In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile. . . . This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

From Beckett to Stoppard: Existentialism, Death, and Absurdity

      Absurdism, one of the most exciting and creative movements in the modern theater, is a term applied to a particular type of realistic drama which has absorbed theater audiences and critics for the past three decades. One specific area, appropriately labeled "Theatre of the Absurd" by the American critic Martin Esslin in the 1960's, offers its audience an existentialist point of view of the outside world and forces them to consider the meaning of their existence in a world where there appears to be no true order or meaning. Inching ever closer to a realistic representation of life, the evolution of absurdist drama from Samuel Beckett to Tom Stoppard brings a new focus to absurdism and expands the role of philosophy and metaphor in theatrical drama.

      Before discussing the ways in which the Theatre of the Absurd has evolved, it is beneficial to understand where and how it developed. Many theater historians and critics label Alfred Jarry's French play, Ubu Roi as the earliest example of Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdism also has origins in Shakespearean drama, particularly through the influence of the Commedia dell'Arte. The current movement of absurdism, however, emerged in France after World War II, as a rebellion against the traditional values and beliefs of Western culture and literature. It began with the existentialist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and eventually included other writers such as Eugene Ionesco, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter, to name a few. Its rules are fairly simple: 1.) There is often no real story line; instead there is a series of "free floating images" which influence the way in which an audience interprets a play. 2.) There is a focus on the incomprehensibility of the world, or an attempt to rationalize an irrational, disorderly world. 3.) Language acts as a barrier to communication, which in turn isolates the individual even more, thus making speech almost futile. In other words, absurdist drama creates an environment where people are isolated, clown-like characters blundering their way through life because they don't know what else to do. Oftentimes, characters stay together simply because they are afraid to be alone in such an incomprehensible world. Despite this negativity, however, absurdism is not completely nihilistic. Martin Esslin explains: the recognition that there is no simple explanation for all the mysteries of the world, that all previous systems have been oversimplified and therefore bound to fail, will appear to be a source of despair only to those who still feel that such a simplified system can provide an answer. The moment we realize that we may have to live without any final truths the situation changes; we may have to readjust ourselves to living with less exulted aims and by doing so become more humble, more receptive, less exposed to violent disappointments and crises of conscious - and therefore in the last resort happier and better adjusted people, simply because we then live in closer accord with reality. (Kepos 384)

      Therefore, the goal of absurdist drama is not solely to depress audiences with negativity, but an attempt to bring them closer to reality and help them understand their own "meaning" in life, whatever that may be. Samuel Beckett's understanding of this philosophy best characterizes how we should perceive our existence as he says, "Nothing is more real than Nothing."

      Building on these components of absurdism, we can now proceed to analyze the way in which absurdist drama has evolved. The two dramatists who best reveal this process of evolution are Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard. Using Beckett as a starting point and Stoppard as an ending point, one gets a small sense of the ways in which absurdist theater has changed and keeps changing. In comparing and contrasting these two dramatists' works, specifically changes in structure and metaphorical intent, the evolution of absurdism ventures beyond its original borders into a new and distinct realistic theater. Of the three plays which clearly reveal this evolution, Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot will be addressed first, followed by another one of his plays, Endgame, and finally a discussion of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. All of these plays metaphorically address the issue of "ending" or "dying" and through such a focus offer us a clear example of one way in which absurdism has evolved.

      Beckett's most popular absurdist play, Waiting For Godot, is one of the first examples critics point to when talking about the Theatre of the Absurd. Written and first performed in French in 1954, Godot had an enormous impact on theatergoers due to its strange and new conventions. Consisting of an essentially barren set, with the exception of a virtually leafless tree in the background, clown-like tramps, and highly symbolic language, Godot challenges its audience to question all of the old rules and to try to make sense of a world that is incomprehensible. At the heart of the play is the theme of "coping" and "getting through the day" so that when tomorrow comes we can have the strength to continue.

