A discussion of time and the tragicomic experience in the works of Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett – Amelie Marron

Amelie Marron is a second year Drama and Theatre Arts student from the University of Birmingham whose interests include travelling, reading, films, theatre and pretty much anything art and culture related. She also runs her own personal blog (http://ameliemarron.blogspot.co.uk/)

 

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Image from Waiting for Godot, Guildburys Theatre Company, at The Electric Theatre, Guildford. April 2016. Credit: Mike Lawrence.


A
discussion of time and the tragicomic experience in the works of Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett

Tragicomedy, though not easily defined, can be seen as the result of a complex meeting between two distinct and seemingly contrasting genres. The opposition between the comic continuity and the tragic finality of existence emerges from this fusion, making Verna Foster’s view of tragicomedy as a reflection of ‘the basic pattern of human experience’[1] a plausible one that this essay will hold to be true. In its examination of everyday life, the tragicomic is indeed inexorably linked to the notion of time. Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett explore this interdependent relationship in their works, using it to shape their representations of reality. Both playwrights arguably agree that ‘our awareness of time passing is tragic but the way we pass time is often farcical’.[2] This philosophy will provide the basis for this essay, using time as a lens through which to compare Chekhov and Beckett’s treatment of the tragicomic. A Chekhovian influence on Beckett is detectable, despite the above quotation being implemented differently in Uncle Vanya[3] and Waiting for Godot.[4] By examining the playwrights’ respective treatments of time, representation of tragicomic experiences and application of philosophical angles, this essay aims to analyse how realist and modern tragicomedy come together in the aim of purging melancholy.

Time can be considered as ‘one of the most delicately refined instruments for the illumination of human destiny’.[5] The way in which Chekhov and Beckett use this dramatic technique to present events onstage can therefore be seen to transcend structural practicality in order to attain deeper meaning. Chekhov’s treatment of time remains intrinsically linked to the psychological truthfulness of his characters – a vital component of realistic tragicomedy along with believable situations, recognisable settings, authentic dialogue and sociological contexts. This is primarily shown through the generation gap at the heart of the play as a wide range of ages are portrayed, from the elderly professor Serebryakov and his young 27-year-old wife Helen to the middle-aged Uncle Vanya and Astrov in full mid-life crises. Drawing their authenticity from these given circumstances in the Stanislavskian sense,[6] Chekhov’s characters are defined to a certain extent by where they are in life and how they got there. Their clear sense of past, present and future sets time up as an elemental force affecting human lives.

What Chekhov provides us with then, is an endless stream of time shaped by trivial everyday occurrences. The narrative stretches beyond the temporal frame of the play, presenting the audience with the permanence and continuity of life, as many events are recounted in reported speech rather than occurring onstage. It is, for instance, through Marina and Telegin’s conversation that we learn of the professor and Helen’s departure at the beginning of Act 4. This technique is recurrent in many of Chekhov’s plays – several of the most important events in The Seagull,[7] such as Konstantin’s suicide attempt or Nina and Trigorin’s liaison, happen between acts. The playwright therefore represents a true-to-life progression of time, contributing to the classification of his plays as realistic tragicomedies.

On the other hand, Waiting for Godot is characterised by the complete absence of a traditional temporal frame of reference. Linking his treatment of time to his characters’ lack of psychological truthfulness, Beckett presents Vladimir and Estragon as amnesiacs with no constructed past, no apparent present and no prospective future. Whereas the characters in Uncle Vanya are clearly shaped by time, all hint of progression in Beckett’s play is removed as time is abolished completely. 

The only potential narrative in Waiting for Godot is the gradual focus towards the tree as a symbol of nature but also as a discussion point for suicide, suggesting a possibility of ending the repetitive cycle of time – ‘They must either hang together or go on waiting together’.[8] If Beckett’s writing can be said to have any structure at all, it would be its cyclicality which, according to Michael Worton,’might indeed be better described as a diminishing spiral’.[9] This view addresses the idea that the play hurtles towards a closure that never comes – the broken rope being an ironic affirmation of life going on – forcing the characters to take refuge in repetition. The cyclical nature of time in Chekhov’s plays is more symbolic, as one might expect from realist tragicomedy. Seasons are used to reflect human destiny: both Uncle Vanya and The Seagull begin in summer and end in autumn, respectively representative of present and future.

