Back Ground On Godot


From The Theatre of the Absurd (1961)

Harold Pinter, and other playwrights, Martin Esslin coined the phrase "theater of the absurd" to describe the disorienting quality of their plays. The book has been widely influential and provided the first generation of postwar theatergoers with a way of understanding the new drama. Esslin has written several books on modem drama and theater, including Brecht: A Choice of Evils (1959), Pinter: A Study of His Plays (1976), and An Anatomy of Drama (1976). He has also worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation and has taught drama at Stanford University and elsewhere. 

On 19 November 1957, a group of worried actors were preparing to face their audience. The actors were members of the company of the San Francisco Actors' Workshop. The audience consisted of fourteen hundred convicts at the San Quentin penitentiary. No live play had been performed at San Quentin since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913. Now, forty-four years later, the play that had been chosen, largely because no woman appeared in it, was Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. 

      No wonder the actors and Herbert Blau, the director, were apprehensive. How were they to face one of the toughest audiences in the world with a highly obscure, intellectual play that had produced near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe? Herbert Blau decided to prepare the San Quentin audience for what was to come. He stepped on to the stage and addressed the packed, darkened North Dining Hall- a sea of flickering matches that the convicts tossed over their shoulders after lighting their cigarettes. Blau compared the play to apiece of jazz music 'to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it.' In the same way, he hoped, there would be some meaning, some personal significance for each member of the audience in Waiting for Godot.

      The curtain parted. The play began, And what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts, As the writer of 'Memos of a first-nighter' put it in the columns of the prison paper, the San Quentin News:

            The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing,...parked all 642 Ibs on the aisle and waited
for the girls and funny stuff, When this didn't appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to
wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping, They made one error. They listened and
looked two minutes too long-and stayed. Left at the end. All shook...1

Or as the writer of the lead story of the same paper reported, under the headline, 'San Francisco Group Leaves S.Q. Audience Waiting for Godot':

            From the moment Robin Wagner's thoughtful and limbo-like set was dressed with light,
until the last futile and expectant handclasp was hesitantly activated between the two searching va-
grants, the San Francisco company had its audience of captives in its collective hand....Those

that had felt a less controversial vehicle should be attempted as a first play here had their fears
allayed a short five minutes after the Samuel Beckett piece began to unfold.2

       A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who was present noted that the convicts did not find
it difficult to understand the play, One prisoner told him, 'Godot is society.' Said another: 'He's the outside.'3 A teacher at the prison was quoted as saying, 'They know what is meant by waiting...and they knew if Godot finally came, he would only be a disappointment.'4 The leading article of the prison paper showed how clearly the writer had understood the meaning of the play:

            It was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who
expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors, It asked
nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope, ... We're
still waiting for Godot, and shall continue to wait, When the scenery gets too drab and the action
too slow, we'll call each other names and swear to part forever -but then, there's no place to go! 5

      It is said that Godot himself, as well as turns of phrase and characters from the play, have since become a permanent part of the private language, the institutional mythology of San Quentin.
      Why did a play of the supposedly esoteric avant-garde make so immediate and so deep an impact on an audience of convicts? Because it confronted them with a situation in some ways analogous to their own? Perhaps. Or perhaps because they were unsophisticated enough to come to the theatre without any preconceived notions and ready-made expectations, so that they avoided the mistake that trapped so many established critics who condemned the play for its lack of plot, development, characterization, suspense, or plain common sense, Certainly the prisoners of San Quentin could not be suspected of the sin of intellectual snobbery, for which a sizeable proportion of the audiences of Waiting for Godot have often been reproached; of pretending to like a play they did not even begin to understand, just to appear in the know.
The reception of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin, and the wide acclaim given to plays by lonesco, Adamov, Pinter, and others, testify that these plays, which are so often superciliously dismissed as nonsense or mystification, have something to say and can be understood, Most of the incomprehension with which plays of this type are still being received by critics and theatrical re-viewers, most of the bewilderment they have caused and to which they still give rise, come from the fact that they are part of anew, and still developing stage convention that has not yet been generally understood and has hardly ever been defined, Inevitably, plays written in this new convention will, when judged by the standards and criteria of another, be regarded as impertinent and outrageous impostures. If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has  to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a  beginning nor an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manners and  mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.
But the plays we are concerned with here pursue ends quite different from those of the conventional play and therefore use quite different methods. They can be judged only by the standards of the Theatre of the Absurd, which it is the purpose of this book to define and clarify.
It must be stressed, however, that the dramatists whose work is here discussed do not form part of
any self-proclaimed or self-conscious school or movement. On the contrary, each of the writers in
question is an individual who regards himself as a lone outsider, cut off and isolated in his private
world. Each has his own personal approach to both subject-matter and form; his own roots, sources,
and background. If they also, very clearly and in spite of themselves, have a good deal in common, it
is because their work most sensitively mirrors and reflects the preoccupations and anxieties, the emotions and thinking of many of their contemporaries in the Western world.
This is not to say that their works are representative of mass attitudes. It is an oversimplification
to assume that any age presents a homogeneous pattern. Ours being, more than most others, an age of
transition, it displays a bewilderingly stratified picture: medieval beliefs still held and overlaid by
eighteenth-century rationalism and mid-nineteenth-century Marxism, rocked by sudden volcanic
eruptions of prehistoric fanaticisms and primitive tribal cults. Each of these components of the cultural pattern of the age finds its own artistic expression. The Theatre of the Absurd, however, can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time.
      The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of
former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been
discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions. The decline of religious faith was masked until
the end of the Second World War by the substitute religions of faith in progress, nationalism, and
various totalitarian fallacies. All this was shattered by the war. By 1942, Albert Camus was calmly
putting the question why, since life had lost all meaning, man should not seek escape in suicide. In
one of the great, seminal heart-searchings of our time, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tried to diagnose the human situation in a world of shattered beliefs:

