in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Beckett’s Changing Faith[i]

Chapter 15, Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp.  237-249.


The twentieth century has tolerated numerous critical assertions that genre discussion is meaningless. But a failure to properly identify genre can lead, as we have seen in the past two chapters, to the invention of critical problems and total misinterpretation of plays. This century has also vividly displayed the dangers of over-simplifying generic labels through hasty critical investigation. Just as the failure to apply a proper generic definition can have devastating effects on critical understanding, so the hasty application of an inappropriate genre label can lead to misdirected critical investigation.

Sometime in the last thirty years criticism jumped to the unfounded conclusions that sombre varieties of comedy were the sole province of metaphysically despairing playwrights and that such playwrights invariable wrote in a sombre comedic form. In this chapter and the next, we will see two outstanding examples of playwrights who clearly conform to the formal pattern of sombre comedy while opposing the metaphysical pessimism of acknowledged sombre comedians like Chekhov, Beckett, Ionesco, Albee, and Pinter. In this chapter, I will contrast two plays of one of the accepted metaphysical pessimists, Samuel Beckett. We will find that only some of Beckett’s plays are truly comedic, sombre or otherwise.

The identification of metaphysically pessimistic playwrights with modern sombre comedy probably derives from remarks on the comic and on comedy by Luigi Pirandello and Eugene Ionesco. Both define comedy in terms of laughter concealing deep bitterness, a position that goes back through Nietzsche as far as Machiavelli. Both Pirandello and Ionesco propose that for our own times comedy should become transparent; that is, its laughter should reveal rather than disguise a bitter vision of life. Comedy thus becomes humanity’s protest and defense against an absurd universe. According to Ionesco, “The comic alone is able to give the strength to bear the tragedy of experience.”[ii] Tragedy and drama at best only present the isolated and abandoned metaphysical condition of human beings. Comedy alone is both a statement of the human condition and a tenable response to it. When the world presses in on a person and one begins to feel that everything is aberration, the only recourse and solace is to see the world as comedy in which everything serious is trivial and trivia are ultimately serious.

Ionesco’s argument, of course, makes the critical mistake of identifying laughter with comedy without further investigation. Along similar lines, Pirandello, in a much-quoted passage from L’Umorismo, seems to identify comedy with the new, sombre aspect of comedic practice:


I see an old woman with her red-dyed hair all colored with who knows what horrible pomade, and all clumsily ornamented to make herself look more beautiful. . .  .  I begin to laugh. I notice that the old woman is the opposite of what an old respectable woman should be. I could thus, at first sight and superficially, stop myself at this comic impression. The comic is precisely a warning of the existence of contrariness. But now if a reflection at all intervenes suggesting to me that that old women perhaps cannot derive any pleasure from looking like a parrot, but that perhaps she . . . does it only because she piously deceives herself that, covered like this, she disguises her wrinkles and grey hair and succeeds in retaining for herself the love of a husband much younger than she, I here cannot any longer laugh as I did at first; just because reflection, working in me, has made me go beyond that first warning, or rather, more within. From that first warning of contrariness, reflection has made me pass to this sense of contrariness. And it is this which constitutes the difference between the comic and the humorous.[iii]


With two renowned pessimistic playwrights so engaged in delineating a new kind of laughter for the theatre, criticism has generally assumed that metaphysical pessimism is itself the basis for sombre comedy. Criticism has also assumed, surprisingly, that everything written by one of the established pessimistic playwrights falls within the same genre.

Now there is no questions that Beckett, in the early play Waiting for Godot, was writing sombre comedy. In fact, Godot more closely resembles farce as we have investigated it in Menaechmi or as it was practices throughout the medieval period in Punch and Judy shows, during the Renaissance in Comedy of Errors, and more recently in the cinematic efforts of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, than any of the more sedate varieties of comedy.

