Self-conscious Theatricality and Meaning (less ness) in Waiting for Godot The many moments in Waiting for Godot that exhibit a self-conscious theatricality, that are aware of themselves as examples of performance, have a relationship with the concept of meaning that functions on two levels. On one level, they are meaningless, or they simply pass the time, so when characters are aware that they are telling a story or when they engage in speeches and conversations for their own sake, they are telling the audience nothing. They thereby demonstrate how many different kinds of performances can offer nothing to an audience in the way of any kind of meaning or objective truth. The many performances that deal with subject matter like that of science, religion, philosophy, nationalism, and theater itself demonstrate how each of these discourses fails to deliver the kind of revelations or objective truths the audience has come to see, the kinds of meaning on which most people are dependent to the point of powerlessness. On another level, however, each example of self-conscious theatricality or self-aware performance does offer something in that very demonstration of meaninglessness.
While the content of each story, song, speech, and conversation lacks any substance in and of itself, it nonetheless, each time, demonstrates its own uselessness. This uselessness and lack of meaning become, then, the "meaning" of each example, and when these examples accumulate over the course of the play, they do offer the audience something: a critique of traditional forms of theatre and of the ways in which people relate to the world around them. The first of these kinds of examples occurs almost immediately at the beginning of the play. In reply to Estragon's statement, 'Nothing to be done,' Vladimir goes on to say, 'I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything' (1, emphasis mine).
Everything in that sentence including and after the word 'saying' is a performance that is aware of itself as such because Vladimir is conscious of quoting himself. He is, in a sense, reading a line from a script he's written. The self-conscious theatricality of the moment is subtle, but that very subtlety is important because it illustrates the extent to which the concept of performance is relevant to everyday life. Furthermore, that one performance contains two important elements: reason and hope.
Vladimir can maintain a sense of hope because he has not yet 'tried everything,' but, significantly, he mistakes that hope for reason, demonstrating how Reason itself is something in which people believe in the hopes that it will deliver them some objective truth or meaning. This first example establishes the dynamic at work between each example of self-conscious theatricality and its content: each example is at once meaningless in content and meaningful as a demonstration of its content's meaninglessness. Perhaps the best example of this dynamic is Lucky's speech towards the end of Act I. Here it is Pozzo who establishes the speech's status as a performance, asking 'Well, would you like him to think something for us?' and turning Lucky to face the audience (2). In this setting, Lucky is both performing to the trio of Vladimir, Estragon and Pozzo as well as to the audience itself, reaffirming the presentation of Lucky's speech as a performance. Following the pattern established from the beginning of the play (and maintained at various points throughout, as we shall see below), the speech contains nothing in its literal content while demonstrating a great deal on the level of self-conscious theatricality.
It is important here, though the speech says basically nothing, to describe what kind of nothing it describes, the terms in which its meaninglessness is couched. These terms include those of science (the references to 'the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Easy-in-Pussy of Testew and Cunard' and 'the tune of one inch four ounce per caput approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure,' etc. ), philosophy ('Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Watt man of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension'), sports ('tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding coating camo gie skating tennis of all kinds'), nature ('that in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark') and waste of varying kinds ('the labours of Far tov and Belcher' and how 'the strides of alimentation and defecation is seen to waste and pine waste and pine') (3). All are equated by their proximity as much as by their sheer incomprehensibility. Even the combined powers of these groups of terms, symbolically these discourses, cannot provide any meaning whatsoever. Neither does this combination benefit from any kind of repetition, such as the stutters of the 'Acacacacademy,' the 'quaquaquaqua' (which itself is repeated), the first and second (and subsequent) mentions of 'tennis' and 'all kinds of tennis' in the list of sports and so on.
Over and over, a combination of epistemological and cultural discourses proves incomprehensible, provides neither the trio onstage nor the audience or the world off-stage with any kind of substantial meaning or objective truth. The most important aspect of all this meaninglessness, however, is its form, namely the speech as a group of words or terms that make up the discourses under consideration. While philosophy, science, sports, and nature are all deemed useless as far as meaning is concerned, what is really under attack is the assumption that their representation in words or in language will be at all useful in the pursuit of some kind of objective truth. The phrases 'it is established' and it is established beyond all doubt' occur repeatedly and are repeatedly left as 'unfinished' as the 'reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard left unfinished' (4). Nothing, it would seem, is 'established', and everything is left, as the last word of Lucky's speech states 'unfinished', because these discourses can never finish their work in the impossible pursuit of a fixed, objective truth or meaning. So the speech is, in totality, meaningless, but, true to the pattern, the performance is, on another level, a demonstration that does 'establish' the (necessarily and inveitably) perpetually 'unfinished' nature of the efforts of language to provide meaning.
The fact remains that such a demonstration is necessary because those discourses and that language exert a considerable amount of authority over people, and, to an extent, that authority is what constructs people's identities. Beckett leaves it to other examples of self-conscious theatricality and self-aware performance show what he does with this fact, how he explains and criticizes it. One of those examples begins when Vladimir introduces the story of Christ and the two thieves earlier on in Act I: VLADIMIR Ah yes, the two thieves. Do you remember the story? ESTRAGON No. VLADIMIR Shall I tell it to you?
ESTRAGON No. VLADIMIR It " ll pass the time. [Pause] Two thieves crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One- ESTRAGON Our what? VLADIMIR Our Saviour. Two thieves.
One is supposed to have been saved and the other... [He searches for the opposite of saved]... damned. (5) At this point in the exchange, two things have already been established: one, this is a performance, the telling of a story, and two, it is an attempt at clarification. Vladimir tries to continue the story, Estragon questions Vladimir, and Vladimir tries to clarify himself. This moment of self-conscious theatricality, or more accurately self-aware performance, demonstrates religion's attempt to provide humankind with some sort of clarity. By the end of the exchange, the Evangelists' accounts contradict each other and the answers to Estragon's most important question ('Why believe [one Evangelist] rather than the others?' ) goes unanswered (6).