The repetitiveness of time is particularly noticeable in the opening and closing scenes of both plays. Uncle Vanya’s exposition scene introduces an opposition between past and present with Marina’s reminder of how life used to be and Astrov’s talk of how time has changed him. Beckett’s opening scene lacks any clear exposition but does announce an idea of tiresome repetition: ‘Boots must be taken off everyday, I’m tired of telling you that’ (Waiting for Godot, Act 1, p.2). It is only throughout the course of the play that this opening is revealed to be one that Vladimir and Estragon have experienced before. The final scene is, therefore, especially powerful in its suggestion that they will have to endure it once again. Although the characters end the play contemplating suicide, it is clear that there is no escape from their situation and that they must carry on waiting. This notion of waiting is also omnipresent at the end of Uncle Vanya, in which the lack of resolution and return to work offer no possibility of closure. Everybody survives and Sonya’s repetition of ‘We shall find peace’ (Uncle Vanya, Act 4, p. 167), cyclical even in the use of language, suggests that all they can do is wait for death.

Both Chekhov and Beckett seem more concerned with the fear of life than the fear of death and focus in particular on how to fill the time we are given. As the absence of death and thus of escape indicates, there is no respite from the act of waiting. This existential theme is omnipresent in the title of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but is also apparent in his other works such as Happy Days,[10] raising the question of how to fill the day before night inevitably falls. Although Beckettian characters have few defining traits, they can all be said to be stuck in a perpetual state of waiting for something that never comes. Much speculation exists over exactly what Godot represents but it can be argued that he is whatever we want him to be, whatever we are waiting for. In this sense, Chekhov’s characters are also ‘waiting for Godot’, while Beckett’s play becomes an allegory, the ‘very incarnation of disappointment and passive waiting’.[11] Inaction appears as the main source of desperation as characters are the only obstacles to their own desires. The problem then, does not lie in the act of waiting itself, but in how it is carried out. The tragic finality of life may be inevitable but the comic is a choice that we all can, and should, make.

Before examining Chekhov and Beckett’s representation of tragicomic experiences, it is interesting to consider certain elements of tragicomedy’s constituent genres. Voltz expresses the complexity of their interdependent relationship in the following way: ‘tragedy plays on our deepest anxieties, comedy on our defence mechanisms against them’.[12]As all life leads to death, our finite actions seem vastly unimportant in the grand scheme of existence. Returning to Foster’s ideas, comedy can be seen to stem from what we choose to do with our knowledge of tragedy. Voltz and Foster both present the comic as a tool giving us the strength to endure the tragic, an idea that both playwrights seem to draw on.

‘Anton Chekhov saw life, with its comedies and its tragedies, where few others before him had ever seen it’.[13]Arguably the founding father of modern tragicomedy, Chekhov represents what he terms the ‘sad comicality of everyday life’,[14] examining behavioural struggles in a defined society: that of a Russian province. The trivial occurrences in Uncle Vanya revolve around the preoccupations of a wasted life, bringing with it old age, lethargy and impossible romance. Whether it is Vanya’s disillusions about the Professor, Sonya and Helen’s unrequited and artificial loves, or Astrov’s old age, each of the characters are bitterly disappointed by an aspect of their lives. Vanya sums up this feeling of ‘frustration and anger at the stupid way I’ve wasted time when I might have had everything I can’t have now because I’m too old’ (Uncle Vanya, Act 1, p. 125). While one may pity the eponymous protagonist, his unchanged situation arises from his own inability to distinguish between action and inaction and from his tendency to be passive rather than to actively grasp the opportunities that present themselves to him. 

Vera Gottlieb’s argument that Chekhov’s comedy derives from ‘the disparity between aspiration and reality, or between desire and fulfilment’[15] is reflected in the characters’ refusal to live in the present and assume responsibility for their lives. By focusing on the past and the future, particularly in the opening and closing scenes, time is passed by brooding on tragedy rather than by searching for comedy. It is each character’s reaction to the situation, or indeed lack of, which produces humour: they prefer to invest hope in an unforeseeable future rather than in their own capabilities. In this sense, the Godot for which they are waiting is an escape from their state of present entrapment. As they wait in vain, the characters resort to filling time with farcical and melodramatic self-dramatization by playing out the comedy-drama of their own lives. From poetically heightened language, to the sheer ridiculousness of the scene in which Vanya shoots at the professor, Chekhov’s metatheatrical techniques inject notes of comedy into the narrative. Any attempt at action is rendered comical – notably, when shooting the Professor, Vanya misses twice.

