How does the use of repetition in the play Waiting for Godot help in bringing out the elements of absurdist theater?

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rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Part of the project of absurdist theater is to call into question the “legitimacy” of theater itself. It does this by calling attention to the artificiality of theatrical representation or by undermining or contradicting expectations an audience might bring to a play, for instance: the expectation that there should be a story; that characters should grow and change in response to the events of the story; that viewers should be entertained; or that it is the audience's job to watch while the job of the actors is to act; and so on.

In Waiting for Godot, Beckett purposely frustrates many of these expectations. The repetitive nature of the play subverts expectations about plot and the three act structure common to plays. Not only is the third act missing (there are there are only two acts), but the action in both acts is almost the same. Audiences that came to the play in 1953 hoping for something to happen were, of course, disappointed. Nothing happens. In both acts, Estragon and Vladimir arrive, chat, and wait. Pozzo and Lucky arrive, and Lucky is made to entertain the others. A boy arrives and informs Estragon and Vladimir that Godot will not be coming. There is no conflict in the conventional sense, nor is there any resolution. The only “event” is the promised coming of Godot, who never arrives.

Critics have attributed many meanings to the play: it has been seen as an allegory about Christian faith; Pozzo and Lucky can be seen to represent Capitalism (with Pozzo as the capitalist and Lucky as the exploited worker); and the repetition of the action has been seen as emblematic of the futility of existence. Beckett himself resisted any allegorical interpretation of his play. In that sense, the point of the play’s repetition is precisely that it has no point.

iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Before answering how repetition brings out qualities of absurdist theatre in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, it helps to get a better understanding of what absurdist theatre entails. Absurdist theatre has many qualities, but the ones that will serve us the most here are the ideas that, 1) there is an inherent futility in human being's efforts on Earth and, 2) nothing meaningful can happen, so nothing much happens in the play. 

Now, let's see how these qualities apply to repetition in Godot. The play has two acts that mirror one another. Both acts begin with Vladimir and Estragon engaging in nonsensical conversation, and then Pozzo and Lucky arrive, and then, after Lucky and Pozzo leave, a young boy arrives and informs Vladimir and Estragon that Godot won't be coming by on that particular day, but should be arriving soon. Both acts end with Vladimir and Estragon vowing to "go" and then not moving. Basically, though there are of course differences between the two parts of the play, the first and second acts share the same overarching structure. This repetitive nature gradually gives the audience the feeling that nothing is happening, i.e., nothing is being accomplished. We end up right where we started. This quality in turn gives rise to a feeling of futility, as if there isn't much point in acting at all. In other words, Beckett's use of repetition in structure is one of the primary ways that he constructs a feeling of futility and lack of inherent meaning, which are two fundamental aspects of absurdist theatre.