      Structurally, Godot is a two-act play which is primarily cyclical. It begins with two lonely tramps on a roadside who are awaiting the arrival of a figure referred to as Godot and ends with the same premise. Many critics have concluded that Act Two is simply a repeat of Act One. In other words, Vladimir and Estragon may forever be "waiting for Godot." We are never given an answer to their predicament. As an audience, we can only watch them do the same things, listen to them say the same things, and accept the fact that Godot may or may not come. Much like them, we are stuck in a world where our actions dictate our survival. We may search for an answer or a meaning to our existence, but we most likely will never find it. Anthony Jenkins writes, "there can be no answers; Godot may or may not exist and may or may not arrive; we know no more about him than do Vladimir and Estragon"(40). Thus, this play is structurally arranged in such a way as to make us believe that Godot will probably never come, and that we must accept the uncertainty of life.

      The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their days reliving their past trying to make sense of their existence, and even contemplate suicide as a form of escape. As characters, however, they are the prototypical absurdist figures who remain detached from the audience. They essentially lack identities and their vaudeville mannerisms, particularly when it comes to contemplating their suicides, has a more comic effect on the audience than a tragic one. This is perhaps best observed in the beginning scene of the play when they contemplate hanging themselves:

VLADIMIR: What do we do now?

ESTRAGON: Wait.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting.

ESTRAGON: What about hanging ourselves?

VLADIMIR: Hmm. It'd give us an erection.

ESTRAGON: (highly excited). An erection! (12)

      What follows is a discussion of who should hang themselves first. Vladimir suggests Estragon go first since he is lighter and therefore won't break the bough and leave the other one alone and alive. The conversation continues:

ESTRAGON: (with effort). Gogo light- bough not break- Gogo dead. Didi heavy- bough break- Didi alone. Whereas-

VLADIMIR: I hadn't thought of that.

ESTRAGON: If it hangs you it'll hang anything.

VLADIMIR: But am I heavier than you?

ESTRAGON: So you tell me. I don't know. There's an even chance. Or nearly.

VLADIMIR: Well? What do we do?

ESTRAGON: Don't let's do anything. It's safer.

VLADIMIR: Let's wait and see what he says.

ESTRAGON: Who?

VLADIMIR: Godot.

ESTRAGON: Good idea. (13)

      This comical scene, replete with the image of death, ends up making the audience laugh rather than take the two tramps seriously. And, the fact that Estragon and Vladimir choose to not hang themselves suggests a much more existentialist, absurdist view of death and a less tragic one.

      What remains archetypal in Godot concerning the absurdist metaphor is the way in which each character relies on the other for comfort, support, and most of all, meaning. Vladimir and Estragon desperately need one another in order to avoid living a lonely and meaningless life. The two together function as a metaphor for survival. Like the characters who proceed and follow them, they feel compelled to leave one another, but at the same time compelled to stay together.

      At the end of Act One, Vladimir and Estragon discuss their partnership, saying:

ESTRAGON: Wait! (He moves away from Vladimir.) I sometimes wonder if we wouldn't have been better off alone, each one for himself. (He crosses the stage and sits down on the mound.) We weren't made for the same road.

VLADIMIR: (without anger). It's not certain.
ESTRAGON: No, nothing is certain.

Vladimir slowly crosses the stage and sits down beside Estragon.

VLADIMIR: We can still part if you think it would be better.

Silence.

ESTRAGON: No, it's not worth while now.

Silence. (35-36)

      The same conversation takes place again at the end of Act Two:

ESTRAGON: Didi.

VLADIMIR: Yes.

ESTRAGON: I can't go on like this.

VLADIMIR: That's what you think.

ESTRAGON: If we parted that might be better for us.

VLADIMIR: We'll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause). Unless Godot comes.

ESTRAGON: And if he comes?