        A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in
a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irreme-
diable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope
of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting,
truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity. 6

    'Absurd' originally means 'out of harmony" in a musical context. Hence its dictionary definition:
'out of harmony with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical.' In common usage,
'absurd' may simply mean 'ridiculous" but this is not the sense in which Camus uses the word, and in
which it is used when we speak of the Theatre of the Absurd. In an essay on Kafka, Ionesco defined his
understanding of the term as follows: 'Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose....Cut off from his
religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, ab-
surd, useless.'7
This sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition is, broadly speaking,
the theme of the plays of Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco, Genet, and the other writers discussed in this
book. But it is not merely the subject-matter that defines what is here called the Theatre of the
Absurd. A similar sense of the senselessness of life, of the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and
purpose, is also the theme of much of the work of dramatists like Giraudoux, Anouilh, Salacrou,
Sartre, and Camus himself. Yet these writers differ from the dramatists of the Absurd in an important
respect: they present their sense of the irrationality of the human condition in the form of highly lucid
and logically constructed reasoning, while the Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the
senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open
abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought. While Sartre or Camus express the new
content in the old convention, the Theatre of the Absurd goes a step further in trying to achieve a
unity between its basic assumptions and the form in which these are expressed. In some senses, the
theatre of Sartre and Camus is less adequate as an expression of the philosophy of Sartre and Camus--
in artistic, as distinct from philosophic, terms -than the Theatre of the Absurd.
    If Camus argued that in our disillusioned age the world has ceased to make sense, he did so in the
elegantly rationalistic and discursive style of an eighteenth-century moralist, in well-constructed and
polished plays. If Sartre argues that existence comes before essence and that human personality can
be reduced to pure potentiality and the freedom to choose itself anew at any moment, he presents his
ideas in plays based on brilliantly drawn characters who remain wholly consistent and thus reflect the
old convention that each human being has a core of immutable, unchanging essence--in fact, an
immortal soul. And the beautiful phrasing and argumentative brilliance of both Sartre and Camus in
their relentless probing still, by implication, proclaim a tacit conviction that logical discourse can
offer valid solutions, that the analysis of language will lead to the uncovering of basic concepts --
Platonic ideas.
    This is an inner contradiction that the dramatists of the Absurd are trying, by instinct and
intuition rather than by conscious effort, to overcome and resolve. The Theatre of the Absurd has
renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being -that
is, in terms of concrete stage images. This is the difference between the approach of the philosopher
and that of the poet; the difference, to take an example from another sphere, between the idea of God
in the works of Thomas Aquinas or Spinoza and the intuition of God in those of St John of the Cross
or Meister Eckhart--the difference between theory and experience.
    It is this striving for an integration between the subject-matter and the form in which it is
expressed that separates the Theatre of the Absurd from the Existentialist theatre.
    It must also be distinguished from another important, and parallel, trend in the contemporary
French theatre, which is equally preoccupied with the absurdity and uncertainty of the human
condition: the 'poetic avant-garde' theatre of dramatists like Michel de Ghelderode, Jacques Audi-
berti, Georges Neveux, and, in the younger generation, Georges Schehade, Henri Pichette, and Jean
Vauthier, to name only some of its most important exponents. This is an even more difficult dividing
line to draw, for the two approaches overlap a good deal. The 'poetic avant-garde' relies on fantasy and
dream reality as much as the Theatre of the Absurd does; it also disregards such traditional axioms as
that of the basic unity and consistency of each character or the need for a plot. Yet basically the 'poetic
avant-garde' represents a different mood; it is more lyrical, and far less violent and grotesque. Even
more important is its different attitude toward language: the 'poetic avant-garde' relies to afar greater
extent on consciously 'poetic' speech; it aspires to plays that are in effect poems, images composed of a
rich web of verbal associations.
    The Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, tends toward a radical devaluation of language,
toward a poetry that is to emerge from the concrete and objectified images of the stage itself. The
element of language still plays an important part in this conception, but what happens on the stage
transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters. In Ionesco's The Chairs, for
example, the poetic content of a powerfully poetic play does not lie in the banal words that are uttered
but in the fact that they are spoken to an ever-growing number of empty chairs.
    The Theatre of the Absurd is thus part of the 'anti-literary' movement of our time, which has
found its expression in abstract painting, with its rejection of 'literary' elements in pictures; or in the
'new novel' in France, with its reliance on the description of objects and its rejection of empathy and
anthropomorphism. It is no coincidence that, like all these movements and so many of the efforts to
create new forms of expression in all the arts, the Theatre of the Absurd should be centred in Paris...

