Blesok no. 25, March-April, 2002
Theatre Theory


The Concept of Time and Space
in Beckett's Dramas Happy Days and Waiting for Godot

Richard Frank


    Beckett avoids entrapment in clock time and physical space by blurring specifics in the background of the action. As the date of the appointment with Godot wobbles and the certainty of the characters recedes with the onset of anxiety and skepticism, the initial specificity of the appointment is dissolved into some universal temporality of 'meeting'.
    Beckett has no qualms about dealing with discrete pieces of times and places at the same time, fusing them into a heterogeneous scene in one comprehensive view. The viewpoint of the characters jumps from the present to a biblical past, and then jumps back to the present. The action moves from one place to another without any restriction. When several episodes with different historical backgrounds are juxtaposed in the same context, the particularity of individual episodes gives way to the neutralized universality of the situation. The whole action turns into an ahistorical miscellany of events, and an atemporal overview of the human condition.
    In Waiting for Godot the dramatist connects the humble life of the two tramps with the idea of Christian vigil, elevating the lowest form of life (humilitas) to the biblical dimension (sublimitas). While pretending to depict the most trivial type of life, Beckett evokes the noblest and holiest mode of being. On the realist stage there is the depth of time. In each scene we witness a moment in the history of the community presented in the work. When the curtain is raised, we assume that the place we see on the stage has been there before we see it and that it will continue to exist even as an imaginary society after the curtain goes down. In Beckett's drama the kind of community that we commonly experience in our daily life does not exist, and it is irrelevant and meaningless to try to trace the social origin of the characters or to evaluate their action in accordance with the dynamics of conventional dramaturgy. Beckett's characters and their world have no known history and no pre-established relationships among them (Lyons 130). His 'homeless' people have simply been thrown into a strange land without any preliminary explanation about their situation. They hardly recognize each other as members of the same community, nor know what to do with each other or the time given them. Beckett's scene operates in such a manner as to function in an endless present or in a spatial, temporal vacuum. The action is filled with questions, not with answers.
    In Act II of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir showers Pozzo with questions about their identity because Pozzo and Lucky look the same, and at the same time different.
    VLADIMIR: So it is he?
    POZZO: What?
    VLADIMIR: It is Lucky?
     POZZO: I don't understand.
    VLADIMIR: And you are Pozzo?
    POZZO: Certainly I am Pozzo.
    VLADIMIR: The same as yesterday?
    POZZO: Yesterday?
    VLADIMIR: We met yesterday. (Silence.) Do you not remember?
    POZZO: I don't remember having met anyone yesterday. But tomorrow I won't remember having met anyone today. So don't count on me to enlighten you.
    Vladimir's idea of time as continuum from past to future with no missing link is not compatible with Pozzo's discrete, indeterminate time. Vladimir tries to view in the Pozzo he sees at this moment the same, continuous extension of the Pozzo he met in the past, whereas Pozzo has successively changed into a different person over time. Pozzo becomes tired with Vladimir's linear perspective and his questions about why, when, where, and who, and finally cries out:
    POZZO: When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
    For Pozzo, time is not precisely divided into past, present, and future. Nor is it a linear, consistent progression. It is discrete and fragmentary. Life is a long continuum of time consisting of innumerable moments. But it can also be shortened to a day, or a moment.
    Beckett employs a similar method about place. His stage remains an empty space in the historical sense. When proper names and places are used for the locale of a particular scene, they are almost empty, non-referential nouns which can be replaced by any other ones. They hardly have relational ties with other names or objects in their world. The 'here' that Vladimir recognizes for a moment as the meeting place with Godot has no geographical name for it. The dramatist withholds from the action any kind of characteristic that might indicate the particularity of the place other than the fact that it has a tree and a bog. In Act II Vladimir and Estragon think that they are in the same place as the previous day: they recognize the tree; the boots and hat are where they had been left; Pozzo and Lucky return to see them as in Act I, and Estragon has the wound from Lucky's kick. On the other hand, there are changes in the place: the bare tree has now sprouted a few leaves, and Pozzo and Lucky are much different and do not remember 'yesterday'; the boots are the wrong color and do not fit… The objects on Beckett's stage are hollow and independent without any necessary connection to the characters and the world where they are found.