Like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, the lead—and almost only—characters of Godot are “just nobodies. They are engaged in actions so trivial that their meaninglessness is finally perceived as a condition of human existence itself. They are comedic survivors, “getting on” in an ironic sense. If nothing else, Vladimir and Estragon survive; they continue to wait, they continue to make the small talk that takes them to the next moment. And if such success is not really “getting anywhere,” that fact itself is typical of comedy and comedic form, for survival always leads to new challenges and a need to begin again to meet them. This cyclical, seemingly going-nowhere quality of much comedy explains why so much comedy, especially farce, can be adequately described as “much ado about nothing”

Like most traditional farce, too, Waiting for Godot looks at physical punishment and suffering in an odd way. On the one hand, farce can be defined as presenting exaggerated physical energy and injury. In Punch and Judy, husband hits wife with frying pan only to be pummeled in return with kettle. In Laurel and Hardy, pie fights give way to beatings, eye-gougings, and neck-twistings. In Godot, pain and psychological suffering are constant.

But farce can also be defined as comedy in which exaggerated injury results in no permanent harm. Punch does not end up in a coma in a hospital. He continues to give and to take myriad blows. Coyote in The Roadrunner is constantly blowing himself up with dynamite, only to walk off to get another stick and to invent some other trap that will backfire. In Waiting for Godot, if we feel that human suffering and angst in confrontation with an inherently dreadful universe are portrayed, the suffering and the angst are more those of the playwright or the audience than of the characters. The suffering onstage is farcical because it is consistently undercut. Gogo’s tight shoes are only tight some of the time; Didi’s torrential urination is funny rather than medically catastrophic. Lucky’s treatment as a slave is undercut by his mechanical reactions and vaudevillian pratfalls. Pozzo’s blindness is undercut by his ridiculous helplessness and by Didi and Gogo’s careless response to his cries for help. Though Didi and Gogo seem filled with angst and talk a great deal of their discomfort, they do nothing. They don’t even bring the rope they need to carry out their threat of suicide. In all theatre, actions speak louder than words, and Martin Esslin[iv] has noticed the particular importance of this fact for the theatre of the absurd. In Godot, all the mental sufferings of Beckett’s tramps are made less real by their failure to do anything about them.

But, having noted the consistent use of farce technique, we may still be tempted to ask if Waiting for Godot remains within the formal or emotive definitions of comedy developed earlier in this study. After all, comedy as we have defined it always looks forward to a particular future. At least at first glance, Godot leaves us with nagging questions about the future rather than creating any virtual future beyond the final curtain Who is Godot? Do Didi and Gogo really have an appointment with him? These questions seem not only to be unanswered during the play, but they also seem to be the important questions around which the play is patterned.

Yet it can still be argued that Beckett has created a pattern clearly pointing toward a particular, if hazy, future. Whoever Godot is, whether or not the tramps have an appointment with him, we know that they will continue to wait They will continue to forget why, and once a day, a boy will come to remake the appointment. We know that Didi and Gogo will continue to think of suicide, of parting from one another, of going elsewhere, and that they will do none of these.

While bending and stretching comedic form, then, Beckett’s play still fits within comedic form as we have defined it and even fits the more specific requirements of a specific branch of comedic art, farce, which has itself had at least a two-millennia history. Let us consider, however, not only the form of Waiting for Godot, but also its import.

Because Waiting for Godot shares the basic form of comedy, its strongest assertion is likely to be that which it shares with all comedy and which is most understandable to an audience that has seen other comedies. That assertion is that the human race will survive. Even nobodies like Didi and Gogo will survive. And if they will survive, then certainly we will as well. Their survival is guaranteed by the pattern of the play as a whole and is demonstrated by the virtual future created by that pattern The real interest in Godot, however, is not its assertion that even nobodies will survive but rather the conditions placed upon that survival.

Assume that Godot is a thinly veiled allegory in which Didi and Gogo represent Western civilization in the post-Christian era and that Godot represents the God of Christianity who has promised to return and to introduce His millennial kingdom but has not yet done so. If that is true, we can quickly see that Beckett is arguing that human beings survive in continual frustration and that only an insensitive and buffoon-like mind can seek to ignore such cause for ultimate despair. People survive but they have forgotten why, have no hope, and have to believe that their God has deserted them or perhaps never existed. Human beings are disappointed in their religion, but they will survive without changing their desire to have a God and an appointment with Him. People are disappointed in other people (if we take Didi and Gogo to represent basic human fellowship) and they are disappointed with their own inner selves (if we take the tramps to represent the physical and mental aspect of human nature). Nevertheless, they will survive, and they are incapable of divorcing themselves from other people or of separating their physical and mental selves.

