Yes, both these adjectives are simultaneously possible. That’s why they call it a tragicomedy. But what’s interesting about the tone is that isn’t just bleak and comic; it’s bleak because it is comic, and it is comic because it is bleak. The common factor here is absurdity. Life is comic because of the absurdity of talking about turnips and carrots:
Fancy that. (He raises what remains of the carrot by the stub of leaf, twirls it before his eyes.) Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
With me it's just the opposite. (1.278-9)
But it's also bleak because men waste away their days talking about… turnips and carrots.
Ooof. With a list like that, we sure have our work cut out for us. But you can't just fit Waiting For Godot into one genre because this brilliant, game-changing play breaks the whole dang genre mold.
So let's break this bad boy down.
Drama is an easy one, since the work is a play and the conflict is entirely expressed in emotion-revealing drama.
The labels of both "Modernism" and "Surrealism" have to do with the play’s lack of a real plot and its break from narrative traditions... you know, the things that making Waiting for Godot so Waiting for Godot-errific. Waiting for Godot is Modernist in the sense that it defies classic standards, and it's Surrealist in that Vladimir and Estragon’s world has no clear system of logic or rules. Remember that line when Vladimir wonders aloud if he’s sleeping and merely under the illusion of consciousness? That’s Surrealism in a nutshell.
The label "tragicomedy" is in the title, so you know it's a biggie. Also, check out the fact that Gogo and Didi’s exchanges vacillate between absurdly comic discussions of turnips and horrible, tragic, vague suspicions that life is meaningless. The bowler hats even remind us of Charlie Chaplin, who's the ultimate tragicomedian.
Lastly, Waiting for Godot is most definitely a work of philosophical literature, exploring the arguments of the absurd (that the universe is irrational and without meaning) and existentialism (that the solution to such irrationality is to become conscious of one’s freedom and live life anyway through a series of choices and actions). Notice we said that Waiting for Godot explores these themes—whether or not it agrees with them is totally subject to debate.
Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts is just that: a play about waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. For some dude named (maybe?) Godot.
The title reflects the lack of action—or as one critic says, the less than action—that fills the time normally taken up by plot. "Tragicomedy" is an apt description of the play’s genre, since it combines the absurdly farcical with the tragically poignant melancholy of daily life. That "two acts" part of the title is significant too, since duality is an important theme for the work—take a gander at our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more on this duality business.
This ain't an ornate set, guys. And—apart from a pretty dismal tree—there isn't a lot to look at.
We're never really sure whether Act 1 and Act 2 take place in the same location, other than the fact that Beckett describes it as such in the stage directions. We also don’t know what lies offstage, since Vladimir and Estragon are always forced back onto the stage in some form or another.
Depending on the design of the production, the set is more or less ornate. Sometimes there is literally nothing else onstage but the actors and the tree. The effect of Beckett’s minimally described set is that we have absolutely no idea where Vladimir and Estragon are, either in time or in place. The past? The future? Earth? An imaginary place in one of their heads? We just don’t know.
Uncertainty is a huge theme in the play, and we as the audience experience it the same way Vladimir and Estragon do... with very little window-dressing.
It's also important to note the fact that the two men are on a road together. Where does this road lead? Again, we don’t know. But it might as well be to nowhere since it becomes pretty clear that Estragon and Vladimir aren’t making any progress along it. This is sad. Possibly even tragic(omic).
The presence of the tree and a rock of some sort is apparently important, at least according to Beckett —the setting, he says, is complete with animal, vegetable, and mineral. This lends a high sense of contrivance to the play. We’ve already seen the meta-fictional quality of Waiting for Godot in certain key lines (like Pozzo’s question of whether or not this is the Board, or stage), so this sort of artificiality fits right in.
Having all three elements present—animal, vegetable, and mineral—would seem to suggest that the world of Waiting for Godot is a complete one. Nothing is missing, everything is present, and yet still the world is barren and empty. Still the world is without purpose because characters fail to provide it with meaning through their actions.
Did you notice the sort of sunny, PBS kiddie show-style banter between the characters? Because that thought came to us when we heard Vladimir ask:
Do you want a carrot?
Is that all there is?
I might have some turnips.
Give me a carrot. (Vladimir rummages in his pockets, takes out a turnip and gives it to Estragon who takes a bite out of it. Angrily.) It's a turnip!
Oh pardon! I could have sworn it was a carrot. (1.253-7)
It sounds just like a warped Big Bird. Today's Beckett play was brought to you by the letter "C," for carrot! And the number "2," for duality!
But if you need to put some academic jargon-esque labels on the style, we would probably go with "sparse," "minimalistic," or, if you were feeling ready dangerous, "barren."
Waiting for Godot is chock-full of pairs. There’s Vladimir and Estragon, the two thieves, the Boy and his brother, Pozzo and Lucky, Cain and Abel, and of course the two acts of the play itself. With these pairs comes the repeated notion of arbitrary, 50/50 chances. One thief is saved and other damned, but for no clear reason. If Vladimir and Estragon try to hang themselves, the bough may or may not break. One man may die, one man may live. Godot may or may not come to save them. In the Bible, Cain’s sacrifice was rejected and Abel’s accepted for no discernible reason. It’s minor, but check out Estragon’s line in Act I: "My left lung is very weak […]. But my right lung is sound as a bell!" More pairs, more arbitrary damnation. Even the tone of Waiting for Godot is filled with duality: two person arguments, back-and-forth questions, disagreement-agreement, questions and (often inadequate) answers.