    Realist stage is charged with history and relationship among the characters, objects and their environment. The objects and the environment reveal many things about the characters, who in turn define the objects and the world by dealing with them. On the other hand, Beckett's theater is the 'ember' of Realist theater. We see in Beckett the theater in ruins in which the traditional function and method of signification have been emptied from the stage. The language, the set, the characters, and the objects on his stage point to a fact, that Beckett's stage is a closed space. Although there are entrances and exits, the three short stage directions at the opening of Waiting for Godot (A country road. A tree. Evening) invite the audience to an open and loose space which is not defined or demarcated in any terms. The stage seems like a completely free world. On close examination, however, author invisibly restricts the characters' spatial freedom. Pozzo and Lucky are doomed to repeat the same entrances and exits endlessly. Vladimir and Estragon are free to move around and even leave the stage if they want to. But no matter where they may go, they have to return to the original place, as if tied to each other. Their journey does not proceed forward nor backward. Neither do they have any place to go. The stage is not a house nor a living room. His characters are never allowed to rest on the stage. They are prisoners, so to speak, who seem most free simply because there are no visible bars to limit their immediate activities. Their existential predicament is suggested in the dilemma between their words and behavior:
    ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
    VLADIMIR: Yes, let's go.
    They do not move.
    In Happy Days the existential condition of the characters is visualized in the mound tightening around Winnie who is sinking deeper and deeper. The nearer she gets to the end, the slower does Winnie sink, and never does the end come to release her from the pain of being smothered in the mound. What Beckett wants to represent is the endless repetition of dying moments rather than death itself. His characters wish to finish life but the end never comes because the clock becomes slower and slower. There is still time, always:
    “There always remains something. (Pause.) Of something. (Pause.) Some remains.”
    Deceleration includes another strand: repetition. In Waiting for Godot the characters do the same meaningless activities throughout the play. Towards the end of Act II the same boy comes in again to inform Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not visit them that day but will surely come the next day. In Happy Days Winnie begins her day with the same daily routine she has done a thousand times. Both plays have two acts, and the second act is basically a repetition of the first. The spectators may think that they will see the same characters do the same things again if there is a third act. The Beckettian repetition builds a cyclical structure. Due to repetition, Beckett's action loses any sense of movement and turns into a static state. In Happy Days, every morning Winnie examines her own body, but finds no particular change:
    “No better, no worse – no change.”
    She speaks and does things constantly, but the sum total of all her activity always remains zero:
    “Yes, something seems to have occurred, something has seemed to occur, and nothing has occurred, nothing at all, you are quite right, Willie.”
    Or, she longs to end her life but there is “Nothing to be done”.
    Under the light that never shifts into darkness, Winnie and Willie seem suspended at a point of infinite noon. They are trapped in static time. A critic's comment on Waiting for Godot aptly puts the nature of Beckett's action in a paradoxical sentence of three words: “Nothing happens, twice” (Mercier 144-45).
    The emphasis of the action switches from the coming of Godot to the state of waiting. Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot not to 'meet' him but to 'wait' for him.
    The end of conventional tragedy usually coincides with the death of the protagonist. Beckett's protagonist never dies at the end of the action. Nor does his world end once and for all. His tragedy is not of death but of the impossibility of death. The final destination for man after a lifetime of learning is death. Knowledge brings no solution to the existential problem. Habit is not potent enough to keep the void at bay forever. No matter how effectively she tries to extend the length of time for each habit, Winnie does not succeed in filling her day with the habits she mobilizes. Time still remains, leaving her without any more resources. Beckett's character is bound to be exhausted, and language, her instrument, is not something that lasts forever either. It too runs out. When she dreams of being “sucked up” into the air, she is in fact sinking deeper and deeper. When the tension between her aspiration and gravity reaches the maximum point, her parasol catches on fire. As she says: “Ah earth you old extinguisher”, Winnie ultimately gives in. The earth will ultimately devour her and leave nothing.



