Repetitive Actions, Cyclical Processes and Time Mazes: Circular and Linear Repetition in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett’s most influential play Waiting for Godot (1955) is a postmodern narrative that has employed to a large extent, the strategy of repetition. The play, through varied manifestations of repetition, explores the Problem of Time in the larger frame of Postmodernism.
In addition to employing iterative devices and repetitive utterances Waiting for Godot makes bold attempts in materializing repetition; the most important is the second act being a near repetition of the first. Steven Connor in his essay “The Doubling of Presence” dwells upon Vivian Mercier’s famous statement that it is “a play in which nothing happens twice, in which Vladimir and Estragon undergo the ordeal of their sheer presence on stage, twice” (120). Connor construes that the implications of their doubled ordeal are highly relevant and form the essence of the issues that are addressed by Becket in the play. As Connor rightly articulates, ‘it is … repetition that makes all the difference” (120).
Hence, an analysis of the iterative strategies used in Waiting for Godot is significant. The effects of linear and non-linear kind of repetition on temporality – how circular and linear time get manifested in the play and how repetition distorts the Sense of Time, shall be examined in this paper.
Repetition and drama are closely related. Classical drama was perceived to be a repetition in itself – Aristotle had referred to it as Mimesis, the imitation or representation of human action. Dramatic performance was the enactment of a plot already conceived and written. Thus evolved, the concept of performance being secondary to the written text – performance as a faithful repetition of the primary text. This hierarchy was challenged by prominent theoreticians like Hans Georg Gadamer and Antonin Artaud. Artaud’s essay “The Theatre and it’s Double” conceives the stage as “a tangible physical place that needs to be filled and ought to be allowed to speak its own concrete language” (130). The Theatre of Cruelty propounded by Artaud proposes an evasion from the script, which is essentially an escape from the compulsion to repeat.
Waiting for Godot, with the sense of sheer presence given by Vladimir and Estragon “deprived apparently of all the conventional dramatic supports of script, plot or properties” (128) seems to embody a similar condition. It is a situation where characters become actors. This is concordant with Alain Robbe – Grillet’s description of the play:
The play is simply what it is, in an elementary performing Present; Vladimir and Estragon do not seem to have a text prepared beforehand and scrupulously learned by heart, to support them. They must invent. They are free.
He sees them as “alone on stage, standing up, futile, with no future or Past, irremediably Present” (128). Thus it would seem that they represent the Metaphysical concept of Presence or Heiddegerean Dasein, of Primordial “being there” (129). However the notion of Presence becomes radically challenged when we consider the consequence of repetition in the play.
The linear and non linear repetition in the play bring in questions about temporality, perception of Time, Circular time, entropic decline and finally crumble down the concept of absolute time.
In Waiting for Godot the setting is the same in both the acts. Each act begins early in the morning, just as the tramps are awakening, and both acts close with the moon having risen. The action takes place in exactly the same landscape — a lonely, isolated road with one single tree. (In the second act, there are some leaves on the tree, but from the viewpoint of the audience, the setting is exactly the same.) Thus, there is no difference in either the setting or in the time in Act two. Consequently, instead of a progression of time within an identifiable setting, the audience sees a repetition in the second act of the same things that was seen and heard in the first act. However, more important than the repetition of setting and time, is the repetition of action.
At the beginning of each act, for example, several identical concerns are noted. Among these is the emphasis on Estragon's boots. Again, Vladimir on first noticing Estragon, uses virtually the same words: "So there you are again" in Act I and "There you are again" in Act II. At the beginning of both acts, the first discussion concerns a beating that Estragon received just prior to their meeting. Also, Vladimir and Estragon emphasize repeatedly that they are there to wait for Godot at the beginning of both acts. Towards the end of both acts Vladimir and Estragon discuss the possibility of hanging themselves, and in both, they decide to bring some good strong rope with them the next day.
Vladimir's physical ailment is discussed in each act as a contrast to the suffering of Estragon because of' his boots. In addition, the subject of eating, involving carrots, radishes, and turnips becomes a central image in each act, and the tramps' involvement with hats, their multiple insults, and their reconciling embraces — these and many more lesser matters are found repeatedly in both acts. Finally, and most importantly, there are the larger concepts: firstly, the suffering of the tramps; secondly, their attempts, however futile, to pass time; their attempt to part, and, ultimately, their incessant waiting for Godot — all these make the two acts clearly repetitive, circular in structure, and the fact that these repetitions are so obvious in the play is Beckett's manner of breaking away from the traditional play and of asserting the uniqueness of his own circular structure.