VLADIMIR: We'll be saved. (61)

      They consider parting, but, in the end, never actually part. Andrew Kennedy explains these rituals of parting saying, "each is like a rehearsed ceremony, acted out to lessen the distance between time present and the ending of the relationship, which is both dreaded and desired"(57). Therefore, Vladimir and Estragon's inability to leave each other is just another example of the uncertainty and frustration they feel as they wait for an explanation of their existence. For them and for us, death seems forever on the horizon, and therefore ending becomes "an endless process"(Kennedy 48).

      Samuel Beckett's other absurdist play, Endgame, carries on this same kind of thinking but is much more tragic and serious in its metaphor for death than Godot. Like Godot, there is no apparent action in the play. Hamm and Clov, the two main figures, are even more isolated than Vladimir and Estragon. Confined to a small, bare room, the blind and disabled Hamm postulates on the subjects of life and death, while interacting with and depending on his servant/son Clov to fill in meaning where there appears to be a void. Resembling Estragon and Vladimir are Hamm's parents Nagg and Nell, who are confined to trash bins at the front left of the stage. They, like the two tramps, exchange memories of a once coherent world and spend their time eating pap and biscuits. However, unlike Godot, Endgame is not absolutely cyclical. Instead, it emphasizes only one cycle and works its way toward some kind of ending, or in other words, has the vague feeling of a finale. Even though death does not come at the end of Endgame, there is a strong sense that it is nearby and the waiting will not be as long, as suggested by the chess-like title.

      Like Godot, Endgame's comic quality keeps it from being too tragic in its metaphoric message. Sarah Lawall writes, "The characters popping out of ashcans, the jerky, repetitive motions with which Clov carries out his master's commands, and the often obscene vaudeville patter accompanied by appropriate gestures, all provide a comic perspective that keeps Endgame from sinking into tragic despair"(2468). However, the seriousness with which Hamm talks about death and ending in his soliloquies is not entirely undercut by the comedy. References to death are abundantly scattered throughout the play. While Godot emphasizes survival no matter what the cost, Endgame is doing virtually the same, but with a much more serious, empathetic tone. The audience is still somewhat detached from the characters on stage, but at the same time there is more of a feeling of sorrow for the characters in Endgame than Godot. As Lawall suggests, this may have something to do with the fact that Endgame "describes what it is like to be alive, declining toward death in a world without meaning"(2469). Jacques Lemarchand describes it another way, "this may be the very game we play all the time, without ever believing it to be as close as it is to its end"(Modern and Contemporary Drama 484).

      The metaphor for death or coming to the "end" of something is apparent in the very first lines of the play as Clov states, "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished"(456). Hamm's response to Clov's ramblings as he awakens is "Me to play." Hamm's reluctance to die, however, follows shortly after as he says, "And yet, I hesitate to end. Yes, there it is, it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to- to end"(457). This beginning scene suggests something that is quite common in most absurdist plays, the unwillingness to end or to die. Yet, there remains a struggling to understand death, to give it some meaning so that life has meaning. So as not to completely depress his audience, Beckett begins the play with a fairly comical musing on death. For example, two scenes in the first four pages concerning death are actually quite funny. Clov and Hamm discuss the connection between food and death saying:

HAMM: I'll give you nothing more to eat.

CLOV: Then we'll die.

HAMM: I'll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You'll be hungry all the time.

CLOV: Then we won't die. (458)

      A few lines later Hamm implores, "Why don't you kill me?" to which Clov replies, "I don't know the combination of the cupboard"(458). Both of these are meant to make the audience chuckle just a bit. On the other hand, Beckett juxtaposes a conversation between Nagg and Nell shortly after, which takes a more serious view of unhappiness and longing for death. It involves more introspection and a clearer understanding of the situation. After listening to Nagg's joke, Nell responds:

NELL(without lowering her voice): Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. But-

NAGG(shocked): Oh!

NELL: Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh anymore. (461)

      Certainly, the theme of the play resides in Nell's concluding words about life and meaninglessness. Nevertheless, the comedic aspects of the play help the actors and the audience deal with the potentially negative issue about death in a more positive, cathartic way.