    Happy Days opens on a barren outdoor setting in which a woman around fifty, Winnie, is found embedded up to above her waist in a mound of earth. There is another character around sixty, Willie, who is lying asleep on the ground, hidden by Winnie's mound, to her right and rear. Willie is hardly visible to the audience throughout the play except for a few times, although constantly addressed by Winnie in her monologue. The dramatist calls for a “maximum of simplicity and symmetry” in the set to indicate the absence of any trace of human society in the protagonist's world. For the spectators who are used to the realistic stage, or to the stage on which events occur in the physical world, the stage of Happy Days is something of a shock, for they fail to find in the set any resemblance to the drama they have known.
    Above all, Beckett does not put his action in a historical setting. Traditionally, drama creates a world with reference to objective reality. An important part of dramatic performance is to present the spectators with some event they can recognize and identify in connection with the practical aspects of life. Each time they see a performance, they find themselves thrown into a new world which is a mixture of the familiar and the strange and unknown. The familiar is the threshold through which they venture into the strange and unknown. The ratio of the familiar is the highest in the drama of mimetic objective realism, whereas it is low in the drama portraying the phenomena occurring in the unconscious. Beckett depicts life as strange, mysterious, and beyond rational explanation.
    In the performance of Beckett's work, the spectators find it hard to enjoy themselves due to the strangeness of the world presented on the stage. Beckett has reduced the familiar in his work to the extent that the strange dominates the action, seriously modifying the function of the familiar in the process of signification. Drama is concerned with life and death to be represented in such artistic genres as tragedy and comedy. In other words, drama is the ritualization of 'life' and 'death' with a view to familiarizing the fearful reality of existence. The spectators enjoy the spirit of 'game' or 'play' from the stage performance which imitates the action of man. In Beckett's drama it is hard for us to experience the spirit of 'play' or 'game'. Beckett rips off the veil of familiarized ritual from dramatic art when he reduces the familiar to a minimum in his work. The stylized action in traditional drama does not help the spectators confront bare existence. It induces them to ignore it. In order to deal with the question of bare existence as such, Beckett depicts man in the state of being nothing and doing nothing without superimposing conventional narrative structure on the action.
    The simple but horrifying set of Happy Days is designed to awaken the spectators and urge them to face the human condition without any inessential decoration. Winnie can be seen as Everyman helplessly thrown into life like the protagonist. Beckett's intention of exhibiting bare existence can be read in the compositional process of his work. From his earliest years Beckett chose to keep distance from objective mimesis for the reason that it relies on empiricism which is the art of the surface. Absence rather than presence characterizes Beckett's world. The world of crowded images in Shakespeare is hard to find in the linguistic sparseness of Beckett's empty space. An investigation of the manuscripts of Happy Days reveals that Beckett's composition of the work is not something that proceeds from an abstract idea and skeletal structure at the outset to a concrete situation with fuller elaboration of characters in the later stage. To the contrary, his creative process is a transition from the realistic and concrete to the abstract, condensed and vague. Apparently his text is first full of social and historical facts, which are later removed or purposely 'vaguened' to reveal a universal pattern.
    The dramatist condenses or decomposes the original manuscript in which the action is more traditionally motivated and the world more familiar and recognizable until the original identifiable world has completely evaporated. The elimination of the omniscient author himself takes place in this process. By the time he finishes writing, Beckett has gone through numerous intentional undoings of the text's origins. Beckett's method of representation can be compared to photography. The cover picture in black and white of Bert O. States' book on Waiting for Godot, The Shape of Paradox, shows two men, one sitting on the ground and the other standing. What characterizes the picture most is the indistinct contour of the objects, apparently intending to remind the reader of Vladimir and Estragon. What is interesting in the picture is that it is almost impossible to discern the features of their faces, the fingers of their hands, and the shoes on their feet. They are all blurry.
