The Function of Comedy in the Plays of Samuel Beckett

Plays discussed: Waiting For Godot, Krapp's Last Tape, Endgame
By Ian Mackean

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.

Clowns

Beckett's characters often bear a strong physical resemblance to clowns. Vladimir and Estragon of Waiting For Godot wear baggy coats, bowler hats and boots. Krapp of Krapp's Last Tape wears 'dirty white boots, size ten at least . . . white face, purple nose', and Hamm and Clov of Endgame, have red faces. If Beckett's characters represent mankind, this suggests that Beckett sees man as, in essence, a clown - an absurd figure.

The traditional circus clown represents certain aspects of man which seem to tie in with Beckett's view of humanity. The clown makes a fool of himself in trying to realise his aspirations, for example to perform acrobatics, or play a practical joke. He fails in a way which makes him look absurd. He trips over a chair, gets his foot stuck in a bucket, or soaks himself in water he had been intending to pour over someone else. He has no dignity or nobility. No matter what he tries to do he ends up falling flat on his face.

We sympathise with the clown, and laugh at him, responding to experiences basic to us all - striving and failing, or having our expectations raised only for them to be quashed. The clown might be considered 'tragicomic' figure; his attempt to achieve a goal and subsequent 'fall' are a miniature parody of tragic action, while at the same time his absurdity makes him comic.

Beckett called Waiting for Godot a tragicomedy, and Vladimir and Estragon have much in common with clowns. Like clowns, they seem more 'performers' than characters, and their actions have more the quality of a ritual than a real relationship between two people. Some of their behaviour is distinctly clownish, such as the struggle with hats and boots, the falling over in Act 2, and the trousers falling down, as well as the overall failure to achieve any aim, epitomised by,

Let's go (they do not move).

In this way Beckett has borrowed the 'tragicomic' pathos embodied in the circus clown to represent the predicament of Man as he sees it. In the context of a circus, in which amazing feats are performed, the clown represents the ordinary man who cannot do things such as walking a tightrope, juggling, and lion-taming. Vladimir and Estragon can be seen as filling a parallel role in relation to traditional humanist views of Man, as well as in relation to traditional views of what the theatre, and characters in a play ought to be.

By using such characters Beckett borrows the immediate simplicity and physicality of clowns, with the subsequent immediacy of identification felt by the audience. This provides the core of the dramatic quality of Waiting For Godot, which holds our attention in spite of the fact that very little happens.

Krapp's Last Tape is more sentimental, and more bitter than many of Beckett's other plays, and the clownish aspect of Krapp serves a different function from that of Vladimir and Estragon. His appearance, with big boots, white face, and purple nose is reminiscent of a clown's appearance, and he almost slips on a banana skin, but he does not fall. The audience's immediate response to his appearance will be a mixture of amusement and pity. But by failing to fall on the banana skin Krapp denies the audience their laughter and demands respect as a human being.

Thus throughout Krapp's Last Tape we must reconcile a dual response; his appearance prompts laughter at a 'performer', while his speech prompts sympathy for a character. There is little comedy in Krapp's dialogue, which mainly conveys pathos and the bitterness of failure, and actions which could be funny, such as his knocking the box off the table and fumbling with the tape recorder serve only to show the practical frustrations of existence, particularly in old age, and do not have the humour of slapstick.

Krapp's drunkenness, which might have been funny, only emphasises his despair and inability to come to terms with life. Thus a dual vision of Man is presented; on the one hand he can be seen as undignified, his actions laborious and clumsy, while on the other hand he is capable of deep feelings of suffering and regret.

Cross-talk

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.
Vladimir: Ah!
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.

Two actors on a stage

Conversation serves to pass the time, and one level on which Waiting For Godot functions is that of two actors on a stage, with little or no prepared script, having to get through the evening. The step-by-step, seemingly improvised dialogue ties win with this perspective. With nothing else to occupy their minds every little incident is used as a pretext for time-consuming questions and comments.

Vladimir: Would you like a radish?
Estragon: Is that all there is?
Vladimir: There are radishes and turnips.
Estragon: Are there no carrots?
Vladimir: No, anyway you overdo it with your carrots.
Estragon: Then give me a radish . . . It's black!
Vladimir: It's a radish.
Estragon: I only like the pink ones. You know that!
Vladimir: Then you don't want it?
Estragon: I only like the pink ones.
Vladimir: Then give it back to me.
Estragon: This is becoming really insignificant.