Whereas Uncle Vanya’s comedy is born from the struggle to come to terms with the passing of time, comedy in Waiting for Godot stems from the attempts to make time pass in a timeless universe. The binary of action versus inaction comes into play, as does the opposition between passive and active waiting. Vladimir and Estragon’s position is unquestionably tragic – while their entrapment is not as explicitly visual as Winnie’s gradual burial in Happy Days or the characters’ physical restraints in Endgame,[16] their incomprehensible situation offers no way out. Unlike Chekhov’s characters, however, Vladimir and Estragon’s ultimate goal is not escape, but understanding. This explains their desperate search for meaning in a universe devoid of sense and their dependence on the answer they believe Godot will provide. In spite of this depiction of metaphysical anguish, the subtitle  ‘A tragicomedy in two acts’ suggests that Waiting for Godot is not intended to simply be read as a tragedy.

Despite Beckett’s unwillingness to explain his works, he arguably guides his audience towards a reading of the play as a modern tragicomedy. Tragedy and comedy become increasingly intertwined in Waiting for Godot through the representation of a tragic world which contains comic individuals and incorporates both Vaudeville and pantomime aspects. Vladimir and Estragon’s propensity for role-play is reminiscent of Chekhov’s use of melodrama. Whereas melodrama relies on the exaggerated vocabulary of self-dramatization, Beckett breaks down traditional language for comic effect. The abundance of puns, the nonsensical gibberish and the rapid stichomythia – a dialogue made up of alternate lines of verse – are farcical attempts to construct a narrative in order to pass time. It is important to note that although the use of language is at first glance comical, it often conceals absurdist concerns. In the exchange about the tree, Beckett plays on the term ‘weeping willow’ while introducing ideas of death and anguish:

VLADIMIR: A willow.

ESTRAGON: Where are the leaves?

VLADIMIR: It must be dead.

ESTRAGON: No more weeping. (Waiting for Godot, Act 1, p. 6)

‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was a phrase originally coined by critic Martin Esslin to designate dramatic works focusing on the purposelessness of life. Chekhov and Beckett’s characters fill their time with such senseless and mechanical activities – Winnie’s desperate dependence on her routine in Happy Days appears as the epitome of this. Despite the term ‘absurd’ only officially emerging in the 1960s, Chekhov’s works can be viewed in hindsight as a potential refusal of this philosophy, particularly with regard to Thomas Nagel’s views. Nagel states that ‘most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually’,[17] listing as predominant causes for this the apparent futility of our everyday actions and the idea that we are mere instants on a vast time scale. Nagel and Chekhov seem to consider Spinoza’s ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ – the ability to view our lives from the perspective of eternity – as an instrument to resist absurdity in a way that is both ‘sobering and comical’.[18] Indeed, to do so is in itself a tragicomic act in which the comic comes to soften the tragic reality of time.

By representing a fragment of human life onstage, Chekhov invites his audience to react to tragicomic experience as a whole. By definition, the spectator is removed from the action and thus blessed with the ability to view events comically, whereas the characters’ inability to do so leaves them stuck in the tragic. In a sense, laughter enables the audience to break out of the absurdist view of time. The innovative playwright hands us ‘a tool by means of which we shall convert everything which at first sight seems to us misfortune, not to say tragedy, into comedy’.[19] Through realism and metatheatre, Chekhov presents laughter as a cure against the worst of illnesses in his eyes, that of the wasted life. His treatment of time in relation to tragicomic experience can therefore be said to achieve tragicomedy’s aim: the purgation of melancholy.