    If Happy Days is to be compared to a picture, it could be a picture which fails to show the characters' contour clearly because they were taken at too close a range. Or, it is as if the cameraman had magnified the object so many times that it lost its natural shape to look like something else. Jonathan Swift makes Gulliver travel the country of giants to reveal the ugliness of humans seen in magnified versions. In Happy Days, the spectators seem seated so close to the protagonist that they can almost see her body hair, her pimples and the wrinkles in her face, and even smell her breath. Unable to see the overall shape of the protagonist's body, they are not sure whether they are watching a human or an animal. This phenomenon occurs as the result of the intentional undoings in which Beckett removes all the decorations from the protagonist which can be used to make her look like a social being. The spectators come to see an old lady buried in a mound of earth, which is a poetic image symbolizing the existential condition of man.
    In Happy Days, the temporal background of the action is vague and uncertain. In an early draft of the play the dramatist employs an alarm clock and the sunlight to control and measure Winnie's day and night, but later changes them to a bell and a simple light that never changes in order to diminish the importance of mechanical time. The associations with quotidian activities in the alarm clock and the sunlight do not help examine the fate of man as such. Winnie never uses a date. When she broaches an episode from her memory, its history is never mentioned. Neither she nor the spectators can measure when and where the episode had taken place in her life. Furthermore, her memory is all fragments which do not make up a coherent story. It seems that she happens to run into broken pieces of past events randomly surfacing in her mind. Winnie herself is not sure of her own memory:
    “The sunshade you gave me… that day… (pause)… that day… the lake… the reeds. (Pause.) What day? (Pause.) What reeds?”
    Sometimes it is not clear whether her story had actually happened or she simply invents it to pass the time. The fundamental nature of the narrative is the linear progression of action in the continuum of time and space. In each scene, dialogues and movements weave the web of signification in conjunction with other theatrical elements on the stage. The concatenation of dramatic moments in the action and interaction of the characters is traditionally based on the principle of logic and causality. The causal links which are in charge of the progression of action are frequently missing in Beckett's world. His scene is built with sentences with no apparent causal (logical) connectivity:
    ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer.
    VLADIMIR: Precisely.
    ESTRAGON: A vague supplication.
    VLADIMIR: Exactly.
    ESTRAGON: And what did he reply?
    VLADIMIR: That he'd see.
    ESTRAGON: That he couldn't promise anything.
    VLADIMIR: That he'd have to think it over.
    ESTRAGON: In the quiet of his home.
    VLADIMIR: Consult his family.
    ESTRAGON: His friends.
    VLADIMIR: His agents.
    ESTRAGON: His correspondents.
    VLADIMIR: His books.
    ESTRAGON: His bank account.
    The above sentences seem like alternations of unrelated monologues which form an action scarcely invested with logical relation, narrative consistency, or linear progression. The characters do not seem to be aware of what they are concerned with nor where their conversation is leading to. Each sentence simply hints at the state of the speaker without actively participating in the process of describing or following events sequentially. It simply presents a fragmentary picture of the situation without necessarily being connected to the sentence before and after it.
    In Waiting for Godot the temporal background of the action is rather conspicuous compared with his other works. It seems that Vladimir and Estragon have specific information about the appointment with Godot, knowing when, where and who they are waiting for. However, their sense of time and space soon become unstable by the intervention of another kind of time.
    ESTRAGON: You're sure it was this evening?
    VLADIMIR: What?
    ESTRAGON: That we were to wait.
    VLADIMIR: He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.
    ESTRAGON: You think.
    VLADIMIR: I must have made a note of it. (He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.)
    ESTRAGON: (very insidious). But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? (Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?




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