This exchange might be amusing but the dramatic context puts another perspective on the comedy. As Estragon becomes angry and frustrated about not having a carrot, the audience might become angry and frustrated about having paid money to watch two men have such a trivial conversation. We might be irritated because the characters are squabbling over petty details while the larger issues remain undefined and unresolved.

Another way in which the comic dialogue is integral to the play is in reflecting the overall form:

Vladimir: Perhaps we should help him first.
Estragon: To do what?
Vladimir: To get up.
Estragon: He can’t get up.
Vladimir: He wants to get up.
Estragon: Then let him get up.
Vladimir: He can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: I don’t know.

Apart from being amusing this conversation gets nowhere. It repeats itself, goes round in circles, and achieves virtually nothing, and in this respect it is a microcosmic representation of the whole play. The comic surface in itself also has significance in its illustration of the difficulty of useful communication between one person and another. The simplest idea has to be hammered home against an obstinate resistance to understanding.

Farce

Perhaps the most obvious comic incident in Waiting For Godot is when Estragon's trousers fall down. When this happens in farce we laugh at a person being made to look ridiculous. The vulnerable individual is exposed beneath the exterior presented to society. The falling trousers represent the collapse of social pretences, and the laughter of the audience is provoked by the shock, experienced by the character, which such an exposure would bring to themselves.

In Waiting For Godot this stock situation with its stock response is put to a different use. The falling trousers bring no response at all from Vladimir and Estragon. Estragon doesn’t even know it has happened. This emphasises the difference between the world of farce and the world of Beckett. In Waiting For Godot there are no social pretensions to be exposed because there is no society, and no social aspiration. There is no social veneer or hypocrisy to be stripped away because there is no social life in which hypocrisy or pretension could flourish. The audience might feel inclined to laugh at Estragon as a stock response, but there will be a question and a silence below the amusement. If the characters are not embarrassed, what is there to laugh at?

A similar moment of clowning occurs in Endgame when Clov shakes insecticide down his trousers. Again we are asked to appreciate the humour and the serious meaning simultaneously.

Clov loosens the top of his trousers, pulls it forward and shakes powder into the aperture. He stoops, looks, waits, starts, frenziedly shakes more powder, stoops, looks, waits.

The unpleasant substance down the trousers is a standard piece of clowning, but instead of water or a custard pie Beckett uses poison, which invests the gesture with serious implications in keeping with the themes of the play. The flea is killed off, but by implication Clov’s genitals, his equipment for producing new life, are also killed off. The dialogue reinforces this meaning:

But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!

In their world of death, decay, and sterility the idea of new life seems horrifying

Fiction giving a purpose to life

Hamm and Clov are suffering not only from the threat of physical starvation, but also the spiritual starvation of having no purpose in life. This theme is reflected in another piece of humorous cross-talk.

Hamm: I’ve got on with my story. I’ve got on with it well. Ask me where I’ve got to.
Clov: Oh, by the way, your story?
Hamm: What story?
Clov: The one you’ve been telling yourself all your . . . days.
Hamm: Ah you mean my chronicle?
Clov: That’s the one.
Hamm: Keep going, can’t you, keep going!

Hamm creates a purpose by telling a story, and he needs to feel that the purpose is significant, even though he has to force Clov to feign an interest. The serious point Beckett is making is that a large part of our lives is taken up with fictions which we invent to stave off the experience of pointlessness. This is a recurring theme in Beckett’s work, both prose (e.g. The Unnameable, and Malone Dies) and drama, and ties in in a wider sense with his revolutionary approach to the use of the fictional world of the theatre as a medium.

A new kind of theatre

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 theatre, the farce. Beckett’s theatre is fiction too, of course, but it brought new meanings to the theatre and emphasised 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 Theatre 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 theatre 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.

Conclusion

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 humour 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.

Bibliography

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. Faber. 1957
-- Krapp's Last Tape. Faber 1959
-- Waiting for Godot. Faber. 1959
Davidson, P. H. Aspects of Drama and The Theatre. Contemporary Drama and Popular Dramatic Forms.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Penguin. 1968
Kenner, Hugh. Samuel Beckett: a critical study. 1962
Robinson, M. The Long Sonata of the Dead, a Study of Samuel Beckett. 1969

© Ian Mackean March 2008

See also: British and Irish drama on film >
Samuel Beckett Books > Samuel Beckett Web Sites >

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