l San Quentin News, San Quentin, Calif., 28 November 1957.
3Theatre Arts, New York, July 1958.
5San Quentin News, 28 November 1957.
6Albert Camus, Le My the de Sisyphe (Paris: Gallimard, 1942), p. 18.
7Eugene Ionesco, 'Dans les armes de la ville; Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault, Paris, no.20, October 1957.


 From "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" (1983)

 FREDRIC JAMESON IS PROBABLY THE MOST PROMINENT MARXIST CULTURAL CRITIC WRITING IN THE United States today and is the author of several important books, including Marxism and Form (1971), The Prison-House of Language (1972), and The Political Unconscious (1988). This section is from one of Jamesons many essays on postmodern art, culture, an society. Jameson uses the term pastiche to characterize the problematic ways contemporary arts invoke the imagery and style of earlier historical eras, paradoxically erasing "history" in the process.

 ...One of the most significant features or practices in postmodernism today is pastiche. I must first explain this term, which people generally tend to confuse with or assimilate to that related verbal phenomenon called parody. Both pastiche and parody involve the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles and particularly of the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles. It is obvious that modern literature in general offers a very rich field for parody, since the great modern writers have all been defined by the invention or production of rather unique styles: think of the Faulknerian long sentence or of D. H. Lawrence's characteristic nature imagery; think of Wallace Stevens's peculiar way of using abstractions; think also of the mannerisms of the philosophers, of Heidegger for example, or Sartre; think of the musical styles of Mahler or Prokofiev. All of these styles, however different from each other, are comparable in this: each is quite unmistakable; once one is learned, it is not likely to be confused with something else.
Now parody capitalizes on the uniqueness of these styles and seizes on their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities to produce an imitation which mocks the original. I won't say that the satiric impulse is conscious in all forms of parody. In any case, a good or great parodist has to have some secret sympathy for the original, just as a great mimic has to have the capacity to put himself/herself in the place of the person imitated. Still, the general effect of parody is -whether in sympathy or with malice--to cast ridicule on the private nature of these stylistic mannerisms and their excessiveness and eccentricity with respect to the way people normally speak or write. So there remains somewhere behind all parody the feeling that there is a linguistic norm in contrast to which the styles of the great modernists can be mocked.
    But what would happen if one no longer believed in the existence of normal language, of ordinary speech, of the linguistic norm (the kind of clarity and communicative power celebrated by Orwell in his famous essay, say)? One could think of it in this way: perhaps the immense fragmentation and privatization of modern literature--its explosion into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms--foreshadows deeper and more general tendencies in social life as a whole. Supposing that modern art and m9dernism-far from being a kind of specialized aesthetic curiosity-actually anticipated social developments along these lines; supposing that in the decades since the emergence of the great modern styles society has itself begun to fragment in this way, each group coming to speak a curious private language of its own, each profession developing its private code or idiolect, and finally each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island, separated from everyone else? But then in that case, the very possibility of any linguistic norm in terms of which one could ridicule private languages and idiosyncratic styles would vanish, and we would have nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity.
    That is the moment at which pastiche appears and parody has become impossible. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor: pastiche is to parody what that curious thing, the modern practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the stable and comic ironies of, say, the 18th century.

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