusing comic aspect to them, but with a more serious subtext. In Waiting for Godot and Endgame in particular there are many scenes in which the characters communicate in a form of cross-talk derived from the music-hall double-act. Most of the dialogue in Waiting For Godot is in this form, and the technique was picked up and used by Harold Pinter in many of his plays.
Cross-talk is rapid, simple and direct. We don’t have time to contemplate or digest what is being said, but are hit with the punch-line while trying to keep up with the two speakers. By borrowing the form Beckett not only borrows the comedy but also pushes home his philosophical points with equal rapidity and force.
In Beckett’s hands cross-talk becomes an economical and powerful way of manipulating ideas.
Vladimir: You must be happy too, deep down, if only you knew it.
Estragon: Happy about what?
Vladimir: To be back with me again.
Estragon: Would you say so?
Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say, I am happy.
Estragon: I am happy.
Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy (silence). What do we do now, now that we’re happy?
Vladimir: Wait for Godot.
Beckett amuses his audience while at the same time demolishing one of the most familiar answers to the question of what gives human life value.
Vladimir and Estragon, alone on the stage, are dependent on one another as touchstones to try and keep hold of some relationship to reality and preserve their sanity.
Estragon; I asked you a question.
Estragon: Did you reply?
Vladimir: How’s the carrot?
Estragon: It’s a carrot.
Vladimir: So much the better, so much the better. What was it you wanted to know?
Estragon: I’ve forgotten.
In the context of a music-hall double-act such an interchange would provoke laughter from the audience. In the context of Waiting For Godot it is amusing, but there is much more to it because it is integrated into the themes of the play. The rapidity of the exchange seems indicative of a state of insecurity. Every utterance demands an immediate response, as if there is no time to think and no mental energy to spare for reflection or consideration of meanings.
Their existence seems limited to the present as they live and think literally from moment to moment, their immediate worries being too pressing for them to make any attempt to relate their situation to any wider context. The rapid loss of memory is itself an indication of a state of insecurity and unreality. They cannot grasp any form of conception of their condition, and with no certainties to relate to their memories cannot function properly.
Many of Beckett’s devices gain meaning by an implicit contrast with their original context. For example Estragon’s trousers falling down refers to a whole convention in the theater, the farce. Beckett’s theater is fiction too, of course, but it brought new meanings to the theater and emphasized its novelty partly by reminding us of what it was not. Waiting For Godot is not a melodrama, farce, tragedy, music-hall act, or any other familiar form of theatrical entertainment. It was something new, which is now generally referred to as the Theater of the Absurd.
A break with tradition seems to be one of the points made by Pozzo’s comic entrance. When Waiting For Godot was first performed the audience must have been ‘waiting for the actors’ and ‘waiting for the drama’. When Pozzo arrives they might have thought that at last a real actor had arrived and the drama would begin, but in fact his arrival is a big anti-climax.
Pozzo: (Terrifying voice) I am Pozzo! (Silence) Pozzo! (Silence) Does that name mean nothing to you?
He is ‘an actor’, but he is out of place on this stage. His melodramatic style falls flat in this world of empty waiting. His acting style, like his attitudes, is out of date and irrelevant, and his importance for Vladimir and Estragon, as well as for the audience, extends little beyond helping time to pass more quickly.
By implicitly dismissing traditional forms of theater in this way Beckett added to the impact with which his plays were able to address his view of the reality of life in the twentieth century.
Thus Beckett uses comedy in various ways. On the surface we might be amused, and this will help keep us interested in plays which could otherwise become dull. But the humor is always only one aspect of a statement which, either by its content, its implied meaning, or its implied relationship to other dramatic forms, has a deeper significance for the meaning of the play, and through the play, for our lives. We can thus safely conclude that Waiting for Godot is based structurally on traditional farce and burlesque.