      Another absurdist element that is present in Godot and is also reiterated in Endgame is the love/hate, dependent relationship of Hamm and Clov. Like their predecessors Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm and Clov need each other emotionally, and more so, physically. Hamm's disabled state makes him need Clov more than Clov needs Hamm, but Clov needs Hamm simply because Hamm's home is the only home he has, and even if he did leave there is no place for him to go in the void which exists outside. Kennedy's rituals of parting exist in this play, as well, and perhaps mean more than they do in Godot. Whereas in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon may have the luxury of meeting others should they choose to leave one another, Hamm and Clov do not appear to have that option in Endgame. An early conversation establishes this:

HAMM: Why do you stay with me?

CLOV: Why do you keep me?

HAMM: There's no one else.

CLOV: There's nowhere else. (458)

      Midway though the play, a similar reference to leaving is brought up again:

CLOV: So, you all want me to leave you.

HAMM: Naturally.

CLOV: Then I'll leave you.

HAMM: You can't leave us.

CLOV: Then I won't leave you. (466)

      Thus, by the end of the play, we know that Clov will not leave Hamm. He has had plenty of chances to do so, just as Vladimir and Estragon have, but in the end he never does. Clov even says he will never leave in one of his more contemplative speeches about life with Hamm. Standing at the door he says:

CLOV: I say to myself- sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you- one day, I say to myself- sometimes, Clov, you must be there better than that if you want them to let you go- one day. But I feel too old, and too far, to form new habits. Good it'll never end, I'll never go. (479-480)

      And, just as we know that Clov will not leave Hamm, Hamm also realizes Clov will not leave him. The closing lines of the play echo this acceptance as Hamm states, "Old stancher! You...remain" (481). So, while Godot and Endgame are alike in the absurdist methods they use, they differ in their level of metaphorical importance. Clearly, Endgame is a beginning to move beyond absurdism, in that, where Beckett only hints at the inevitability of death in Godot, it becomes more obvious in Endgame that death is inching ever closer and is within our sights. This realization, in turn, harkens back to Esslin's comment on the function of absurdity to help us "live in closer accord with reality." Tom Stoppard will complete this eventual evolution, or process toward death, in his absurd play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

      Obviously influenced by Beckett, Stoppard's play certainly imitates Godot and Endgame. Like the two previous plays, Stoppard's main characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are two individuals who find themselves in the center of an incomprehensible world. While Godot is "about the uncertainty and frustration felt by Didi and Gogo in their interminable waiting in limitless time, Stoppard's is about the uncertainty felt by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in trying to understand the origin and meaning of events which they come to realize are carrying them to their deaths"(Duncan 59). What essentially makes them different is while the characters in Godot wait, but never change, the characters in Rosencrantz have to change.

      As Michael Hinden suggests, Stoppard's play is an example of his ability "to absorb and to work through Beckett, not to get around him"(404). So, it follows that Stoppard uses the absurdist template to build on and go beyond. In Rosencrantz, Stoppard introduces us to an absurd world, but a world nevertheless which possesses some type of order. Unlike the previous plays, there are rules that must be followed. Godot and Endgame subscribe to the belief that man has no role to play, and thus can only make up reasons for existence. Rosencrantz, however, postulates that man plays a defined role, but it is a role that is unfathomable. Victor Cahn supports this difference, explaining that Stoppard "brings his characters into a new world, one where elements of absurdity are disguised under a mask of order and reason worn by a society which Stoppard has made us come to see as perhaps absurd itself"(64). So, Stoppard uses Beckett's absurdist tendencies as a model, but goes beyond the traditional absurdist play in several ways.

