The Clutches of Totalitarianism in Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”

George Orwell’s occupation in his critique of totalitarian authority in 1984 is equally shared by Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot. Written within the space of two years, both works engage with the escalation of tight control by exclusive central authorities, as they infiltrate the multiple strata of civil society; where matters climax with the obliteration of the “individual space” and “personal consciousness”.

Orwell’s mystified overarching central author – “Big Brother” – finds in Beckett’s “Godot” a complementary echo; even as Beckett’s representation of this binding authority is more enigmatic: for Godot is “not seen” and is obscure as he is shapeless, unlike Big Brother, who makes ritualistic appearances on the mass network of telescreens. Though Winston Smith – the skeptical subject citizen – is in doubt as to whether there is a “real” person called Big Brother, the body / form which corresponds to that appellation is ritualistically present. Not so in Beckett’s play, though: for Vladmir and Estragon are merely “aware” of an obscure Godot, whose bidding they eagerly await.

Vladmir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky

Vladmir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky

In their pseudo-clownish play and tramp-like attire, Vladmir and Estragon are both hopeful and fretting of Godot’s arrival. This binary response, at one level, is a recurrent motif which adds to the surface “absurdity” of the play. However, the play is not without a valid intervention with the power and overarching influence of a totalitarian grip. While the hopeful and wishful wait for Godot continues, every entrance is viewed with awe-infused distrust and fear, lest that it is Godot that has finally arrived. The “salvation” of which the subject is inculcated with a hope and the dual responses instilled in the subject defines the author’s hegemonic role. Godot demands and has earned both the “consent” and the “fear” of the subject. He is both an “approval” as well as a force “bewared”. In 1984, Orwell presents the concept of “double-think” – where one’s thought or conceptualization is arrested and inverted, to form a variable which is antithetical to what it, on the surface, is claimed to be. The “Ministry of Love”, therefore, becomes the state organ of imposing surveillance, monitoring civilian movement and in punishing the offenders of the state agenda. The “Ministry of Peace”, likewise, propagates war.

While Winston Smith of 1984 is a silent dissenter of the system who braves a futile resistence against it, Vladmir and Estragon of Beckett’s play are in lumpen servitude, being policed of their thoughts and being in no position to either conceptualize or rationalize. Their existence, therefore, is in a fossilized space, where they fail to form “concrete ideas” of time, space and action. In the repetitive cycle of almost banal and futile rituals, Vladmir and Estragon cannot think “new thoughts” and cannot reason or think beyond the frozen space and their imploded expectations, as they await the arrival of a never-arriving Godot. The repetitive cycle of sniffing a boot, or of smelling a hat, of repeated tiffs and make ups are all carried out with mechanical effect in a space allocated for their “stay” by Godot.

Regimentation ahoy.

Regimentation ahoy.

The fable of totalitarian control, as presented by Orwell, is accentuated as a more vibrant, ritualistic representation in Beckett’s play. The “unconscious” subject status, as projected by the combo under study, is a more compelling and relevant study for peoples whose “ability to think” is policed by state arms and maneuvers. The desired effect of subjecting the “dissenter” to the iron grid of “Room 101” – where O’Brien, the state agent, “appropriates” you from your state of being a dissenter – is already reflected in Vladmir and Estragon. As much as the empire-building totalitarian overlord is “benevolent”, so has he to be “feared” and “respected”. One must not waver from the space this all mighty, over-imposing hand designates you, even as the fulfillment of that promise of “deliverance” is delayed and deferred. One has to subdue the growing sense of isolation and discomfort, in keeping ignited your faith in the “word of Godot”. These are among the crucial injections which Vladmir and Estragon – in an unconscious drive – have already internalized. The policed state of their thoughts are resonant in how they express an urge to move, but stay immobile; and in other instances where they contradict by action the impulse of their need.

The politico-philosophical bent in both Orwell and Beckett can be effectively juxtaposed with the likes of Franz Kafka, and has arguably influenced a host of artistes of the post-1950s, of whom Pink Floyd is one. In their 1980 album “The Wall”, there are elements which strongly resonate Orwellian and Kafkesque influences. The act’s preoccupation with the dissemination of dominant ideology is seen in the way the “regime” is diagonally placed with the interests of the individual – and in how “justice”, as well as “education”, is portrayed as regimental proxies. For Beckett, the ultimate status of state subjection – in the state where the individual has no clue about who, what or where s/he is – is manifested in the fable of the pseudo-tramps. For he who knows irony, Waiting for Godot is more relevant a gift, if the copies of 1984 suddenly run out in your local bookstore.