“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett and “The Goat” by Edward Albee are plays characterised by their genre-bending approach to storytelling. In the tradition of tragedy and comedy, both authors focalise on producing an emotional response in their audiences in a manner that recalls Barthes’ “Death of the Author”. Beckett’s play seeks to expose reality to be in perpetuum, “a random continuum of phenomena, devoid of any meaningful design” (Counsell, 112). Within the theatre of the absurd that Waiting for Godot is staged, the absence of meaning finds expression in its conspicuously strange characters. In contrast, The Goat utilises elements of tragedy and comedy to address taboos within a familiar domestic setting, disrupting the familiar with a sitcom-like timing that dares its audience to laugh at the strange and tragic circumstances that the family find themselves in. As plays, both Beckett and Albee consciously created pieces that are “only of tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (Barthes 147), encouraging their audiences to stay with the tensions brought forth in their work and reflect upon its implications on the human experience.
Waiting for Godot’s meandering narrative structure creates a dreamlike quality that disrupts temporality and logic, and addresses the tyrannical absence in human existence. The story follows the experiences of two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, who while away the time waiting for the mysterious figure Godot. Throughout their banal dialogue and frequently contradictory thoughts and feelings, the play evokes Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind:
Logical laws of thought…do not apply. Contrary impulses exist side by side, without cancelling each other out or diminishing each other. There is nothing [here] that could be compared with negation; and we perceive [the] exception that space and time are necessary forms of our mental acts…There is nothing that corresponds to the idea of time; there is no recognition of the passage of time, and—a thing that is most remarkable and awaits consideration in philosophical thought—no alteration in its mental processes is produced by the passage of time. Wishful impulses [and] impressions, too…are virtually immortal.
By capturing this essence, Waiting for Godot can find resonance amongst its audience through the universality of a subconscious state of mind, despite the deliberate strangeness of the characters and their predicaments. Scott describes how the characters are initially presented to us as “strangers alienated from themselves and the normal world” (454), however as the events of the play unfold on the stage and not the “normal world”, the audience is moved into a space where they are observers who in their impartiality, are able to empathise and make sense of the character’s world. This ability to find resonance in a story with no plot, is a subconscious conglomerative process, the assemblage of a fragmented dialogue that draws on slapstick comedy to make the strange familiar.
Much of the discursive, dreamlike dialogue occurs between two protagonists Vladimir and Estragon, who are emblematic of two human states. In Freudian terms, the more instinctual Estragon follows “primary process”, governed by the pleasure principle and is therefore driven purely by instinct. In contrast, the rational Vladimir follows “secondary process”, more capable of evaluating his environment and adapt his responses. Working together as a dyad of two polarised states, they remained isolated within each of their prescribed roles of being driven by affect and cognition to the absolute extreme. The most explicit example of Estragon’s primitive nature is his inability to recall information or follow logic – multiple times in the play, he needs to be reminded of where he is, and why he is there. Thus it is Estragon’s mental deficiency necessitates Vladimir’s rationality and ability to survey the past, thereby establishing their camaraderie to be better seen as a symbiotic codependence. This mutually beneficial relationship allows them both to “act with a single goal in mind: to avoid sustained conversation about wasting, pining and final oblivion” (Gordon 145), a state they would fall into without the other to redirect their attention to something else. Their dialogue hints towards a shared suffering – the opening sequence has Estragon struggling to remove his boot, and Vladimir alludes to his physical ailments. He asks Vladimir to help him, which Vladimir responds with:
VLADIMIR. It hurts?
ESTRAGON. (angrily) Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts! (2)
However, it is their non-verbal communication and shared understanding of not wanting to dwell on the futility of their circumstances that keeps them polarised within their assigned positions of primary and secondary process. They are left to echo each other’s words:
ESTRAGON. It hurts?
VLADIMIR (angrily). Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts! (2)
In this slapstick style of comedy, we see Vladimir and Estragon retreat from a meaningful discourse of their pain, by deriding the others ability to understand him. Despite this constant avoidance of addressing the wounds of their existence, they still come back to the conclusion “nothing to be done,” a notion that is echoed throughout the play as the much-repeated phrase “‘Let’s go.’ (They do not move.)’’ In this way, Didi and Gogo are perpetually moving towards action in a meaningless world, but are ultimately paralysed by the tensions of the human condition and human nature. It is through the digressive and circular dialogue that does not reach a resolution, that disrupts the temporality of traditional storytelling while reflecting how cognitive and affective states both resist and complement each other.