In short, Waiting for Godot is not only comedy, not only farce, it is also an extraordinarily fine example of sombre comedy, comedy in which survival is possible only at continue cost—in Godot cost of almost every conceivable philosophical type. Contemporary criticism readily sees in Godot a new and darker form of comedy appropriate to the twentieth century. But in doing so, most critics implicitly or explicitly follow Ruby Cohn’s general position[v] that Godot is comedy because of the jokes and vaudevillian stage business it contains. In this study, we have found that the play is comedy on the much deeper grounds of sharing the basic patterning of all comedy, and, more important, sharing the basic meaning of all comedy.

When we turn from Waiting for Godot to Endgame, we must notice that the two plays, while they are both monuments in the modern despairing tradition that Martin Esslin has called the Theatre of the Absurd, do not share the same generic form. Beckett, himself seems to have tried to emphasize precisely this fact when he subtitled Waiting for Godot “tragicomedy” and later chose the more nondescript designation, “a play,” for Endgame. Following Esslin’s lead, however, most critics have ignored the substantial difference between the plays even though Beckett has argued elsewhere that the meaning of context without reference to form is “the scant cram of sense.”[vi] Criticism must ultimately come to terms with the structural differences between the plays and must arrive at some conclusion about the difference that structure makes in the plays as statements about the human condition.

Before we consider the change in structure found in Endgame, published four years after Waiting for Godot, we should stop to consider why Beckett might decide to change structures. Beckett might have had something new to say that required a new structure, or he might have thought that the first structure was too susceptible to misinterpretation.

I have already delineated the formal meaning of Waiting for Godot. But what are the emotive corollaries to that form? From Beckett’s later works, we can guess what emotions he wished to evoke—pity, despair, hopelessness, and the like. An audience can “try on” the intended emotional message of the author and then go on to reject those emotions in favor of others. Perhaps Godot is the primary example in all of literature of such a rejection by the audience. To understand how and why audiences rejected Beckett’s message of despair and substituted a message of hope and even of triumph, we will do well to consider the trend in modern criticism to look for a finally optimistic and idealistic meaning for all comedy. Generally speaking this assertion identifies a school of “Christian criticism” that can be traced to an article by Christopher Fry in Adelphi, November 1950. I have already quoted several of these critics, but it will be well to recall them here in the context of their school.

According to Fry, comedy is an assertion of faith in the value of life. This is not to say that comedy celebrates our life as perfect. Indeed, a prerequisite to comedy is an awareness of the facts of life, human finitude and imperfection Only with such an awareness is there a place for a faith or outlook, ultimately religious, in which


the dark is distilled into light . . . where our tragic fate finds itself its perfect pitch, and goes straight to the key which creation was composed in. And comedy senses and reaches out to this experience. It says, in effect, that groaning as we may be, we move in the figure of a dance, and, so moving we trace the outline of the mystery.[vii]


Comedy is an intuitive and celebrative affirmation of life, an intuitive trust of “the arduous eccentricities we’re born to,”[viii] an intuitive love of “the oddness of a creature who has never got acclimatized to being created.”[ix]

Fry’s poetically allusive statements have become the key to later Christian interpretations. They all emphasize the “arduousness” of reality and also celebrate it. They stress acceptance of human finitude, limitation, imperfection, mortality, and dual nature as central to comedic perception. This for example, is the way Father Lynch puts it in Christ and Apollo:


The mud in man, the lowermost point in the subway, is nothing to be ashamed of. It can produce . . . the face of God . . . to recall this, to recall this incredible relation between mud and God, is, in its own distant, adumbrating way, the function of comedy.[x]


And Nelvin Vos, in discussing the most perfectly developed comedies, insists on the same combination of hard realities and religious assertion:


Almost imperceptibly, goodness flits inconspicuously throughout the action and is combined with diabolical evil; the ending is one of complex tension and paradoxical ambiguity. Heaven is interested in earth; sin and evil are real; pride and other forms of self-centeredness are man’s imperfections. Not only is it a world of reality and common sense, but festive and sacrificial elements are juxtaposed.[xi]


Within the Christian interpretation of comedy, the representation of ongoing life becomes a celebration and acceptance of the human condition. The comic form’s reliance on figures representative of average mankind becomes an insistence on and assertion of the real as opposed to the romantically idea. Its unwillingness to recognize irremediable injury becomes an assertion of faith in the creation’s ultimate goodness The neat endings of comedy become analogues for faith in a providential future.

Whether an individual spectator adopts a response like the one Beckett seems to desire for Waiting for Godot, or with the Christian critics, he makes “an escape not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith”[xii] will, of course, be primarily a matter of temperament. Whichever response an individual in the audience chooses, the fact is that there are legitimate celebrative and religious emotional responses to the play, and these potential emotive corollaries of the formal message are totally at odds with the self-pitying, defiant bravado proposed by the pessimists.

From the Christian perspective it is possible to admit that, yes, Didi and Gogo are just nobodies doing just nothing. Yes, they are beaten, tossed about, bewildered. Yes, they have lost their rationality their memory, their purpose, a great deal of their pride. Yes to all this. Yet from a religiously affirmative point of view, if one is odd enough to trust the arduous eccentricities we are born to, there may still be something to celebrate in the very humanity of these nobodies, in their comradeship, in their sympathetic responses, however bizarre, to nature and to each other. Despite their loss of rationality, memory, purpose, and pride, Didi and Gogo maintain a wry sense of humor. They fight back, if only by refusing to stop waiting They win by not being utterly crushed even in their meaningless void. What more profound test of the worth and dignity of a human being than to strip away all his points of reference, all his symbols of self-sufficiency and native worth? This happens in Waiting for Godot, and we watch to see if there is anything left. There is, and we find that “the mud in man, the lowermost point in the subway, is nothing to be ashamed of.” With a certain temperament that no doubt would probably strike both Ionesco and Beckett himself as perverse, we may even see in Didi and Gogo the “incredible relationship between mud and God.” Almost imperceptibly, goodness does flit through the story of these two metaphysical tramps, even as it combines with the diabolical evil of their world, and it is possible to be proud of our common humanity.

Whether Beckett intended to allow or even had any idea of these potential positive meanings in his play, no one can say. Probably, he was appalled by the positive emotional meanings audiences were taking from performances of Godot. But what is obvious from Endgame, published four years later, is that Beckett abandoned the comedic form in favor of another form that left no possibility for an assertive or optimistic response.

The new form in which Endgame is written has no technical name, and Beckett’s subtitle, “a play,” therefore has merit in not confusing Endgame with any established genre. For our analysis, a great deal can be gained by contrasting Endgame’s experimental form with comedic form.

The structure of Waiting for Godot and of comedy in general asserts human survival and a determined future beyond the final curtain. The structure of Endgame is completely agnostic on these points. In Waiting for Godot, form as well as content asserts that human beings repeat their meaningless endeavors endlessly—and, by definition, that they survive. But Endgame refuses to make any assertion about human destiny, not even an assertion of the apocalypse, which many critics have read into the play.

Some readers may exclaim here that the very title of the play is a clear statement on the destiny of man. And of course, the criticism of Endgame from Richard M. Eastman’s original review emphasizing the chess theme of the play[xiii] has accepted the assumption that the play shows Hamm’s “last exploration of the checkmate position.”[xiv] But the name of the play is not Checkmate. We are obliged, precisely because Beckett uses chess images in Endgame, to ask if the two terms are really synonymous

The chess endgame (in which neither opponent has more than a king ad and few pieces and pawns) has three possible outcomes. One is checkmate, in which a player’s king is captured. It is a won-and-lost situation. Two other situations arise, both of which are varieties of stalemate and are drawn games. In one, neither player has enough power to mate the other. Even with the worst possible play, neither player can put himself in position to be mated, and each player has, therefore, a theoretically endless number of moves ahead of him. In the other, the player whose move it is cannot move any piece without putting his king in check. Because the rules forbid moving into check, he cannot move. Similarly, his opponent is not allowed to move twice in succession, so his pieces are also frozen and the position is tied.