The tree is the only distinct piece of the setting, so we’re pretty sure it matters. (Also, if you check out the painting that inspired Beckett, you’ll see that a big tree features prominently.) Right off the bat you’ve got the biblical stuff; Jesus was crucified on a cross, but that cross is sometimes referred to as a "tree," as in, "Jesus was nailed to the tree." That Vladimir and Estragon contemplate hanging themselves from the tree is likely a reference to the crucifixion, but it also parodies the religious significance. If Jesus died for the sins of others, Vladimir and Estragon are dying for…nothing. (There’s that pesky "nothing" word again. You just can’t get rid of it in this play.)
But you can also think of the two men not as Jesus, but rather as the two thieves crucified along with Jesus. This fits quite nicely with gospel’s tale as Vladimir tells it; one thief is saved and the other damned, so Didi and Gogo are looking at a fifty-fifty chance. (Duality! Again.) The uncertainty that stems from inconsistency between the four gospels is fitting, too, since Vladimir can’t be certain if Godot is coming to save either one of them. (Uncertainty! Again.) (Repetition! Again.)
There’s more. Vladimir reports that he was told to wait for Godot by the tree. This should be reassuring – it means the men are in the right place. Right? Wrong. As Estragon points out, they’re not sure if this is the right tree. And, come to think of it, they can’t even be sure if this is a tree or not. It kind of looks like a shrub.
While Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, they also wait for nightfall. For some reason (again, arbitrary and uncertain), they don’t have to wait for him once the night has fallen. The classic interpretation is that night = dark = death. The falling of night is as much a reprieve from daily suffering as death is from the suffering of a lifetime.
There’s also the issue of the moon, as its appearance in the sky is the real signal that night has come and the men can stop waiting for Godot. Estragon, in one of his "wicked smart" moments, comments the moon is "pale for weariness […] of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us." Though the man remembers nothing of yesterday, he does in this moment seem to comprehend the endless repetition of his life. And if the moon is weary just from watching, imagine what that says about the predicament of the men themselves.
Repetition, banality, and a comically macabre subject matter? We think you can handle this one on your own.
Carrots and turnips are in one sense just a gag reel for Vladimir and Estragon’s comic bits. But we were interested in their disagreement over the vegetable: "Funny," Estragon comments as he munches, "the more you eat, the worse it gets." Vladimir quickly disagrees, adding that, for him, it’s "just the opposite." On the one hand, this could be a completely meaningless conversation – the point is simply that Vladimir is in disagreement, playing at opposites, adding to the bickering duality between himself and Gogo.
On the other hand, the carrot could be about the meaning of life. Exclamation point! OK, so the carrot probably isn’t about the meaning of life. But it could be a hint as to the differences between the way Vladimir and Estragon live their lives. Vladimir’s subsequent comment, an addendum to his carrot claim, is that he "get[s] used to the muck as [he goes] along." He resigns himself to banality. Estragon, on the other hand, wearies as time passes – much like the weary moon he observes in Act II. When Pozzo later dishes about smoking, he claims that a second pipe is "never so sweet [as the first]. But it’s sweet just the same." This is a third and distinct answer to the carrot question.
When Lucky is commanded to dance in Act I, Pozzo reveals that he calls his dance "The Net," adding, "He thinks he’s entangled in a net." You would think a guy tied up on a rope leash would feel confined enough. Of course, the image of Lucky writhing in an imaginary net is a lasting image for the play as a whole, and especially for the plight of Vladimir and Estragon, who, as we’ve said before, are confined in a prison – or perhaps a net – of their own imaginations.
There seems to be no shortage of inane props in Waiting for Godot, and these three have one thing in common: they are all absurd objects on which the men have developed irrational dependences. Lucky cannot think without his bowler. Pozzo needs his vaporizer to speak. Estragon seems condemned to forever take his boots on and off, as does Vladimir with his hat. This is another great combination of the tragic and the comic; the situation is hilarious for its absurdity, but dismal at the same time.
Estragon is repeatedly repelled by smells in Waiting for Godot. Vladimir stinks of garlic, Lucky smells like who knows what, and Pozzo reeks of a fart in Act II. It seems every time Estragon tries to get close to a person, he is repelled by their odor. It looks to us like smells represent one of the barriers to interpersonal relationships. Estragon isn’t just repelled by odors – he’s repelled by the visceral humanity of those around him. There’s something gritty and base about the odor of a human body, and for Estragon it’s too much to handle.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature doesn't have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story... because it's a play, and the audience only really gets at the bowler-hatted characters romping around onstage.
Vladimir and Estragon are tragic figures throughout the play, with seemingly no control over their life situation. The difference between Booker’s Tragedy plotline and the plotline of Waiting for Godot is that no one dies and nothing really new happens.
Things do go wrong, but that’s not exclusive to the start and end of the play; things have been going wrong for as long as we can imagine, and we expect that they will continue to do so long after we leave the theater. So basically, we have the last stage of the Booker Plot ("Destruction or Death Wish Stage") throughout the entire work.
This makes sense, since the concept of change or movement (in this case from one of Booker's Stages to another) would be inconsistent with the stagnant world of Waiting for Godot.