      The first thing that Stoppard does that differs from Beckett is he provides his characters with a stronger sense of identity. Vladimir and Estragon are nobodies in Godot. We don't know much about them, as a whole. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on the other hand, become more real to us. In including the Hamlet sub-play, Stoppard gives them an identity, a meaning in their incomprehensible existence. They are Elizabethan courtiers who have been summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts Prince Hamlet. Here, Stoppard is playing with the audience's pre-knowledge of the tragedy of Hamlet. Therefore, when they view this play, they already know the outcome of the play based on their knowledge of Hamlet or their understanding of the play's title. This, in turn, makes the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern more realistic and more subject to the audience's pity, thereby breaking the distance between audience and actor. In this manner, Rosencrantz also differs by having a structure which is linear, not cyclical. Stoppard's play has a definite end, a movement toward death which does come and is certain. Joseph Duncan explains, "the courtiers become part of a pattern of events- whose cause or purpose they do not understand- which they cannot or will not escape and which both gives them their only identity and carries them to their deaths"(65).

      Like Hamm in Endgame, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are extremely preoccupied with contemplating their deaths. What is unique about Rosencrantz and signifies the final evolution of the absurdist view is Stoppard's abrupt answering of the absurdist question: What is the meaning of life or death in an irrational world? The answer is simply the realization that death comes to all living things and is something that can never be understood or explained, but something that simply is. And, unlike Godot and Endgame, death does come at the end of the play. The end result remains a metaphorical treatise on the way in which we perceive death and how we condition ourselves to believe in its existence.

      In his essay, "Theatre at the Limit," John Perlette rightly points out that Stoppard "knows that direct and immediate access to the reality of death is simply beyond the capacity of his audience" and that the only solution is to present that "illusory spectacles of death are the only kinds in which we are prepared to believe"(666). This philosophy is best represented through the character of The Player, and it is The Player's job to convince Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that this is the case. Ideally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent the concept of Everyman, or put more simply, they are no different from us. When their own deaths are presented to them two different times, they blindly do not see what they are headed for because the reality of what must be is too close to realism for them. The same is true for modern man. We accept only what we can believe in, and to believe in death is to believe in our own absence of presence. In more realistic terms, we see death as a tragic end which metaphorically symbolizes "an abrupt exit from one's own drama into a place incomprehensibly other"(Jenkins 43). Stoppard's ultimate conclusion on this subject is that we as human beings will be better off if we learn to accept that death is just as incomprehensible as life, and the only way to psychological happiness must come from dismissing social conventions and beliefs of death and reconciling it with the ultimate view that we live in a world which defies reason and meaning.

      Unlike Vladimir and Estragon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do much more than wait for something to happen to them. In fact, they are constantly being bombarded with attention, which tends to irritate them on several occasions. They have come to realize that their actions are somehow connected to a larger force, which may or may not have control of their actions.

      Consistently throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern test this theory of control. When they first arrive in Elsinore (or in the Hamlet play) they contemplate what they should do:

ROS: Shouldn't we do something something- constructive?

GUIL: What did you have in mind?. . . A short, blunt human pyramid. . .?

ROS: We could go.

GUIL: Where?

ROS: After him.

GUIL: Why? They've got us placed now- if we start moving around, we'll all be chasing each other all night.

ROS (at footlights): How very intriguing! (Turns.) I feel like a spectator- an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute. . .

GUIL: See anyone?

ROS: No. You?

GUIL: No. (At footlights.) What a fine persecution- to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened. . .(Pause.) We've had no practice.

      As the Hamlet play continues, they begin to feel themselves being "caught up" in the action. People are coming at them from all sides, and they feel they are being pulled in all different directions. In Godot and Endgame, this is certainly not the case. Stoppard hints that they do have the luxury of "choice" and that there are a few moments where they can escape from their predicament. Guildenstern recognizes this when they are on the boat taking Hamlet to England saying, "Free to move, speak, extemporize, and yet. We have not been cut loose. . . we may seize the moment, toss it around while the moments pass, a short dash here, an explanation there, but we are brought full circle"(101). Eventually this theorizing continues until the end of the play when they realize their situation as Guildenstern's last lines question the validity of choice: "There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said- no. But somehow we missed it"(125). And the absurdity of the situation is heightened even more when he continues, "Well, we'll know better next time"(126).