Checkmate, then, is not the inevitable outcome of a chess endgame any more than it is the obvious outcome of the play. The play suggests both the frozen situation of one form of stalement and the impotence of the players to either win or to lose, to go on or to end it all, which characterizes the other form of statement. But in general, we cannot decide which of the three possible outcomes of a chess endgame is the closest analog of the action of Endgame because Beckett has purposely structured the play ironically to refer to all three. And such irony is the essential technique creating the ambiguous agnosticism of the play.

Hamm and Clov feel that they are winding down. Supplies seem to be giving out, entropy seems to be moving into a final state, Nagg and Nell seem to expire, symbolizing the inevitable fate of the two younger and last human beings. Hamm and Clov may be moving toward inevitable checkmate; yet they are not sure that things are about to end. Early on, they argue the point, Hamm assuming that “there’s no reason for it [the world and life] to change,” and Clov answering hopefully that “it may end”[xv] (italics mine). Shortly after this exchange, Hamm sets up the refrain, “What’s happening, what’s happening,” and Clov answers with the ambiguous “something is taking its course.”[xvi] In other words, they may be entering either checkmate or stalemate.

Later, Hamm continues telling his serial tale in which he berates a nonexistent stranger who comes to him for help. That castigation, along with Hamm’s rising excitement and lack of self-control, ironically expresses his uncertainty about the direction  the world is taking: “But what in God’s name do you imagine? That the earth will awake in spring? That the rivers and seas will run with fish again? That there’s manna in heaven for imbeciles like you?”[xvii]

Still later, Hamm’s hopes and fears seem about to be fulfilled, the world seems to be on the brink of starting all over again with the little boy that Clov thinks he sees outside And Hamm melodramatically shifts his position, prophesying a repetitive future in which Clov will become a new Hamm and the boy a new Clov. The possibility of infinite, impotent continuation, characteristic of one form of a stalemate, is here at least suggested.

Finally, when Hamm and Clov agree to part and Clov goes out as if to leave, Hamm (still the ham actor) prepares for the end. But early in his soliloquy, the stage direction reads: “Enter Clov, dressed for road. Panama hat, tweed coat, raincoat over his arm, umbrella, bag. He halts by the door and stands there impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm, till the end.”[xviii] And after Hamm’s speech, with the stage back the way it was at the opening curtain save for Clov standing at the door, the final stage direction reads: “Brief Tableau.” Compare that direction to the final lines and direction of Waiting for Godot:


Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.[xix]


Again we are back to the relative importance of actions and words. Is Clov about to desert Hamm? Or is the play about to start over? Or have we reached a frozen stalemate? Throughout the play Beckett has given contradictory impressions that make it impossible to say what will happen. We are left with the three possible forms of endgame and no way, given the unresolved pattern of the play, to decide which occurs. “What’s happening? Something is taking its course.”

While Endgame’s pattern of uncertain expectation is its most obvious contrast with comedy, the play differs from comedy (and thus from Waiting for Godot) on other grounds as well. Didi and Gogo, like many comedic leads, become general representatives of the human race. The characters of Endgame, particularly Hamm, do not. To the contrary, Hamm is divorced from general humanity and from human impulse, as displayed in his serial tale, which holds all humanity and nature in contempt. Far from representing the average person, he seems instead to represent the highly advanced intellect grotesquely cut off from family, friends, knowledge, certainty—in short, from the whole creation.

Endgame differs from Waiting for Godot and comedy in its treatment of injury as well. In this earlier play Beckett undercut all onstage injury. In Endgame mutilation is constantly before us—in Hamm’s blindness, in Nagg and Nell’s amputation, in Clov’s enforced standing—as grotesque assertions of the omnipresence of suffering. In stark contrast to Godot, this mutilation is consistently presented as real and irremediable. It is seldom funny.