As seen above, Waiting for Godot departed from traditional narrative form to convey its meaning – that is, the physical limitations to an earthbound human existence that circles towards purposelessness. In contrast, Albee’s The Goat, while also comedic in tone, also utilises the recognisable storytelling form of tragedy to convey the taboo subject matter. In some ways, the play adheres to the Aristotelian unities; that is, unity of action, place and time. Aristotle claims:
“Plot is an imitation of an action, the latter ought to be both unified and complete, and the component events ought to be so firmly compacted that if any one of them is shifted to another place, or removed, the whole is loosened up and dislocated; for an element whose addition or subtraction makes no perceptible extra difference is not really a part of the whole.”
Aristotle extends upon Barthes claim that a book is “an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (147), to say that it is possible to reduce a narrative to essential components. This is a crucial difference between the achievement of Waiting for Godot and short Aristotelian tragedies such as The Goat: Godot focalises on the moments that would have been subtracted by Aristotle to expose the “perpetuum”. The Goat moves towards the structure of an Aristotelian tragedy, employing other comedic tropes and archetypes to deliver political statements on the fragile myth of the white-collar American family. Comedy in this play functions not to make the strange familiar as it did in Godot, but to make the familiar strange, and thereby expose aporias in the myths of daily life.
Within the tradition of the Aristotelian tragedy, The Goat’s tragic hero is Martin Gray, a well respected, award-winning architect who is about to design “The World City…set to rise in the wheatfields of our Middle West” (24). Aristotle claims that the downfall of the hero “should come about by some kind of error, not evil and depravity” (Wagoner 314), however, the play obscures whether Martin’s affair with Sylvia is transgression or inherent vice. As much of the play’s “comic constructions…derives from a substitution of goat for human in the conventional script about marital infidelity” (Weitz 161), the play employs puns and The play instead stays with this ambiguity, and it is the comedy of the piece that encourages ridicule of Martin’s bestiality, while simultaneously sympathising with his predicament. This sympathetic stance is only enabled by bringing the strange – Martin’s bestiality – into the registers of the familiar – a tragic love triangle.
The repercussions of this love triangle result in the literal and metaphorical destruction of the home, foreshadowed by a one-line erudite quip. As Ross performs a soundcheck for Martin’s interview, he picks up on some background noise:
ROSS. I hear a kind of…rushing sound, like a …whooooosh!, or…wings or something
MARTIN. It’s probably the Eumenides.
ROSS. More like the dishwasher. There; it stopped.
MARTIN. Then it probably wasn’t the Eumenides; they don’t stop.
ROSS. (agreeing) They go right on. (12)
Comedy within this sequence is delivered by the plurality in the sound’s interpretation – while Ross perceives it to be a household appliance, Martin associates the sound to a cosmic level of impending doom. Wagoner asserts that the use of name “Eumenides” rather than “the Furies” is a signifies Martin’s perception of Stevie, of how she would react upon discovering his affair (315). This nomenclature captures Martin’s interpretation and his hope that Stevie will be merciful and kind like the Eumenides, rather than vengeful and retribution seeking like the Furies. To elevate Stevie, to a mythological status adds in another shade of drama that highlights Martin and Stevie’s marital dynamic, depicted to have the capacity to be an unstoppable destructive force. She later unleashes destruction on the house, breaking all ceramics within her reach to punctuate her grief, thereby simultaneously shattering the myth of the perfect American family and the conventions of tragedy that the play breaks.
The immediacy of her destruction and her grief is inseparable from the comedy of the situation – as it is with Godot, this physical, slapstick style of comedy highlights the absurdity of the scene and cuts through the story’s tragic elements. The comedic value keeps the audience from fully empathising with Stevie’s grief that would otherwise obscure the ideas that Albee seeks to bring forth. In other words, the “strange” concept of Martin’s bestiality must first be accepted by the audience as the “familiar”; the following events which follow the familiar tropes of tragedy are then made strange. Ultimately, the absurd dramatic circumstance that Albee creates “[places] us momentarily in that uncharted territory beyond cultural inscription” (Weitz 167), and exposes the limits of any preconceived biases the audience may hold about tragedy, comedy, love and sex. Like Godot, the use of comedy undercuts the dark subject matter, Drawing upon aspects of tragedy and comedy, Albee combines the genres to reach a conclusion that follows the conventions of neither, creating a unique piece that also falls within the theatre of the absurd.