In the second act, the actions and routine of the first act reappear. The same chain of events unfold before the audience: Estragon sleeps in a ditch, Vladimir meets him at the tree, they are visited by Pozzo and Lucky, and a boy comes to tell them that Godot will not be coming but will. By making the second act another show of the same routine, Beckett instills in us a feeling of our own waiting and daily routines. Surely things will change in our routines, but overall we seem to be living out the same day many times over.
It is to be noted that in Waiting for Godot, one encounters an intricate repetitive maze. It consists of repetitive circles and repetitive series. While elements of repetitive circles are indistinguishable – they all appear one and the same, the elements of repetitive series can be distinguished, thus rendering a perception of change that involves the passage of time. Thus repetitive series retain the direction or at least the movement of time. In contrast, repetitive circles problematize one’s perception of time and space. The most striking example of circular repetition is Vladimir’s song at the beginning of Act II (48):
A dog came in the kitchen,
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle,
And beat him till he was dead,
Then all the dogs came running,
And dug the dog a tomb.
[He stops, broods, resumes.]
Then all the dogs came…
[He stops, broods. Softly.]
The sense of endlessness, time flowing eternally, is dramatized by Vladimir’s circular song which could go on and on. The identification of Estragon by Vladimir the “next day” (48) involves near repeats of certain phrases from the opening of the first act.
VLADIMIR: Together again at last! We’ll have to celebrate this. But
How? [He reflects.] Get up till I embrace you.
(Act I, 3)
VLADIMIR: [Vladimir goes towards him.] Come here till I embrace you.
(Act II, 49)
Again, like the circular song, “Come here till I embrace you” indicates a ritualistic act without end. At the opening of Act II, the audience sees Vladimir in pointless repeated behaviour. The stage directions describe him as:
Comes and goes. Halts extreme right and gazes into distance off, shading his eyes with his hand. Comes and goes. Halts extreme left as before. Comes and goes.(48).
Vladimir soon proceeds with his open round song, and soon after, he is described by a similar set of stage directions. (comes and goes, halts…gazes into distance, 49)
The second act, with its cycle of repetitions dramatizes the ultimate predicament of Man enchained in cyclical processes within a closed system. Not only does circular time corrode temporality, it also leaves events insignificant. In circular time, passage of time becomes non track able and the relevance of an element or event at a particular instant of time become null. Consequently the event loses its meaning. Thus events become futile in the circular motion of time. The wheel comes full circle and in the circle, the meaning of the process is lost. This can be chiefly regarded as Beckett’s attempt at dramatizing the futility of human life.
The circularity of action distorts the time frame, by instilling a sense of perpetual Present. Andrew K. Kennedy describes it clearly:
We watch Estragon and Vladimir jointly trying to tinker with the wheels of time, so to speak. But their perceptions of time are comically opposed. As for Vladimir, “today” is indeed a new day, after a night spent lone. In contrast, Estragon denies the separateness of today and yesterday and claims a kind of total amnesia (21).
One of the most important as well as reiterated verbal exchanges is a re-affirmation of the title of the play itself. Estragon, the more pessimistic and frustrated one, whose memory is worse than Vladimir’s, urges him time and again, by saying “Let’s go”.
ESTRAGON : Let’s go.
VLADIMIR : We can’t.
ESTRAGON : Why not?
VLADIMIR : We’re waiting for Godot.
(41, 59, 62, 70, 76)
An exact repetition of the dialogue occurs five times and the same idea in slightly different phrases two more times (6, 85). There are also certain key phrases that suggest thematic unity, such as “Nothing to be done” (1, 3, 4, 14). Several issues and suggestions surface time and again in Vladimir’s and Estragon’s dialogue. The suggestion to hang themselves occurs in both acts (9, 86). The thief, who was saved, is a subject of repeated debate between the two. Lucky’s long speech in Act I (36) abounds in repeated phrases and seems to go round and round.
The repetition of the play provides evidence of the insignificance of time for Vladimir and Estragon. Both acts are identical excluding a few small deviations. With one day after another being basically the same during their wait, it is no wonder that Vladimir and Estragon had trouble telling one day from the next and that they had trouble remembering what happened during each day. Because of this lack of significant change, time had no meaning for them, and therein lies the larger theme that these scenes help to convey. If the day before was meaningless and if most of the periods before this were meaningless, time itself was meaningless for them as well. As Estragon said at the beginning of the second day in reference to that day, “For me it’s over and done with, no matter what happens,” (50) which suggest his own realization of the meaninglessness of that day and of time itself.