But what difference in import is implied by this difference in Endgame’s structure? In Waiting for Godot, the comedic structure of the play was basically assertive. Whether an individual spectator found the play grounds for despair over the lack of meaning in life or whether he found it grounds for some celebration of humanity’s overarching triumph in the battle with its limited nature, the play itself asserts that the human race will survive. People may repeat themselves indefinitely, they may always be on the brink of despair, but they will never lose their humor, sympathy, or humanity. The structure of Endgame, on the other hand, is agnostic and unassertive. Will the human race survive? Beckett is no longer willing to say. A great deal seems to point toward the apocalypse. Yet life may continue; no one can tell. And if life continues, what will characterize humanity—Clov’s faithful service or Hamm’s tyranny, Clov’s willingness to establish contact with the outside or Hamm’s utter immobility, Clov’s bumbling practicality or Hamm’s self-pitying, rhetorical extravagance?

Endgame’s structure, however, does make strident efforts to deny the ambiguities that in Waiting for Godot make it possible to see Didi and Gogo as ultimate victors over their limited natures and over the barren world they inhabit. The possibility of survival in Endgame’s future does not stand for even the smallest victory. If Hamm and Clov survive, it is simply because they do not have the ability, even with the worst possible play, to checkmate themselves. If they survive, their survival does not entail the survival of humor, sympathy, and humanity, but the survival of distortion, grotesqueness, and a self-loathing translated into a death wish for the universe.

In the four years between Waiting for Godot and Endgame Beckett moved from a comedic form that is assertive about human beings’ future and ambiguous about the value of that future, to an experimental form that is agnostic about the future and strident in its nihilistic denial of any value in human life. Significantly, this trend in Becket’s writing can be compared to similar trends in the writings of other modern and despairing playwrights. Ionesco’s early plays, The Bald Soprano and Jack: or The Submission both make extensive efforts to parody traditional comedic structure and in so doing take some of their meaning from that structure. But in later plays, particularly Rhinoceros, Ionesco adopts an experimental form beyond all defined genres. Their questioning, unassertive character links the plays with Endgame. Edward Albee has also attempted to use comedic form in The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But he returned to melodramatic experimental forms with Tiny Alice. All of these plays, of course, represent the searchings of a tortured modern mentality that has lost hold of the certainties of a religious faith and that despairs at the finite and imperfect world. But, despite, their formulation of an elaborate theory for a comedy of despair peculiarly suited to our times, these pessimistic playwrights have not been able to present their vision of the world consistently in comedic form. Ultimately, like Beckett, they have resorted to forms that deny what the very structure of comedy asserts—humanity’s survival.


See also Somber Comedy:  Comedy in a New Mood, Chap. 1, page 33.


[i] Material in this chapter is taken substantially from Paul H. Grawe, “Beckett’s Changing Faith” in Dalma H. Brunauer, Literature and Religion: Papers Collected for MLA (Pottsdam, N.Y.: N.P., 1970).

[ii] See Ionesco’s comments in Notes and Counter Notes, translated by Donald Watson (New York: Grove Press, 1964).

[iii] See Pirandello, L’Umorismo (Milan: Sacchetti and Co., 1920).

[iv] Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Gaden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961).

[v] Ruby Cohn, “A Comic Complex and a Complex Comic,” in Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962), pp. 283-99, reprinted in Corrigan, Comedy: Meaning and Form, pp. 427-39.

[vi] Quoted in Esslin, Theatre of the Absurd, p. 2.

[vii] Christopher Fry, “Comedy,” Adelphi 27(November 1950), pp. 28.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Fr. William F.  Lynch, Christ and Apollo, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960). p. 109.

[xi] Nelvin Vos, The Drama of Comedy: Victim and Victor (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1966. p. 24.

[xii] Fry, “Comedy,” p. 27.

[xiii] “The Strategy of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame,” Modern Drama 2May 1959): 36-44.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 41.

[xv] Reprinted in Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shedd, eds., Masters of the Modern Drama (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 1105.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 1106.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 1112.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 1117.

[xix] (New York: Grove Press, 1954), p. 60.