‘The Literature of the Absurd’: A leafless tree

March 13, 2023, 4:28 p.m.

“The Literature of the Absurd” is a reflection on prominent authors in the Absurdist tradition — Beckett, Camus and beyond — and the ways in which their writings can intertwine with life in sometimes surprising ways.

The first time I heard of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” I didn’t think much of it. I remember being in my mother’s car, driving up Highway 101 from my elementary school in Mountain View to our Redwood City home. Somehow our conversation had shifted from the customary topic — my day at school — to experimental, “modern” art. She didn’t start with the example of Beckett. Instead, my memory of the car ride begins with my mother telling me of a musical work titled “19 Seconds of Silence,” which sounded unbelievably strange. The piece was exactly what the title suggested, she said, and I was dumbfounded. Who could have thought of such a bizarre idea? And why was it so famous if it was really as simple as it sounded? It seemed boring, pointless. Anyone who liked this was probably a chump.

No surprise, then, that my initial thoughts on Beckett were similar. “Waiting for Godot,” the next piece of experimental art my mother described, struck me as another strange perversion of the norm. A two-hour play in which two old dudes sat around by a leafless tree and did absolutely nothing from start to finish? How could anyone possibly enjoy this? I had acted in a few plays before, but none of them had even come close to this level of avant-garde. Maybe “Waiting for Godot” was simply an anomaly. In any case, neither of us had much more to say about it. My incredulity soon faded, but this car ride had planted the seed of interest. I remembered the name Samuel Beckett, and I remembered the play “Waiting for Godot.”

That seed took a long time to sprout. Years passed and life went on without any need to think about some boring old play about nothing. In the meantime, I grew. My personality changed, and so did my tastes. I went through middle school quiet and introverted. Around 8th grade, I started becoming more sarcastic and contrarian, often pretending to enjoy things solely because others disliked them. 

The next time I thought about “Godot” was the fall of my junior year of high school. As a first-day icebreaker for an acting class I was taking, our teacher asked us our favorite play. Aha! Here was a chance to be controversial. My fellow classmates and I answered in turn, most of them citing works from Shakespeare or more modern, 21st century playwrights. I knew plenty of these plays. I had been in several of them — including several with our teacher, who was also the high school theater director — and liked many of them. But when it came my turn to speak, I answered: “Waiting for Godot.” I thought anyone who knew the play would recognize I was being facetious. Maybe they’d get a kick out of it. But our teacher simply raised an eyebrow. “Interesting! Not many people choose that one.” 

Later that day, I thought more about that moment. Our teacher had seemed impressed, but I felt unexpectedly ashamed. I knew it didn’t matter, but I felt like I had deceived him. After all, I hadn’t actually read ”Waiting for Godot.” It hadn’t even occurred to me that people might actually like it, least of all our teacher, whom I greatly respected. I decided then to find out what this play was really about, so I could see for myself whether it was a pretentious mockery of real theater or a subtle work of genius.

It took me over a month to actually get started. Finally, one evening in October, I found a recording of the entire play on Youtube. It was from 2015, and I found a PDF script to pair with it. I clicked play with some trepidation. 

It turned out my mother hadn’t been exaggerating — it really was two hours long. I had at least looked up a plot summary, so I wasn’t entirely blind going in. I knew the identities of the two main characters: Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo); I knew that they waited for two days (at least) for a man named Godot who never arrived; I knew that two other characters, Pozzo and Lucky, played some sort of significant role, and that Lucky’s only line in the entire play was a page-long monologue of complete nonsense; I knew that the only other character was a boy who entered at the end of each day to inform Didi and Gogo that Godot “won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.” 

And I had learned that, despite my long-held assumption that this play would be a vapid, pseudo-intellectual waste of my time if I ever even bothered to watch it, “Waiting for Godot” was actually considered one of the most, if not the most, influential plays of the 20th century. Everything about it still sounded rather pointless to me, and I had little opinion on how the play was to be interpreted. But I was willing to try my luck.

My strongest memory from that evening is simply how surprised I was at the fact that the play wasn’t boring. I found myself riveted by the energetic banter between the two main characters, the philosophical ramblings of Didi and the sour grumblings of Gogo. I laughed at the jokes and the black humor Beckett was able to evoke through the bleak and indistinct setting. While I still had little idea what the point of any of it was, and I did wonder about halfway in whether the second act would even be worth watching after the first, I stuck with it, and by the end I felt an incredible sense of personal accomplishment. I had watched “Waiting for Godot” to the end. I had made up for misleading my acting teacher and in the process joined the ranks of the cultured elite: those who actually watched erudite, avant-garde theater, and sometimes maybe even enjoyed it. The next step was to understand.