By extension this can be made to apply to all of humankind as well. Life is a lengthy period of waiting, during which the passage of time has little importance. Each day Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, and, if he doesn’t come that day they would come back the next day. The amount of time that they had already spent waiting and the amount of time that would do so in the future is unknown, but neither is important because time is meaningless for them. Each day they would continue to wait for the unknown Godot.
The overall theme of the meaninglessness of time is presented itself many times throughout the play, often during what seemed to be silly arguments between Vladimir and Estragon. Only by looking at the deeper meaning of these often illogical conversations and by combining those with other supporting details of the play can one discover how these logic problems relate to the whole. In this case they are used to present the themes, one of which was the idea of arbitrary and meaningless time.
At the end of both acts, there appears a boy who delivers Godot’s message. Although it is not clear if it is the same boy, the message is one and the same.
BOY: Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but
surely tomorrow (44).
In the second act, Vladimir draws out the message himself (84).
VLADIMIR : You have a message from Mr. Godot.
BOY : Yes, sir.
VLADIMIR : He won’t come this evening.
BOY : No sir.
VLADIMIR : But he’ll come tomorrow.
BOY : Yes, sir.
VLADIMIR : Without fail.
BOY : Yes, sir.
This iteration seems to emphasize the pathetic situation of Vladimir and Estragon, who have been condemned to endure ceaseless waiting. In fact it is the unending repetitive pattern, as established by the dramatist through circular repetition which makes their condition one of painful uncertainty. It corrodes the essential meaning of their existence and their Sense of time. The end of Act II and the play as well, is on a repetitive note, with the ritualistic parting of Estragon and Vladimir.
ESTRAGON : Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR : Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.]
VLADIMIR : Well? Shall we go?
Estragon : Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.] (Act II)
This parallel ending suggests that repetition could be endless – an infinite series of such meaningless action. According to Kennedy, repetition infused into the two act structure of the play underlines the endless “action in non action” cycle (17) : the end of the play could be the beginning of a third act, leading to a fourth act and fifth act and so forth. One can think of “Vladimir and Estragon as turning with a revolving stage that brings them back - at the end of each act – to the place they started from” ( 24).
Vladimir and Estragon’s space - time is cyclic and this is the fundamental cause of their existential anguish, anguish so severe that suicide seems a good way to pass time. The examination of temporality in Beckett’s narrative reveals the frustration of circularity that underpins his aesthetic experimentalism and its metaphysical implications. The repetitive actions, endless refrains and scrambled memories represent circular time, where Estragon and Vladimir return to the tree day after day, encountering similar, futile events form their absurd state. The circularity of time in Beckett’s post modern narrative is largely consequential and fulfills the play’s primary objective of representing the absurd human condition.
Beckett’s employment of linear repetition is based on entropy, the tendency of a closed system to become more disordered. Actions and events are repeated and they decay too. It is most evident in the appearance of Lucky and Pozzo as a mute slave leading a blind master in Act II (69). Similarly, Vladimir and Etragon’s memories of the previous day are inconsistent and fragmentary. Pozzo expresses, the misery of Man trapped in time, in Act II (82).
POZZO : (suddenly furious) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day…
Vladimir’s song at the opening of Act II also shows entropy working on circularity; it is an entropic micro-narrative itself, with a bipartite structure, where the second repeat becomes more disordered and eventually tails off into silence. Lucky’s long speech (36) also exhibits entopic decline in time. It fragments, loses temporal and linguistic cohesion, becomes interspersed with repetition before sliding into a few words. The series of repetitions in Beckett’s drama tends towards disordered and eventual disillusioned silence. Repetitions, discontinuities and breaks in the exchange of characters succeed in undermining the structural unity of the discourse.
The circular and linear time integrated in the bipartite structure of the play is evident from the repetitive strategies thus examined. Ultimately, Beckett appears to suggest that the entropy of repetitive sequences – the disintegration of ordered purpose is unavoidable. The idea of absolute time crumbles down and Beckett’s aim of presenting the absurd human condition finds expression through repetition and repetitive strategies.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. London: Faber & Faber, 1956.
Boxall, Peter. Samuel Beckett: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism. London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
Connor, Steven. “The Doubling of Presence”, New Casebook: Waiting for Godot and
Endgame. Steven Connor ed. London: Macmillan, 1992.
---. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
Kennedy, Andrew K. “Action and Theatricality in Waiting for Godot”. New Casebook.
Steven Connor ed. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Copyright @ Neethu Tessa Baby
Assistant Professor, Department of English, Assumption College Changanassery