Thus, while on one level religion fails to glean any objective truth from many contradictory accounts of the same event, on another level, the performance is significant as a demonstration of that failure. Most importantly though, rather than giving up these attempts at clarity, most people believe the Evangelist who 'speaks of a thief being saved', so loathe are they to relinquish their hopes (7). It is this same kind of hope that leads Vladimir to propose that he and Estragon repent, which introduces the conversation in the first place. This proposal, for its part, demonstrates that by believing in institutions like religion even when they fail to deliver objective truth, people endow those institutions with authority over them.
This is what happens when Vladimir hopes; that hope motivates him to 'be reasonable' and that belief in Reason endows the discourses of reason (science, philosophy, etc.) with their power and their authority. In much the same way, both he and Estragon hope that Godot will come, thereby endowing him with the power to paralyze them with the promise that 'he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow' (8). Hence, though Vladimir says at the end of Act I, 'Let's go', the stage directions reveal that ' [They do not move. ]' (9). An example of self-conscious theatricality that more fully integrates the concept of authority into the dynamic between self-aware performance and meaning is Pozzo's explanation of why Lucky will not put down his bags. Pozzo introduces the self-conscious aspect of this performance by making sure Vladimir and Estragon are listening to him ('Is everybody looking at me?' and later, 'I am ready.
Is everybody listening? Is everybody ready?' ), establishing them as an audience who are focused on himself, the performer (10). His performance, then, is his answer to Estragon's question of why Lucky will not put down his bags. According to the pattern already established by other moments of self-conscious performance, Pozzo should not be able to provide any kind of answer. However, he does answer the question. POZZO He wants to impress me, so that I'll keep him.
(11) Subsequent clarifications further establish the fact that Pozzo's performance does have substance. However, that substance is a mere expression of authority. As in the case of religion, meaning is unattainable, but in its place, people accept, and in Lucky's case, come to desire authority. Pozzo's performance of his answer to Estragon's question displays that authority is attractive to people because it can deliver clarity where other discourses cannot. In fact, authority is a kind of clarity, or at least the illusion thereof, insofar as it does people's thinking for them, in the same way that Pozzo's barked orders conduct every movement of Lucky's life for him. The performance of the story of the two thieves displays how people will accept this clear authority even when it cannot provide meaning or truth.
Pozzo's performance of authority is the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps it is already apparent by this time that the discussion has so far focused mainly on Act I. It has been thus focused because it is in Act I that Beckett establishes the relationships between hope, language, performance, and meaning that drive the rest of the play. Act II establishes the results of these relationships. The overriding characteristic of Act II and the way it demonstrates those results is repetition.
The motif of repetition first appears immediately in the second act with the setting: 'Next day. Same time. Same place. ' (12) It continues with Vladimir's song. The song of the dog that steals bread and then is killed would seem to end with other dogs writing on his tombstone. However, their writing is simply the beginning of the song of the dog, which includes their writing, which includes the beginning of the song, and so on and so forth.
The song is inherently circular and repetitive, a self-perpetuating performance with no real significance in its content. Once again, the real significance lies in how the song demonstrates the futility of repeating a traditional type of performance, as if the second repetition of such a performance will somehow redeem the failures of the first-something it invariably does not do, just as the repetitions in Lucky's speech do nothing to make any sense of it. Other repetitions abound, and the second Act approximates an almost complete repetition of the first: Vladimir tries to embrace Estragon; Estragon sleeps and dreams, then wakes up; they converse; Lucky and Pozzo appear; Lucky still carries Pozzo's bags around; Pozzo and he leave; the boy comes to say Godot will not come; Vladimir and Estragon ' [... do not move]' (13). The explanation of all this fruitless repetition is that what the performances of the first Act displayed: the authority consented to in lieu of a meaning that will never come. This authority has indoctrinated everyone it has touched into the habits that reaffirm its power. Hence the attempts to pass the time with performances indicated when Estragon says things like 'That's the idea, let's contradict each other,' and 'That's the idea, let's abuse each other' (14).
Their conversations are simply empty performances that are, true to form, instructive in demonstrating the inadequacy and futility of language. They do things like this over and over again, paralyzed by the authority to which they submit, the clarity of authority for which they 'got rid of' their rights (15). They demonstrate in these performances the meaning of the line 'But habit is a great deadener' (16). They wait for Godot and ' [They do not move. ]' There is an episode in Act I in which Pozzo very theatrically describes his surroundings, adding nothing to any store of meaning, but demonstrating how any number of traditional acting styles are all similar in their uselessness. The same uselessness applies to all the demonstrations of traditional performances and traditional theatre that occur throughout the play.
The audience, along with Estragon and Vladimir, wait for some lesson, for a theatrical revelation, a meaning, or an objective truth. What they get is the experience of the meaninglessness and inadequacy of language, of any number of epistemological discourses, and of traditional performance. Instead of a solution to the problems of the play, such as the paralysis, the willing submission to exploitation, and the emptiness, the audience gets nothing. Appropriately then, Waiting for Godot stays true to its break from meaning by not giving the audience any answers. Just as appropriately, Waiting for Godot stays true to its commitment to demonstrative performance by using it to deliver to that audience a message all the same: do not expect any answers from the theatre. Notes (1) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pg. 1.
(2) pg. 32. (3) pgs. 55, 67. (15) pg. 11. (16) pg. 83 Work Cited and Consulted Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot, (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).