This took me a while. Watching the play hadn’t triggered any major transformation in me. I spent a few minutes looking up opinions online, most of which praised the play and usefully pointed out some surface-level details I had missed, including various obscure references and jokes. Different interpretations of the play’s meaning were everywhere — it seemed like everybody had their own perspective. One writer believed that Didi’s erudite airs and references to old stories and memories make him a manifestation of the mind while Gogo with his pained complaints about boots and beatings represents the body, an interpretation with which I still agree. Another argued for an interpretation of Godot as God, a common argument. 

At the time, none of this literary analysis was terribly interesting to me. I got bored, and moved onto other things that night. Still, “Waiting for Godot” was now an even greater part of my subconscious — I noticed more when its name came up in articles or videos, and every once in a while I would be struck by a sudden inspiration to look up a line or an opinion on some part of the play I remembered. But I never really cared much about its meaning. 

My junior year was a tumultuous one. That winter, I entered into my first relationship, which soon became a source of more stress and worry than comfort, and my mental health rapidly deteriorated. I struggled to balance my time between an unstable and often unhappy relationship; my friends and family who offered support, but whom I failed to turn to; and all of the other work that was important to me but soon fell by the wayside. 

By late spring, I felt crushed by the weight of these pressures, and held little hope things would ever get better. It was around that time that I began to become familiar with another writer who has had a strong influence on my life: Albert Camus. I read both “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” and found that I resonated strongly with Camus’ philosophy of finding meaning in an inherently meaningless existence: of recognizing and accepting the absurdity of our lives, of confronting and rebelling against that absurdity by the act of living, and thereby creating a personal meaning for oneself. The key, Camus argued, was to abandon all hope that the universe would provide meaning. To entertain hope for things to get better on their own was to ignore the simple fact of the absurd. Paradoxically, one could never find their own meaning to life while keeping alive a hope for meaning. This philosophy greatly appealed to me at a time when I was struggling to find my own meaning to life and wasn’t sure how I could even begin. Perhaps instead of sitting around waiting for something about my life to change, it was my perspective that needed to change. I could learn to accept my circumstances, and choose to live my life in spite of them.

I didn’t initially make the connection between Camus’ writings and “Waiting for Godot.” It took my learning of another book — Martin Esslin’s “The Theatre of the Absurd,” published in 1961 — to crystalize this connection in my mind. The theater of the absurd, Esslin’s titular term, defines a theatrical tradition linking playwrights like Beckett, Arthur Adamov and Eugène Ionesco. While Esslin’s definition of absurdity was not the same as Camus’ and he primarily acknowledged the more surreal, pointless, and Kafkaesque elements of these playwrights’ works, hearing this semantic connection inspired me to think more deeply about my own interpretation of “Godot.” I started to view Godot not as God, but as hope. I thought about Didi’s and Gogo’s infinite wait for Godot, and how they considered suicide — also discussed by Camus — several times as a way of escaping their fate, even though they would clearly never commit the act. 

And yet, despite their eternal purgatory, Didi and Gogo seemed to be happy. They had each other’s company, and that of the occasional odd strangers who crossed paths with them at their tree. Their conversations were clearly interesting enough to keep me attentive for two hours, two days in their time, and I’m sure had I been stuck there with them for longer I would have remained entertained. 

In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus describes Sisyphus’ legendary punishment: to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it fall back down at the top, for all eternity. But in his philosophy, Camus believes Sisyphus would have to be happy, deriving meaning from the simple act of living, in rebellion of the absurdity of his task. I began to see Didi and Gogo as happy too — living in their absurd defiance, waiting for Godot despite knowledge that he would never come, and creating their own happiness. That first seed of interest, planted so long ago during an innocuous car ride, had finally grown into a mature tree of understanding, and it was a tree without leaves.

It’s easy to find similar thoughts to mine online. “Waiting for Godot,” in the seventy plus years since it’s been written, has been analyzed and re-analyzed without consensus so many times that it’s possible to find nearly any interpretation of the text. It doesn’t help that Beckett was famously recalcitrant about providing any insight as to his own intentions and the meaning of his writings, preferring to let his works speak for themselves. To me, the variety of scholarly articles and interpretations by writers much more educated on the topic than me don’t really matter. While I’m always curious to learn a new possible interpretation of “Godot”, and I do often, the one that sticks with me most is the one that I came up with myself. This, I believe, is the lesson of absurd art — Esslin’s meaning of the absurd; the surreal, pointless and Kafkaesque avant-garde pieces that provide no clear message to the audience. Such art encourages you to think, reflect and come to your own conclusions independent of anyone else’s thoughts. Even if that reflection takes years, the meaning you give it yourself is all that matters.

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