Nature has nothing pure; in nature everything is mixed. Every sound produced by a human voice mixes multiple frequencies; a tuning-fork’s pure tone is unnatural. Every flower-petal mixes hues, shades, and tones; a pure colour exists only in an image-editing programme. Anything pure is unnatural, salient – and artistic. Samuel Beckett’s plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame are pure. Pure existential angst. Their plots are constructed, with extravagant meticulousness, out of nothing. Their characters discuss, painstakingly, nothing. Meaninglessness saturates these short plays’ atmosphere: leaving the reader airless, suffocating. These plays are twin peaks of artistic achievement – and are deeply disturbing.
Godot’s protagonists are two working-class men: Estragon and Vladimir. Estragon is preoccupied with creaturely survival: wrestling to de-boot his swollen feet, and scrounging for food. These goals find modest success: a search of Vladimir’s pockets yields some radishes and one semi-edible carrot; later, Estragon scavenges discarded chicken-bones off the ground. Vladimir, meanwhile, has secured an appointment with a personage named Godot. How did Vladimir do this? Who knows. What does Vladimir expect from Godot? Who knows. Godot’s action unravels while Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot.
To pass the time, the two companions try to remember what day it is, and how long they’ve known one another; they wonder whether they should hang themselves in order to get erections, debate the mechanics for this plan, then abandon it; then they encounter slave-driver Pozzo and his slave Lucky.
‘Slave’ is a euphemism: Lucky functions as a human Swiss army knife: draft-horse, furniture-rack, dolly, and bard. At first, Lucky’s name seems a cruel joke: how can a slave be lucky? But as Godot’s action unfolds, the reader suspects that Lucky’s appellation is unironical. Vladimir expresses outrage at Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky; Pozzo explains that Lucky enjoys being indispensable, and that it’s Pozzo who cannot manage to get rid of Lucky. The exhaustive stage directions, detailing Lucky’s unflagging attendance on his master, seem to bear out Pozzo’s claims. While the three freemen chat, Lucky stands centre-stage, holding Pozzo’s heavy belongings off the ground. Physically, Lucky keeps sinking under this burden – but, psychically, Lucky shows more zest than the other three characters put together.
Endgame unfolds in one room in a post-apocalyptic world. Chair-bound Hamm, who cannot stand up, is attended by his servant-cum-adopted-son Clov, who cannot sit down. Hamm is also sand-blind behind dark glasses – though there’s nothing left to see. The room has three windows, all high up, accessible by one set of stairs: commanding respectively the earth, the sea, and the ocean [sic]. The room also accommodates Hamm’s elderly parents, relegated to adjacent, lidded rubbish-bins [sic]. Inside these rubbish-bins old Nell and Nagg subsist, occasionally rearing their heads to speak to one another, reminisce about boating and cycling holidays in Europe, and demand sweetmeats from their son.
What apocalypse has happened? We never find out – and that question, like every other the reader/viewer may have, doesn’t matter, not at all. The apocalypse involved the descent of some manner of darkness. At one point, Clov accuses Hamm of having refused his neighbours, while the catastrophe was unfolding, aid, in the form of lamp-oil. “And so that old woman died,” says Clov, “Of darkness.”
Hamm is indifferent to everything: to Clov’s accusations, to his own parents’ nostalgic travel-stories, and to the fate of his fellow-men outside his room – has anyone survived? Hamm seems a textbook patient of anhedonia: nothing affects him, for good or for bad. And this is bad: this is death. In every sense that matters, Hamm is already dead: he’s just hanging around. Only once is Hamm shaken out of his apathy: to wonder, exasperated, why his parents had him. Otherwise, Hamm is a callous spectator of his own posthumous existence. Clov keeps threatening to leave him; dispassionately, Hamm predicts that Clov won’t be able to. As it happens, over the course of the play Hamm does lose two-thirds of his remaining human world.
Godot and Endgame are steeped in a dreariness that fills the lungs. Life has been drained of all joy, all meaning; there remains only the choice of observing, nevertheless, rules and routines. Characters make plans, debate them, and abandon them; they forget where, when, and who they are, and don’t try very hard to remember; they speculate about the big events in their lives, as if speculating about the lives of characters in a bleached play that they’re watching because there’s nothing better to do.
Insofar as these plays’ action does move, it moves via the characters transitioning between two states: (i) confronting life’s meaninglessness, in which even big decisions like ‘Should we hang ourselves?’ and ‘Should I leave forever the one home I’ve ever known?’ are utterly weightless; and (ii) Debating, in excruciating detail, and often in circles, ridiculously trivial questions – Pozzo deciding whether Estragon may pick off the ground the chicken-bones Pozzo has discarded; Hamm examining Clov on whether his armchair stands precisely in the centre of the room.
The question is: how do these characters transition between these two states? How does one transition between recognising the utter irrelevance, to the large picture, of the biggest decisions of one’s life – to immersing oneself in a life’s most trivial rules and routines?
Godot and Endgame offer the same solution as other works of existentialist literature. Action.
Action, of any kind – whether the pursuit of a vocation, as at the close of Sartre’s Nausea; or trivial activities like honouring your end of a dubious appointment (Godot), or waiting for the correct minute to administer your employer his daily painkiller, before informing him that, actually, you’ve run out (Endgame) – remains the sole escape from existential angst.
For solution there is none. In this sense, works of existential literature recognise, in common with older works, as well as contemporary works of other philosophical persuasions, that from life’s meaningless there are no solutions, only escapes of varying effectiveness.
Godot and Endgame operate as memento mori. They immerse the reader into an experience exquisitely empty, unbearably weightless: an emptiness like a giant, intricate cobweb. Be warned, reader: the spider-silk is strong, sticky, and almost invisible; the trap almost inescapable; the spider at the centre waits to catch you and crush you. These plays are splendid artworks: like magnificent cathedrals, built on an inhuman scale, full of human emptiness. These plays are not meant to be enjoyed. But you may be glad to endure them – for, when you’ve finished them, and escaped their spider-web – then life, for all its uncertainty and pain, shines bright again.