      Getting back to the issue of death, and the certain uncertainty of it, Stoppard sets up an argument between The Player and Guildenstern to show that just as there are two levels of life there are two levels of death: stage death and real death. As The Player is narrating the dumb-show to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Guildenstern asks the Player what the actors know about death. The Player tells him that it is "what they do best"(83). The conversation continues:

GUIL(fear, derision): Actors! The mechanics of cheap melodrama! That isn't death! (More quickly). You scream and choke and sink to your knees, but it doesn't bring death home to anyone- it doesn't catch them unawares and start the whisper in their skulls that says- "One day you are going to die." (He straightens up.) You die so many times; how can you expect them to believe in your death?

PLAYER: On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. . . Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.

GUIL: No, no, no. . .you've got it all wrong. . .you can't act death. The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen- it's not gasps and blood and falling about- that isn't what makes death. It's just a man failing to reappear, that's all- now you see him, now you don't, that's the only thing that's real. . . (83-84)

      At the end of the play, still unconvinced by The Player's definition of death, Guildenstern loses his patience with The Player and pulls his dagger on him, in an attempt to show him what "real" death is all about:

GUIL: I'm talking about death- and you've never experienced that. And you cannot act it. You die a thousand casual deaths- with none of that intensity which squeezes out life. . .and no blood runs cold anywhere. Because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat. But no one gets up after death- there is no applause- there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that's- death- (123)

      Guildenstern then proceeds to stab The Player who falls to the ground and dies. Thinking he has really killed The Player, Guildenstern is satisfied with his argument that real death and stage death are not congruent. However, he is denied this satisfaction because The Player gets up and is applauded by the Tragedians for his very believable "act" of dying. The Player reemphasizes, "What did you think? (Pause.) You see, it is the kind they do believe in- it's what is expected" (123). Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we as the audience are also convinced of The Player's death. As Perlette suggests, "we 'believe' because we do not believe"(667). So, as a result, we can "'believe' by suspending our disbelief only if that disbelief is there to be suspended in the first place"(667). This illusion is what The Player has been trying to explain all along, and what Stoppard wants us to understand most about his play. Therefore, as Cahn has suggested, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are at the end of their play "the ultimate victims of absurdity"(60).

      When we compare and contrast the plays Godot, Endgame, and Rosencrantz, we can list many ways in which they are alike in their absurdist tendencies and many ways in which they are different. What remains essentially important is not so much that they are different, but the degree to which they are different. Beckett's treatment of death as something to come, something always on the horizon out of reach, is probably more happily acceptable to the viewer than Stoppard's view. But despite the negative connotations death holds, both Beckett and Stoppard use the metaphor of death to help us understand how our lives are absurd and how, once we accept this, we can be happier, healthier individuals. The evolution of absurdism is most clearly represented by the degree to which Stoppard uses the linear metaphor of death to bring us closer to his characters and closer to ourselves. He goes beyond absurdism by breaking the distance between the audience and the actors. We feel more for his characters and we sympathize with their inability to completely change their fates, as we ourselves struggle with the same problem. Again, the words of Martin Esslin come to mind, and the Theatre of the Absurd in all of its intellectual complexities and intricacies helps us to see our role in life. Esslin writes:

The human condition being what it is, with man small, helpless, insecure, and unable ever to fathom the world in all its hopelessness, death, and absurdity, the theatre has to confront him with the bitter truth that most human endeavor is irrational and senseless, that communication between human beings is well-nigh impossible, and that the world will forever remain an impenetrable mystery. At the same time, the recognition of all these bitter truths will have a liberating effect: if we realize the basic absurdity of most of our objectives we are freed from being obsessed with them and this release expresses itself in laughter. (Kepos 345)
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