By extension, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Waiting for Godot adopts the opposite absurdist view that ‘all time is shown as collapsing into a diameterless void, for man lacks both the spatial and inner structures to pattern his existence’.[20] However, confronting the play with Michael Bennett’s reassessment of the absurd[21] and Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus[22] reveals Beckett’s treatment of time and tragicomedy to be similar to Chekhov’s. Waiting for Godot can be read as a parable of man-made meaning, encouraging the active passing of time in the company of others. It is indeed co-dependence that allows the pseudo-couples of Vladimir and Estragon and Pozzo and Lucky to find purpose in their lives. Furthermore, Bennett views the absurd as a tool which, like laughter, enables us to find comedy in tragic situations. As Camus’ analogy of mechanical actions in the Myth of Sisyphus shows, accepting absurdity leads to resilience and peace. Sisyphus’ ability to find happiness in his acceptance of his entrapment in seemingly meaningless repetition appears as the objective for Vladimir and Estragon. Similarly, Winnie in Happy Days finds strength in her everyday routine – comically filling time enables her to endure its tragic nature.

Just as Winnie and Sisyphus draw resilience from acceptance, Waiting for Godot encourages spectators to free themselves of the existential position of being trapped within time. The metatheatrical aspect of role-play and the mutual estrangement of stage and auditorium induce audience reflection upon how to fill their own time – Bennett suggests ‘with theatre and idle talk’.[23] What may therefore initially appear as a tragic representation of life’s futility could in fact be an affirmation of man-made purpose, like Uncle Vanya. Although his metatheatre is less explicit than Beckett’s, Chekhov’s self-dramatizing characters invite the audience to consider their own lives, the time they have left to fill and most importantly, what to do with it. The playwright believes that ‘they will most certainly create another, a better, life for themselves.’[24]

Although realist tragicomedy involves spectators in recognisable and believable situations while modern tragicomedy alienates the audience, Uncle Vanya and Waiting for Godot equally strive for the purgation of melancholy.  Despite their application of different dramatic techniques and philosophical angles when treating time and the tragicomic, both playwrights come to the conclusion that life goes on and invite the audience to accept this truth. It is, therefore, possible to wonder whether there is any point in questioning the passing of time or the meaning of life as nothing will change the situation in which we find ourselves. Is the search for significance in the playwrights’ use of time in fact a tragicomic act in itself?

 

Endnotes

[1] Verna A. Foster, The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2004), p. 9

[2] Ibid. p.130.

[3] Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (1897) in Ronald Hingley ed., Five Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 117-167

[4] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 1956)

[5] Jovan Hristić, “Time in Chekhov: the Inexorable and the Ironic”, New Theatre Quarterly, 1/3 (1985), 271-282, 273

[6] Constantin Stanislavski, Creating a Role translated by Elizabeth R. Hapgood (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 1981), pp. 11-16

[7] Anton Chekhov, The Seagull (1896) in Ronald Hingley ed., Five Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 65-115

[8] Richard Lee Francis, “Beckett’s Metaphysical Tragicomedy”, Modern Drama, 8/3 (1965), 259-267, 261

[9] Michael Worton, “’Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Endgame’” in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 67-87, p. 69

[10] Samuel Beckett, Happy Days (New York: Grove Press, 1961)

[11] Samira Sasani, “The Influence of Anton Chekhov on Samuel Beckett: Inaction and Investment of hope into Godot-like Figures in ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’”, k@ta, 13/2 (2011), 221-235, 230

[12] Patrice Pavis, Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis translated by Christine Shantz (Toronto and Buffalo: Toronto University Press, 1998),

[13] John Weston, “’Uncle Vanya’: Chekhov’s Vision of Human Dignity”, The English Journal, 56/9 (1967), 1276-1279 + 1287, p. 1276

[14] Vera Gottlieb, “Chekhov’s Comedy” in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 228-238, p. 233

[15] Ibid. p. 231

[16] Samuel Beckett, Endgame (London: Faber and Faber, 1958)

[17] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”, The Journal of Philosophy, 68/20 (1971), 716-727, 716

[18] Ibid. p. 720

[19] Hristić, p. 282.

[20] Barbara H. Brothers, “Henry Green: Time and the Absurd”, boundary 2, 5/3 (1977), 863-876, 874

[21] Michael Bennett, Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd (New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

[22] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’ Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 1-24

[23] Bennett, p. 30.

[24] Gottlieb, p. 231.

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